NB: In the following post I critique the workshop guidelines, for which I was partially directly responsible. I think at the time none of us realized how our new procedures would work in practice! ***
The attempt to keep us on all topic during the workshop was welcomed. The announcement of a topic would ordinarily be sufficient to justify the welcome, but there were contributions that seemed to be off-topic, and in response comments that suggested the apparently off-topic interventions were inappropriate. As a contributor of one or two of these off-topic contributions, I will offer two reasons why they were necessary in spite of the topic. There is a historical reason they are necessary and a formal reason. Moreover, such explanations were explicitly sanctioned by the instructions.
Historically the workshop has picked its topics without too much regard to past topics, except to avoid topics we have already covered. There would seem to be no principles for picking topics, other than that they be “bioethical” in the sense meant in the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights.
Given the extraordinary philosophical distance between the Eastern traditions and the religions (Christianity and Islam), in theory and practice, there is an equally compelling need to address the grounds for communication between the two before comparing approaches to the posed ethical subjects. How can we speak of convergence unless we have established an agreed on means to communicate between the two? I will illustrate some of the issues in other responses [blog posts] to the workshop, but for now will refer you to work I did on this in response to the Hong Kong workshop here, here and here.
Rawls and many others after him have proposed procedural means for defining a common space in which agreement can be reached, but there are 2 problems with procedural approaches: they imply a base level of commonality, at least enough to identify the problem; and the stated goal of the workshop is to reach substantive convergence. I argue in my earlier analysis that there are virtually no substantive grounds unless the religions bracket their dependence on a strict, legalistic, unidirectional, unidimensional Augustinian theory of history. That theory of history supports scientific, positivist, materialist, physicalist universalism, as opposed to the looser and holistic universalism of Aristotle (kathalou). My approach is intended to speak to the religions because they both depend on this Augustinian world-view, and they both justify their jurisdictional approaches on it. Moreover, Augustinian history and its universalist consequences lead to a much narrower vision of reality, and that narrowness excludes so much it does not make sense to shoehorn the larger and more flexible visions of reality found in the East into the narrow confines of the religious west. We can see the extremely negative consequences of this in colonialism and all of its conceptual apparatus.
The notion that these kinds of arguments are best worked out in religious theory, sociology or anthropology conferences does not comprehend the broad scope of the workshop, nor the interdisciplinary nature of ethics in general. This is understandable, as one of the unexplored issues with the workshop is the difference between ethics and religion. Participants are to approach the ethical topic from within religious traditions. Well, the notion there are religions is seriously undertheorized for us at this point, and then the follow-on notion that religious perspectives on scientific acts are ethics and not theology is also undertheorized. Are we supposed to be doing ethics or theology? And these are only problems in the western traditions, since there are no religions in the east, and no distinction between ethics and religion. In other words, our conceptual remit is inherently very broad and interdisciplinary, and not very well articulated as a practical matter.Unsanctioned, as it were, attempts to address some of these lacunae must be tolerated and digested as part of the ongoing project.
Here are what the instructions for the participants said:
Recognized thought leaders from diverse religions and cultures will be invited to
analyze, write a paper and discuss about these bioethical questions and their
- using their religious and/or cultural authoritative texts and belief sources;
2. organized around the workshop´s featured key questions
3. within the global bioethics paradigm of human rights and duties, articulated by
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the UNESCO
Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (2005).
4. engaging questions concerning potential bridge concepts as well as
‘problematic’ dissimilarities with suggestions on how they might be managed to
keep the conversation focused with the aim of fostering convergence and
KEY QUESTIONS TO BE ADDRESSED BY THE PAPERS
- How does my cultural tradition take into account genetics and epigenetics?
What is the understanding of neuroscientific developments?
2. Can genetic and brain interventions, drugs, and devices beyond therapeutic
use be applied that might alter a patient’s personality, identity, and/or
3. Are genes and the brain taken into account in order to explain human nature
and behavior better? Why or why not?
4. What is the relationship between DNA, brain, mind, and soul?
5. How can genetic and neuroscientific research and their clinical applications be
cultivated to benefit developing countries?
The instructions and questions confuse, under-specify and over-specify the topic.
The questions are supposed to be “bioethical” questions. What if the tradition does not have a bioethics? What if the very concept is necessarily contested if the historical tradition is to be accounted for substantively?
Both the notions of religion and culture are western notions, and both are used in a scientific way (i.e., 19th century social sciences way). This is emphasized by the requirement that “anthropological” implications be taken into account.
The words “anthropological” and “science” have quite different connotations for English and non-English speakers, especially Europeans, for whom the two words have meanings more associated with their etymological origins, whereas English speakers hear social science (anthropology) and positivist science concepts. If we are to move towards convergence, we must be sensitized to these kinds of linguistic issues.
Reference to “religious and/or cultural authoritative texts and belief sources” is entirely framed in western concepts. The eastern participant could just ignore the confusing prompt and look beneath the literal meaning, and that would be generally appreciated but in so doing that participant continues the western reification of the project. That reification is exactly what the project hopes to overcome in its broadest goals though, so “going along to get along” does not enable the more substantive dialogue being called for.
The references to entities such as genes, brain, epigenetics, mind, body, drugs, devices, DNA, human nature, behavior, personality, identity, soul, clinic, and developing countries put the topic(s) into outer space, but mostly a western outer space. Anyone who has studied the sociology and anthropology of science is well aware of the socially constructed meaning of these terms, or at the very least that these terms are contested sites in and of themselves. On top of that, the distinction between technology and science has to be recognized. One of the things that happens in the global south and east is the adoption of technology with a simultaneous rejection of the science. In other words, science is recognized as the philosophy with which the understanding or meaning of the technology is framed.
We solved some of this problem at the end of the workshop by deciding to make a few scientific articles available prior to the workshop so everyone can be on the same page about the actual technology/science.
The references to specific physicalist entities such as genes and the brain overspecify because they are too narrow, and overspecify because they are too broad. The philosophical meaning of the gene remains undefined. The reference will be read by most as a reference to a physical fact and nothing more. Yet others will read the reference as to a profound philosophical discourse between materialist/physicalist philosophies of life and more open textured, non-physicalist philosophies. Reference to the gene without a corresponding explanation of its relevance is an under-specification because the facticity of the gene overwhelms its philosophical dimension. Without context it is too specific. Reference to “mind and soul” over-specify because these terms are intended to refer to all possible non-physicalist, or potentially non-physicalist philosophical entities. These are English or western terms that have virtually little or no meaning in eastern philosophical traditions, most of which are so much more sophisticated than western Enlightenment “psychologies” or philosophies of the person, which is what the references are to, as to make them seem barbaric. The real western or religious bodies of thought that should be compared, once foundations for such comparison are established, are the theologies (or perhaps systematic philosophies such as Hegelianism). Consciousness, which is an English term not used for some reason, would have gone much further to enable a question for both east and west, as there are eastern cognates for consciousness, imo. “Mind and soul” are not robust enough, they are used as comprehensive terms but they do not reference enough conceptual territory to make them useful in an undertaking that seeks to bridge east and west.
The foregoing are reasons enough an eastern participant might feel compelled to address fundamental issues, rather than the specific questions. Moreover, there is explicit remit to address foundational questions in Paper Guidelines #4, which permits exploration of potential bridge concepts and their problematics with an eye to reaching some kind of common understanding. The first part of doing that certainly consists of identifying the differences and offering reasons and explanations for them.