Monthly Archives: April 2015


April 2015 Pulse

Without a doubt, some of the most important and exciting developments in biotechnology today are taking place in the new and vast field of neuroscience. The brain is seen as the organ that has the closest and most profound connections to the personhood of the individual – his character traits and behaviour. This has even led some philosophers and scientists to claim that the self is merely an epiphenomenon of the brain. Concepts like the ‘synaptic self’ and the ‘model self’ advanced by some neuroscientists and philosophers state that human subjectivity is nothing more than the product of the electromechanical and computational processes of the brain.

It is therefore not surprising that the most fascinating development within neuroscience is the technology that enables scientists to study changes in brain states. Neuroimaging in the form of computed tomography (CT), postrion emission tomography (PET), single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and functional computed tomography (fMRI) enables scientists to ‘read the brain’, it is sometimes claimed. According to scientists, the potential of this technology is staggering, as it will not only allow them to study neurological diseases but also predict behaviour.

Much of the knowledge that we currently possess about human consciousness is attained by the use of one or some combination of these technologies. Neuroimagining has also led scientists to change their theory about the immutability of severe injury, leading to exciting opportunities to address the challenges and needs of such patients. Brain imagining has also some applications in the court of law, although their reliability as evidence has been questioned in some countries. For example, in 2007, the British Home Secretary John Reid announced that convicted paedophiles must be subjected to MRI scanning to ascertain the risk of re-offense.

Legal philosopher Henk Greely therefore notes that neuroscience may ‘provide new ways to distinguishing truth from lies or real memories from false ones. This ability to predict behaviour with the help of neuroscience could have important consequences for the judicial system as well as for society as a whole’.

Although brain imaging offers exciting possibilities in brain studies, some scientists and theologians have cautioned against exaggerating what it is in fact able to accomplish. Some have rightly pointed out that neuroimaging raises so many important issues related to reliability and validity that scientists must not be too confident of the results. Others have also alerted the scientific community to the complex problem of interpreting the images obtained from MRI or fMRI.

Still others have raised the issue of causality. For example, studies have shown that there is a connection between lesions in the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain to impulsive and anti-social behaviour. But it is not clear whether the lesions caused the change in behaviour or it is the aberrant behaviour that caused the damage. And is it also not clear whether we should be even thinking in terms of causality or simply of correlation.

The warning that W. J. Winslade and J. W. Rockwell sounded must therefore be taken seriously: ‘Humans are forever prone to make premature and presumptuous claims of new knowledge … One may think that brain imagery will reveal mysteries of the human mind. But it may only help us gradually comprehend organic life, chemical and physiological features of the brain rather than provide the keys to unlock the secrets of human behaviour and motivation’.

Christians should encourage the development and application of brain imaging technology, especially in diagnostics. But Christians should at the same time be weary of the reductionism that is embraced by some neuroscientists, especially with regard to the relationship between the brain and human behaviour.

This reductionism is sometimes articulated by some of the most eminent scientists in the field. For example, in his now famous book, The Astonishing Hypothesis Francis Crick argues that ‘“You”, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules’.

This means, in the final analysis, that human freedom and responsibility are illusions. The freedom that we think we enjoy may itself simply be the product of our brain activity and how this most superior of organs is hard-wired. To think in this way is to submit to a form of determinism that would in the end absolve us from taking responsibility for our actions.

This issue is intensely discussed in the fascinating studies conducted by neuroscientists, philosophers and legal scholars on psychopathology. If one espouses the reductionism and determinism discussed above, psychopaths who commit murder cannot be said to be responsible for their crimes. Such a view would have profound implications to current laws.

Thankfully, many neuroscientists and bioethicists do not accept this naïve causal explanation of the relationship between brain states and human behaviour. Brain dysfunction alone, they argue, does not constitute sufficient reason to excuse people from taking responsibility for their actions. Other factors, like one’s social environment, also influence the way one behaves.

Psychopaths, writes Walter Glannon, ‘do not completely lack the capacity to control their impulses. Moreover, although they act without concern for the needs and interests of others, they have some understanding of what it means to harm someone and that other people can be harmed by their actions’.

An important significance attached to the Christian understanding that the human being is created in the image and likeness of God is that although humans are bodily beings they can never be simply reduced ontologically to their nervous or neurological systems. As bearers of the divine image, humans also have a spiritual aspect that enables them to relate to their Creator.

Genesis portrays the complex nature of the human being: ‘the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being’ (Gen 2:7). Although the human being was formed from the ‘dust of the ground’ human nature can never be understood in purely materialistic or physicalist terms. For it is only when the lump of clay received the breath of life from God that it became ‘a living being’.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Fabricating Life

April 2015 Pulse

According to an article in the May issue of The Scientist, an international team of researchers has successfully synthesised from scratch one of the sixteen chromosomes in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Despite altering one-sixth of its base pairs, the scientists found that the yeast cells from artificial chromosome SynIII were indistinguishable from the original version. Tom Ellis from Imperial College, London, who is one of the researchers, opined that this discovery is “a landmark in synthetic biology”.

