Philosophizing About Stem Cells

I want to talk about my recent attraction towards, and subsequent withdrawal from, the pursuit of stem cell science for the purpose of curing deadly diseases and relieving the sufferers of these of their misery. The interest in this had been present in me from a very young age since I discovered the remarkable potential of the technology of life, first by learning about the incredible regenerative powers of newts and starfish, and then by learning about the possibility of harnessing this curative power in us. The drive to pursue this emerged out of my witnessing the horrific sufferings of the elderly – my grandparents and others of their generation. Diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. I began to see these as the evils of the world and to see my calling here to banish these and with them so much misery. Since my childhood, however, numerous and radical transformations came to pass over my world view, and many of my core beliefs have been uprooted and replaced. With this, a new ethos has taken hold of the reins and a completely new fascination has taken hold of my intellect. And, bound up with this new attitude is the rejection of all efforts to combat physical disease by physical means. Implicit in these efforts are several assumptions that are now incompatible with my world view. I will delineate these in what follows.

First, and most importantly, the pursuit of stem cell science entails a profound rejection of death and an attachment to life. Its aim to cure diseases flows from the grief of the passing of loved ones. When we seek to cure these ‘evils of the world’, we are secretly thinking about our loved ones who are endangered by them, but also about our own future selves and the potential of our own demise at their hands. Thus, in truth, our researches into regenerative medicine represent our deep-seated fear of death. This comes into conflict with my world view precisely in as much as it propagates this excruciating bias. I see life and death as equals, dependent upon each other and necessary for each other. There can be no life without death, and no death without life. If something is alive, it is because something else has died, and if something is dead, it is because something else must live. Seeing the matter thus, it is hard for me to be motivated by something essentially equivalent to the fearful attempt to escape death. This was explicitly brought to my awareness in a London Regenerative Medicine Network (LRMN) meeting which was concluded by an artist’s solicitation of volunteers to participate briefly in his art project concerning this subject by saying the words “I will not die” to a camera to be included in a video installation. This event brought to light the implicit drive in such efforts as regenerative medicine. Another incident also contributed to this: Aubrey de Grey’s tantalising prophecies of thousand-year lifetimes and an eventual elimination of death through the advancing technologies of regenerative medicine made it even more clear to me that this is no more than man’s age-old quest for immortality in a modern guise. As I began to contemplate this more and more, the greater did the resultant apprehension that all of this is motivated by fear sink in. Humanity’s fear of death, and their efforts to escape this, is itself perhaps the single strongest motive there is, and so I do not condescend to those that choose to continue on in this manner. I merely wish to clarify my own position and the causes and conditions that led me here. I am now in a state of mind that actively seeks out fear and stands face to face with it, and by so doing eventually eliminates it. “There is nothing to fear but fear itself;” that most noble of presidential phrases seems to capture this. I have gradually become convinced that death itself is not the evil in this world. On the contrary, it is nothing but the mirror image of life, and as such should be revered as life is. By seeing things in this way, and by uncovering the truth that I myself am still afraid of death, my enemy has been replaced. I am now doing battle with my fears, rather than with death. Unlike death, fear is potentially eliminable, and only to this end ought all efforts be aimed. For if we secretly reject death, we are sowing the seeds for our own suffering and casting the evil spell on our lives in our own tongues because in truth, there is no escape from death. Death is just as essential to our being as is life, and the sooner we accept this and make our peace with it, the sooner shall we be free of suffering. I don’t mean that we will not ever feel pain again, or that we will be free from disease or death, but simply that our suffering which flows from these will be eliminated. I believe that the sufferings of disease are not caused by the physical nature of the disease, but by the mental terror at its prospect and the possibility of death. So, if the fear of death and pain are cured, then a major portion, if not the entirety, of our future suffering will have been averted.

