Public dialog on stem cell research in the 21st century has been subjected to all of the confusion and misinformation that so often accompanies topics of great moral import and controversy. One's moral stance on embryonic stem cell (ESC) research has become a litmus test for how seriously one regards the value of an individual human life, yet clarity on the nature and source of that value has often been missing. Indeed the meaning of a human life is regarded by the wider culture as stemming from one's private religious convictions, and therefore irrelevant to public discourse. The subject of ESC research itself is complicated by the typical difficulties of evaluating the achievements and prospects of such a difficult and broadly inter-disciplinary science, and because it holds a potential for great material benefit to people with hitherto intractable injuries and genetic diseases it has not been immune to the impact of hype from scientific and public media personalities. This report attempts to bring clarity to the meaning and significance of the science, morality and social impact of this highly charged enterprise.
The area of stem cell research has been tremendously complicated — one might even say "corrupted" — by an enormously ill-conceived enterprise that crosses critically important ethical boundaries, namely, the research into embryonic stem cells pursuant to advanced transplant therapies.
Such research requires the destruction of a developing human embryo in order to harvest pluripotent stem cells, which are then cultured into embryonic stem cell lines. Such lines are used for research into natural cell differentiation, artificially programmed cell differentiation and de-differentiation, and, ultimately, the production of desired specialized stem cells for therapeutic transplantation. The hope of scientists is that they may be able to develop transplant therapies to treat a wide variety of presently intractable genetic diseases, from diabetes to Parkinson's to Alzheimer's, and to stimulate regrowth and regeneration of damaged heart, nerve and other tissue necessary to human survival and flourishing.
This highly promising enterprise bumps up against two facts of fundamental importance. First, the proposed approaches have crossed hitherto unbreachable ethical boundaries — either the deliberate destruction of human embryos or the creation of human clones through techniques such as somatic cell nuclear transfer. Second, the necessity of the entire enterprise has been called into grave question by continuing dramatic advances in adult stem cell research.
In this paper, I propose to examine the technical and ethical difficulties faced by embryonic stem cell research in some detail, and to review the likelihood that research into adult stem cell therapies can fulfill virtually all of the stated goals of embryonic stem cell research without any of the adverse moral consequences. Finally, I will examine the likely sociological and cultural impact of unrestricted embryonic stem cell research.
Stem cell research first came to national prominence when President George W. Bush announced, on August 9, 2001, federal funding for research on stem cells, while restricting federal funding on research on embryonic stem cells to existing stem cell lines — banning the use of federal dollars to develop new embryonic stem cell lines. (See "President Discusses Stem Cell Research." on the White House web site for a transcript of the President's speech.) In his speech, the President outlined the fundamental moral questions associated with embryonic stem cell research.
While his decision to allow funding of the then existing embryonic stem cell lines may have satisfied some scientists, it did not satisfy all. In an obvious attempt at a preemptive strike, Christopher Reeve, on July 30th, appeared on CNN's Late Edition hosted by Wolf Blitzer, calling for embryonic stem cell research. Asked by CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King why we shouldn't be satisfied with adult stem cell research, Reeve responded in what proved to be highly ironic terms (see "Christopher Reeve on politics and stem cell research"),
Well, that would be a big mistake because you could spend the next five years doing research on the adult stem cells and find that they are not capable of doing what we know that embryonic cells can do now. And five years of unnecessary research to try to create something that we already have would cause -- well, a lot of people are going to die while we wait.
Reeve's untimely death on October 10, 2004, prevented him from seeing the full extent of his error. Nevertheless, events have clearly proven him wrong. While national and state governments around the world have lavished funding on embryonic stem cell research, and research in the less glamorous area of adult stem cells has carried on, all of the useful therapeutic results have come from the latter, while only stumbling block after stumbling block has arisen in the former. If Reeve's rather understandable impatience, and the impatience of researchers and other celebrities had not infected the political climate in the early part of this decade, we might have seen a more focused interest in adult stem cells, and the very cures Reeves, Michael Fox and others looked for might now be a reality. Indeed, we have already seen advances in cures for diabetes and heart trauma, and there is no reason to suppose that spinal cord injuries and Parkinson's cannot be addressed by this new science.
Indeed, new results are always coming in. The June 9, 2007, issue of The Lancet reported on positive results for umbilical cord blood transplant in children suffering from leukemia, as compared with the more conventional bone marrow transplant therapies. Both therapies aim at replacing the mutated leukemia blood cells with normal healthy cells, and both therapies rely on the impact of blood stem cells. See "Outcomes of transplantation of unrelated donor umbilical cord blood and bone marrow in children with acute leukaemia: a comparison study." (Access to The Lancet abstracts is free, but requires registration.)
A potentially more exciting result occurred recently in research into cell reprogramming. According to an online report by Monya Baker in the June 7th, 2007 issue of Nature (see "From skin cell to stem cell"),
Research published this week shows, for the first time, that differentiated mouse cells can be reprogrammed to create any tissue in the body. This work advances a breakthrough published last year, when Shinya Yamanaka and Kazutoshi Takahashi at Kyoto University identified a quartet of genes, Oct3/4, Sox2, c-Myc and Klf4, that caused cultured mouse skin cells to behave remarkably like ES [embryonic stem] cells.
…new work by Yamanaka shows that male iPS [induced pluripotent stem] cells injected into blastocysts and grown into adult mice can contribute to all tissue types, including sperm. Konrad Hochedlinger of Harvard Medical School and his colleagues did the same with female iPS cells, and showed that iPS cells gave rise to oocytes. And a group led by Rudolf Jaenisch at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, MA produced late-stage mouse embryos derived entirely from iPS cells.
In a way, in 2001 we were all duped by pride in our accomplishments as a nation. The distance between Albert Einstein's letter to President Roosevelt and the production of the first atomic bomb was less than six years. The distance between President Kennedy's announcement of the Apollo Project and the moon landing was eight years. Sure, our subsequent national adventures distracted us from what might have been even more towering achievements. Yet, who would have believed in 2001 that the world's frantic efforts at embryonic stem cell research would yield almost nothing of value in the six years since President' Bush's speech?
Subsequent events have belied the promise of such hubris. A review of key events in stem cell research is given in the overview article in Wikipedia. (See Stem cell.)
- 1960s - Joseph Altman and Gopal Das present evidence of adult neurogenesis, ongoing stem cell activity in the brain; their reports contradict Cajal's "no new neurons" dogma and are largely ignored
- 1963 - McCulloch and Till illustrate the presence of self-renewing cells in mouse bone marrow
- 1968 - Bone marrow transplant between two siblings successfully treats SCID
- 1978 - Haematopoietic stem cells are discovered in human cord blood
- 1981 - Mouse embryonic stem cells are derived from the inner cell mass
- 1992 - Neural stem cells are cultured in vitro as neurospheres
- 1997 - Leukemia is shown to originate from a haematopoietic stem cell, the first direct evidence for cancer stem cells
- 1998 - James Thomson and coworkers derive the first human embryonic stem cell line at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
- 2000s - Several reports of adult stem cell plasticity are published
- 2001 - Scientists at Advanced Cell Technology clone first early (4 to 6 cell stage) human embryos for the purpose of generating embryonic stem cells
- 2003 - Dr. Songtao Shi of NIH discovers new source of adult stem cells in children's primary teeth
- 2004-2005 - Korean researcher Hwang Woo-Suk claims to have created several human embryonic stem cell lines from unfertilised human oocytes. The lines were later shown to be fabricated.
