Do Stem Cells Grown From Unfertilized Eggs Have Souls?


Do Stem Cells Grown From Unfertilized Eggs Have Souls?

Bloody bollocks! That’s what I say about this article by Brandon Keim. Having to refute this ’soul’ stuff is getting so tedious. It’s unscientific, confused, and meaningless. It’s pure conjecture. Mother Goose rhymes for people who have never taken the time to understand the facts of life:

The question, then, resolves around the meaning of life, of Pacholczyk’s “human being.” The blastocyst — the scientific term for the group of cells descended from a fertilized egg at four to five days of age — contains about one hundred cells. It has nothing resembling a brain; but even if this is not considered a privileged locus of personhood, neither does the blastocyst have anything resembling … well, anything.

The basis of its moral value, in Christian eyes, must reside in the cells and their potential to become a sentient being. And what is this basis? It must be the soul. Belief in the soul is, of course, an article of faith, and not an easily shaken one. Nor, perhaps, should it be; wrongs have been committed under a perversion of Christian values, but acts of courage and kindness have also been inspired by a system of beliefs that treats life as sacred. How these wrongs and rights balance is another question altogether, but faith in the soul would surely be a sorely felt price to pay for stem cell therapies — and not, perhaps, a reasonable one.

Oh, so now Keim’s discussing truth based on consequences of what might or might not happen? That’s called argument from result, and it’s oh so tiring to have to keep pointing that out. Either it’s true or it isn’t, and that strictly depends on the evidence at hand.

But even granting the soul — does harvesting stem cells really destroy it? From the Christian view, a soul comes into being at the moment of conception. A single fertilized egg cell, if it divides into two cells, can be said to have had a soul. So do the cells that form after. Soul-ness is thus innate to the process of growth, the sustenance of life.

Reeeeaaaalllllyyyyy. So cell division=soul? Do animals have souls? What about plants? Why are they not sacred to Christians? Why are they allowed to be destroyed under their moral system. Jains draw the line more consistently by valuing all animal life. Who’s right? Who cares? Both beliefs are based on pure arbitrary assumptions.

That it isn’t yet sentient doesn’t matter; and neither does it matter if some cells fail to divide, at five days or fifty years. If that’s the case, then it follows that a stem cell line derived from a few cells plucked out of the blastocyst also has a soul. After all, it’s engaged in the process of life through cell division, and is descended in a continuous line from the original fertilized egg. The cells left behind in the process shouldn’t be lamented any more than a single cell that stopped dividing or a skin cell flaking from an adult.

Exactly. Why does it matter if any cells die as long as the person or animal lives? What about the religious wrath over ‘wasted’ semen, or the non-reaction about clipped fingernails? Why are they considered in a separate moral categories? Cell death is an integral part of life. (If you never ‘wasted’ the semen, the sperm cells would die on their own in a matter of days or weeks. They are constantly replaced.)

As for the continuing life of the stem cells, it’s clear that their soul is not equivalent to that of a mature person, or even a baby within the womb. This doesn’t necessarily mean that’s it’s worth less — merely that it’s at a different stage, with different characteristics.

Actually I think that’s exactly what it means. It’s worth less, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Try making these arguments: A fully grown lion charging at you is no more dangerous (of no different value) than a lion blastocyst. A fully grown human being (say, a Ph.D.) is of no different value or worth than a teenager, a child, a baby, or a human blastocyst. Ridiculous. Potential is not the same as fully realized development. Keim is conflating essence with form.

Might it be said that, in a hypothetical stem cell therapy, as stem cells mature and replace damaged tissue, the soul of the cells fuses with the soul of their recipient? And that the soul of those cells, their life potential, isn’t lost, but instead is preserved?

No, it might not be said. Pure nonsense. Total bollocks. Bullshit. Other people such as Jehovah’s witnesses believe that a person is tainted by receiving another’s blood. I guess they didn’t get the memo about “soul-cell transfer,” or should I say “cell-soul transfer.”

That the immortal essence of a soul can become part of another soul through deliverance in a fragmentary vessel is has a precedent in Catholic tradition. It’s the basis of Communion, when bread and wine — the body and blood of Christ — are consumed. I don’t know whether this line of reasoning would hold up to theological scrutiny,

No. How do people make this shit up? Unbelievable. Communion is a fantasy ritual about a cracker and some wine. It has nothing to do with cells or biology–except that the cracker and wine are at some point digested.

but it’s certainly worth trying to figure out how to debate embryos and stem cells without bluntly categorizing them as either inertly utilitarian material or fully human beings.

Cells are utilitarian. They become human when there are trillions of them arranged in a very specific way. Life is an exclusively mechanical process, enabled by naturally occurring nanomachinery which enables the organelles of the cell to perform fluid transport, burn energy, eliminate waste, and create metabolism. Then the cells also mechanically produce exact copies of themselves, with nearly perfect error correction. A ’soul,’ if it exists at all, has nothing to do with this very basic process. What we think of as the ’soul’ (but should really be called the personality) is created by the development of the hundred-billion-cell physical brain, and its perception, learning, and interaction with other humans. And it dies when a person’s metabolism ceases as their memories and stored experiences quickly rot away.

The development of synthetic biology in the lab proves this point. If cells and bacteria have ’souls,’ either scientists can create these ’souls’ in a laboratory, or the concept of the ’soul’ itself is completely meaningless. In a few years, the creation of artificial human-level AI minds will reinforce this point. Scientists aren’t playing god, they for all intents and purposes ARE the god of these new life forms.

What a terrible and difficult time to be religious. The rug just keeps getting pulled out from under all of the fantasies and outmoded supernatural constructs. And terrified of the brave new world, these hangers on brutally distort the implications of what science has told them, and pull their blinders down even more tightly.

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