Comfortably Numb p.66

Steven Rose, a British neurobiologist, says, “The power of molecular talk [in biology, neuroscience, and psychiatry] is very seductive because it seems somehow much closer to the hard sciences.” Rose goes on to point that physics is always the measuring stick. In the development of western science, physics, and chemistry came first, and thereby framed what we believe a science should be. Biology came late and aspired to fit these earlier paradigms. This is all well and good, but the difficulty lies in the fact that biology is inherently messy-and neurobiology messier still. The completion of the Human Genome Project in 2001, also, by association, has served to bolster psychiatry’s newfound scientific image. That a rough draft of the human genetic makeup has been developed contributes to a popular belief that psychiatric disorders proceed in neat Mendelian inheritable patterns. But if anything has been gleaned from the last two decades of work in the genetics of psychiatric disorders, it is that it is a terribly complex business. No single gene for psychiatric disorders have been found and likely will never be found. Psychiatric disorders are almost certainly the dialectical product of an infinitely complex dialogue between genes and the environment.


Charles Barber – Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry Is Medicating a Nation p.66

Leading a Worthy Life p.319

By design, the objectified world is abstract, purely quantitative, homogeneous, and indifferent to the question of being or science. Objectified knowledge is ghostly: “things” are “known” only externally and relationally. Moreover, unlike the signifiers of ordinary speech that are its general nouns, the symbolic representations used to handle the objectified world bear absolutely no relation to the things represented: a wavelength or a mathematical equation neither resembles nor points to color.

No one gets very excited about the objectification of color, but we become suspicious when science tries to objectify the viewing of color or, worse, the viewer.  And now we see why. By its very principle, “objective knowledge” will not be – because it cannot be – true to lived experience; for lived experience is always qualitative, concrete, heterogeneous, and suffused with the attention, interest, and engaged concern of the living soul. Real sight and seeing can never be captured by wavelengths, absorption spectra of retinal cells, or electrical discharges in the objectified brain. Likewise also the inwardness of life, including awareness, appetite, emotion, and the genuine and interested relations between one living being and others, both friend and foe; or the engaged, forward-pointed, outward-moving tendencies of living beings; or the uniqueness of each individual life as lived in living time, from birth to death; or the concern of each animal (conscious or not) for its own health, wholeness, and well-being – none of these essential aspects of nature alive fall within the cramped and distorting boundaries of nature objectified.


Leon R. Kass – Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times p.319

Leading a Worthy Life p.299

Nevertheless, despite its universality, its quest for certainty, its reliance on reason purified from all distortions of sensation and prejudice by the use of mathematical method, and the reproducibility of its findings, science does not – and cannot – provide us with absolute knowledge. The reasons are not only methodological but also substantive, and not merely substantive but also intrinsic and permanent.

The substantive limits of science follow from certain fundamental aspects of scientific knowledge and from science’s assumptions about what sorts of things are scientifically knowable. they stem from science’s own self-proclaimed conceptual limitations – limitations to which neither religious nor philosophical thought is subject. This is not because, since being rational, it is incapable of dealing with the passionate or subrational or spiritual or supernatural aspects of being. It is, on the contrary, because the rationality of science is but a partial and highly specialized rationality, concocted for the purpose of gaining only that kind of knowledge for which it was devised, and applied only to those aspects of the world that can be captured by such rationalized notions. The peculiar reason of science is not the natural reason of everyday life captured in ordinary speech, and it is also not the reason of philosophy or of religious thought, both of which are tied to the world as we experience it, even as they seek to take us beyond it.

Consider the following features of science and their contrast with the realm of ordinary experience. First, science at its peak seeks laws of nature, ideally expressed mathematically in the form of equations that describe precisely the relationships among changing measurable variables; science does not seek to know beings or their natures, but rather the regularities of the changes that they undergo. Second, science – especially in biology – seeks to know how things work and the mechanisms of action in their workings; it does not seek to know what things are, or why. Third, science can give the histories of things but not their directions, aspirations, or purposes; by self-definition, science is non-teleological, oblivious to the natural purposiveness of all living things. Fourth, science is wonderful at quantifying selected external relations of one object to another, or an earlier phase to a later one; but it can say nothing at all about inner states of being, either of human beings or of any living creature. Fifth, and strangest of all, modern science does not care much about causation; it can often predict what will happen if certain perturbations occur because it knows the regularities of change, but it eschews explanations in terms of causes, especially ultimate causes.

In short, we have a remarkable science of nature that has made enormous progress precisely by its metaphysical neutrality and its indifference to questions of being, cause, purpose, inwardness, hierarchy, and the goodness or badness of things, scientific knowledge included.

Let me illustrate these abstract generalizations with a few concrete examples. In cosmology, we have seen wonderful progress in characterizing the temporal beginnings of the universe as a “big bang” and elaborate calculations to describe what happened next. But from science we get complete silence regarding the status quo ante and the ultimate cause. Unlike a normally curious child, a cosmologist does not ask, “What was before the big bang?” or “Why is there something rather than nothing?” because the answer must be an exasperated “God only knows!”

In genetics, we have the complete DNA sequence of several organisms, including man, and we are rapidly learning what many of these genes “do.” But this analytic approach cannot tell us how the life of a cockroach differs from that of a chimpanzee, or even what accounts for the special unity and active wholeness of cockroaches or chimpanzees, or the purposive effort each living thing makes to preserve its own specific integrity.