- 2005 - Researchers at Kingston University in England claim to have discovered a third category of stem cell, dubbed cord-blood-derived embryonic-like stem cells (CBEs), derived from umbilical cord blood. The group claims these cells are able to differentiate into more types of tissue than adult stem cells.
- August 2006 - Cell Journal publishes Kazutoshi Takahashi and Shinya Yamanaka, Induction of Pluripotent Stem Cells from Mouse Embryonic and Adult Fibroblast Cultures by Defined Factors
- 07 January, 2007 - Scientists at Wake Forest University led by Dr. Anthony Atala and Harvard University report discovery of a new type of stem cell in amniotic fluid. This may potentially provide an alternative to embryonic stem cells for use in research and therapy. 
- June 2007 - Research reported by three different groups shows that normal skin cells can be reprogrammed to an embryonic state in mice.  In the same month, scientist Shoukhrat Mitalipov reports the first successful creation of a primate stem cell line through somatic cell nuclear transfer.
The trends are obvious. The significant science is almost all in the area of adult stem cells and umbilical cord stem cells, with the Mitalipov result (primate stem cells derived from replacing an egg cell's nuclear DNA with that of another primate) being, perhaps, the one exception. Indeed the fraudulent results of Korean researcher, Hwang Woo-Suk, are undoubtedly a benchmark for the measure of the gap between ambition and results in this area.
Although there are obvious differences, there are also some disturbing points of comparison between the ambitions of embryonic stem cell researchers and those of the Nazi death camp researchers of World War II. Scientists from both generations have proven to be blinded by scientific ambition, both in terms of exaggerating the value of their science and in terms of the ethical boundaries they have been willing to cross to attain them.
Stem Cell Theory and Technology
To fully grasp the issues involved in the science it is necessary to retrieve background information from the excellent expository article by Robert Lanza and Nadia Rosenthal, entitled, "The Stem Cell Challenge," and published in the June, 2004, issue of Scientific American.
Natural cell differentiation appears to follow a progression that can be mapped onto a mathematical model called a multi-branch tree, with pluripotent (or, "many" potent) stem cells at the trunk, fully differentiated cells at the leaves and partially differentiated stem cells (adult stem cells) mapped to the connecting branches in between. I will refer to this tree as the tree of therapeutic application, the tree of application, or, simply, the tree. Inducing a transition in the direction from the trunk to a leaf is referred to as differentiation, while inducing a return trip, from higher to lower branch or from leaf to branch, is referred to as de-differentiation. Finally, inducing a transition from one branch to an adjacent branch is referred to as trans-differentiation. The leaf-cells, or final somatic cells are said to be "terminally" differentiated. Cells closer to the trunk are said to possess greater "stemness" than cells further up the tree. One of the important practical research projects is finding and categorizing multi-potent cells with greater stemness, such as the hematopoietic cells found in human bone marrow and stem cells found in umbilical cord blood. There are over 200 distinct cell types in the human body, and many of these are stem cells. There are, however, only a few types of the multi-potent cells.
Of all pluripotent cells, a viable human ovum (or fertilized oocyte) is a special case. In addition to pluripotency, an ovum, potentially capable of growing into an adult human being, is said to be totipotent, or totally potent.
Cell differentiation appears to be activated by selectively turning on genes in the nuclear DNA of the cells. This can be done in the laboratory by combining a variety of chemical and biological mechanisms. In effect, scientists attempt to recreate equivalent environmental conditions for duplicating the full range of natural cell differentiation.
One might wonder whether injecting pluripotent stem cells into the damaged area of a human subject would enable regeneration. Attempts to take this approach have met with disappointing, not to say, disastrous results. The natural tendency of pluripotent stem cells injected into such an environment is to develop either into a cancerous tumor called a teratoma, or to develop into an unusable or inappropriate tissue type. Indeed, the generation of a teratoma is a major indicator that the cells so injected are, in fact, pluripotent.
Experiments conducted on the 60 stem cell lines mentioned by the President showed that only some of them were pluripotent, possible because of random genetic damage to some of the lines. Lines that are not pluripotent cannot be used to fully populate the progressive differentiation tree structure, and therefore their potential application may be significantly, or even seriously, limited.
Although transplantation can be used to determine whether a given stem cell line is pluripotent, the hope, as yet unrealized, is to fully understand and map the genetic basis for determining pluripotency and for inducing the complete progressive differentiation filling out the tree of application. This genetic research must precede the full practical exploitation of embryonic stem cell lines.
Indeed, it will be necessary to have a clearer understanding of the active genetic signatures of specific cell types to easily control and assess the generation of desired end-application stem cell types before therapeutic transplantations can become likely of success. Yet, even when this is accomplished, the problems of tissue rejection will still be present in the main contemplated applications of embryonic stem cell based transplant therapies, as they have always been in organ transplantation. Stem cell typing will have to be highly specific to the cell category, just as every type of organ requires its own typing classification for transplant purposes, analogous to blood types for transfusion. Some researchers believe that these problems can be circumvented, as they are in some organ transplants, by the use of ummuno-suppressant drugs, but, again, this will require extensive practical research in cataloging stem cell types for transplant purposes, as well as laboratory experiments, and later human trials, with immuno-suppressant drugs. Finally, in addition to archiving such extensive knowledge bases, cell banks will need to retain extensive collections of specialized cell lines for ready application when the need arises.
In theory, it is possible that every potential patient already has the adult stem cells required to induce regeneration. Stem cells have been found and cataloged in a wide variety of tissues in the human body. Knowing where to look, how to test, and how to harvest the required adult stem cells may be all that is needed for any conceivable therapeutic application of embryonic stem cells. The problems of inappropriate tissue generation, cancer or tissue rejection all become easily solvable with adult stem cells.
It is these undeniable facts that have lead researchers to contemplate designer embryonic stem cells, generated through a process known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, or SCNT. The term "somatic cell" simply means "body cell." Thus SCNT, in practical application, involves taking a human egg cell, presumably donated by an adult female, denucleating it (removing its nuclear DNA) and inserting the nuclear DNA from the patient's body cell. It is thought that the environment within the egg cell automatically (or largely so) induces a "reset" of the nuclear DNA to a differentially primitive, or pluripotent, state. Controlled differentiation of the resulting cell line into desired end-application stem cells could, in theory, provide an alternative to the harvesting of the patient's adult stem cells, and hence provide for such cells through optimally noninvasive means. This approach has also come to be called "therapeutic cloning." The ethical problem with "therapeutic cloning" arises from the possibility that the resulting ovum will not just be pluripotent, but viable, or totipotent, and, if so, its destruction would be the moral equivalent of destroying a human embryo. Indeed, the technical means for generating stem cell lines from the clone ovum would be identical, namely growing the ovum into an embryo, and harvesting stem cells from the embryo.
