The limits of the medium
First, GW seems to want to hold SK accountable for too much. At various points in his rebuttal, GW chastises SK for: “[not] naming or quoting even one person who holds this position [of scientific materialism (SM)];” for not offering a detailed, point-by-point review of all the assertions and implications of SM; and for“[appearing] to assign human rights to single-celled zygotes because they have received souls [but providing] no evidence for souls, no evidence that souls are inserted at conception, and no consideration of consequences of this view for actual persons in the zygotes’ environment.” And, most egregiously, GW claims at one point that SK "does not deal with the tough questions" when in fact, he has not only written a book on the subject ("The Case for Life"), but one fourth of that book is specifically focused on the tough questions GW wants answered.
Each of these points is irrelevant to the case GW makes, but he needs to remember the title of SK’s article, the audience to whom it is targeted, and the space limits of the editorial process that come to bear with publishing such a magazine article. SK does not pretend to claim that this 2500 word article is an exhaustive critique of SM or, for that matter, an exhaustive defense of the pro-life view. Its simple purpose is to point out the lessons a typical lay pro-lifer can glean from comments made by a doctor in a popular TV show, and to show how being aware of Dr. Jenner’s views can be applicable to a reasoned defense of the pro-life position.
That said, GW’s case could not offer a better example of the inability of SM to assess a complete picture of reality in general, or the moral emptiness one ends up with in the attempt to use SM to defend abortion specifically. Within those two general categories, there are several deficiencies in GW’s essay that come to light.
An Incomplete Picture of Reality
GW attempts to classify his own version of SM through a series of statements about what SK “would say” (as opposed to what SK did say) if he were describing SM “correctly.” This series of statements proves to be very useful in showing the gaping holes in SM.
Klusendorf, the author, claims that the character Dr. Jenner is not “doing science” but is “doing philosophy,” but might he be doing both?
The simple answer to GW’s question is, “No.” There is not single a scientifically verifiable conclusion in Jenner’s or Crick’s statements. Both are drawing philosophical conclusions that are only possible if one accepts their common philosophical pre-commitment to materialism. Yes, there may be correlation between electrical impulses in the brain and memory, personality etc., but correlation does not equal causation. In fact, if SM is true, we have no reason to accept the truthfulness of any statement that Jenner (or Crick, or GW) makes … but more on that later.
If he were accurately reflecting the view of many scientists and philosophers, he would not say that in SM everything in the universe “must” be explained in physical terms; rather he would say that in SM the use of physical terms had proven more useful than the use of any other terms in explaining the universe.
More useful? I am interested in hearing about SM’s “usefulness” in accounting for the laws of logic and mathematics, the reality of numbers (or any other kind of concept), the reality of personal identity and self-knowledge, or the physical nature and location of thoughts or imaginings. These are just a few of the things we know most certainly. Indeed, each of these is a real, non-physical thing on which science itself depends at its most basic level, but that has absolutely no hope of being explained by SM even in principle.
He would say that nonmaterial things like souls, gods, and ghosts are still hypothetical and have not been established to exist by the evidence. He would not say that in SM matter alone constitutes ultimate reality, but that matter-energy and space-time constitute important parts of reality and yet much remains to be learned about reality.
Evidence for non-material things? First, this is a thread of argumentation that appears repeatedly in GW’s essay (he keeps asking for evidence of the soul). In response, one would first have to ask what he would accept as “evidence?” Given his adherence to SM, we can only assume that he means physical evidence.
Here, the gross, blind deficiency in the logic of SM proponents, who insist on physical evidence for non-physical things, never ceases to amaze. I am reminded of Time magazine’s proclamation in July of 1995 as recounted by Greg Koukl:
Time Magazine made a stunning announcement. In an extensive article on the mind they wrote, “Despite our every instinct to the contrary, there is one thing that consciousness is not: some entity deep inside the brain that corresponds to the ‘self,’ some kernel of awareness that runs the show.” (July 17, 1995, p. 52). In other words, there is no soul.
