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From Francis Collins, as from PZ Myers, a Steady Stream of "Pabulum" on Ethics

At National Review Online, our colleague Wesley Smith hits Francis Collins hard for delivering feel-good "pabulum" on the relationship, or non-relationship, of science to ethics. Collins

doesn't want either "science" or "religion" to prevail over the other because "we need both kinds of truth."

He'll get no argument from me there. But the piece [at Big Think], which raises one of the central issues of our time, is disappointing. Rather than expressing deep thought, Collins mostly engages in general we-can-all-get-along pabulum. In other words, he actually avoids the very issues that make controversies over scientific experimentation so intense and volatile. 

Collins has adopted surprising positions on bioethical issues that suggest he hasn't given them the serious thought they deserve. Either that, or he doesn't know how to think about them, what moral compass to bring to bear.

Is it ethical to create human embryos via cloning to be destroyed in research? In the past, Collins has supported human cloning research. Many -- both the religious and those who are not -- disagree with Collins because they believe that human cloning is, per se, unethical as it creates human life through manufacture. 

Who is correct about that? Science can't tell us. It can tell us what is and what could be, but not what is right and wrong.

Thus, the question of ethics in science is really a matter of philosophy, religion, and/or morality -- often centering on the moral value of human life.

For example, should scientists be able to experiment on living, aborted human fetuses? They've done it before! What about killing people diagnosed as permanently or minimally unconscious for their organs -- often proposed in transplant, medical, and bioethics journals. Should that be allowed? Why and why not? What are the criteria for judging?

And who decides? Do we let "the scientists" agree among themselves about what is ethical, as some have suggested? Or, is the establishment of ethical parameters around science a legitimate question of public policy in which we all -- scientist and non-scientist alike -- have a legitimate voice (my view)?

Collins has completely avoided the essential questions.

What happens when you fail to clearly acknowledge that science is no relevant arbiter in ethical quandaries? That a different frame of analysis altogether is needed? Sometimes the result is moral monstrosity. More often it's just bland, insipid nothing.

For confirmation, go take a look at PZ Myer's blog, Pharyngula. When he was bashing intelligent design, Darwin doubters, and even hapless "creationists" all the time, I read him with greater interest. Now that he's got a new book, The Happy Atheist, he seems to be out to prove that jettisoning non-scientific criteria is perfectly compatible both with happiness and with a strong ethical sense.

But look at the moral issues he harps on: they're all so blindingly obvious. PZ is very much against genocide. He's extremely upset by horrific Nazi medical experimentation. He comes down firmly against rape. He has no sympathy whatsoever for needless violence. How about racism? Nope, doesn't like that one bit either. Slavery? No good at all. Says PZ:

  • "...if you find yourself gagging at the thought of interracial marriage, you are racist. You are so racist you are choking on your own racism."
  • "...fighting for the right to enslave or kill some of your own citizens, or to enslave or kill your neighbors, is clearly an unethical, even evil, goal."

Such are his themes in post after post. Admittedly, of late I only skim what he has to say, so perhaps I've missed something. Would any normal person disagree with PZ in the least about any of these things? Of course not.

That's the point. In our actual lives, the moral issues we face daily are the mundane cruelties, the false fixes to large needs and big problems, anger, vindictiveness, cynicism, mockery, gossip, selfishness, snap judgments, indifference, rationalizing expediency, etc., etc. Despite my own many failings, I can honestly say I've never committed horrific medical experiments on anyone. I've never felt remotely tempted to engage in genocide. I have never purchased a slave. On such matters, my conscience is clear. Feel free to congratulate me.

As for the rest? It's very easy to rail against people -- I'm not sure I've ever met one -- who would condemn a white person for marrying a black one. It's much harder to say something useful about the moral ills we see in our daily lives, and in ourselves.

The result of adopting materialism, Darwinism, whatever you want to call it, as your guiding philosophical framework is that more than likely it will leave you bereft of anything remotely illuminating to contribute about the ethical challenges we actually face. What you have to offer will, in all probability, be little more than a steady stream of pabulum.