Synthetic biology may be best described as the application of engineering principles to biology, with the view not only of redesigning an existing living system but also creating novel ones. “Synthetic biologists,” writes Markus Schmidt, the founder of Biofaction, “use artificial molecules to reproduce emergent behaviour from the natural biology, with the goal of creating artificial life or seeking interchangeable biological parts to assemble them into devices and systems that function in a manner not found in nature.”

The public face of synthetic biology is geneticist and entrepreneur Craig Venter, the founder of Synthetic Genomics, a private company whose mission is to engineer new forms of life. In 2010, scientists at the Craig Venter Institute created the world’s first synthetic life form at the cost of more than US$40 million in what has been described as “a defining moment in biology”.

Scientists maintain that the promise of synthetic biology is truly staggering.

In the field of biomedicine, scientists could develop complex molecular devices for tissue regeneration, smart drugs and personalised medicine. Scientists could also offer creative solutions to the world’s energy issues by manufacturing custom-made microbes for creating fuels and for performing artificial photosynthesis. Synthetic organisms could be used to detect and remove pollutants from the environment.

Theologians and ethicists have raised a number of grave concerns surrounding this new science.

One of the major concerns has to do with ‘bio-security’ as the new technology could be used to create bacteria or viruses for military or terrorist purposes.

Although some commentators argue that given the complexity and cost of synthetic biology, such abuses are unlikely to occur, the fact remains that with this new technology, the work of ‘bioweaponeers’ has become much easier.

In 2003, the classified US CIA document entitled ‘The Darker Bioweapons Future’ stated that: “Growing understanding of the complex biochemical pathways that underlie life processes has the potential to enable a class of new, more virulent biological agents to be engineered to attack distinct biochemical pathways and elicit specific effects.”

Synthetic biology is accompanied by all the conundrums associated with dual-use technologies: the same science, that may treat some of the worst diseases, could also be used to create some of the most terrible weapons.

Another major concern has to do with safety issues (‘bio-errorism’). There is the risk that the artificial organisms produced in the laboratory may develop unexpected properties that are detrimental to human health.

There is also the risk that these synthetic, self-replicating entities may be accidentally introduced to the natural environment. Moreover, these novel, artificial microbes that enter the environment may evolve, developing properties not found in nature which may cause untold damage to the ecosystem.

One important way to prevent both ‘bioterrorism’ and ‘bio-errorism’ is to achieve the right balance between self-governance within the scientific community and statutory regulations. But, as some commentators have pointed out, given the widespread availability of synthetic biology tools, regulating this new science would prove challenging.

In June 2006, The Guardian announced that one of its journalists was able to purchase a fragment of synthetic DNA of Variola major (the virus that causes smallpox) from a commercial gene synthesis company in the UK without having to undergo any screening process.

According to Richard H. Ebright, a biochemist at Rutgers University, it would now be possible for a person “to produce a full-length 1918 influenza virus or Ebola virus genomes, along with kits containing detailed procedures and other materials for the reconstruction … it is possible to advertise and sell the product”.

Reflecting on the profound risks surrounding this young science, Philip Ball, the consultant editor of Nature, writes: “If ever there were a science guaranteed to cause public alarm and outrage, this is it. Compared with conventional biotechnology and genetic engineering, the risks involved in synthetic biology are far scarier.”

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.

Interfaith Dialogue and Democratic Virtues

April 2015 Feature Article

Democratic governments assert the moral legitimacy to exercise power over their citizens on the ground that they command the support of the majority of the electorate. Consent from the electorate is secured with the assurance that there is less likelihood of abuse of power in democracy compared to ancient aristocracy and modern totalitarianism.

However, modern democracy exacts a price from religious communities. There is an unwritten rule that religion must be kept out of the public arena. Presumably, public debate of these sensitive matters is not only divisive; it can degenerate into violent conflict. Demagogues may exploit religious sentiments to gain political power, and in turn look after the sectarian interest of their religious power base. Democracy is effectively undermined when it becomes a tool for the tyranny of the majority community.

Censorship as a Tolerated Evil

Understandably, some democratic governments impose censorship of religious dialogue and debate in public. But one wonders if censorship may not end up depriving the electorate of the very tool that could help overcome ignorance and prejudice between religious communities. Perhaps it is time to examine the rationale and rules for censorship so that genuine dialogue may be encouraged to promote mutual understanding through clarification of wrongly perceived religious belief and practice.

Social constraint like censorship can be justified only if it results in an evident increase of democratic freedom in other aspects of social life. As social freedoms may be likened to a seamless cloth of interlocking rights, social constraint and state intervention should be minimal and legal restriction must be justified by the imperative of moral concerns shared across different communities. Religious censorship should be limited and applied in a principled manner and only if it clearly works for the common good.