How do they know this? “After more than a century of looking for it, brain researchers have long since concluded that there is no conceivable place for such a self to be located in the physical brain, and that it simply doesn’t exist.”
Like GW, these folks apparently believe that if we search really, really hard we should be able to locate and surgically remove someone’s soul.
Seriously? Is it really that difficult to comprehend that science (the study of the physical universe) is the wrong tool for assessing metaphysical or non-physical reality? This is the silliness that comes with the demand that, as Koukl puts it, we “weigh a chicken with a yardstick.” It makes no sense. Yet, materialists make this demand all the time.
Second, SM completely and continually ignores or dismisses the overwhelming implication we have for the existence of a timeless, immaterial, powerful cause for the beginning of the entire physical universe as an exercise in wishful, baseless speculation. In its place they offer their own wishful speculation about an infinite number of other universes for which the total accumulated physical evidence amounts to exactly – zero. In other words, when it comes to matters of “evidence,” SM’s proclivity for hypocrisy literally knows no bounds.
He would not say that in SM the universe looks designed; he would merely say that the universe has some orderliness which can be comprehended.
Here GW fails to appreciate the unbridgeable materialistic chasm between orderliness and design. For the record, it is not just theists who recognize the design inherent in the universe (especially in the information content and capacity of DNA). Everybody does that. The difference is in the ridiculous lengths to which SM proponents will go to explain it away. Though it is beyond the scope of this discussion to delve into this issue, let me just say that we find orderliness in the structure of snowflakes and ice cubes. We find design in the features carved into the face of an elaborate snowman. SM is sufficient in explaining the order of the former. It has no hope of explaining the specified complexity and information content of the latter.
He would not say that in SM that science alone tells us truth, but he would say that so far science has proven to be the best method for investigating the natural world or the workings of reality. Unfortunately, Klusendorf distorts scientific materialism, as commonly held, and makes it out to be more dogmatic and exclusive than it actually is.
While I agree with GW that science is the best method of investigating the natural world, the flaw in his thinking rests in the assumption that the natural world constitutes all reality. He assumes this; he doesn’t prove it. Indeed, the simple examples(above) demonstrate pretty unequivocally that SM fails miserably in that attempt. As for distorting the dogmatism of SM, I will let one of SM’s great proponents speak about that for himself:
“Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against commonsense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs ... in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated ‘just-so’ stories, because we have a prior commitment to materialism … Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”
January 4, 1997
New York Review of Books
The simple truth is that GW defends SM in the same ways that any member of a religious priesthood defends their dogma. I will spare the reader that discussion but those who maybe interested can read a short essay on the issue (here: Defrocking The Priests of Scientism)
Finally, and most satisfyingly, in his discussion of paragraphs 8 and 9, GW addresses the topics of determinism and rational thought and therein offers us philosophical gold –which he unwittingly uses to completely sabotage his own argument.
It is fascinating to observe the tortured logic inherent in an argument that recognizes the reality of free will (as we all do), but is forced by the implications of SM to defend determinism.
GW tells us that the humans can have beliefs that are “determined by [their] genetic and environmental history up to [a] point [in time]” (emphasis mine), but then suddenly become “more rational” in the face of new information. So, in which state do we find GW? Is the argument he is offering the result of his own deterministic past (in which case we have no reason to accept it as containing any “truth”), or from his rational present(in which case his SM is proven false)? Pick one.
Here GW makes a valid point in questioning SK’s description of the “irrational forces of nature.” I would agree that nature is non-rational, not irrational. But the minor point of SK’s word choice is soon overwhelmed by GW’s more telling statement that “nature doesn’t think.”
GW insists that nature is the “whole show,” admits that “nature doesn’t think,” but then offers no explanation for how all those non-rational molecules have produced rational thoughts and ideas in a subset of nature, namely his own materialistic head. The particles clashing in GW’s gray matter can’t say anything “rational” without blowing up his own pre-determined adherence to SM.
In summary, the pre-suppositions demanded by SM leave its adherents incapable of even considering how limited and closed-minded their view is. They are so trapped within the materialist paradigm they simply can’t see reality for all the molecules.