Some scientists are seeking ways of getting around the moral problems so raised through technical means. One such approach that has been suggested is altering the DNA structure of the somatic cell prior to inserting it in the denucleated egg cell, so that the resulting ovum will be non-viable by design. Yet, although this would seem to skirt the moral issue by the claim that one is not actually killing a viable human being, the problem that remains is that one may be creating a non-viable human being precisely for the purpose of exploiting it. Ultimately, such problems raise important theological questions which I will address later in this essay.
The process of SCNT was successful in the worlds attempts to clone animals. Though Dolly the sheep was the first, there have been successful clones of a horse, chickens, bulls, cats, perhaps a dog or two, and, of course, laboratory mice. If you happen to be a millionaire, you might want to think about that when the time comes to put "Fluffy" to sleep.
One interesting historical footnote to the paper by Lanza and Rosenthal is that they refer to the work of Korean researcher Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk, of Soeul National University, and colleagues. Subsequent events, however, have exposed this research as fraudulent.
There is an important potential benefit to the genetic studies of stem cells, in general. Namely, whatever the source of donor cells, it can, and will be necessary to tinker with the nuclear DNA of these cells to correct any genetic diseases. This can, in theory, and must be done with adult stem cells from a patient with a genetic disease as well as with stem cells generated through cloning, if that disease is to be treated via stem cell transplantation.
The President's Position
The President first articulated his position on stem cell research in his address on August 9, 2001. An outline of his position follows, with technical additions where they seem necessary to fully state the case.
- Scientists believe embryonic stem cell research holds a unique promise for the development of reparative therapies, both for genetic diseases and hitherto intractable injuries.
- Alternatives, also promising (but not quite as promising) for these applications, also exist with non-embryonic stem cells, such as adult stem cells and stems cells derived from umbilical cord blood.
- The pluripotency of embryonic stem cells, in theory, offers the hope of universal application, whereas, research into adult stem cells may never fully cover all possible applications, or may seriously delay their discovery.
- Scientists believe that rapid progress in stem cell research will only come with federal funding. Such funds offer the greatest potential stimulus and the widest possible dissemination and application of the results.
- Deriving embryonic stem cell lines from a human embryo requires its destruction. Each embryo has the the potential to develop into a unique human being. Although the President does not directly address the question of the value of each human being, he suggests, using a snow-flake analogy, that uniqueness is a key aspect of that value. He goes on to raise the question of whether an embryo can be considered a human person, or at least an invaluable human being, but without offering more than a glimpse at moral imagination to decide the question.
- One associated question he raises is this. Given that hundreds of thousands of embryos exist in a frozen state in fertility banks, and that nearly all of these are destined for ultimate destruction, why not use them to help save the lives of others. In providing a partial answer to this question, he reminds us that the ends do not justify the means and that each embryo, if in fact it is a person, it must not be treated as an object to be exploited, but must be treated as an end in itself. In this connection, he reminds us that Aldous Huxley predicted that scientists would ultimately treat human beings as raw material, and that scientists have already begun to create human embryos in the laboratory precisely for the purpose of scientific exploitation.
- Another associated question is this. Scientists have succeeded in cloning a variety of mammals. There is no scientific reason to believe that the same cannot be done with human beings. Indeed, researchers are already attacking this problem. The expectation is that each person can some day have a genetic copy available on ice, so to speak, to serve as a source of spare parts, including reparative stem cells.
- Such scientific and medical enterprises inevitably devalue the human person as such because they exploit some human beings for the purpose of helping others. The consequences to the culture and society will be enormous. The President has a responsibility to uphold the value of human life.
- Although scientists are extraordinarily hopeful for the progress of embryonic stem cell research, given sufficient federal funding, such promises have not always born fruit, as in the case of fetal tissue research.
- There already exist 60 embryonic stem cell lines in the nation's laboratories. These can be used for research without great moral compromise, since the embryos used to generate them are already been destroyed. Furthermore, they have the potential to continually regenerate and provide material for scientific research into the indefinite future.
- The promise of successful research using these stem cell lines more than justifies the use of federal dollars for their exploitation.
- In addition, alternative research, involving non-embryonic stem cells, will also be pursued with the aid of federal money.
Due to what some might consider the propitious existence of the 60 embryonic stem cell lines, the President evidently felt comfortable with the idea that he could have his scientific and moral cake while eating it, too. I plan to address this issue in greater detail when I come to develop the moral criteria more fully.
A Note on Stem Cell Economics
Scientists are interested in embryonic stem cell research for purely scientific reasons as well as therapeutic ones. Pluripotent stem cell lines can be used as a single source to investigate the entire therapeutic application tree, although there remain many significant technical hurdles to completing this work, and it will undoubtedly require many years to accomplish fully. Finding and extracting adult stem cells is also a difficult technical challenge, particularly due to the fact that they are relatively rare in the human body, being on the order of one in tens of thousands of somatic cells. When it comes to supplying the needs of scientists, an argument can be made that more pluripotent stem cell lines will make their job much easier.
Biomedical companies have a further stake in the development of these lines, because their development of stem cell banks, and even designer cell lines, depends rather more heavily on these publicly available stem cell lines. Finally, when it comes to patenting designer cell lines, the legal and economic hurdles to patenting such lines derived from publicly available pluripotent lines are much simpler than those required to patent lines derived from an adult under therapy. Indeed the whole question of ownership of these cells and their DNA becomes more problematic.
As a result, biomedical firms have a large potential stake in federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, a fact which hugely complicates the moral and political climate surrounding this area.
A Note on Stem Cell "Politics"
Because of the political importance of the principal moral issue surrounding embryonic stem cell research, namely the necessity of destroying an embryo to harvest its stem cells, the political divide surrounding this issue closely mirrors the divide on other so-called values issues. People who are politically opposed to legal abortion are generally also opposed to embryonic stem cell research. Indeed, where a politician stands on this issue can directly effect his or her political viability in either the Democratic or Republican Party, with Democrats favoring the lifting of restrictions and Republicans favoring their continuation. The fact that the 60 initial lines mentioned in the President's 2001 address have since been significantly whittled down has added further fuel to the political debate.
There have, of course, been highly notable "defections," the best known of these probably being the former Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist, who initially opposed federal funding for ESC research, but later voted in favor of it. Frist's background as a medical doctor surely colored his perspective, yet no one can know for certain how he came about his positions. Other senators and congressmen and women with medical backgrounds fall on both sides of the debate. Frist's defection is by no means unique, and may ultimately presage an irreparable fissure in the Republican Party, changing American politics for many decades to come.
A Preliminary Note on Moral Issues
One major reason the political and moral climate surrounding this area is so complex and contentious is that the question of the ultimate value of a single human life is enormously subtle and inevitably connect with religious belief, or lack thereof.