Leon R. Kass – Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times p.299

Leading a Worthy Life p.243

The problem lies less with the scientific findings themselves than with the shallow philosophy that recognizes no other truths, and with the arrogant pronouncements of the bioprophets. Here, for example is the eminent psychologist Steven Pinker railing against any appeal to the human soul:

Unfortunately for that theory, brain science has shown that the mind is what the brain does. The supposedly immaterial soul can be bisected with a knife, altered by chemicals, turned on or off by electricity, and extinguished by a sharp blow or a lack of oxygen. Centuries ago it was unwise to ground morality on the dogma that the earth sat at the center of the universe. It is just as unwise today to ground it on dogmas about souls endowed by God.

One hardly knows whether to be more impressed with the height of Pinker’s arrogance or with the depth of his shallowness. Pinker is ignorant of the fact that “soul” need not be conceived as a “ghost in the machine” or as a separate “thing” that survives the body, but can be understood (a la Aristotle) to be the integrated powers of the naturally organic body. He has not pondered the relationship between “the brain” and the whole organism, or puzzled over the difference between “the brain” of the living and “the brain” of the dead. He seems unaware of the significance of emergent properties, powers, and activities that do not reside in the materials of the organism but merge only when the materials are formed and organized in a particular way; he does not understand that this empowering organization of materials – the vital form – is not itself material. But Pinker speaks with the authority of science, and few are both able and willing to dispute him on his own ground.

There is, of course, nothing novel about reductionism and materialism of the kind displayed here; these are doctrines with which Socrates contended long ago. What is new is that , as philosophies, they seem (to many people) to be vindicated by scientific advance. Here, in consequence, is perhaps the most pernicious result of our technological progress, more dehumanizing than any actual manipulation or technique, present or future: the erosion, perhaps the final erosion, of the idea of man as noble, dignified, precious, or godlike, and its replacement with a view of man, like nature, as mere raw material for manipulation and homogenization.


Leon R. Kass – Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times p.243

Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity p.116

Long ago there was a man of great intellect and great courage. He was a remarkable man, a giant, able to answer questions that no other human being could answer, willing boldly to face any challenge or problem. He was a confident man, a masterful man. He saved his city from disaster and ruled it as a father rules his children, revered by all. But something was wrong in his city. A plague had fallen on generation; infertility afflicted plants, animal and humans. The man promised to uncover the cause of the plague and cure the infertility. Resolutely, confidently, he put his sharp mind to work to solve the problem, to bring the dark things to light. No reticence, no secrets, a full public inquiry. He raged against the representatives of caution, moderation, prudence and piety, who urged him to curtail his inquiry; he accused them of trying to usurp his rightfully earned power, to replace human and masterful control with submissive reverence. The story ends in tragedy: He solves the problem, but in making visible and public the dark and intimate details of his origins, he ruins his life and that of his family. In the end, too late, he learns about the price of presumption, of overconfidence, of the overweening desire to master and control one’s fate. In symbolic rejection of his desire to look into everything, he punishes his eyes with self-inflicted blindness.

Sophocles seems to suggest that a man is always in principle – albeit unwittingly – a patricide, a regicide, and a practitioner of incest. These are the crimes of the tyrant, that misguided and vain seeker of self-sufficiency and full autonomy, who loathes being reminded of his dependence and neediness, who crushes all opposition to the assertion of his will, and whose incest is symbolic of his desire to be the godlike source of his own being. His character is his destiny.   

We men of modern science may have something to learn from our philosophical forebear Oedipus. It appears that Oedipus, being the kind of man an Oedipus is (the chorus calls him a paradigm of man), had no choice but to learn through suffering. Is it really true that we, too, have no other choice?


Leon R. Kass – Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics p.116

Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity p.44

Such knowledge of goals and such standards for judging better and worse are not easily had, and they certainly cannot be provided by science itself. In the scientific view of the world, there can be no knowledge, properly speaking, about the purpose or meaning of human life, about human flourishing, or even about ethics: opinions about good and bad, justice and injustice, virtue and vice have no cognitive status and are not subject to rational inquiry. These, as we are fond of saying, are values, merely subjective. As scientists, we can, of course, determine more or less accurately what it is different people believe to be good, but as scientists we are impotent to judge between them. Even political science, once the inquiry into how men ought to live communally, now studies only how they do live and the circumstances that move them to change their ways. Man’s political and moral life is studied not the way it is lived, but abstractly and amorally, like a mere physical phenomenon.

The sciences are not only methodologically indifferent to questions of better and worse. Not surprisingly they find their own indifference substantively reflected in the nature of things. Nature, as seen by our physicists, proceeds without purpose or direction, utterly silent on matters of better or worse, and without a hint of guidance regarding how we are to live. According to our biological science, nature is indifferent even as between health and disease; since both healthy and diseased processes obey equally and necessarily the same laws of physics and chemistry, biologists conclude that disease is just as natural as health. And concerning human longing, we are taught that everything humanly lovable is perishable, while all things truly eternal – like matter-energy or space – are utterly unlovable. The teachings of science, however gratifying as discoveries to the mind, throw icy waters on the human spirit.


Leon R. Kass – Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics p. 44