Maybe this isn’t such a good idea

Today at a session of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science on the topic of direct brain/body interfaces, one of the speakers was a devout Christian. The entire focus of his talk concerned the moral implications “as a Christian” (his words) of everything the other speakers had been discussing. He wondered aloud whether God would approve such doings, whether advancing technology is compromising our sacred humanity, and what it all might mean for our immortal souls.

To put this in context, the other speakers had been very thoughtful about ethical questions. Not one of them had merely discussed the technology. Rather, each presentation had included carefully nuanced points about what a direct brain/body communication interface might mean for privacy, patients’ rights, interpersonal relationships, the limits of government intervention and other matters.

And yet, suddenly, God was in the room. At a conference about science, we were treated to such phrases as “God, who created us all”, and similar sentiments. I have to admit that my very first thought was “What the hell?”

It could be argued that we scientists have no right to expect a safe place to discuss evidence based reasoning, that the special privilege of some particular religion or other is so paramount in our society that a dominant faith has free license to grandstand in the middle of any scientific discussion, trampling over the principles of logical inference and empirical evidence.

But does it go both ways? Do scientists have the right to force their way into the nearest church, perhaps in the middle of the most sacred and holy rites, and shove the priest aside in the name of science?

“Get out of the way,” I can envision them shouting, this gang of rogue empiricists with no respect for decorum, “we are here to conduct some experiments!”

As these scientists, having taken the church by force, rudely sweep the holy wine and bread of Christ onto the floor to set up their beakers and test tubes upon the sacred altar of God, could the stunned priest really be faulted for wondering “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.”

3 Responses to “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea”

  1. Michael W says:

    Well it seems to me that if you set up beakers and test tubes on the altar, that one might have the Church of Science … or was that Scientology, or the church of Christ, Scientist. There is nothing to be done, you live in a certain period. Personally I would like to believe in God, without it things are quite, well, random.

  2. Michael W says:

    Dear Ken,

    I reread your post and I realize that I had misunderstood something. It seems as though your religion advocate had been invited to speak at the Panel. That takes the onus, if there is any, off of the person who spoke about God and onto the panel organizers. It is they who are at fault, if anyone is, for having this person speak. Its as if the church where you want to set up your test tubes had invited you to give a chemistry demonstration at lunchtime. I had first read this as if the advocate of religion had just gotten up and spoken out of the blue. Personally, I think Science is a religion, just one with an excellent track record of producing miracles, but that is just me. In this case, I suspect the organizers of the Panel thought they were preempting criticism by deliberately inviting one of the “enemy” inside to discuss their point of view. Totally guessing here.

    MW

  3. admin says:

    I completely agree. I’m not blaming him at all, but rather the panel organizers, who created what I think was an inappropriate situation.

    Which is why I did not criticize the speaker during the panel — the situation was not his fault. But I did raise the issue at an organizing committee afterward.

    If anything the panel organizers were creating a greater opportunity for criticism. Once you open that door, why were there no spokespeople for the Hindus on the panel, or Jews, or Muslims, or Jains, or Buddhists? The list could go on.

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