In his 2001 address, President Bush hinted at the value of each human life by comparing the uniqueness of each person with the uniqueness of each snowflake. Yet, even this argument is capable of a utilitarian reduction to relative insignificance for the individual. Just as scientists can categorize donor organs and tissues into a few immunologically significant categories, so it may be possible to categorize variants of the human genome into a few significant statistical clusters that are capable of regenerating the features of the entire human genome. Indeed, it seems likely that most of the significant DNA endowment of humanity may be contained within as few as hundreds of people.
The ultimate value of a human being cannot, therefore, be found in their genetic endowment. If the Graeco-Christian concept of a human soul, and the related Judeo-Christian concept of the image of God are not true, then the value of each individual human person ultimately becomes functionally derivative, with the result that nearly all human beings must be considered expendable, whether embryonic, adult or any stage in between.
Even presuming the Judeo-Christian creedal inheritance is valid, the question remains whether one must consider every human being to be a person from the moment of conception. If they are, then current abortion law must inevitably change, or the continuing moral corruption of American society will greatly accelerate and be irreversible. If they are not, then the moral difficulties of embryonic stem cell research are illusory.
Furthermore, the moral legitimacy of using existing frozen embryos for purposes of research entirely depends on the reality or unreality of the transcendent value of a human person. In the same way, the legitimacy of using the existing embryonic stem cell lines also depends on the answer to this question. At the very least, using these stem cell lines would constitute remote cooperation in grave evil: both the grave evil of destroying embryos to harvest their stem cells and the grave evil of generating and freezing surplus embryos.
Because of the importance of this moral question regarding the value of a human being, I will examine both the theoretical necessity of its hypothesis and the social implications of implanting its negation in the American psyche.
The Impact of Scientific "Events" on the Moral Environment
A number of scientific breakthroughs, together with a dramatic scandal, have had an enormous impact on the moral debate regarding embryonic stem cell research.
The most important discovery in this regard is undoubtedly the work of Japanese and American scientists in the synthesis of pluripotent cell lines from reprogrammed skin cells in laboratory mice. Although in some respects, this research is technically behind research into clones, this research holds the potential for enabling the development of human pluripotent stem cell lines without the destruction of human embryos. In other words, a breakthrough in this area could completely obviate any scientific need for destroying human embryonic life. The question of the value of embryonic stem cell research thus reduces to a practical one of how soon the science might mature to the point of being useful to people who currently need, or will need, such therapies.
The Hwang Woo-Suk scandal will surely have only a temporary impact on delaying research into human cloning. Neverthless, it did open the eyes of some feminists who became alarmed at the moral implications of purchasing human eggs from female medical students. It also alerted many in the public to the fact that scientists have largely hyped the promise of both embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic human cloning.
Recently, Britain's Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority approved the use of denucleated cow egg cells in the somatic cell nuclear transfer of human DNA to create a cow-human hybrid. Such a human clone will have human nuclear DNA and cow mitochondrial DNA. British scientists have proposed this to get around the ethical and practical problems of finding sufficient human egg donors to get their "therapeutic cloning" research going. The creation of Dolly required thousands of attempts before success was achieved. The creation of a successful human clone will undoubtedly require the destruction of thousands of donated human eggs as well. The creation of an animal-human hybrid (yet to be achieved) would cross yet another ethical boundary with enormous implications down the road.
The use of SCNT and cloning in embryonic stem cell research may be a practical necessity if the problem of tissue rejection proves intractable, even though there are hundreds of thousands of human embryos in cryogenic banks throughout the world. A major breakthrough in managing tissue rejection could entirely change this picture. It is entirely unlikely that the public would accept widespread cloning research in place of the widespread destruction of human embryos for scientific research purposes, the Missouri case notwithstanding.
The Transcendence of Human Free Will
The assertion of transcendent individual human worth cannot be founded in empirical observation alone, no matter how acute or scientifically assisted. The reason is that science is inherently limited to the formation of theories to explain repeatable results. The codifying of how this is done is called the scientific method. The fact that results are repeatable depends upon a fundamental principle of reality, namely that reality is mathematically structured. Science has relied upon this principle at least since the time of Galileo, and arguably since the time of Archimedes.
This is not to claim that humanity will ultimately solve all of the secrets of the universe, although there are many physicists today who believe this to be the case based upon the successes of progressively unified field theories. Every generation has its own surprises, and discovers that prior generations' efforts to understand reality were, at best, mere approximations to reality in confined conditions. There is no theoretical reason to know with certainty that this story will not continue indefinitely until humanity's candle is finally snuffed out.
Nevertheless, the philosophical implication of this reality-structure principle is that physical reality is incapable of generating free moral agency. To put it another way, the hypothetical free moral agency of every mature human being is provably not an emergent property of a mathematically structured universe, at least not according to any mathematical theory that can currently be imagined.
All such mathematical theories, derived from the repeatability of events, can in their turn predict future events, subject to only two limitations: the inherent randomness in nature and the practical limitations of today's computing engines.
To take a practical example, it has been said that the so-called butterfly effect makes it impossible to predict the weather. The reality of the situation is far more complicated. Any meteorological condition whatever is theoretically computable, given sufficient computing power, even highly non-linear and unstable weather conditions.
In the same way, if human beings do not have a non-physical, spiritual component in their makeup, it is theoretically possible, though practically impossible, to calculate what they will do in any given situation, up to purely random fluctuations, given sufficiently accurate information on their physical composition and their surrounding environment, and given sufficient computing power and time to perform the calculations. To be more precise, it is theoretically possible to compute the stochastic process of a human being, given only that human beings are entirely made up of the stuff of the universe.
The implications of this are enormous. It means that any society whose social and legal structure is founded upon the hypothesis of human free moral agency, and thus moral responsibility, will ultimately be forced to recognize the transcendent nature of the human person. Whether one hypothesizes the existence of the human soul or not, some such ultimately theological hypothesis must be presumed, or human societies will ultimately come to think of themselves as nothing more than evolved ant colonies.
Because of this subtle fact about reality, many of the world's top scientists believe that free will is an illusion. Furthermore, some world religions, such as Buddhism, teach that human consciousness and individuality is an illusion. (Even so, these religions have taught that individual human beings are capable of evolving into a transcendent state of merging with a universal mind or consciousness.)
The contrary hypothesis, upon which all of western culture (prior to the modern era) is based, is historically founded upon religious tradition. More recently, social revisionists have taught that human behavior is determined, that genuine free will does not exist, and that we are all much better off turning our decisions, in 12 step fashion, over to the care of the scientific and commercial establishment. The philosophical implication that the members of the scientific establishment must then be viewed merely as more evolved ants does not seem to have troubled them very much.
The Inherent Value of the Human Person
It is only through a recognition of the transcendent capacity of the human person that we can realize the necessity for a sacred protocol regarding human beings:
- The value of a living human being is inherent, not merely instrumental to some other value.
- The value of a living human being is inalienable. It cannot be lost or removed.
- The value of a living human being is to be held greater than any finite material resource.
- No living human being is to be regarded as expendable, or used as an instrument for another's welfare, without their express voluntary consent.
- Mature human beings are morally responsible for their actions, and can be held accountable for restitution or punishment, unless their actions were coerced or informed by falsehood.
