- Frank J. Leavitt, Ph.D.
Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben Gurion University of the Negev
Beer Sheva, ISRAEL (Home Tel/FAX: +972-2-9963048)
In addition to the Centre's activities on the campus of Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva, we are exploring the ideal of a rural Retreat far from the noise and intense pace of the city and the hospital. Technology, including of course biotechnology and genetic engineering, are changing the world into something almost unrecognizable. Israel in particular is becoming crowded, extremely noisy, extremely modern, extremely materialistic, forgetting once more that we are the people of Scripture, indeed forgetting that we are a Middle Eastern people on the Continent of Asia, as we get more and more westernized. In spite of the wishful thinking of some, it is not within our power to stop this process. But bioethics can work to moderate it, to preserve as much greenery and biodiversity as possible, to teach the individual to live sanely in a world where he or she really is out of control and where there is no escape from constant artificial sensory input. But to do these things we need perspective. We need to experience nature as it can be when human hands and machines don't push it around. We need mental quiet for reflection and meditation. And then we can return to our lives in the post modern world with renewed inspiration. Indeed the idea of a temporary retreat from civilization is found both in Judaism and in East Asian spirituality. Maimonides, in the Introduction to his commentary on the Mishnaic Treatise of the Fathers (Chapter IV) explained how Israeli prophets used to escape from corrupt society to deserts and mountains in order to correct their own moral faults, and then returned to society refreshed and prepared to make a greater contribution.
The rural retreat of the Senpo Sugihara Asian Bioethics Centre should be a place where bioethicists, scientists, physicians, nurses and others from all Asia and the world can step back form their "cutting edge" research and clinical practice, to experience simple living in an even somewhat primitive, environment, among nature-as-it-used-to-be, with no electronic or mechanical noise but only the song of the birds, the insects and the wind to accompany deep thought and intense intellectual exchange as we explore bioethical questions together.
The rural retreat should also serve as a demonstration centre for simple bioethical living. Several approaches are needed to meet the dangers to health of post-modern technology, such as pollution including carcinogenic effects (see John Goldsmith's article in this issue) of microwaves, nuclear generation of electricity, combustion of petroleum, etc.
One approach is medical, the search for substances which will help our bodies resist clastogenic effects, and the search for cures to pollution-induced disease. A second approach is to try to "clean up" sources of pollution (catalytic converts on automobile exhaust, sturdier nuclear reactors, etc.) while building and using more and more of them and even convincing ourselves that life is impossible unless we build more and buy more.
But a third approach is simple living, using less electricity, less fossil fuels, fewer manufactured goods, etc. By this I do not, repeat do not mean radical primitivism. I simply mean moderation, control of our appetites. More walking and bicycling and less motoring. Fewer manufactured gadgets in the home. Growing at least some of your own food and fertilizing with compost made from what post-modern people regard as rubbish. Our rural bioethical retreat can demonstrate that simplicity can be beautiful and that people can live satisfying, productive lives, indeed make great contributions to science and the arts, without much of the machinery which the post-modern world thinks is necessary. In my humble opinion this is part of the meaning of bioethics.
But there is much more to bioethics. Last autumn June and I met a young woman who was passing through Israel back-packing the world. She was a science teacher from Australia who had not found what she was looking for in science and was seeking meaning and truth. I told her about our ideas for a new kind of educational centre and she enthusiastically said she wanted to come study with us.
The next day we happened to see the young woman again. We were surprised that after our intense conversation she looked right past us and did not recognized us at all. Then we saw the glazed look in her eyes and realized she was very, very drugged.
June and I discussed the incident afterwards and agreed that this woman was not a victim of drugs. She was a victim of today's science education. She was taught the mechanisms of life, but never taught to enquire into the meaning of life. So she sought meaning in drugs.
Bioethics must add to its already heavy burden the responsibility to rescue people like this young science teacher who I hope has not destroyed herself by now. We must find a way to put meaning into science curricula. We must have centres around the world which have the scientific sophistication which is lacking in humanities faculties and in religious seminaries, but which also have the spiritual depth which is often absent from scientific and medical faculties. In such centres, searching young people can enquire deeply in a healthy environment where they will not be taken advantage of by self-styled gurus and other exploiters. And this must be done within the highest standards of ethics and intellectual integrity. Perhaps the Senpo Sugihara Asian Bioethics Centre can also contribute to this.