March 30, 2020
In this episode, Bill and Paul discuss the coronavirus, economics and risk, and the L'Aquila earthquake trial.
- Paul and Bill continued a discussion that began in the previous episode. They allowed the sense of gravitas they felt in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic to push them along a path through many uncertainties—where it’s tempting to rely on one’s GPS guidance system and, if possible, an autonomous (self-driving) vehicle. But should human beings relieve themselves of all responsibilities for self-guidance, and if not, how should they accept and address those responsibilities?
- Underlying this discussion was the perception that society has chosen to confront the pandemic through the wisdom of science, which boils down to a healthy use of reason, which of course is a God-given gift. But we are also blessed (and cursed?) with the gift of sensing that reason is not enough. Can we put ourselves on automatic pilot by trusting completely in calculations of risk and probability and a in human understanding that can’t take all possible values and outcomes into consideration?
- Paul cited observations by Hilaire Belloc, a great British writer and Catholic commentator from the early 1900s. Belloc argued that being “practical” and “realistic” is not enough, especially if a human being seeks to make decisions with Godlike precision, effectiveness, and comprehensiveness. For example, Paul pointed out that “social distancing” and related policy weapons being utilized against the spread of the Coronavirus are not enough to say that we are systematically reducing the risk of death or harm in an easily calculable way. For example, forbidding public gatherings of any significant size can be seen as a wise precaution against certain people becoming infected, but little thought is given to the fact that all the cancelled meetings of twelve-step programs means people who were being helped to address their own particular issues and risks might suffer tangibly from losing their support network.
- At some point, there is a need to acknowledge that some risks, like human death, cannot be eliminated, and a perfect society cannot be achieved. This meshed with Bill’s concern about whether “social distancing” might push man people further toward the phenomenon of social polarization, characterized by isolation, indifference and marginalization in many instances. Or will the experience of being distanced wake us up to the unhealthy results of these characteristics and rein us back from the precipice of thinking we can define and enforce the right answers that will yield the best outcomes?
- Ultimately, Bill and Paul agreed that humans seeking to provide humane, prudent leadership in a crisis must be “all in” as participants in a robust civic life in a well-ordered civil society that respects the many sides of individual experience. Can we put all our faith in the decision-making of a political system, especially if we have not made an equivalent commitment to enrich the body politic—and indeed to contribute in ways that go beyond mere gestures of political participation, such as voting?
- We must take into account a larger part of the story of human challenges, not risk management alone. At the time of this writing, for example, Bill learned that the Governor of Pennsylvania, after having ordered the shutdown of all liquor stores in order to slow the spread of the virus, was reconsidering his decision. According to news reports, experts had told him that a sizable portion of the alcohol-dependent population could suffer severe consequences from suddenly withdrawn access to hard liquor, meaning harm would be done by other means.
Image by Angelo Giordano from Pixabay.
February 10, 2020
This week, events have forced another "greatest hits" episode, and so we bring you for your convenience the entire Maureen Condic interview from the June 2019 Society of Catholic Scientists meeting in a one hour and forty-five minute extravaganza. The following are Bill's liner notes from the first run episodes.
- University of Utah’s information page for Dr. Maureen Condic. She is an Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy, with an adjunct appointment in Pediatrics. Her research focuses on the role of stem cells in development and regeneration. She has taught human embryology in the University’s Medical School for 20 years.
- See Dr. Condic’s biographical summary in the list of speakers at the Society of Catholic Scientists 2019 conference titled, “What Does It Mean to Be Human?” At the conference, this embryologist and specialist in developmental neurobiology delivered the St. Albert Award Lecture: “Human Beings are Defined by Organization.”
- Dr. Condic is the 2019 recipient of the St. Albert Award, named for Saint Albert the Great, the Catholic Church’s patron saint of natural scientists. The award is given annually to a Catholic scientist whose life and work give witness to the harmony that exists between the vocation of scientist and the life of faith. See more details about the award, including its previous recipients.
- Dr. Condic’s previous awards include the Basil O’Connor Starter Scholar Research Award, created in 1973 and presented by the March of Dimes to support a young scientist’s promising new research. The March of Dimes was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, initially to fight polio. Today, the foundation focuses on health problems in babies, especially premature birth, birth defects, and low birth weight. Find context for the program of research support here.
- Dr. Condic also has been the recipient of a Scholar Award for research from the McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience.
- In 2018, she was appointed to the National Science Board. The NSB establishes the policies of the National Science Foundation and serves as advisor to Congress and the President.
- She is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, which is dedicated to promoting the Catholic Church’s consistent life ethic and supporting research in bioethics and moral theology.
