Thursday, September 29, 2011

Thoughts About 180 [Scott]

The post below assumes you’ve seen the film.

Thank you, Ray Comfort. I'm thankful you care enough about abortion to do something about it. I'm grateful for the resources you personally invested to make the film. I'm glad you take abortion seriously.

For our readers, here is my quick take on the film from the perspective of a pro-life apologist. Your comments are welcome.

The Good: The big ideas are there

1) The film casts the abortion issue as a human rights issue. That is the correct way to frame the debate. In an era where some pro-lifers are duped into reframing the discussion in terms of “reducing” abortion rather than legally protecting the unborn, this was indeed refreshing.

2) The film correctly states that moral conclusions (i.e., abortion is wrong) should impact how we vote. Pretending that pro-life convictions can be divorced from the political process won’t do and Comfort, unlike many evangelical leaders, is courageous enough to connect the dots. Once again, this was refreshing to see.

3) The film correctly states that discussions about abortion often lead to larger (theological) questions about human sinfulness and the gospel as the remedy. It challenges the false dichotomy between preaching the gospel and cultural reform—used by some to downplay pro-life political and cultural reform efforts. The films shows that concerned Christians both confront injustice and preach the gospel.

4) The film challenges the fear of engaging unbelievers. Ray Comfort’s tactic of asking questions to provoke conversation is an excellent way to engage. Despite asking some very pointed questions (including some I would not have asked), his listeners don’t seem to take offense. His best question (paraphrase) was to a young woman who said she didn’t know if the unborn were human, but still thought abortion was an option. Comfort asks, “Would you blow up an old building before making sure no one was inside?” Credit Comfort for asking rather than merely preaching.

My concern: The film overlooked some important distinctions:

1) The distinction between people in the film (Venice Beach?) and the public at large—The sample used in the film is not only small; it's not where most people are in terms of historical knowledge. Most people don't know who Hitler was? True, people in Venice Beach may not, but the nation as a whole? While Comfort’s tactics worked with the morally untutored folks in the film, I’m not persuaded they will provoke a 180 with more clever critics of the pro-life view found at the local university. In short, this film, while useful, is not a silver bullet that will instantly convert folks to our position.

2) The distinction between shouting a conclusion and establishing one--A sharp abortion-choicer could easily say, “Ya, I value human life. What Hitler did to Jews was wrong, but the unborn are not valuable human beings, so the comparison fails.” To succeed, pro-lifers must first establish that the unborn are indeed human (which the film does through images rather than scientific evidence), but then show that none of the differences between the embryos we once were and the adults we are today justify killing us at that earlier stage of development. Differences of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency, are not value giving in the way that abortion-advocates need them to be in order to make their case. In short, jumping from killing Jews for bad reasons to killing the unborn for those same reasons leaves out important premises in the pro-life argument.

3) The distinction between killing a “baby” and unjustly killing human beings—Perhaps I am nitpicking here, but I think Comfort asks the wrong question when he points to a 6-week fetus and says, “Doesn’t that look like a baby?” What if the critic says “no?” End of discussion. Indeed, the pro-life view is not that abortion is wrong because it kills a “baby;” it’s wrong because it unjustly kills a human being regardless of his/her stage of development. That is, “baby” (infant) is just one stage of human existence on the continuum from conception to death. Therefore, killing the unborn human through elective abortion is wrong even if he’s not a “baby.” To be clear, there is nothing wrong with using pictures to convey the humanity of the unborn and the inhumanity of abortion. I use those pictures in my own presentations. But I use them to reawaken moral intuitions that elective abortion is the unjust killing of a human being, not make the case the embryo or early fetus qualifies as a “baby.”

4) The distinction between voting for pro-life candidates and voting pro-life--Put simply, what does it really mean to vote pro-life? Is it as simple as never voting for a pro-abortion candidate? I submit it is not. For example, at the legislative level in particular (House and Senate races), a "pro-life" vote usually means voting for the party that, though imperfect, will best protect unborn humans against one that sanctions killing them. The reason is simple: At the legislative level, political parties more than individuals determine which laws see the light of day.

Consider the House of Representatives. If a party committed to elective abortion controls the chamber, it will squash pro-life bills and promote pro-abortion ones. Even if that pro-abortion party has a few “pro-life” members, those members will likely never get to vote on a pro-life bill unless their party is not in power!

But it gets worse. These same “pro-life” members of that pro-abortion party almost always put party politics above moral principle when it comes to the most important vote they will cast—selection of the Speaker. Remember, the Speaker of the House ultimately determines the legislative agenda and if the party committed to elective abortion controls the chamber, its candidate for Speaker will inevitably be pro-abortion. Nevertheless, these “pro-life” members vote for their party’s candidate for Speaker, which all but guarantees that pro-life bills never see the light of day! In most cases, then, they aren’t reforming their party’s pro-abortion stance; they’re enabling it! So it's not always as simple as voting for the candidate (at the legislative level) who claims to be "pro-life."