- Immature human beings must normally be under the care and direction of their biological parents, or, in the event of the loss, incapacity or permanent absence of one or both biological parents, the care and direction may be transferred, in whole or in part to foster auspices.
- It is only when a human being is actively dying and their death is immanent and irreversible that ordinary life support may be removed.
And so on.
Again, the inherent value of a human being is not derived from the possession of any merely material capacity or resource. Rather, it stems from the transcendent capacity of the non-material soul for free moral agency. That capacity is not an emergent property of the material universe, but is, instead, uniquely and independently given by a transcendent being, called God, who is the source of all that is.
The Limitations of Science and Materialist Philosophy in this Area
Obviously, none of the above reflection on human value or free moral agency is provable by science. There is, however, a theoretical possibility for challenging the purely material assumption of human nature. Consider it a thought experiment. (Given Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, it is most likely impossible for it to achieve a useful result.)
A human subject is presented with a series of moral choices. The inputs and responses for each choice are measured in complete detail, as are the material composition and dynamics of the subject prior to each decision. The data are fed into a computer which is programmed with a complete model of human functioning, down to the last subatomic detail. The computer is programmed to calculate the stochastic human process and predict, the nonlinear probabilities of all possible choices the subject may make. These probability distributions are compared to the actual choices.
Assume that the human being has the capacity for free moral agency. Then, according to the above thought experiment, it is possible to prove, after a sufficient number of experimental trials and to a high degree of probability, that the assumption of stochastic determinism, is false.
This would give philosophers adequate warrant to conclude that materialism is an insufficient account of reality, and that materialist philosophy must be augmented to include a theory of the transcendent. Yet, by definition, no such augmented theory can be demonstrated by means of the scientific method, for no transcendent agency is controllable or limited to repeatable outcomes.
Therefore, if the human capacity for free moral agency is not an illusion, the scientific method is an inadequate protocol for learning about and understanding transcendent relationships, and any inherently materialist philosophy, such as utilitarianism or pragmatism (as usually practiced), is inadequate as a foundation for human living. [On a technical note, I should clarify that neither utilitarianism nor pragmatism are necessarily purely materialistic stances, even though that is almost invariably how they are articulated in the final analysis. Neither philosophy is fully defined without the addition of a hierarchy of values. "The greatest good for the greatest number," depends, for example, on just what "the greatest good" is. If one defines the greatest good to be "unity with God" then one can take a step toward Christianity within the confines of a utilitarian philosophy. If one defines the greatest good to be philosophical enlightenment, then one can take a step toward the Platonic ideal. Nevertheless, in our culture, "the greatest good," tends to be a lot closer to the bedroom than to either the library or the sanctuary. In other words, neither utilitarianism nor pragmatism are real philosophies (in the same sense that pure mathematics, per se, is not science), though their calculi can be productively employed in philosophical discussions.]
On Ensoulment and Related Questions
The question of when a human being becomes endowed with a soul, or the latent capacity of free moral agency is also critical to any evaluation of the morality of embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic human cloning. After all, if, as pro-choice advocates so often say, "it's just a lump of tissue," then all of our agonizing is for naught.
Unfortunately, the question of ensoulment has generally been regarded as off limits to general philosophy, and, apart from the Sunday pulpit or the Christian coffee house, has been relegated to the most rarefied of partisan theological discussions.
In the end, and in spite of misguided efforts to measure the presence of the soul through such arcane methods as Kirlian photography and the like, the existence of the soul itself must be regarded as a matter of faith. The one definitive verification of the immortal soul that is readily available to all is the afterlife.
That being the case, how does one address the question of ensoulment? One rather obvious approach is to work backward from a time of known moral capacity to a time when that capacity did not seem to be present. This would make the age of ensoulment for the average person about 6 or 7 years of age, when a child begins to distinguish between right and wrong, just and unjust, good and evil.
We naturally recoil in horror from such a conclusion, however, because we regard the life of a child to be beyond price. That is so, of course, because all of us have conscious memories of our childhood that go back to a time prior to the emergence of our capacity to reason morally. We sense intuitively that the capacity for consciousness makes us uniquely human, and uniquely valuable in all of God's material creation.
It is therefore of great significance to public discourse that scientists, at least hypothetically, generally regard human consciousness as a capacity inherent in the wet-ware we call our brains. The October, 2007 issue of Scientific American has an article by Christopher Koch and Susan Greenfield, entitled, "How Does Consciousness Happen?" This is only one example in a centuries-old discussion into the nature and mechanism of human consciousness.
Using functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI), neuroscientists have conducted numerous studies in recent years into the locus of brain activity in specialized functional areas. These studies have lent great credence to the hypothesis that all of human reason and consciousness can ultimately be explained by neuroscience. Furthermore, computer scientists hypothesize that one day they will be able to construct an artificially intelligent mechanism whose reasoning powers, focused perspective, discourse and behavior all suggest that it possesses true consciousness. One of the earliest examples of that hypothesis came to be known as the Turing test, after its inventor, mathematician and computer scientist, Alan Turing.
All of this has enormous implications to the success or failure of moral discourse on the subject of embryonic stem cell research. Indeed, though a majority of Americans consider themselves to be Christians and even attend Sunday services on a regular basis, their understanding of the world is primarily embedded in a materialist scientific and philosophical perspective. It is only at the level of gut conscience that most Americans are dimly aware of something more. Indeed, the President's vague reference to a snowflake analogy is a sad example of just how unschooled we have all become in matters that exceed the realm of material science.
The outward manifestation of both consciousness and moral agency are unquestionably emergent properties of natural human development and maturation. This does not, however, mean that the latent capacity did not exist from the very beginning of an individual human life. Scientists believe that the genetic makeup of an ovum is sufficient, given its presence in a suitable nurturing environment, to ensure the eventual development of full human sentience. In other words, if these capacities are based in material reality, they are latent in the DNA structure of the nucleus of every cell in the body. To put it another way, the design and programming information required to "implement" human sentience (as well as physiology) is already present in the individual human cell. (Indeed, the relevant material facts are true for all living organisms.) This is the basic assumption underlying the science of human cloning.
In the same way, physicists have been led to the conclusion that all of the present structure of the universe was latent in the initial conditions of the Big Bang. In other words, the life of the universe itself was programmed in from the beginning. George Gamow, the inventor of Big Bang theory, even referred to the initial primitive universe as the Ylem, or Cosmic Egg.
From a philosophical perspective, these are very telling facts. Under the rather minimal assumptions that free will is a reality and the universe was purposely designed by an intelligent transcendent being, one is led to the natural conclusion that all human capacities, including the transcendent capacity of free moral agency, are, by design of the creator, latent in the simplest of all persons we call the ovum.
It is this line of reasoning that gives us confidence that the hypothetical soul, if it exists at all, is already present, at least in primitive form, in every living human being, from conception until death. Yet, as we have seen, the soul, if it exists, is a component of human nature that cannot be explained or rationalized by purely material considerations. In other words, it is transcendent. Like the DNA complement of an individual human being, it is unique. Unlike the DNA complement of a human being, however, it is beyond price. One can even argue that it is beyond the value of the universe itself.