- When confronted with alternative views and occasionally accused of being “brainwashed” with a pro-life stance, Dr. Condic says one must ask, what view actually makes more sense of the world? A quote from the episode: “What vision of the world actually accounts for most of the data? In my experience, it’s a Christian vision of the world, and particularly a Catholic vision of the world, that very much endorses precisely the kind of questioning mind that promotes scientific investigation….”
- Another key thought from the episode: The information generated in scientific disciplines is so huge, it forces many scientists to make their own fields of specialized inquiry “narrower and narrower.” Also, “they have no time” to give deep consideration to many big questions about life, the world, and the origin of the universe. “Particularly in biology, there’s such an intoxication with success.” Individuals who are indeed brilliant and making remarkable progress for people may become confident that they can answer all the important questions.
- Starting at about the 22-minute mark in this episode, Dr. Condic tells the story of an event that changed her life and produced her commitment to public advocacy and public education.“ She saw a need to combat ignorance or oversimplification about scientific advancements and to be “an advocate for patients and knowledge and factual information.”
- Dr. Condic also provides a valuable, clear update on parts of the debate about disease treatments using embryonic stem cells as opposed to adult stem cells, with research on the latter having resulted in a huge number of clinical trials and prospects for various treatments. A major new phase of the research has moved on to the use of induced pluripotent stem cells, which do not raise the same ethical issues as embryonic cells.
- In presenting the St. Albert Award during the Society of Catholic Scientists conference, president Stephen Barr, Ph.D., pointed out Dr. Condic’s “courageous public defense, on scientific and philosophical grounds, on the human status of human embryos.”
- Our discussion of totipotent, pluripotent, and plenipotent stem cells helped to clarify a complex subject of great importance to many people, such as those who suffer from diseases awaiting therapies capturing the power of these cells. Dr. Maureen Condic, as a pioneer in this field, contributed insights in 2013 by developing the concept of plenipotent cells. See her journal article.
- Our discussion also led to a sense of wonderment about the ability of cells to follow such complex paths of development, starting with the organism created when sperm and egg combine. The product and the process can easily be dismissed as a simple mass of cells, or one can recall Psalm 139:14, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” In this episode, we discussed how it seems viscerally sad that the amazement, which is itself so full of potential, can be lost in everyday discussions of human life.
- Related to this, Dr. Condic pointed out that there is an unfortunate lack of philosophical education among many scientists. Here is a blog post from Scientific American discussing synergies between science and philosophy—synergies which are at the core of this podcast’s mission.
- We discussed the relevance of the philosophical concepts of form and substance. Here’s a web page explaining those concepts.
- This book, written by Dr. Condic and her brother sounds like it is a rare and valuable synthesis of philosophical and biological insights about life: Human Embryos, Human Beings. She noted in our episode that such an extended, on-point synthesis is rare for various reasons, including the need to clarify vocabulary used on both sides of the dialogue, avoiding the risk that we will talk past each other.
- She has written another book, this one examining the biological and philosophical issues around human twinning, Untangling Twinning. It is scheduled for publication in the summer of 2019. For now, a computer search using this title yielded, as one of the first finds, a copy of a news release written by TSSM podcast co-host Bill Schmitt and posted at classicaltheism.com.
- The conversation involving Dr. Condic, Dr. Giesting and Schmitt turned to the complexities of the nation’s debate about abortion. That debate engages a mix of biological facts (which may or may not be probed in the full context of updated knowledge), personal experiences, and deeply held principles, positions, and emotions including authentic sympathy for the circumstances in which pregnant women find themselves. Although providing scientific insights is a crucial advancement of the debate because people deserve to have comprehensive information, the laying out of certain biological facts alone will not necessarily change minds, Condic said.
- In many cases, much of the public presentation of the abortion controversy dividing people is manufactured, but there is room for honest discussion on particular grounds. We each can play a part in adding to human understandings in this controversy. People evolve their judgments on the wide scope of the debate incrementally over time.
- But the search for a full overview is complicated; indeed, Dr. Condic referred to difficulties she and her brother Samuel Condic encountered (different vocabularies, etc.) in compiling their book Human Embryos, Human Beings. The book aims to bring together philosophical and biological insights about human life at its beginning. In short, the abortion debate requires us to spend more time in listening to each other, asking questions, probing the basis of people’s stances, and less time in simply lecturing, she said.
- Paul talked about his experience with identical twins in his family. Twinning is a complex arena for understanding “who you are,” raising core questions with biological and philosophical implications. Our discussion around the microphone extended to research on the topics of compaction and chimeras. Condic has written a book that delves into the complexities. Untangling Twinning is scheduled for publication this summer.
