Canadian psychologist Heather Looy is organizing the “Mind Sciences” symposia at this summer’s ASA/CSCA annual meeting. We caught up with her to talk about some of the contributions mind science and modern biology are making to our formulations of how to respond in faith when faced with complex medical problems with multiple types of solutions and ethical ramifications.
ER: So, for starters, how does biopsychology affect bioethical issues?
HL: WOW, you have no idea how rich and complex a question that actually is! The answer has something to do with what I call ‘biologism’—the biologizing of human nature—because of the cultural dominance of a certain myth about science that we’re playing into. I published a paper on this recently in the Midwest Quarterly, and the basic idea is that we have mechanized the natural world and now we’re mechanizing ourselves… (these ideas are not new, by the way—the idea that the natural sciences gives us power to predict and control the natural world is at least a couple of hundred years old).
Psychology in the western world has adopted a narrow positivistic view of natural science and has said basically, because it has power, we are going to do psychology this way—and there’s this sense some people have that psychology is just another branch of biology, which disturbs me because to say that psychology is just a branch of biology is to step completely into this idea that humanity is a mechanism that can be understood by treating humans as objects that are part of natural world. There arises this notion that once we understand how the mechanisms of the brain work and can measure and mathematize them, then we don’t really need anything else to increase our understanding.
But there’s this whole other piece of psychology that’s not so dominant but which has said, “Actually, to study human experience meaningfully, we can’t just treat humans as objects in the natural world, because we’re not just objects in the natural world.” We can do systematic work but it’s not work that can be done using what psychologists have always believed.
ER: How does your own work speak to these competing ideas of mind science?
HL: It depends which research area we’re discussing—one project in which we’re not looking directly at biology but at people’s experience with their bodies is the work I’m doing with my colleague Heather Prior work on human fertility and reproductive biology, basically asking the question of what happens when people don’t conceive?
She’s a biologist and I’m a psychologist and we have both experienced fertility issues, and we made different decisions about how to deal with them. We were talking about it one day and what struck us is that most of the material people come across in dealing with fertility problems is either supportive (words of comfort and prayer) or informative (laying out the possible responses, describing tests, solutions, interventions, etc.). But then there’s a sort of stratospheric level of material on these topics where there are church scholars and others doing really deep thinking about reproductive technologies—the philosophy behind them, the principles by which we might make decisions about them and how that integrates with their particular church’s view.
Neither of us had come across anything that would bring these two levels together—the practical stuff of finding comfort and learning what you can do about it with the intellectual and religious stuff of discerning what you should do about it, what it means, and how it shapes us. There was nothing out there that brought the high level stuff in an accessible format to the people actually making decisions.
So, we started focusing just on Christian couples facing these issues, and to make it simple, we focused solely on heterosexual married)—and we wondered, does their faith and faith community play any kind of role in how they navigate these decisions in reproductive technology? Do they even think about that? I mean, you have all these scholars out there doing this very specific work on how or why to use technology and the principles on which its based – that stuff exists (especially for Catholics) so we wanted to ask questions about whether people just treated this as a biomechanical problem or a problem with spiritual implications, and what it was like for them.
ER: What did you find out?
So we started talking to couples individually, and we found interesting patterns in their responses. We found that very few people are aware their churches have principled statements on reproductive technology, and when we let them know these things, they would say, “Well what does that have to do with my choices?”
All but one person that we interviewed said that they were unaware their church had policies about the sorts of decisions they faced. They said, “No, I didn’t talk to my pastor about this,” and they resisted the idea that their church had any right to have influence on the decisions they made—they expressed the opinion that they should be free to decide for themselves and didn’t want to talk to church leadership because they weren’t sure what the church might say.
To a person, they all said, “Well, yes, the church should TALK about fertility problems (and be supportive) but nobody can tell us what to decide.” Now these people we interviewed are all deeply committed Christians; they let faith inform their life generally, but not where this is concerned. And it’s interesting because the church is putting all this energy into developing these documents and recommendations that are rooted in what faith means in these types of situations.
ER: Were you surprised by this response?
HL: I was surprised how widespread it was, but we live in a culture that highly values individuality, so not that surprised. It can all be a bit confusing because there is both gain and loss in the process of performing any reproductive intervention. We have this idea that abortion is “bad” where reproductive technology is “not bad.” But the fact is that if you believe a zygote really is a full human child, then you should necessarily be against reproductive technology because lots of embryos die during successful IVF—it’s just an unfortunate fact about that process.