I believe this is so as a consequence of what it is by nature. Its existence cannot be explained as an artifact of the material universe. Therefore, it is most likely beyond time as well as beyond space. To use a strictly theological term, it is eternal. Compared to eternity, the life of the universe itself is infinitesimal. To be more specific, the value of one single eternal life that continues to grow and develop is infinitely greater than the value of trillions or even sextillions of finite lives, or more sentient lives than are ever likely to exist in the universe.
Although neuroscientists are currently engaged in a reductionist enterprise of explaining human consciousness in material terms, quantum physicists have sensed for decades that there is something uniquely important in the individual human actor. This awareness developed from thought experiments in the early days of quantum physics, such as the "Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen (EPR) paradox" and "Schrodinger's cat." They have concluded that reality itself cannot be understood without reference to the individual human actor, or, more specifically, human choice. Indeed, at the same time that the greatest biologists have most often been led to a stance of material skepticism, the greatest physicists, like Einstein, himself, have more often been led to an awed sense of the transcendent.
If these conclusions are true, the exploitation of even a single human embryo for whatever scientific or therapeutic purpose, is of grave moral importance. Each human embryo must be regarded as something uniquely precious, perhaps even in the eyes of God, and to be held and nurtured in sacred trust. Even the act of creating and freezing surplus embryos must be regarded as a grave moral evil, more so because no one should be regarded as "surplus" and the prospects of revivification of a frozen embryo are chancy at best.
The Bifurcation of Public Discourse
Public discourse on matters of the greatest moral importance is not merely polarized today, it is increasingly and exponentially so. Common ground between believers of a secular bent and believers of a religious bent is getting increasingly difficult to find and to pin down for mutual consideration. Debates on moral issues in the public media seldom lead to advancing understanding and even more rarely lead mutual understanding of the discussants. Rather than real dialog, we are increasingly treated to a verbal fencing match in which the participants talk past each other using terms and assumptions that are not shared.
This trend is quite evident in the case of embryonic stem cell research. Indeed, it is aggravated by the general trend of media personalities to side with the ESC enterprise (and many other narrowly utilitarian enterprises) and to marginalize opponents of the enterprise as religious fundamentalists with at best a highly skewed grasp of science and human life. It does not help that people in the more religious camp who have a significant scientific background, yet whose religious faith goes beyond mere gut instinct, are generally drowned out in the debates.
Although a clear representation of the religious viewpoint in these discussions is often lacking, it is not entirely absent. Spokesman worth particular mention include Fr. Tad Pacholczyk and his colleagues at the National Catholic Bioethics Center (see, in particular, his essay, "Debating the Embryo's Fate", Fr. Frank Pavone and his colleagues at Priests for Life (see his "comments on the Embryonic Stem Cell Research Controversy"), as well as official pronouncements of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. See, in particular, the August 25, 2000, "Declaration on the Production and the Scientific and Therapeutic Use of Human Embryonic Stem Cells" from the Pontifical Academy for Life. Such statements as these are generally well informed, well reasoned, and often very insightful.
Indeed, it strikes me as likely that the inability of the most visible media personalities to grasp these issues stems as much from willfulness as from a genuine lack of understanding or faith. These issues are not so arcane that the well-educated citizen finds insuperable difficulties in understanding them. Rather, it is more due to the fact that the mass public media are inordinately focused on simplistic perspectives, perspectives that have come to be known as "sound bites." It is also due to the natural human tendency to identify with the beliefs of our colleagues and close associates. The only media that swim against this trend are Internet blogs and professional journals, though the occasional niche periodical for the layperson can be found to delve into the required depth. Even here, finding a good source for reasoned public discourse can be like finding a needle in a haystack.
This phenomenon of progressive bifurcation (and even fission) in public discourse was largely predicted by Marshall McLuhan in the 50s and 60s. He described it as increasing tribalization in a global village. His work, particularly, Understanding Media, the Extensions of Man, is truly enlightening, although it can be deucedly difficult to understand because of his rapid fire tendency to shift perspective when looking at a difficult problem. Nailing down the specifics and justifications of his claims can be like trying to nail jello to a wall. It is a work of great insight, but scant precision.
It is, however, a false picture to interpret the increasing fissures in our society as a mere artifact of the technological changes in our communications infrastructure. The fact is there are other forces at work, forces of a psychological and spiritual nature. How else can one explain the increasing levels of vituperation in the abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration, Iraq war, euthanasia and embryonic stem cell debates? How else can one explain the organized efforts to marginalize and demean opposing groups, efforts chosen increasingly as a first, rather than a last recourse?
One possible clue to the increasingly vicious and tyrannical phenomena of division that increasingly pervades western culture may be found in the increasing levels of what psychologists refer to as "cognitive dissonance" and what moralists refer to as "a guilty conscience." Both psychologists and moralists recognize that the phenomena they label so differently can frequently cause inner psychic pain and lead to compulsive patterns of self-justification, lashing out at those who tear the band aid off the psyche and marginalizing such challenges increasingly as springing from fear (phobia) or hate. The best understood case of these phenomena is the extraordinarily vicious behavior of many of the Nazi war criminals at the Nurenburg Trials. (Among other things, the Nazi war criminals regarded themselves as "the real patriots" and "the truly moral." What distinguished them, however, from a psychological perspective, was not so much their patriotism or their morals as their compulsive self-justification.) How one interprets the very same phenomena today, however, depends entirely upon where one sees oneself in relation to the very real moral fault line.
A still more interesting byproduct of this inner conflict is the compulsive desire of many people to expose their innermost feelings and thoughts to perfect strangers, to, in effect, parade them before the world. This orgy of public confession, a phenomenon that has often been labeled "the Jerry Springer phenomenon" (only because that show has been so focused on commercial exploitation of the phenomenon) is perhaps more clearly than anything else, directly tied to the rise of television.
The reason I call attention to this specific case, however, is that it offers us a possible clue to why the Balkanization of our culture seems to be accelerating. The electronic mass media increasingly provide both instantaneity and a sense of immediacy and intimacy in our communication with others. The increasing proliferation of channels and control mean that we can more easily tune out messages we don't want to hear, and find out "what's happening in the world" through increasingly narrow channels. The universal remote, if you will, permits us to live in our own private, remote universe. Yet these technological artifacts of our culture do not, by themselves, drive the divisions. Rather, they act as enablers and catalysts for the moral forces, both positive and negative, that are already at work.
The deepest fissure in public discourse today seems to be the very fault line that polarizes the embryonic stem cell debate. Each side increasingly regards the other as "clueless" and having a deeply skewed sense of values. It is rare to find either a moderator or participant in a public debate who respects both sides and truly wants and aims at advancing mutual understanding. This is because navigating the fault line is itself a very perilous enterprise, and requires a profound sense of where one is morally and philosophically (and psychologically) at any point in a typically heated discussion.
