Genetic Technologies: Can We Do Responsibly Everything We Can Do Technically?

By Smith, Harmon L. | National Forum, Winter 1992 | Go to article overview

Genetic Technologies: Can We Do Responsibly Everything We Can Do Technically?


Smith, Harmon L., National Forum


Every human enterprise construes the world in a particular way, and that is a truism that applies to both scientific and humanistic projects. So when Francis Bacon (1561-1626) described the rudiments of modem scientific experimental method in the early seventeenth century, he challenged medieval scholasticism by claiming that what we need is not so much a general cosmological theory but detailed. and empirical investigation of the phenomenal world. Imposing philosophical constructs and theological dogmas on the natural world, he said, is a method both bankrupt and false.

Bacon proposed a five-step procedure that, greatly simplified, requires that we (1) clear the mind of all presuppositions; (2) gather data; (3) carefully tabulate all possible knowledge of facts, including opposing and contradictory facts; (4) catalogue; and (5) generalize. Bacon's great contribution to modem scientific method lies in his insistence upon induction, experiment, and the empirical study of data.

Underlying his method is its purpose, or what I have called his construal of the world in a particular way. For Francis Bacon, philosophy has a definite and practical function, and that is to serve for the benefit and relief of the society and state of human beings. It means to do this by a "restitution and reinvesting of man to ... sovereignty and power, in that wheresoever he shall be able to call the creatures by their true name, he shall again command them which he had in his first state of creation" (Interpretation of Nature).

Bacon's project was to accomplish this "restitution of sovereignty and power" by means of detailed and empirical investigation of the phenomenal world-a method that yields knowledge, and therefore power, in order to control. For Bacon and his heirs, the process is straightforward: in the measure to which we understand nature, we master it; and in the measure to which we master nature, we are liberated from fate and control our destiny.

What Bacon failed to appreciate is that our mastery of nature is not identical, nor probably even commensurate, with our mastery of ourselves; and therein lies a central issue for human manipulations of molecular biology: can we do responsibly everything that we can do technically?

What I have claimed for Francis Bacon is no less true for others of us. Every ethics and moral system also construes the world in a particular way. So, for example, if I self-consciously understand myself to be a Christian, or a Jew, or a positivist, or a utilitarian, a paradigm shift-a conversion from one way of seeing the world to another occurs: that particular self-understanding now construes the worlds of biomedical technology and genetic intervention in ways that are congruent with the account I give of who I am.

Let me try to illustrate: Part of what it means for Christians to look at the natural world is that we "see" the water of Baptism and "taste" the bread and wine of Eucharist as other than only, or merely, natural physical phenomena. These are physical phenomena, to be sure; but the Church has appropriated these very material things to be bearers of a special grace. They are hierophanies or epiphanies.

So while the water of Baptism is surely H20, Christians also see it as a gift from God: "In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit." Water, for Christians, is a natural phenomenon whose meaning and purpose and value are shaped by the beliefs and symbols of Christian faith. A similar reappropriation occurs with the bread and wine of Eucharist: "Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him" (The Book of Common Prayer).

Unlike Bacon's project, to talk this way suggests boundaries to human power and borders for the exercise of human sovereignty over natural phenomena. …

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Genetic Technologies: Can We Do Responsibly Everything We Can Do Technically?
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