What happens when scientific findings potentially lead us down ethically troubling roads? What’s the difference between science as a way to understand the world, and science as a tool for people to use, both for good and for ill? What happens as science and technology outpace our ethical frameworks — and is there a role for religion or theology in that conversation? If so, what is it?

On May 1st, Dr. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and Sinai and Synapses Fellow Dr. Adam Pryor had a conversation about these interactions at the 92nd Street Y, followed by a Q&A moderated by Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman.  Below are two short excerpts of their thoughts, followed by the full video and transcript.

Presenter Dr. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a philosopher and an occasional novelist, and is currently a visiting professor of philosophy at New College of the Humanities in London. She graduated summa cum laude from Barnard College and received her Ph.D. from Princeton University in philosophy of science. She then returned to Barnard as a professor of philosophy. She is the author of ten books: Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel was chosen by Science Magazine as among the best five science books of 2005, and Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity received the 2006 Koret International Award for Jewish Scholarship.  Her latest book, Plato at The Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year. Dr. Goldstein is a MacArthur Fellow and has received the 2015 National Humanities Medal, among numerous other honors.

Respondent Dr. Adam Pryor is a current Sinai and Synapses Fellow. He is Assistant Professor of Religion and Director of Core Education at Bethany College in Lindsborg, KS. Having taken his Ph.D. at the Graduate Theological Union, Dr. Pryor’s primary research concerns issues related to emergence theory, the origins of life, and reconceptualizations of embodiment. His current research, which he began as a member of the Center of Theological Inquiry’s recent research program on the societal implications of astrobiology, considers how astrobiology effects understandings of God. He is concerned with how scientific concepts and problems can serve as a table around which interfaith dialogue can take places, since scientific research pushes us to ask personal, existential questions of deep religious significance, whether this is intended or not.

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1. I’ve always found human dignity a squishy concept, and this squishiness shows up when you consider its history, that it’s been used, in the past, to reject anything any procedure that is startlingly new, no matter how it helps individuals to flourish. It was used, for example, to argue against artificial insemination. It’s been used against stem cell research. I was going to go on and say tonight that, given its squishiness, we ought to just reject it outright as an additional criterion for adjudicating which procedures to go ahead with, and that we ought to rely solely on considerations of human flourishing.
2. But it could perhaps be said against me that, by highlighting how some of these procedures might actually change our ethical views regarding humans—that they could carry, for example, implications that smart humans are more valuable than less smart humans, that athletic humans are more valuable than klutzes—I’m ipso facto appealing to something like human dignity, over and above human flourishing. I can see how such an argument could be presented. I’m still inclined to think that, in essence, we’re still speaking about human flourishing, without bringing in an additional value, because one of the things that is necessary for human flourishing is our valuing all humans because they are human, and not because of the specific characteristics, or talents, that they have. In other words, I’d argue that insofar as the concept of human dignity can be clarified, it’s simply entailed by the concept of human flourishing. But that would take a complicated argument, and I can see how the argument against it could go.
3. stewardship
4. sanctuary
5. healing the world
6. self-restraint