- This is the second half of TSSM’s interview with Megan Levis. We talked at greater length about this graduate student’s research and its good fit with values-informed thought, with the Society of Catholic Scientists, and even literature. The Society held its third annual conference at the University of Notre Dame a few months ago.
- In Megan’s presentation to the scientists at the SCS annual conference, she posed the question: How do you distinguish and exercise ethical responsibilities when something like brain organoids are “made in the image and likeness of man rather than the image and likeness of God.” Organoids are multicellular systems built from brain tissue. Are they just cell cultures or something so akin to the human being—particularly when they are brain organoids—that ethical duties arise out of respect for human dignity? This is a relatively new field where the scientific understanding and moral consideration still must develop in tandem, she explained. A New York Times article touched on some of the questions being raised.
- Megan’s own main research project as part of her graduate studies at Notre Dame deals with microfluidics. They are devices, a kind of miniature bio-reactor, in which researchers can grow cells and small organs. Her goal is to make it easier and less expensive to make microfluidics that can be used in future research. Here are resources on microfluidics from the journal Nature.
- Her collaborations in this area came about from her meeting with a leader in microfluidics technology, Dr. Fernando Ontiveros, while they were both attending a previous SCS conference. His team is exploring new applications for microfluidics, such as the growing of organoids.
- At what point should moral concerns tied to the dignity of the human person “kick in” when dealing with the brain and brain organoids? Where do you as a person reside in the body? The existence of a capacity for rational thought is a conventional scientific benchmark for the existence of personhood, Megan said. There are many theories of the complex brain-mind-body connection with personhood. The human person is a complex creature, not reducible to the brain or body alone. Here’s an exploration of some insights from National Geographic.
- There is a real role for literature in helping us to explore the many questions that combine operational questions of engineering and more abstract, integrated thinking about persons, Megan says. She recommends renowned author Walker Percy, who explored such subjects in Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. He comments that being a human is inevitably an uncomfortable process involving tensions within our nature. Our culture tends to look to science for answers to the big questions of human nature, but literature and art are pathways to answers too; literature allows us to think without predispositions and suppositions, to discover truths about ourselves and the world that transcend scientifically measurable parts. As Megan put it, the ability to wonder about the world is a gift that is transmitted sometimes through engineering and sometimes through literature and art.
- Megan has been able to work with Ontiveros while he has done research and prepared journal articles at Notre Dame. With the support of mentors and advisors, she has embraced opportunities at Notre Dame and elsewhere to spend time thinking about faith and science in relationship. She attended a conference with like-minded graduate students interested in these connections. She has appreciated the insights of SCS president Stephen Barr and microbiologist Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP, a speaker at this year’s SCS conference. Barr is the author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith. Austriaco has recorded a podcast available through the Thomistic Institute titled The Science and Practice of Christian Prayer.
- What does Megan recommend for graduate students and others who want to advance in their bioengineering studies while staying informed and mindful about the faith-related aspects? She highlights the power of community, building friendships and conversations over time with a diverse range of people on similar journeys, including philosophy and science. One can attend relevant lectures and conferences, such as those sponsored by Notre Dame’s De Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture. She recommends the resources of the Collegium Institute. Building and updating such mindfulness is a long-term process requiring persistence, she adds.
- Megan Levis is a fifth-year graduate student in bioengineering at the University of Notre Dame. The topic of her talk at the annual conference of the Society of Catholic Scientists was “Created in the Image and Likeness of Man.” She described the University’s bioengineering program.
- Growing what can be deemed the beginnings of a human brain, for purposes of research, invites important ethical considerations. Levis has found resources at and through Notre Dame for deeper study of the responsibilities entailed in such research. She has worked with the John J. Reilly Center on science, technology and values. She has also been part of the Leadership Advancing Socially Engaged Research (LASER) program within the Graduate School.
- Levis participated in an NSFsupported workshop on engineering design principles of multicellular living systems. Such workshops reflect a growing nationwide interest in the ethical and societal ramifications of rapidly developing technology related to systems of living things. The interest is prompting collaboration among philosophers, scientists, ethicists and engineers.
- It’s a false dichotomy to separate faith and engineering. Levis said her advisor [Jeremiah Zartman] has been supportive of integrating values-related concerns, and that integration has made her research better. Now that there is an increased focus in bioengineering on the transfer, or translation, of knowledge from the lab bench to hospitals and clinical practice, the assessment of ethical implications is even more important.