The Axes of Moral Reasoning
This leads me to recall a parenthetical point I made earlier, that, from a technical perspective, utilitarianism is not so much a philosophy as it is a calculus. To be able to calculate with this calculus, however, one needs to supply values to the calculation. In other words, the primary thing utilitarianism does is to add a consideration of quantity to a discussion of quality. By itself, it says nothing about the latter.
In making this claim, I do not presume to declare that Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the founders of utilitarianism, did not themselves possess a hierarchical sense of values. Nor do I mean to imply that these men did not recognize the independent importance of value relationships in the moral calculus.
As a further technical point, I should mention that the tendency to describe utilitarianism as a form of consequentialism (as the Wikipedia article on utilitarianism does) is probably also, at best, beside the point (even in articulating it as "the ends justify the means") once it is clear that a complete understanding of the ends or consequences can never be a values-free exercise. Friedrich Nietzsche and Francis of Assisi came to completely opposite conclusions about both the desired ends and the acceptable means, yet in both, their means were ultimately guided by their ends. The former aimed toward individual power, the latter toward holy communion. Jesus Christ, knowing that love does not come at the end of a sword, chose instead to sacrifice himself.
[As a further technical note, it is fairly well known that even Immanuel Kant's "categorical imperative" begs the question of value.]
To be able to reason morally, then, one must move along more than a values-free philosophical axis. To have a fully articulated sense of values, however, one must appeal to theology, or, more generally, to have a stance regarding the relevance of God in defining values and to have a stance on how such information comes to humanity. Where one goes in navigating the theological axis (or axes) is just as important as (or even more important than) where one goes in one's philosophical investigations. Nevertheless, clarity in philosophy can add clarity to theology. It can force one to ask what justifies what one believes.
A further axis of moral reasoning that must be considered is psychology. Psychology has cataloged a number of important phenomena that becloud reasoning. [Three of the most important of these phenomena, apart from cognitive dissonance, compulsive self-justification and compulsive public confession are projection, triangulation and the reflexive forces of homeostasis.] Psychology can take one beyond the step of justifying what one believes to a more complete understanding of why one believes what one believes.
To come full circle, a theology of good and evil can bring one to a clearer understanding of the important "why" questions that are so necessary in disentangling all of the moral and intellectual cul-de-sacs one is inclined to wander into.
Neglect or abuse of one or more of these dimensions can drive one either into insanity or into hell, but, of course, one need not be an expert in any of these areas to develop a fully integrated, and even saintly, personality. I claim, however, that it helps. It helps particularly if one navigates these axes with God's help and in prayerful reflection. The results of a successful navigation can be found in The Confessions of St. Augustine, or in The Diary of a Soul.
In examining the sociological implications of the ESC debate, I refer first to Aldous Huxley's prescient work, Brave New World. In this anti-utopian novel, individual human beings are exploited "in utero" (or, more precisely, in an artificial uterus) for the purpose of benefiting other human beings. Although the details are radically different from what is projected to happen today through a programmatic exploitation of embryonic stem cells, the moral backdrop is quite similar. In both cases, the value of a human life is measured in instrumental terms.
The implications of this are ultimately devastating to the good order of society. As things currently stand, our nation has outlawed pre-birth infanticide using one specific medical procedure called "partial birth abortion." Information about the procedure has penetrated the public consciousness at a sufficient level to cause generalized horror at the fact that it exists and has been permitted in our society. Even in a society that has become largely inured to corruption and systematic lying by public officials, this has raised sufficient indignation to effect change.
One of the keys to that change has been the remnant of moral imagination that is still common in our society, and the collective sense of responsibility and empowerment that still motivates people in general to get out and vote their conscience, particularly when they are urged on by people with guts and the determination to leave no stone unturned to change minds and hearts for the better.
The case of partial-birth abortion stands, not so much as a litmus test, but as a benchmark of where our society's moral imagination currently gets exercised. The sad fact is that there are other forms of late term abortion that are still perfectly legal, and few people get worked up about it. Far fewer people even sense that there is a serious problem with embryonic stem cell research. There is clearly, then, an extraordinary degree of moral callousness, or calcification, in our society. In such a moral climate, the fate of a few hundred thousand embryos escapes notice on the collective moral radar.
The reason is simple, to most people, no group of cells that is barely visible to the naked eye amounts to anything important. Some people sense that there is something significant in the fact that that group of cells is an organism that might one day, under the right conditions, become an adult human being. Some people consider the possibility that such a human being might discover a medical breakthrough, or achieve a diplomatic result, or compose a work of artistic merit that could change the course of human history for the better. Some are infatuated with the idea that such a human being is unique, and therefore irreplaceable (something that is not, theoretically, strictly true, given the materialist hypothesis). Still, some sense that such a human being is endowed already with an immortal soul that makes them like unto God.
All of these views are informed, sadly, by incomplete information, information that could be critical to an informed public debate. It has been said that if a young, anxious and pregnant woman enters an abortion clinic intent on bringing about the death of her child, she may be dissuaded from her intention, no matter how firm, if she only has a chance to hear the beating heart of her child and see the moving form in her womb with modern medical scanning equipment, such as a sonogram. There is, however, no medical instrumentation that can inform the understanding and faith of a society regarding the transcendent value of the visibly insignificant embryo. Furthermore, well over half of our society seems highly motivated to deny or to ignore the right to life of an embryo, as it pushes for easy access to "Plan B" and its related pharmacological poisons. This is the human condition. Though we may indeed be "like unto God" we are not God. Our knowledge and understanding are finite, incomplete, even corrupted.
All of us live according to a "world view" that is largely embedded in the culture we live in; or, more specifically, in the subculture we live in. In every nation, and in the world as a whole, there exists a dominant culture. Among developed countries, that dominant culture is currently secular, materialist and utilitarian, with a frequent, rather ad-hoc, admixture of compassionate concern for the poor and disenfranchised among us. In many ways it is a largely egalitarian culture, at least in contrast with the more strictly caste-based organization of most under-developed nations.
Our society is not so egalitarian, however, that the fundamental right to life of a human being is recognized as inherent from conception until death. And all the indicators suggest it will not get there any time soon. This is a great tragedy, not so much because of the loss of tens, even hundreds, of millions of unborn children, but because of the almost inevitable death of the moral life of billions. Growth towards holiness requires a determined effort at cooperation with God's grace. Where there is no effort, there is no growth. Where there is no growth toward holiness, there is only a steady drift toward evil. This is, if you will, the second law of spiritual thermodynamics.
Cooperation with God's grace requires, among other things, an effort to discern God's will in creation. That is one reason I consider it so important to follow a line of investigation such as I have conducted regarding the moment of ensoulment. I, for one, am firmly convinced that the path toward God is along a gradient that is increasingly sensitive to the value of a human life, no matter how tiny, no matter how debilitated, and no matter how irredeemable. Our dominant culture does not see things this way. It is, on the contrary, pulled in every direction that can be conceived in the mind of man that aims at personal fulfillment. With such chaotic attractions at work, the inevitable result is a drift toward destruction as competing agendas cancel each other out.
