Conservatives Love Science More!

So I've been thinking a lot about the charge that conservatives are bad because they hate science.  But it's just not true.  Here's a beginning of my explanation why.


We conservatives say that the middle-class college or university of the libertarians doesn’t respect science for what it is.  In some immediate or obvious sense, there’s no one less productive than the theoretical physicist or mathematician, no one who cares about money less, no one who has less respect for the descriptive pretensions of the libertarian economist. We conservatives, no strangers to popular culture, love and respect the incisively witty portrayal of Sheldon Cooper on TV's The Big Bang Theory.  The caricature Sheldon highlights in neon letters something true and good about being human.

For the young, natural-scientist Socrates (not to mention the more mature conversational Socrates), the economist is nothing but a sophist.  Sophists know some useful stuff, and so they often deserve the money they command.  But they know a lot less than they think they do, which is why their theory of education reduces each of us to less than who we really are.  The biggest threat to higher education in America today is the sophist—the expert.

But we conservatives also think physicists know a lot less than they think they do.  As Walker Percy observes, the physicist might well understand everything but himself.  His mind might well be at home in the cosmos, but the trouble is he's more than a mind.

Sheldon is also more than a body or some combination of mind and body.  The real mind-body problem is that the persons for whom it is a problem are neither minds mor bodies.

So Sheldon Cooper mistakenly understands himself as a mind trapped in an alien body.  As long as he can't get over thinking and feeling that way, he'll think he was made to love string theory and not his girlfriend Amy, quite "the piece of work," a unique and irreplaceable person.

Physicists these days often become “new atheists” because they can find no room for persons—including a personal God—in the cosmos they can impersonally or deterministically comprehend. But that's because they've made the mistake of forgetting to wonder whether there's even room for themselves.

As Tocqueville says, there’s nothing more strange and wonderful and genuinely mysterious than the being who truthfully understands himself to be caught for a moment between two abysses.  More wonderful than what the physicist can know through his science is the physicist—the real person—himself.  We wonder not because we’re minds, but because we’re whole persons.  Our eros and willfulness, our fears and our anxieties and our singular pride, animate our minds.  As our philosopher-pope Benedict reminded us, logos is personal, as far as we know it can only be found in persons.

The young natural-scientist Socrates, many physicists have forgotten, changed his “method” because he saw there was truth in the poetic criticism of his self-forgetfulness.  His new method was the dialectical or conversational inquiry into who we are as beings in particular places facing predicaments unknown to the other animals or, of course, the stars.  Once he changed the focus of the wonder, he knew that he no longer could claim to know enough to live in atheistic certainty.  He even knew that he didn’t know enough to develop a comprehensive theory of education that corresponding to the whole truth about who each of us is.

So for us conservatives liberal education or the highest part of education is the search for who we are as more than technological or deterministic beings.  We begin with the thought that a determined being couldn’t be a technological one.  The determined beings—the other animals who live by instinct alone and so are perfectly content with the lives they’ve been given by nature—don’t use their freedom to change—to impose their (free?) wills on—nature.

We add that we can’t pretend to be indifferent to and be ignorant—or at least wholly ignorant—about what our freedom is for.  We know we’re not only free but relational and truthful beings, and we can’t live either authentically or happily in “relativistic” denial of what we can’t help but know.

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Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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