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Debate on the ethics of the therapeutic use of embryonic stem cells
dualist concept of the embryo as a combination of body and soul (matter
spirit) against the idea of it as a psychosomatic unity, according to
Modern physics may provide an intellectual context in which to
Quantum mechanics (QM) is a well-verified theory of...
Quantum mechanics (QM) is a well-verified theory of the nature of
and one that is based on a fundamental duality. QM holds that the universe
describable in two equally valid and complementary conceptual frameworks.
One description portrays the universe as a collection of discrete,
particles. The other depicts it as a set of diffuse, immaterial
physicist may choose to use either description, depending on which one is
able to explain a phenomenon under observation.
It would be straightforward to interpret this duality of QM as
to the duality of matter and spirit.
It is natural to identify the particle description of the universe as
which in the case of the embryo would refer to its body. Moreover, as
explained below, it is plausible to associate the wavefunction description
spirit, which in the embryo would correspond to its soul.
Wavefunctions are conceptual entities that cannot be observed
existence is inferential. Yet, the famous double-slit experiment and other
physical investigations show that wavefunctions are real entities, just as
particles are, because both wavefunction and particle descriptions of
are needed to explain all observed phenomena and experimental results.
Wavefunctions have properties that we associate with spirit. They are
immaterial. Like ideas, they encompass all the possible forms of material
reality as potentialities. Wavefunctions can influence matter by
probabilities associated with all the alternative possible realities. In
are like the will (spirit) choosing among alternatives.
The understanding of spirit as wavefunction would imply that spirit
wherever matter is. Rather than incarnating at conception, the soul or
wavefunction of the zygote would be seen as one of its two valid
the material body of the zygote being the other one. In the same way, an
individual human being would be understood in terms of two valid
descriptions. Her wavefunction would correspond to her spiritual nature
her corporeal body to her material nature.
Polkinghorne proposes an ethical hierarchy in which individual human
have higher moral status than embryos. He considers the human soul to be
the "information bearing pattern" in which the matter of the human body is
arranged and recommends a "developmental view of the soul as something
that forms and grows." In his view, the undeveloped, elemental embryo
the moral status of the complex, highly developed human. The use of
embryos for medical research is therefore permissible.
By considering wavefunction as spirit, we may affirm Polkinghorne’s
hierarchy in spiritual terms. The wavefunction of a material body is
as complex as the arrangement of its component particles, since the
wavefunction of the whole is the product of the wavefunctions of the
As the body of an embryo is undeveloped and rudimentary, so is its
wavefunction or soul. An individual human body, on the other hand, is
developed and complex, and its wavefunction or soul is, too. Moreover, as
embryo grows and develops as a material entity, it simultaneously grows
develops as an increasingly complex wavefunction. The two processes
proceed in exact correlation; in actuality they are one process.
The alternative view presented here of the soul as the wavefunctions
the embryo and the human being therefore conforms to the ethical hierarchy
proposed by Polkinghorne and reaches the same conclusion on the relative
moral status of the two.
In this view, however, spirit is more than arrangement of matter; the
equally as real as the body. Understood as the wavefunction of the body,
concept of the soul is consistent with the most fundamental and well-
theory of the universe so far devised. By adopting this interpretation,
who believe in the existence of the soul and spirit may be satisfied that
beliefs are in harmony with physical science.
Many who believe in the soul oppose stem cell research in order to
the sanctity of human life. In particular, they see themselves upholding
spiritual nature of the human being. To that end, they view conception as
moment when spirit is incarnated into human flesh.
Understanding spirit as wavefunction eliminates the need for such a
conception, since spirit is then seen as an integral aspect of all forms
matter. The human spirit is the most highly developed spiritual existence
earth. It possesses superior moral status because of this great
not because it owns an incorporeal nature that less complex material
1. J C Polkinghorne. The person, the soul, and genetic engineering. J Med Ethics 2004; 30: 593-597.