Cultures change slowly. Steering a culture is more difficult than steering a supertanker, and, no matter how many prophetic lookouts spot the likelihood of running aground, it can always happen that it will be too late (and, with so many oars in the water working every which way, it is a virtual certainty). This is, indeed, the fear among many climatologists who see the worse about to happen in the global warming phenomenon. It is the fear among many who worry about nuclear proliferation, and among those who worry about global terrorism. It is the fear of those who worry about the consequences of granting greater license to speculators, or to governments the power to print money or raise armies at will. It is the fear of those who worry about the steady drift toward egocentric hedonism. All of these are potential rocky shoals against which the ship of world culture could run aground and break apart.
Such world-wide calamities have happened before, but they are, fortunately, quite rare. The last one was the barbarian invasion that brought an end to the progressive corruption of the Roman Empire, and the subsequent pandemonium that brought about the Dark Ages. The Roman Empire rose from the ashes of the Alexandrian Empire through the courage and vision of a few soldiers, backed up by masses of followers. It grew through a combination of technological superiority and attractive social concepts such as "Pax Romana" and a Roman citizenship that was, at least theoretically, available to everyone. The Empire fell when society became so corrupt that even the mercenary leaders began to look out for number one. (We are not there yet, but our national policy makers have been ignoring the professionals for some time, now, and the professionals have no option but to look on in horror.) The Dark Ages ensued when the people came to blame their ills on the very learning that lifted their civilization up to an unprecedented height. We have already seen sporadic examples of this phenomenon in the various "cultural revolutions" that have delayed the onset of technological and cultural growth in countries that have suffered under them.
One can liken this phenomenon to the hypothetical oscillating universe model that once rivaled Gamow's Big Bang Theory. Something about social collapse eventually forces people to realize the importance of their neighbor to their own safety. The collapse of technology limits people's mobility and their ability to remain in touch with distant people. The result is that societies start over from scratch and rebuild, but they rebuild in local strength that gathers momentum in the direction of increasing growth and complexity. Societies that preserve the learning of those who precede them have a tremendous advantage over those that do not. In this way, enough of value is retained to offer a leg up to the next growth spurt.
Because such ancient documents were kept, it was possible for Edward Gibbon and others to draw attention to the previous collapse in notable attempts to learn from it, for their conclusions to enter common folklore, and for dust jacket commentators to make extravagant claims about the visionary-du-jour that followed them. Even when sensing that a collapse is inevitable (if not actually immanent), therefore, it is a sacred duty to document, as it unfolds, its progress and its causes with care and precision. The result can be even more informative to succeeding generations than the record of the prophets in the Old Testament. In the same way, it is essential to learn what others have already learned about the signs of the times. In this connection, studying the works of the Old Testament prophets, Lao Tse, Siddhārtha Gautama, Plato, Cicero, St. Paul, St. Augustine, Maimonides, Sun Tzu, Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, St. John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz), Miguel de Cervantes, James Madison, Johann von Goethe, John Milton, Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Victor Hugo, Fyodor Dostoevsky, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Mohandas Gandhi, F.J. Sheen, T.S. Eliot, A. Solzhenitsyn, Pope John Paul II, and others, in addition to the works of scientists and technologists, can be a basic necessity. It is this realization that has spurred the growth of great books clubs and curricula in small colleges around the country.
It will ultimately be through the writing of such geniuses that society will come to a deeper appreciation of the fundamental worth of embryonic life. They will be the ones who first crack the code of the moral DNA that leads societies inexorably toward collapse. In our own time, we have the writings of G.K. Chesterton, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Albert Einstein, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and John Paul II to guide us in understanding the deadly possibilities of overweening governments, emerging from the primordial ooze of radical individualism and radical collectivism, armed to the teeth with advanced technologies, and ready and willing to bow to the individual or collective will of whoever leads them.
It will also be the job of lesser lights to point to alarming signs, such as the precipitous drive toward population implosion in Europe, or the cultural Balkanization that inevitably accompanies unregulated migration, or the radicalization of whole ethnic or sectarian populations that inevitably accompanies adventurism or tyranny in their sphere, or the collapse of a bureaucratic infrastructure under the weight of contradictory and competing demands, or the increasing inertia and instability that builds in any top-heavy organization. A world that refuses to listen to great prophets will certainly need minor ones who are willing to listen. Meanwhile, those who have the task of leading will do well to head the words of the greatest prophet of all.
"If the blind lead the blind, both fall into the pit." [Matt 15:14]
A Theological Addendum
A proper theological grasp of the significance of the embryo must begin with the first words of St. Elizabeth to Mary, when Mary came to visit her to assist her in the final months of her pregnancy with John.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." [Luke 1:39-45]
It is surely the case that Mary's child was still in embryonic form when she first came to see Elizabeth, for she "traveled to the hill country in haste." The embryonic period of prenatal development typically lasts, according to Wikipedia, 8 weeks. Elizabeth's greeting recognizes the divine dignity of this simple embryonic life. Such dignity would not be invested in a "lump of tissue." Nor would this connection be considered an integrated person unless the soul of Jesus were also present.
This is, perhaps, the most direct biblical evidence available of the thesis that embryonic human life is endowed with a soul. Yet, the case does not end there.
There is a systematic emphasis in Jesus' teaching about the beginnings of things in seed form. A seed, according to Wikipedia, "is a small embryonic plant, enclosed in a covering called the seed coat." (Crossword puzzlers know that this seed coat is called an aril, when the seed is covered with fruit.) Christ used the common seed as a metaphor numerous times recorded in the Gospels. In one famous passage in the Gospel of John, when some Greeks were introduced to him during his last days in Jerusalem,
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. [John 12:24]
On another occasion, Jesus declared,
He put before them another parable. "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sewed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it is grown it is the greatest of all the shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."
On another occasion he said, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, "Be uprooted and planted in the sea," and it would obey you."
In both of these illustrations, Jesus emphasizes the smallness of a mustard seed and its comparison with the smallness of one's beginning faith, or the smallness of the beginning Church, or of the kingdom of heaven among mankind. Yet, in spite of its smallness, Jesus tells us, it is full of power, and God's will is fully present within it.
The third clue we have is this. Jesus himself was a single person. If God wanted us to believe that he saw no particular significance in a single human person, he would not have sent one person to us containing everything he wanted to say to us. Instead, he would have sent a committee (if God were a bureaucrat) or an army (if God were a general).
Again, the fourth clue is in the nuclear DNA of the human body and in the language St. John uses in the opening lines of his Gospel.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [John 1:1-5]
Information theorists consider something like a genome to be a word. St. Thomas Aquinas intuitively understood John's introduction to mean that the Word was God's complete expression of himself. In other words, pure information. Yet, information from the divine has power. Total information from the divine has total power, and, indeed, is God. The in sexual union, the male genome is combined with the female genome to produce a complete child. In this case, information has the power of life.
In all of these passages, God is emphasizing the significance of his Word, and of his Word in our lives. It is so significant that he has modeled our very being on his Word. This is what it means to say that we were created in the image and likeness of God. We are not God, but that which is Godlike within us is capable of infinite growth.
And, it all begins with the smallest seed.