A Gross Misunderstanding of the Pro-Life Position
As expected, his blind adherence to SM transfers nicely into GW’s failed critique of SK’s pro-life arguments.
He dismisses substance dualism because he is still trying to weigh a chicken with a yardstick, and because Paul of Tarsus was not a neuroscientist – as if only a neuroscientist could possibly comment on such a thing. (This begs the question: “Is GW a neuroscientist?” Not that it matters, of course, but I’m curious … as I digress).
Where SK argues for the continuity-in-kind of a developing fetus, GW wants to talk about Darwinian speciation.
Where SK uses continuity-of-personhood as a valid justification of punishment for moral culpability, GW insists that “altering the environment of an offending person, in some cases administering punishment, lowers the probability that the offender or others will engage in similar criminal behavior in the future.” While this may be true, it says precisely nothing about the notion that behavior is simply descriptive while altering behavior does nothing to explain why a behavior is wrong or what constitutes “proper” behavior –both of which are prescriptive.
But most troubling is the chilling vacuity in moral reasoning displayed in GW’s attempt to dismiss SK’s defense of the unborn. Before I go there, and since GW is apparently unfamiliar with it, I offer a simple summary of the pro-life position as defended by SK and the LTI staff:
- Human beings are valuable simply for what they are. Though Christian theists ground this notion in our being made in God’s image, it is not an unreasonable position and it does not depend on Christianity to be true. Even the most vehement materialist (Peter Singer excluded) seems to understand this simple fact.
- Scientifically, it is indisputable that a distinct, whole, living human being comes into existence at the moment of conception. Those who doubt this scientific fact don’t need to read a Bible, just an embryology textbook.
- Philosophically, the only differences between the unborn zygote/embryo/fetus each of us once were and the bornchild/adult we are today are matters of Size, Level of Development, Environment, and Degree of Dependency. None of these is morally significant nor would they justify killing any of us at an earlier stage in our development.
Taking these together, we argue that abortion is the unjustified taking of innocent human life. This is not a preference statement –we aren’t saying we don’t like abortion – it is a statement of objective moral truth. Taking innocent human life is morally wrong in and of itself.
Because he is apparently not familiar with this argument, GW’s reasoning does absolutely nothing to challenge any of its premises or the conclusion itself. This leaves him to ask questions and make assertions that range from irrelevant to downright bone-chilling in their moral bankruptcy.
He misunderstands some basic biological facts and this ignorance leads him to draw false moral conclusions. For instance, at one point he offers this hypothetical scenario:
If Jenner engineered human sperm, not fetuses, to eventually become adults who had ‘minimally firing synapse’ and who were trained to blow themselves up in the presence of walkers, would this be wrong?
Though the moral point he is trying to make is unclear, one wonders if GW understands that a human sperm only contains half the DNA required to “eventually become an adult.” In order for someone to “engineer the sperm” toward that end, one would first have to combine the sperm with the DNA from an egg to create a human embryo that would develop into ... a fetus. A fetus is nothing more than a stage in the development of a human being toward adulthood. But this is a concept GW repeatedly misses.
Inreferring to the “unborn” Klusendorf misuses language, which is typical of anti-abortion-rights’ activists. It is proper to call early stage living human organisms by their proper names, like “zygotes, embryos, or fetuses …”
GW accuses SK of “misusing language,” and lectures us about how we should “properly” refer to early stage living organisms, all the while demonstrating that he has no apparent concept of what the language means. Zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are not different things. They are different stages in the development of the same thing – namely a whole, complete, living human being. Does GW not realize that he was once a zygote, embryo, and fetus? Does the fact that he developed from conception, through each of these stages (while unborn), until he was born mean that he was a different kind of thing at each stage along the way?
GW repeats this false assertion in several places by insisting that there is a difference in kind between an unborn human being and one who is born. This confusion about basic biological terms leads him to some rather bizarre assertions.
Contrary to the author, the “adult you” is not identical to the “fetal you”; it is similar, but not identical … in talking about the “unborn” the author is inappropriately trying to refer to fetuses as though they are babies.