- Organoids are systems built from human cells that begin to look like an organ. In this new field, it’s important to create room for philosophical understanding, but right now the field is dominated by engineers and scientists largely using terms that sound like clunky jargon. Philosophy tells us we need to define our terms better, Levis said. We need better ways to describe what’s going on in accessible ways that allow for ethical thinking. Engineers tend to look at every component in its specifics, but there is value in seeing how one thing is similar to something else so both may come under similar ethical principles.
- Sonsoles de Lacalle, a physician and neuroscientist, has recently taken the position of professor and Chair, Health Science, at California State University Channel Islands. She previously served as associate professor of biomedical sciences at Ohio University and Director of the Office of Advanced Studies in Ohio University’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine.
- Dr. De Lacalle, a member of the Society of Catholic Scientists, holds both an MD and a PhD from the University of Navarre in Spain.
- Her research focuses on the field of aging and dementia and the effects of estrogen on brain cells. She sees her pursuit of positions in research and administrative support of research advancement as an extension of her Catholic faith. She sees herself as a “builder” of support systems bearing fruits of well-being for all through the advancement of important research.
- De Lacalle cites the Opus Dei message of building one’s relationship with the Lord and extending Christian values and virtues through one’s everyday professional work.
- She said there are signs in the world’s current culture of a strong, concerted attack against the idea of God and against the idea that we are the mere creatures of a supernatural Creator. Amid the challenges facing believers today, we can draw hope from confidence in the truth and victorious love of the Kingdom of God—we know how the story ends. Through her connection to the study of osteopathic medicine at Ohio State, she saw the value of that field’s commitment to care for the entire person and to respect each person’s inherent dignity.
- Another positive sign she has seen is a trend which may be beginning with New York University’s plan to offer free tuition to its students preparing to be doctors. It is hoped that leaving graduates unencumbered by debts could make them better able to enter certain fields of care where additional medical personnel are especially needed but remuneration is relatively low.
- Among the current research in which de Lacalle wants to spread the word about crucial impacts for human well-being is the study of human physical activity and exercise—their high correlation with brain health through the production of lactic acid, which supports the brain’s executive functions in neurons.
The conversation involving Dr. Condic, Dr. Giesting and Schmitt turned to the complexities of the nation’s debate about abortion. That debate engages a mix of biological facts (which may or may not be probed in the full context of updated knowledge), personal experiences, and deeply held principles, positions, and emotions including authentic sympathy for the circumstances in which pregnant women find themselves. Although providing scientific insights is a crucial advancement of the debate because people deserve to have comprehensive information, the laying out of certain biological facts alone will not necessarily change minds, Condic said.
In many cases, much of the public presentation of the abortion controversy dividing people is manufactured, but there is room for honest discussion on particular grounds. We each can play a part in adding to human understandings in this controversy. People evolve their judgments on the wide scope of the debate incrementally over time.
But the search for a full overview is complicated; indeed, Dr. Condic referred to difficulties she and her brother Samuel Condic encountered (different vocabularies, etc.) in compiling their book Human Embryos, Human Beings. The book aims to bring together philosophical and biological insights about human life at its beginning. In short, the abortion debate requires us to spend more time in listening to each other, asking questions, probing the basis of people’s stances, and less time in simply lecturing, she said.
Paul talked about his experience with identical twins in his family. Twinning is a complex arena for understanding “who you are,” raising core questions with biological and philosophical implications. Our discussion around the microphone extended to research on the topics of compaction and chimeras. Condic has written a book that delves into the complexities. Untangling Twinning is scheduled for publication this summer.
There are also biological phenomena complicating an understanding of our human nature in sexual terms. There can be complex factors differentiating between one’s genetic sex and one’s hormonal sex, Condic said. A very small segment of the population has genetically compound sexual identities. Intersex disorders can occur in a variety of ways, although in the vast majority of cases questions of a person’s gender identity are not grounded in physical causes, Condic said. Studies in some areas raise questions within the LGBTQ community itself. Among many, endeavors focusing on a “gay gene” that would undergird a statement that “I was born this way” have been diminished by a view that gender identity is fluid or is driven by non-genetic factors.
- University of Utah’s information page for Dr. Maureen Condic. She is an Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy, with an adjunct appointment in Pediatrics. Her research focuses on the role of stem cells in development and regeneration. She has taught human embryology in the University’s Medical School for 20 years.