However, enforcement of censorship is inevitably subjective and arbitrary, as evident from anomalies in censorship laws. Censors and would-be censors believe they are immune to corruption arising from arbitrary use of power, but experience often proves otherwise.  As such, censorship laws, if any, should be regarded as a tolerated evil best kept to the barest minimum.

What could be the main provisions within this framework of limited and principled censorship?

1) Every voluntary society (and the word voluntary should be stressed here) has the right to define the terms of belief and practice of its membership. The moral and religious education of its members is a matter of internal affairs of the society. By this token, censorship laws may not control the substantive beliefs of religious communities.

2) In a plural society no single group (whether majority or otherwise) has the right to demand that government imposes a general censorship affecting all citizens upon any medium of communication just because the group considers certain matters undesirable according to the distinctive standards held by that group.

3) All social groups should be given unrestricted participation in forging shared public morality by means of peaceful and rational persuasion.

4) Conversely, no single group may impose its own religious or moral views onto other groups through use of force and intimidation.

5) Censorship may ensure proper procedures for interfaith relations. For example, censorship should ensure that there is no misrepresentation or derogation of any religious beliefs and religious discourse should be conducted in a respectful manner.

Dialogue Positively Encouraged

There is wisdom in the old saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.” When the freedom and limits of dialogue are appropriately defined, interfaith dialogue should be encouraged to build bridges across community divides.

First, democracy assures people that there are checks and balance as power is distributed to various institutions with non-discriminatory policies and procedures. However, public officials can ignore these procedures and choose instead to promote the ideological interests of the dominant community. The ability to refrain from such abuse presupposes officials are imbibed with democratic virtues that respect the wishes of the majority without sacrificing the vital interests of minority communities. Such an inclusive mindset is nurtured through habits of social interaction and dialogue with people from other communities.

Second, dialogue is the foundation of social relations and the democratic way of life. As the famous Catholic social thinker John Courtney Murray writes, “Civilization is formed by men locked together in argument. From this dialogue the community becomes a political community.” The expectation is that men of good-will in rational discourse are capable of discovering valid principles about the common good and shared moral values.

Johannes Althusius observes in his book Politica that “Politics is the art of associating (consociandi) men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them…The subject matter of politics is therefore association (consociatio), in which the symbiotes [those who live together] pledge themselves each to the other, by explicit or tacit agreement, to mutual communication of whatever is useful and necessary for the harmonious exercise of social life.” In this regard, genuine interfaith dialogue nurtures good virtues of social tolerance, mutual respect and regard for the welfare of people of other faiths. That is to say, the democratic virtues cultivated through interfaith dialogue are fundamental for building social consensus.

Third, nation building is a historical project shared by all communities in a plural society. The success and prosperity of the nation is ensured when citizens of diverse communities and faiths are rallied and held together by common values and mutual interests. Cicero eloquently declared that a true commonwealth is not just any association but a people juris consensus et utilitatis communion sociatus – a people united by agreement about law and rights and by a desire for mutual (not just selfish) interests.

Modern societies are made up of diverse communities (reality of plurality). It is unavoidable that different communities have different conceptions of the sacred order that underpins both religious and social life (reality of pluralism). It is granted that historically, human society has never arrived at a final resolution in the debate of pluralism (a question of epistemology rather than ontology). It is possible that the dominant religion may be tempted to impose its beliefs onto others. As such, the public goals of interfaith dialogue should not be a contest of supremacy but a mutual appreciation of different “articles of faith”. Such mutual appreciation allows religious interlocutors to define “articles of peace”, that is, rules for social relations that enable people of different faiths to live and work together for the common good. For this purpose, it is the challenge for different communities to demonstrate and make available the ethical resources from their respective religious traditions to nurture a moral citizenry that values mutual respect and acceptance amidst diversity.

The government may provide a supportive but not the defining role in interfaith relations. It cannot be stressed too strongly that the government should not arrogate for itself the responsibility of taking care of the sacred order of religious life. Instead, the duty of the government is to limit its care to ensure freedom of religion. We are mindful that often times, the government, by virtue of its overwhelming power, is tempted to control the life and practices of religious communities. Indeed, one of the paramount goals of interfaith dialogue is to define how the existence of transcendent reality, however differently conceived within each religious tradition, legitimizes but limits to the power of government.

In the final analysis, genuine inter-faith dialogue promotes a culture of openness and cooperation. The awesome task of working for the common good demands great courage and vision from all religious leaders and the ability to transcend the limited interests of their respective communities and work together to build a just and harmonious democracy.

Dr Ng Kam Weng
Dr Ng Kam Weng is Research Director of Kairos Research Centre in Kuala Lumpur. Previously, he had been a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and a member of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University. From 1989 to 1992 he taught at the Malaysia Bible Seminary Graduate School. He has a PhD from Cambridge University.