The Long View 2005-05-02: Human Mice; Roe Misapprehension; Gödel versus Immanence

I demand to see my attorney!

I demand to see my attorney!

I remember being struck by this story when it came out. If your human-mice hybrids start acting too human, the obvious solution is to just kill them all!

Human Mice; Roe Misapprehension; Gödel versus Immanence


No, deranged scientists are not trying to create human-mouse hybrids that have squeaky voices and demand to see lawyers to get them released from their cages. However, the scientists' lawyers do have a contingency plan, just in case:

In January, an informal ethics committee at Stanford University endorsed a proposal to create mice with brains nearly completely made of human brain cells. Stem cell scientist Irving Weissman said his experiment could provide unparalleled insight into how the human brain develops and how degenerative brain diseases like Parkinson's progress.

Stanford law professor Hank Greely, who chaired the ethics committee, said the board was satisfied that the size and shape of the mouse brain would prevent the human cells from creating any traits of humanity. Just in case, Greely said, the committee recommended closely monitoring the mice's behavior and immediately killing any that display human-like behavior.

There is more to humanity than cytology, so no doubt Stanford is correct in dismissing the possibility that the mice will be even partially human in any serious sense. On the other hand, if the mice do start to manifest human behaviors, might it not be a better idea to stop cutting their skulls open and begin being really nice to them?

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For those of you who cannot wait for the news, here's an item dated November 9, 2008, by Stuart Taylor Jr. of National Journal, entitled How the Republicans Lost Their Majority:

In a succession of blockbuster 5-4 rulings, the Bush Court in 2007 approved state-sponsored prayers at public school functions such as graduations and football games (overruling the 1992 decision Lee v. Weisman); went out of its way to overrule Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 decision that had recognized a constitutional right to engage in gay sex; and struck down key aspects of the Endangered Species Act as unconstitutional overextensions of Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce.

Then, this June, the same five justices banned consideration of race in state university admissions, overturning another 2003 precedent (Grutter v. Bollinger); this ruling sets the stage for a dramatic plunge in black and Hispanic enrollments at elite schools. Two days later, the same five-justice majority overturned Roe v. Wade, holding that it was up to elected officials to decide whether to allow unlimited access to abortion, to ban the procedure, or to specify circumstances in which it should be allowed or banned.

This last decision roiled the country and immediately transformed many elections -- for state legislature, governor, Congress, and the presidency -- into referenda on abortion. Republican candidates at all levels found themselves facing a politically impossible choice that put many on the road to defeat: Those who declared their support for a broad ban on abortion scared moderates into the arms of the Democrats. Those who opposed such a ban, or waffled, were deserted by much of their conservative base.

As I have noted before, the reversal of Roe would, and probably will, be a net boon for the Democrats, but not for the reasons this piece suggests. That decision has been an albatross around the neck of the Democratic Party for 30 years. If the court deconstitutionalized the question, then Democratic candidates around the country would be able to adapt their platforms to the views of their constituents. That would leave them free to focus their campaigns on economic issues, where it is not at all clear that the Republicans have an advantage. In other words, it would turn the clock back to about 1960, when the Democrats usually won.

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On a not entirely different note, there is a new book by Rebecca Goldstein, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel (Great Discoveries), which was favorably reviewed by Polly Shulman in yesterday's New York Times. I've been reading about Gödel for years (I have a review of another biography here), but the review helped to clarify some points for me. Shulman notes:

The dream of these formalists [of the early 20th century] was that their systems contained a proof for every true statement. Then all mathematics would unfurl from the arbitrary symbols, without any need to appeal to an external mathematical truth accessible only to our often faulty intuition.

This reminded me that the main thrust of phenomenology during this period was in the same direction: toward a philosophy that was completely immanent, with no transcendent elements. For existentialists, and for postmodernists who hold that the only truth is intersubjective, immanence is still the last word in sophistication. (In a foggy way, the notion even wafts through legal theory.) What the review, and apparently the book, remind us of is that, in formal logic, this project collapsed:

To put it roughly, Gödel proved his theorem by taking the Liar's Paradox, that steed of mystery and contradiction, and harnessing it to his argument. He expressed his theorem and proof in mathematical formulas, of course, but the idea behind it is relatively simple. He built a representative system, and within it he constructed a proposition that essentially said, ''This statement is not provable within this system.'' If he could prove that that was true, he figured, he would have found a statement that was true but not provable within the system, thus proving his theorem. His trick was to consider the statement's exact opposite, which says, ''That first statement -- the one that boasted about not being provable within the system -- is lying; it really is provable.'' Well, is that true? Here's where the Liar's Paradox shows its paces. If the second statement is true, then the first one is provable -- and anything provable must be true. But remember what that statement said in the first place: that it can't be proved. It's true, and it's also false -- impossible! That's a contradiction, which means Gödel's initial assumption -- that the proposition was provable -- is wrong. Therefore, he found a true statement that can't be proved within the formal system.

Thus Gödel showed not only that any consistent formal system complicated enough to describe the rules of grade-school arithmetic would have an unprovable statement, but that it would have an unprovable statement that was nonetheless true. Truth, he concluded, exists ''out yonder'' (as Einstein liked to put it), even if we can never put a finger on it.

Note that this does not mean the truth is unknowable, only that some truths are unknowable solely through logic. Again, we are back to Aquinas.

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Speaking of which, anyone in the New York area who is interested in a Latin liturgy for Ascension Thursday (May 5) might consider Holy Rosary Church in Jersey City. Mass is at 5:30 PM; the address is 344 Sixth Street And while I'm at it, here's my chant commercial again.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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