5) The distinction between intentional killing and killing that is merely foreseen--Is it always wrong to kill an innocent human being? What about ectopic pregnancy? The medical protocols on this are clear: If the doctor does not remove the embryo (which results in the embryo's death), both mother and embryo will likely die. Given the circumstances, shouldn't the physician act in such a way that he does the greatest moral good possible--in this case, save one life rather than lose two? True, the embryo dies when the physician acts to save the mother, but the physician does not intend the embryo's death. He merely foresees it. In the case of elective abortion, the death of the embryo is both intended and foreseen. A better question for the film would be, "Is intentionally killing an innocent human being ever justified to suit our own preferences?"

Despite these concerns, the film is worth seeing and Comfort gets huge accolades for his courage in confronting abortion head-on. Say what you want, at least he’s doing something about it and for that I am immensely grateful. Before ripping him, his evangelical critics need to ask themselves what they are doing to stop the bloodshed. Are they taking this holocaust as seriously as Comfort does? I can only pray that one day they will.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Gary Should Read the Best on His Side Before Attacking Ours [Scott]

I'm tied up with a writing assignment (a book project), so I won't contribute much to this discussion with Gary. However, one thing struck me about his scattered replies to Bob Perry.

Put simply, Gary claims to be knowledgable of “the other side,” but he sure isn’t tuned in to his own side, at least on the abortion issue. Indeed, anyone who spends even an hour surveying the relevant literature knows that David Boonin’s A Defense of Abortion is the most sophisticated case against the pro-life position to date. Admittedly, I do not think Boonin succeeds, but one thing he doesn’t do is claim, as Gary does, that he’s not identical to the fetus he once was. Instead, Boonin would argue that although Gary is identical to the embryo he once was—meaning he is the same being now as he was then—it does not follow Gary had the same right to life then as he does now. Being human is nothing special, meaning Gary’s right to life is strictly accidental. He has it because of some acquired characteristic he has now (organized cortical function) that he lacked then. To make sure we get the point, Boonin includes this chilling passage:
On my desk in my office where most of this book was written and revised, there are several pictures of my son, Eli. In one, he is gleefully dancing on the sand along the Gulf of Mexico, the cool ocean breeze wreaking havoc with his wispy hair. In a second, he is tentatively seated in the grass in his grandparents’ backyard, still working to master the feat of sitting up on his own. In a third, he is only a few weeks old, clinging firmly to the arms that are holding him and still wearing the tiny hat for preserving body heat that he wore home from the hospital. Though all of the remarkable changes that these pictures preserve, he remains unmistakably the same little boy. In the top drawer of my desk, I keep another picture of Eli. This picture was taken…24 weeks before he was born. The sonogram image is murky, but it reveals clearly enough a small head titled back slightly, and an arm raised up and bent, with the hand pointing back toward the face and the thumb extended out toward the mouth. There is no doubt in my mind that this picture, too, shows the same little boy at a very early stage in his physical development. And there is no question that the position I defend in this book entails that it would have been morally permissible to end his life at this point. (Emphasis added.)
Again, I think Boonin’s case is flawed and I've written on that elsewhere (for example, how does he account for human equality if our value is based on accidental properties that may come and go within the course of our lifetimes?), but at least he avoids the elementary error of claiming he began as one kind of thing only to become something else as he matured.

If Gary has not even interacted with the best case on his side of the abortion issue, why should we think he's done his homework understanding ours? Indeed, the shallow claims he makes against our side (for example, confusing parts with wholes, as Bob points out) suggests he hasn't.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Critiquing a Deadly View of the World [Bob]

[In the response toMr. Gary Whittenberger's (GW) "critical essay" in the previous post, I offer the following with Scott Klusendorf's (SK's) permission. I will try to simplify the issues GW addresses and do my best to clarify what I see as the nature of their disagreement ... Bob]

____________________


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’s it.

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.”
Richard Lewontin
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.”

Exactly!

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
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Challenging Scott on "The Walking Dead"

[Recently, LTI received a "critical essay" in response to Scott's recent article in the Christian Research Journal, "What The Walking Dead Can Teach Pro-Lifers." The author, a self-described atheist, humanist, skeptic, takes exception with Scott's points and asked us for an opportunity to challenge them. Though this is not a practice we have entertained in the past, we decided to allow Scott's critic a forum. Bob will be preparing the LTI response in a separate post. We invite our readers to join the discussion with their comments ...]

_______________________


Explaining “The Walking Dead”

By Gary Whittenberger

“What the ‘Walking Dead’ can tell Pro-lifers” by Scott Klusendorf appeared in the Christian Research Journal, and I intend to present a critique of this article.  Even though I am a humanist, atheist, and skeptic, I subscribe to this journal because I like to read the best arguments of “the other side” and I believe that most of the articles in it are well articulated by well-educated theologians, philosophers, apologists, and pastors. 

