≡ Menu

Science and the human person

THOMAS BANCHOFF & ABDULAZIZ SACHEDINA

Rapid advances in science and technology are raising fundamental questions about human life, flourishing, suffering, and death. When does life begin and deserve protection? How is neuroscience reshaping our conceptions of what it means to be human? How should we live and die with dignity amid 21st century technologies? These and other questions at the intersection of science and the human person have a global character. They cut across national, cultural, and religious boundaries. But most efforts to address them have centered on particular communities, such as scientists and physicians, secular bioethicists, and religious experts drawn from the same tradition.

The Contending Modernities Science and the Human Person working group is advancing a global, interreligious and intercultural conversation about science, technology, and the human future. Through a three-year series of workshops, global conferences, research activities, publications, reports and online educational resources, the working group is convening experts in Catholicism and Islam along with representatives of other religious traditions and the secular scientific and bioethics communities.

The activities of the Science and the Human Person working group are organized through two connected projects: Engaging Tradition in the Context of Modernity and Informing Public Discourse.

Engaging tradition in the context of modernity

Catholicism and Islam are home to long traditions of philosophical, theological, and legal reflection on the nature and dignity of the human person and the value of scientific knowledge. The idea that men and women are of divine origin and therefore possess an inviolable dignity is a starting point for both traditions. The human person and the human body are divine gifts deserving of unconditional respect. In both the Catholic and Muslim world view, God endowed human beings with reason as a means to communicate with one another, to strive after truth, and to care for His creation. Science and technology are recognized as positive in principle but can also, like all human enterprises, serve evil ends.

On this common foundation, the trajectories of Catholicism and Islam have diverged over the past 1000 years. Through most of the Middle Ages, Islamic civilization was home to the most advanced scientific learning in the Hellenistic tradition. The level of Muslim theological, philosophical and legal reflection on science and its applications was approached by Catholic thinkers only by the late Middle Ages. The scientific revolution in Early Modern Europe, enabled by the break with Hellenism and the turn to experimental methods, coincided with a relative decline of Islamic sciences. The European Enlightenment and subsequent industrial revolutions and colonial expansion heightened the scientific divide between the West and the Muslim world.

While the Reformation and the onset of modernity undermined the cultural influence of Catholicism, the Church retained a tradition of moral philosophy that has served as a resource in responding to contemporary scientific and technological issues. Islamic religious-legal responses to those issues have remained confined within juridical thought and heritage carried on by important institutions in the Sunni and Shi’ite world.  The conversation between secular and religious bioethics remains underdeveloped because of the emphasis on derivation of binding judicial decisions (fatawa) to guide the field of biotechnology.  Epistemological deliberations to develop practical ethics founded upon rationally derived principles remains enigmatic in the culture dominated by the sanctity of Shari’a.

Over the past several decades, Islamic thinkers have begun to address bioethics in systematic fashion, both within the West and in Muslim-majority countries including Iran and Saudi Arabia. But that reflection remains insufficiently developed and has not kept up with scientific and technological advances. As Ebrahim Moosa has noted, “Debates about the next generation of biotechnological issues including molecular genetics, stem cells and regenerative medical technologies arrive at a time when Muslim ethicists are barely coming to grips with an earlier generation of issues such as organ transplants and brain death.” As Moosa puts it, “What remains elusive is a critical and informed discourse about the philosophical grounds that underpin a contemporary Muslim moral and ethical vision.”

Under the leadership of Professor Abdulaziz Sachedina (George Mason University), the Engaging Tradition project centers on the further development of moral reasoning in Islamic bioethics, extending and deepening efforts to develop an ethical discourse that moves beyond legal reasoning and seeks a common moral terrain with Catholicism and other religious and philosophical traditions. The goal, in Sachedina’s words, is to develop “a unique and yet universal spiritual and moral language that is needed to make a common cause of human concern the resolution of the universal problems ushered in by contemporary advancements in medicine and science as a whole.”

