God, Dehumanization, and Nazi Medicine: Remarks at the Peter J. Gomes, STB ’68 Distinguished Alumni Honor Ceremony at Harvard Divinity School
Omar Sultan Haque, M.D., Ph.D., Harvard Medical School
Harvard Divinity School’s main influence on me was to turn me into a philosopher. Specifically, a philosopher of religion and morality. The main professor who had this influence on me was Gordon Kaufman, may his memory be a blessing. This experience put a flame in my heart for understanding the philosophical foundations of our traditions and our civilizations, and seeing that the long sweep of history is in many ways a battle of ideas. In looking back upon my scholarly and practical work in the world, especially as a physician and social scientist, here are some common philosophical threads that connect me to my studies at Harvard Divinity School.
As with many young people, I became a sophomore year atheist. Influenced by a unified and consilient vision of the natural sciences as encompassing all of knowledge itself, I started my professional life as a naturalist, a physicalist, an atheist. However, as I entered more deeply into the study of philosophy at Harvard Divinity School and later in my PhD, and especially when encountering the existential realities of practicing medicine, I found naturalism to be not only a sophomore year wandering, but also a sophomoric worldview, intellectually and morally inadequate for the complexity of our human experience and our humane ends.
I would like to provide two illustrations, from projects I have worked on, one on stigma and dehumanization in medicine, and another on why physicians were among the earliest joiners of the Nazi party.
First, an ontological question. What are we fundamentally? I found that naturalism erases, or at the very least deflates, our humanity. When I researched modern medicine and what makes it so dehumanizing for so many, as a naturalist I had little to draw from in objecting to biomedicine’s objectification of us, its reduction of the human person to an epiphenomena of molecular machines, a phantasm of material processes. How could the secular humanist object to this, if we fundamentally are wet robots, fancy meatballs flying through space, determined physical objects in nature?
To defend our humanity in an age of biological reductionism, I found that we need an account of our existence that includes, but moves well beyond, nature’s physical description. We need an account of the uniqueness of human experience that includes the complexities of human consciousness, freedom, and meaning, and transcendence, all of which thereby necessitates the preeminence of moral concern that we have for each other. We also need a description of the vertical dimension of life, and not just its horizontal social dimension, which can be equally reductive as biological accounts; we must go beyond the 2 dimensional flat stick figure depiction of human experience we get from naturalism, and include the fullness of the 3D cinema we see in the painted wall of our own lives, and as embodied in our religious and spiritual traditions. We are fully human when the music of life plays in all octaves, not just those keys we can most easily touch.
Second, the question of how should we live? When I researched Nazi medicine and why doctors were among the earliest joiners of the Nazi party, I wanted to understand how physicians could possibly have come to a point of utterly disregarding human life and valorizing inequality, domination, eugenics, and even mass murder. An account of human life as a purely naturalistic process seemed to make this interpretation more likely sociologically, but also more plausible philosophically amidst naturalism. I will be more specific with an example. Most people know that Darwin’s famous book is called “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” but most also forget, or deliberately truncate, the last part of the title, which I will read here: “the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”. So there is a connection between a naturalistic interpretation of human existence, and racism, eugenics, genocide, even in the title of Darwin’s book. Add some Nietzschean flourishes about the death of God, the wiping away of an eternal moral law, and objections to human moral equality for the sake of higher collective flourishing of a special community, and being a Nazi doctor has a rationale in materialistic naturalism, however disturbing this is to us.
It was hard for me to find an objection to the the practices of the Nazi doctors without sneaking in one or another kind of theological premise, for example, that humans are sacred, morally equal, inviolable, have dignity and rights that must be respected. How could one possibly justify such premises otherwise? Dissect a human body, and you won’t find any molecule for rights, sacredness, equality, or dignity. Pick any physical capacity that humans have and try and name it as the basis of our equality (e.g., our will, reason, intelligence, consciousness, etc.), and we will find people who vary in that very capacity. Some have more, and others less. Therefore no physical capacity can stand as a ground and warrant for our human moral equality. Indeed, the logic of the Nazi doctors and researchers is quite consonant with many contemporary secular utilitarian arguments, for example, for discrimination against and killing of inconvenient infants, the elderly, and the disabled to serve the greater good of other persons or communities.
This is where I see our great spiritual and religious traditions being able to offer a reply, and deontologically saying “no” — and doing so for coherent reasons grounded in the very nature of things — where a purely naturalistic/atheistic approach to human life would have a very hard, if not logically impossible, time doing so.
So at Harvard Divinity School, I found this passion for philosophizing about the deepest questions of human life, for seeing the moral stakes underlying our different conceptions of human existence, and the very real way that ideas have life and death consequences for us all.
Thank you very much.