- There are also biological phenomena complicating an understanding of our human nature in sexual terms. There can be complex factors differentiating between one’s genetic sex and one’s hormonal sex, Condic said. A very small segment of the population has genetically compound sexual identities. Intersex disorders can occur in a variety of ways, although in the vast majority of cases questions of a person’s gender identity are not grounded in physical causes, Condic said. Studies in some areas raise questions within the LGBTQ community itself. Among many, endeavors focusing on a “gay gene” that would undergird a statement that “I was born this way” have been diminished by a view that gender identity is fluid or is driven by non-genetic factors.
October 21, 2019
In this week's episode, we discuss the possibility of extraterrestrial life in our own solar system. Dr. Lunine talked about extraterrestrial life. It’s very possible that at least microbial life exists on other planets, he said, but the chances of complex, multicellular life are much more difficult to estimate.
We simply don't know what the possibilities are for life beyond the chemistry that it uses here on Earth. A potential tragedy that we would want to avoid at almost any cost would be the introduction of terrestrial microbes into a viable environment elsewhere, where they could become invasive species, grow and potentially outcompete the native life, which we would never get the chance to study and understand. NASA and other space agencies have policies in place to address this risk... hopefully, they will work.
Dr. Jonathan Lunine is the David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Science and chair of the Department of Astronomy at Cornell University. He is also the vice president and a co-founder of the Society of Catholic Scientists.
Christianity and Extraterrestrials?: A Catholic Perspective , by Marie George, is a book worth reading, Dr. Lunine said.
He thanked all those who spoke at the 2019 conference of the Society of Catholic Scientists, and he commented on the high quality of the event. The website provides links to several TSSM episodes interviewing conference speakers.
Watch videos of speakers here.
Image by <a href="https://pixabay.com/users/8385-8385/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=54999">Reimund Bertrams</a> from <a href="https://pixabay.com/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=54999">Pixabay</a>
July 29, 2019
In today's episode we sit down with Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, a Dominican friar, biologist, and bioethicist on the faculty at Providence College. Similarly to our interview with Fr. Lawrence Machia, we discuss the way in which science and a vocation to both the priesthood and life in a specific religious order intertwined in his life, with the additional perspective that his Filipino heritage contributes to his understanding of his vocation and the culture here in America.
- Rev. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., Ph.D., is a Dominican priest and molecular biologist, on the faculty of Providence College. See his page on the college’s website.
- Cells carry a genetic program for self-death for the good of the organism. Cancer cells do not exercise this self-death. Here is one explanation of that phenomenon.
- Fr. Austriaco belongs to the Eastern Province of the Dominican Order. An early introduction within that order entails learning to remain silent, to trust in the loving presence of God. We talked about the American cultural propensity for busy-ness as a key to one’s sense of success.
- How can we think about the intersection of biological science and moral theology? Fr. Austriaco said this. Biology can help you figure out what’s good for you and what’s not good for you. We are creatures shaped by God through an evolutionary process that took place over a long time frame. Our fulfillment includes trying to understand which of our instinctual desires are perfected and which ones still have to be mastered. That’s the gist of Catholic moral theology. God calls us to joy, and that includes our fulfillment as the biological creatures we are. We must figure out what pleasures achieve the fulfillment of our nature and lead to joy. Pleasure is a grace; it can be a very good thing so long as the pleasure is ordered to our true human nature, our integral human fulfillment, what Christ calls us to.
- Is there a sense in which the Catechism of the Catholic Church is like an “owner’s manual” for the human being in living out a human life? Fr. Austriaco explained that the Gospel is a love letter from God, inviting us into friendship. The Catechism shows us the expectations that come with accepting that friendship. It’s not about what we “have to do” but what we want to do because the friendship is offering the relationship with Christ that brings us fulfillment. An “owner’s manual” concept suggests rules to follow to avoid car malfunctions, but our pursuit is more of a proactive response to God’s invitation of love and happiness. A mechanistic approach like an “owner’s manual” still suggests “I’m in charge” as an individual with a checklist—a deeply American interpretation, as Fr. Austriaco pointed out.
- Shortly after speaking at the annual conference of the Society of Catholic Scientists, Fr. Austriaco also spoke at the Vita Institute, sponsored annually by the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame as an intensive overview of Catholic pro-life principles.
- You can see Fr. Austriaco’s talk to the Society’s 2019 conference on YouTube. You’ll also find there a video of Fr. Austriaco’s 2017 lecture, “Defending Adam after Darwin.”
16:00 dogs and chocolate; biology gives us a specific perspective on what is good and bad for us.
18:00 pleasure and its purpose as well as how it leads us astray
20:00 Bill and the "owner's manual" perspective
22:00 rules secondary to relationships