At issue is not only whether Islamic jurisprudence can be integrated more fully into modernity, but also whether other traditions, religious and secular, are sufficiently flexible, adaptive and plural, so as to make a place for Islamic ethicists, philosophers and scientists who seek to enter the conversation on their own terms but also in a spirit of collaboration and dialogue.

Informing public discourse

Contemporary scientific and technological challenges raise ethical questions about the human person that cut across national and cultural boundaries. Issues including the moral status of early human life, the significance and use of genetic information, and the use of cognitive enhancement and neuroimaging techniques have generated complex ethical and policy challenges. Some countries tend to adopt technological advances without much public debate. In others, controversy rages between scientists and their secular allies, on the one hand, and religious conservatives on the other. Indifference predominates in one case and polemics in the other.

The Informing Public Discourse project will foster public deliberation on science, ethics, and the human person through dialogue between Muslim and Catholic scholars, and with representatives of other religious traditions and secular perspectives. The goal of such dialogue is a more informed public debate but also the development of shared perspectives on the human person that can deepen public discourse and policy deliberation into the future, both nationally and internationally.

The Catholic Church is no stranger to such engagement. Since the late 19th century, popes and bishops have made public pronouncements on issues of biomedical ethics, including abortion, euthanasia, eugenics and, in the contemporary era, issues of artificial birth control and embryo and stem cell research. As in the case of Islam, however, the Catholic Church has been pressed to keep pace with scientific and technological advances. Even while Church leaders have sought to clarify Catholic teaching on emerging issues – including cloning research, the deciphering of the human genome, and life-extension technologies – Catholic thinkers are already engaged in lively debates about those issues and their implications for human dignity and the human person. Dialogue with Islamic scholars and with secular thinkers will help to orient the Church to new challenges posed by science and to both broaden and structure those debates.

Dialogue within and across religious traditions and with secular, research, and medical communities on science and the human person will not achieve consensus. But it will help to define disagreements, improve the level of public discourse, and advance educational goals. The starting point for Islam, Christianity, and Judaism – human life as created by God and human dignity as therefore universal – differs from non-Abrahamic perspectives, including the Buddhist, Hindu, and Confucian, which approach the human person, human body, and human dignity in other ways. The search for greater common ground between Islam, Catholicism and other traditions can help to join a more global ethical debate – an imperative in light of scientific and technological breakthroughs that touch humanity as a whole. Dialogue can also help define or even bridge differences with mainly secular scientific and bioethics communities, for whom human dignity and personhood are most often related to rationality and sentience rather than to any transcendent foundation.

Under the leadership of Professor Thomas Banchoff (Georgetown University), the Informing Public Discourse project promotes a deeper intercultural and interreligious conversation on science and the human person designed to improve the quality of public discourse and policy controversy too often marked by either indifference or polarization. The project builds on and advances the efforts of the Engaging Tradition project by bringing Islamic scholars into conversation with Catholic thinkers and representatives of other traditions, religious and secular, around critical public issues including the beginning of life and the implications of neuroscience. “Breakthroughs in science and technology pose difficult ethical questions for national and international society,” Banchoff notes. “Governance decisions will inevitably favor some conceptions of the human person over others. It is in everyone’s interest that those decisions be informed by the very best thinking our traditions have to offer.”

Thomas Banchoff is the Director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, and a Professor in the Government Department and the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His research centers on religious and ethical issues in world politics. Dr. Banchoff is the author of Embryo Politics: Ethics and Policy in Atlantic Democracies (Cornell University Press, 2011).

Abdulaziz Sachedina is the IIIT Chair in Islamic Studies at the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University. Dr. Sachedina has conducted research in the field of Islamic Law and Theology for more than two decades, including work on social and political ethics, and interfaith and intrafaith Relations. He is the author of Islamic Biomedical Ethics: Principles and Application (Oxford University Press, 2009).

{ 1 comment… add one }

  • kat January 29, 2013, 11:41 pm

    I disagree—there have been a lot of advance in the field of ethics with regard to biotech—for ex, stem cell research is allowed in Iran and this effects other discourse on biotech such as regenerative technologies.