It’s a complicated human problem and there are no easy answers. Yet we tend to have this view—especially among Protestant communities—that “Well, we developed this technology, and we use the technology to improve the basic biology, and that’s a good thing.”
I think it has to do with this “fixing” mentality we have that arises from a culture that sees human bodies as machines. Given that we uphold freedom of choice over almost every other virtue and none of us wants to live in a society where we’re told what to do all the time, especially with our own bodies, I think it can be especially hard for churches who are trying to connect with couples making hard, far-reaching decisions.
ER: So why should churches be involved?
HL: Each of these questions is rich and complex—in our current time and place we have this notion that there’s this set of moral values that we all share with one another, and yet polarities arise in terms of how to apply those moral values to specific problems. As you might expect, every group thinks their own interpretation of what is right is the best interpretation.
One rising notion in contemporary culture is that our moral values do not have to be culturally, historically, or religiously rooted (again this idea that humans are measurable machines and that our capacity for doing good is a result of certain mechanisms working together). This leads some to the conclusion that we can derive our moral values from science, but the problem here is that science is not a study of values; science describes the world.
So in general, because we worship a very narrow mythic view of science, we think science tells us the objective truth of the world, it tells us all we need to know and that knowledge will magically turn into wisdom—and of course that’s absolute nonsense. Wisdom is not a description of connected phenomena, it takes culture, history, tradition. We are shaped by tradition and also transform it—but we can’t escape tradition, and yet in today’s society we think we can.
So why should the church have anything to say? Well obviously the ‘church’ in this sense is the whole body of Christ, and it includes people who do and understand science as well as those who don’t. The collective values of this community over time are important, essential to shaping the worldviews of millions of people. And that’s a good thing—you can’t be human without a culture. One of the reasons for the lostness and dysfunction in our current culture at large is the fact that we live in a society that has a peculiar interest in rejecting tradition.
Things like churches link us more specifically to a set of values and way of life, and they draw us into a community that helps us understand how to navigate all this knowledge and turn it into the wisdom that we need to embrace. Churches remind us we are constituted by a culture and a faith tradition that are relevant to how we shape our world.
So in terms of applying these traditions to the conversation on fertility issues, the fact is that our churches seem to be falling into the same type of present-ism that follows from believing science makes other knowledge systems obsolete. We’ve fallen in love with genetic continuity, the miracle of birth, extending our own DNA into the future—but the fact is that God never promised children as a result of every happy, Christian marriage. And there are other solutions to infertility that don’t include heavy technology and biology-based solutions. There are a LOT of children out there who need parents!
ER: Are your views about the church and science also more broadly generalizable?
HL: In some areas yes and in some areas no. I think classic areas where the church has something to say are things like euthanasia of someone with advanced Alzheimer’s—do you pull the plug, or not? Do you abort the baby diagnosed as an anencephalic, which will only survive a few hours outside the womb? I think those kinds of situations are pretty clearly areas in which the church can be helpful in a family’s decision-making process.
Then there are also the tough choices where again, you face a path of high technological intervention versus low intervention versus no intervention at all. For instance, the choice of pursuing chemotherapy or not when it is clear that even chemo is not a cure for the disease— and doctors have to say, “No matter what we do here, you will die.” The thing about chemo is that it is expensive, wasteful, and harmful to the environment. The logistics of transporting people to and from chemo is a strain on the whole family (especially when loved ones live far away), and the side effects require support that many people don’t have because their families are too small or far away or busy… It’s really a tough situation and it’s hard to say whether the treatment at times is worse than the disease, but sometimes people feel that if they don’t respond with hope—i.e. a technological intervention—then they are abandoning the patient. I think that some of the same issues of reproductive technology apply more broadly here.
The question we should always be asking ourselves is one of, “Just because we can do it, does that mean we should?” Where basic science gives rise to technology and medicine we tend to constantly play ethical catch-up. The innovation comes first and our moral reservations come second, once we see the consequences.
So maybe when you get that diagnosis of cancer—maybe you shouldn’t choose the chemo. Maybe you want to navigate the time you have left with a higher quality of life and not put your self and your family through hell. But how will you make that choice? I think your culture—your culture including your church and your personal beliefs—should be an integral part of that decision, not relegated to as inferior to what is “technically” feasible and what modern science says it can do for you.