- See Dr. Condic’s biographical summary in the list of speakers at the Society of Catholic Scientists 2019 conference titled, “What Does It Mean to Be Human?” At the conference, this embryologist and specialist in developmental neurobiology delivered the St. Albert Award Lecture: “Human Beings are Defined by Organization.”
- Dr. Condic is the 2019 recipient of the St. Albert Award, named for Saint Albert the Great, the Catholic Church’s patron saint of natural scientists. The award is given annually to a Catholic scientist whose life and work give witness to the harmony that exists between the vocation of scientist and the life of faith. See more details about the award, including its previous recipients.
- Dr. Condic’s previous awards include the Basil O’Connor Starter Scholar Research Award, created in 1973 and presented by the March of Dimes to support a young scientist’s promising new research. The March of Dimes was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, initially to fight polio. Today, the foundation focuses on health problems in babies, especially premature birth, birth defects, and low birth weight. Find context for the program of research support here.
- Dr. Condic also has been the recipient of a Scholar Award for research from the McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience.
- In 2018, she was appointed to the National Science Board. The NSB establishes the policies of the National Science Foundation and serves as advisor to Congress and the President.
- She is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, which is dedicated to promoting the Catholic Church’s consistent life ethic and supporting research in bioethics and moral theology.
- When confronted with alternative views and occasionally accused of being “brainwashed” with a pro-life stance, Dr. Condic says one must ask, what view actually makes more sense of the world? A quote from the episode: “What vision of the world actually accounts for most of the data? In my experience, it’s a Christian vision of the world, and particularly a Catholic vision of the world, that very much endorses precisely the kind of questioning mind that promotes scientific investigation….”
- Another key thought from the episode: The information generated in scientific disciplines is so huge, it forces many scientists to make their own fields of specialized inquiry “narrower and narrower.” Also, “they have no time” to give deep consideration to many big questions about life, the world, and the origin of the universe. “Particularly in biology, there’s such an intoxication with success.” Individuals who are indeed brilliant and making remarkable progress for people may become confident that they can answer all the important questions.
- Starting at about the 22-minute mark in this episode, Dr. Condic tells the story of an event that changed her life and produced her commitment to public advocacy and public education.“ She saw a need to combat ignorance or oversimplification about scientific advancements and to be “an advocate for patients and knowledge and factual information.”
- Dr. Condic also provides a valuable, clear update on parts of the debate about disease treatments using embryonic stem cells as opposed to adult stem cells, with research on the latter having resulted in a huge number of clinical trials and prospects for various treatments. A major new phase of the research has moved on to the use of induced pluripotent stem cells, which do not raise the same ethical issues as embryonic cells.
- In presenting the St. Albert Award during the Society of Catholic Scientists conference, president Stephen Barr, Ph.D., pointed out Dr. Condic’s “courageous public defense, on scientific and philosophical grounds, on the human status of human embryos.”
Bill and Paul discuss the upcoming SCS conference at Notre Dame, June 7-9, on “What Does It Mean To Be Human?”
Themes we discussed:
The question of human origins:
from the natural theology perspective… when did consciousness, qualia, free will appear?
From the perspective of Judeo-Christian revelation… how do the origin stories in Genesis compare to contemporary archeology and anthropology?
The question of evolution and its significance in a universe with divine providence.
The question of human modification through bio- and electronic technology.
Today we continue our conversation with Stephen Barr about this year’s Society of Catholic Scientists conference, which will feature great speakers discussing the nature of humanity and its bounds in terms of time and technology. You can see a full list of speakers here and the program for the conference here.
This ended up being an emergency episode Paul recorded solo, since Zencastr ate all but a few minutes at the beginning of each recording. There seem to be serious problems with Zencastr since Paul’s MacBook died and he had to resurrect his Windows laptop.
The Big Bang; cosmology seems to require a beginning, uncaused cause
Problems of mind; intellect / qualia, possibility of free will.
There is no materialist explanation of human intellect, only assertions of dogma and crude shufflings of the feet.
Ongoing occurrence of miracles, Lourdes medical board, Fatima, Shroud of Turin; Bob Schuchts
There are far too many miracles and supernatural phenomena that defy materialist explanation: Eucharistic miracles, healings at Lourdes and elsewhere, Fatima, demonic possession…
The testimony of the first Christian disciples requires absolutely crazy explanations that themselves defy our best science even if we reject the idea that Jesus rose from the dead.