Similar? True, the unborn is different in its level of development, but that does not change the kind of thing it is. What is the species and identity of “fetal you?” Is it different from “adult you?” GW seems to think so. Was GW not once “unborn?” Did his changing location 20 cm from inside his mother to outside his mother suddenly render him a "baby" that was a different kind of being or a different person than the one he is now?
It is twice as likely that a human zygote will die or be miscarried than that it will be born
It is also 100% likely that GW will die at some point. But this is hardly an argument we should accept to justify killing him earlier in his life.
Is a one-celled human zygote really as valuable as an 18-year-old human person?
Yes. There is no difference in kind between the two. If GW has evidence that there is an intrinsic difference – a difference in kind, not an instrumental difference– between them, I encourage him to share it with us.
Here the author fails to acknowledge that unlike the person who has suffered a stroke and the loss of some cognitive functions, before a certain point in development a fetus has not manifested any cognitive functions. He is trying to compare apples to oranges.
No, GW is trying to turn apples into oranges. A person who suffers a stroke – or a pre-cognitive fetus – is still a human being and therefore valuable in virtue of the kind of thing it is. On a related note, his insistence on sentience, self-awareness, cognitive ability etc., as a measure of human value fails to take into account the fact that babies do not demonstrate these traits until weeks or months after they are born. GW’s criteria for assessing human value are arbitrary and irrelevant.
[SK] asks “Could doctors have justifiably killed you during your extended sleep...” Yes, they could, if you had previously stipulated in writing that you wished to be killed while in the coma when your chances of recovery were judged to be below a certain threshold, as determined by expert opinion.
Despite the fact that this is a completely different subject from the one being discussed, I would simply point out that I am unaware of any aborted human beings who have been afforded this luxury.
Each of these empty arguments fails miserably for the same reason – because each of them assumes that the unborn is not a human being. GW gives us no explanation for why the unborn may not be a human being and thereby avoids the moral question about why he thinks we should be allowed to kill it. In this propensity, he fancies himself clever and insightful, while the arguments he advances are the same old, tired ones that SK has been proving false for years.
GW’s confusion about the reality and continuity of human nature is bothersome. But what is most disturbing are the moral conclusions he draws based on this confusion. For that reason (and because this has already gone on too long), I will conclude with the most disturbing part of his view that is revealed in this question:
Why is a human organism always more valuable than a chicken organism? Might the latter be more valuable if a person is hungry?
Apparently, GW is serious in asking these questions – which is what led me to use the term “bone-chilling.” Since we’re asking questions here, does GW tell his wife (assuming he is married) that he wonders at times(especially when he is hungry) if she is more valuable than a chicken?
That is bad enough – but it is not the worst implication of the view he is putting forward. On GW’s SM, both his wife and a chicken are simply different forms of living “organisms” – bags of bones and flesh and protein – that would be perfectly acceptable in satisfying his appetite. Getting one’s genes into the next generation is all that counts. SM can’t say otherwise.
If he wants “scientific proof” of the value of human life he will get none. This is not the result of a deficiency in the pro-life argument; it is further evidence that SM is an incomplete philosophical position that cannot even begin to answer the most fundamental, and most important, questions about the world as we know it. The fact that a human “organism” is more valuable than a chicken organism is self-evident. But there is a name we give to the kind of person who requires an explanation for such a thing: psychopath.
Let me be crystal clear in stating that I am in no way suggesting that GW is a psychopath. I say this because I do not believe GW actually believes what he is implying with his question. I am simply pointing out that this is the kind of moral reasoning one is required to use to defend SM. So-called “skeptics” and sophists spout this kind of nonsense all the time, but none of them really adheres to it when they live out their lives in the real world.
SM is an empty, false, morally reprehensible way to understand the world. For this reason, applying it to the issue of abortion leads to empty, false, morally reprehensible justifications. I would like to thank GW for demonstrating this for us so clearly in his “critical essay.” It provides us with a powerful, real world example of the bankruptcy – both logically and morally – in the ideas he attempts to defend.