Second, the pursuit of stem cell science entails the belief that the source and the cause of all diseases is something physical, and thus that if we simply mend the error, the disease will be cured. While I don’t have conclusive proof of it, I believe that this position is flawed. It is as yet an unjustified belief, but there is much supporting anecdotal evidence for it. Specifically, I believe that the true source and cause of our diseases is mental, and hence that the curing of the disease requires a change of attitude, rather than a change of body parts. Stress and fear play the major role in the emergence of the pathological state, but I cannot say that it is the only role. I cannot discount the obvious contribution of physical states to this, but merely see that these are, in the majority of cases, facilitated by our mental states. It is well established that stress plays a role in the weakening of the immune system, exposing the body to an array of opportunistic pathogens that take root and initiate disease. Also, the very well documented ‘placebo effect’, which even rigorous clinical trials exert much effort to control against, supports a greater role to our mental states than is normally admitted. Finally, events from my own life have added weight to the assertion that mental factors like stress and anxiety are the true roots of disease. Two examples shed light on this: 1) stomach problems plagued my high school self and evaded resolution until I discovered meditation, at which point they ceased to affect me. These pains would occur frequently but more commonly during periods of stress such as before deadlines and exams. I used to struggle desperately against these and would experience extreme bouts of suffering on their account. Once I began to meditate, however, these pains ceased to come except for very rarely, and even when they did, a meditation session would be sufficient to eliminate them without even a fraction of the previous misery that used to ensue from their every arising. During the meditation itself, it would become clear to my mind that merely the stressful anticipation of extreme pain upon the slightest hint of its arising was alone responsible for taking this hint up to its highest pitches. It was always the case during meditation that if the mind could be made to accept the pain, the pain would recede. If the mind’s rebellion and terror could be quieted for once, the arising phenomenon would very quickly pass away. I must confess that this was a radical departure from my previous dispositions, and left me utterly in shock at how wrong I had been, but without an ability to doubt what I had learned, for I learned it experientially, and thus it was surrounded by a certainty quite unlike any other I had ever experienced prior to that. 2) A similar situation used to plague me, before meditation, regarding headaches. These were a common occurrence in my life and their every coming was accompanied by periods of suffering. As with the stomach aches, these were drastically reduced by the onset of meditation. To add verification to this belief, these headaches, along with the stomach aches, still recur but only on the days that I do not meditate. And every time they recur, a simple 15 minutes of meditation is all that is required to eliminate them. So my incredulous mind would ask: how can merely sitting down and concentrating be sufficient as a cure for headaches and stomach aches? But my deeper mind understood: sitting down and concentrating work to alleviate stressful and fearful thinking, and by so doing, return the body to a state of ease, whether by a strengthening of the immune system or otherwise. Therefore, if one wishes to tackle disease effectively one must go to its roots in the mental chaos that conditions it, rather than the physical chaos that opportunistically takes advantage of already weakened bodies. As mentioned above, however, this is still just a belief and has not yet been analysed completely and demonstrated to be true, probably because of the failure to reliably delineate mind from matter and the numerous conflations of mental with physical factors that give rise to our experience. It is just that, in my own experience, I have evidence to believe in this, and so am inclined to focus on my mental states far more intently than on my physical states.

Finally, the experiments involved in stem research entail taking advantage of other life forms for the benefit of humanity. Whether it is the animals used to test novel medicines before these are tested in humans, or even the microorganisms used to manipulate and produce the medicines, life is clearly subjugated to humanity and is bent to serve its will. The implicit assumption in this is that human life is worth more than non-human life. This is an assumption that I cannot sustain given my current world view. Even rationally, it is hard to make a case for this on any but the most artificial grounds for the definition of worth. If a universal point of view is taken, there is no immediately obvious property of humans that makes them more valuable than other forms of life. One might claim that our intelligence or our culture give us our value, but do these alone really give us a priority over other non-intelligent living things? Are we not all equal under life’s gaze? Some would say we are not, and that nature selects by fitness, and our intelligence gives us an incalculably greater fitness than any other life form, and thus that nature prefers us to them. I would argue that while intelligence does give us an advantage over other organisms, it also opens up an entirely new dimension to us that is sealed off from all of them. Our knowledge gives rise to our morality and leaves us with the responsibility to act rightly, something no other organism can ever hope to understand. Thus, I believe that our great power is a double-edged sword, and while enabling our complete dominion over the earth, equally enables our ethical inclinations and leads us to treat other species as our dependents charged to us for their safekeeping, rather than seeing them as means to our ends, imagining as we do that we do not depend upon them as innocently as they depend upon us. The view of life as a whole, rather than as a plurality of independently existing beings, lends itself to this appreciation of other beings and to a reluctance to engage in activities that may cause suffering to any of these. This is why I cannot pursue research in this field, which cannot continue without animal testing unless we assent to test these new medicines on ourselves alone since it is us that they are meant to cure.

Therefore, following the upheaval of my understanding, I have decided to change gears and follow my true calling, which can only be either philosophy or psychology, or some amalgamation of these. My pursuit is the source of the miseries of humanity, and where I previously sought this in bodies, I now search for it in minds.

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