The continuing existence and expansion of the Church in the face of persecution is likewise historically unparalleled, save only for the continued existence of Judaism.
Second of all, it provides perspective and healing for human problems that nothing else does.
John Warner Wallace from Breakpoint podcast; LAPD homicide officer
What has God done in my life... we GET to that, we don't start there like Mormons
Christianity provides a shockingly direct answer to the question of evil: the transcendent, all-good God is Himself willing to experience it.
The Christian faith continues to spread in Africa and Asia in the face of continued persecution, whether of the violent or of the brainwashing variety. Why is that?
The attempts of Western society to escape Christianity have made us amazingly miserable amid all our material possessions and security. Why do we so halfheartedly turn away from these distractions?
The most characteristic failing of our age, I would argue, is addiction, and addiction has evoked a powerful response in the form of the Twelve Steps. Although these Steps are deliberately offered to everyone with no attempt made to proselytize them to any specific religion—indeed many recovering addicts refuse to identify themselves as religious—nevertheless, the principles of the Steps are completely and suspiciously consistent with Catholic Christianity.
The Catholic intellectual tradition has a tremendously formidable intellectual structure, the most robust philosophical realism, an enormous storehouse of moral philosophy and psychological insight, and a wealth of stories of human drama in the lives of both saints and sinners.
Why do we slave along as intellectual second or third-class citizens in the modern world? I was just looking at the want ads of literary agents and realized that they are all blithely “progressive” members of the stumbling, bumbling cultural vanguard. Our culture is shaped by stories forged out of this nihilistic experience of forgetting an entire civilization’s worth of wisdom.
We are looking to help out at the Society of Catholic Scientists Conference this year, and are in talks about how we can do that. We’re really excited about working to create a greater sense of community among Catholic scientists!
0:00 - Introduction
1:00 - The power of physicalism/reductionism: a tremendously powerful method
2:00 - Course on physicalism and Catholicism; Sean Carroll's least hysterical "poetic naturalism"
3:00 - The lack of evidence for "emergence" in the sense of "downward causation"
3:30 - Soft and hard emergence
10:15 - Materialism vs. physicalism and reductionism: philosophical materialism
13:00 - Are human beings exhausted by this account of reality?
14:00 - The break with the mechanical universe of 19th century physics underappreciated
15:00 - Laplace's demon
16:30 - Thermodynamics
17:30 - Future not contained in the present
19:00 - Einstein & hidden variables
20:00 - Bell inequality experiments
24:00 - Entanglement
26:00 - Human experience: both, as physical, but also as having choices
27:00 - Quantum physics on many body systems
28:00 - The hard problem of consciousness
29:00 - The explanatory gap
31:00 - The tendency to explain the brain as "just like" some recent piece of technology
33:00 - Complexity of neurons, the continuing relevance of physical laws amid the complexity
35:00 - Continuing relevance of quantum effects at the level of neurotransmitter molecules, etc.
36:00 - Quantum effects in weather and rock mechanics
0:00 - Science is materialist by method, but scientists need not and should not be materialist by philosophy
2:00 - The world must be real and intelligible for science to make sense
3:00 - And faith provides a philosophical basis that allows this to happen
3:30 - Students' testimony on faith and science
4:30 - Removing the faith/science obstacle is only one step on the road toward faith
5:00 - God vs. Godzilla
6:00 - The true God and His use of secondary causes
11:00 - Creation as carmen Dei (song of God; Bonaventure)
12:00 - vs. strepitus naturae
15:00 - Thought and spirit vs. matter
[This harks back to, e.g., the Ed Feser talk at the SCS conference. I personally think there is an enormous gap--bridgeable, but still to be bridged--between these arguments that the ability of the mind to generate and handle abstract concepts implies a non-material component to thought on the one hand, and the work of modern neuroscience to track the activity of neurons around the brain in specific patterns as we think.]
17:00 - Philosophical gaps in the picture of existence without God
18:00 - Infinite regress of causes, temporal/efficient causes and extra-temporal
19:00 - Postmoderns in general have a depressing view: a para-Christian morality without God; doctrinaire atheists live in an even more depressing paradigm of complete lack of meaning
21:00 - Basil & Pope Francis on creation
22:00 - Basil on the interpretation of the six days and other aspects of creation
23:00 - Guides on the tour of creation
25:00 - Symbolic language (numbers) in Scripture
27:00 - Scriptural mandate to tend creation
29:00 - Historic ginning up of the conflict between science and faith