The thrust of the CRJ is summarized by this paragraph presented in every issue: “As an organ of the Christian Research Institute (CRI), the Christian Research Journal’s primary commitment is to ‘contend earnestly for the truth which was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3).  In keeping with this commitment, the Journal’s mission is both evangelistic and pastoral; evangelistic in that it is dedicated to furthering the proclamation and defense of the historic gospel of Jesus Christ; pastoral in that it is dedicated to helping His followers identify and distinguish between essential Christian doctrine and doctrine that is peripheral, aberrant, or heretical.”  Of course, for an atheist, humanist, and skeptic like myself, there are many problems with this statement, but I’ll not get into them at this time because my focus in on the presented article.

My comments will refer to each paragraph in succession in the article, as numbered.

¶1:

I have not yet watched AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” but intend to look at a few episodes later.  However, I do not think that this is necessary for evaluating the philosophical and religious claims of the author made in the current article.

¶2:

Zombies have been a favorite topic of horror films and even of philosophers for quite some time.   In AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” apparently when human persons are bitten by the zombies, they “die a violent death” but soon come back to life as zombies, compelled to bite and kill other human persons.  In real life when you’re dead, you’re dead and you don’t walk, but the TV program requires us to temporarily suspend our disbelief.  It is ironic that Christianity requires us to permanently suspend our disbelief and instead to think that Jesus came back to life, walked, talked, ate and drank, and levitated into the sky.

¶3:

I agree with the author that the ideas in the story are worth considering from the Christian perspective, but they are also worth considering from a general philosophical perspective.

¶4 & 5:

The statement of the character Dr. Jenner here and the author’s summary of it are similar in many ways to a quote from Dr. Francis Crick made in his 1994 book The Astonishing Hypothesis: “...’You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”  (P. 3)

¶6:

Klusendorf, the author, claims that the character Dr. Jenner is not “doing science” but is “doing philosophy,” but might he be doing both?  It seems that Jenner is merely summarizing a large body of research which demonstrates the dependency of experience, memory, personality, and behavior on the brain, i.e. when the brain changes, the “mind” changes in reliable ways.  Klusendorf presents his version of “scientific materialism” (SM) without naming or quoting even one person who holds this position, and his version largely appears to be a straw man.  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.  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.  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.  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.

¶7:

The author chastises Jenner for not saying how nonmaterial minds emerge from physical processes or how consciousness emerges from nonconscious brain matter, as though this fictional character should fully defend scientific materialism or present conclusions not yet even drawn by modern science or philosophy.  Klusendorf simply expects too much.  He even goes on to say “The interaction between nonmaterial minds and physical bodies is difficult to explain, given materialism.”  It is also difficult to explain, given dualism or any other of the commonly held positions.  The current lack of a good explanation does not constitute support for soul theory, as the author appears to assume later in the article.

¶8:

Klusendorf asks why Jenner is even trying to persuade the humans under his protection of his view.  Well, it could be that he thinks they have a different view of the situation, possibly the view espoused by Klusendorf in the article, and that it would be helpful for them to adopt a more accurate view.  The author seems to confuse two different ideas, i.e. the specific dependency of mind processes on brain processes and general determinism where a set of causes invariably leads in sequence to some effect.  Even if the mind is perfectly dependent on the brain, it still might be possible for human mental events and behavior to be either free or determined.  And also, if the mind is not perfectly dependent on the brain, either alternative is still possible.  Even if determinism is true, this does not mean that the humans lectured by Jenner are impervious to persuasion.  It just means that their belief has been determined by their genetic and environmental history up to the point that they meet Jenner.  His speech becomes a new factor in their histories, a factor which might overwhelm the other factors to which they have been exposed in the past.  Jenner’s thoughts can be more rational than those of his listeners.  This is the case whether determinism is true or not, since the category of rational v. irrational refers to the content of behavior, not to its cause.

¶9:

Here the author talks about the “irrational forces” of nature, but he is making a category error.  Nature doesn’t think, and so it can be neither rational nor irrational; it is merely nonrational.  Darwin may have had the position attributed to him by the author here, but so what?  Darwin is not the last word, and science and philosophy have built upon Darwin and advanced beyond him since 1859 when he first published On the Origin of Species.  

Klusendorf just can’t figure out how evolution could support the ascertaining of or valuing of truth in humans.  He bluntly asks “If our cognitive faculties only tell us what we need to survive, not what is true, why trust them about anything at all?”  The answer is that organisms who have brain mechanisms which lead them to seek and value truth may be more likely to survive and reproduce than those who do not.  By knowing truth about the workings of reality, organisms are better equipped to make predictions and control events around them; this has survival value.

¶10:

The author touts substance dualism, but he doesn’t provide any evidence for a nonphysical soul.  Physical substance can be detected and measured, but how can nonphysical substance (soul) be identified?  The identity of the body is preserved over time because the general structure or pattern of the body’s components remains the same, even though the underlying substance of those components may have changed.

¶11:

Substance dualism is an interesting idea and even though it has been around for a long time, evidence to support it is lacking.  Some parts of the Bible merely assert the theory but do not provide evidence for it.  Other parts of the Bible (more so in the Old Testament) seem to advance physical monism.  Just because St. Paul assumes an identity beyond his physical self doesn’t mean that his assumption is correct.  Paul was not a neuroscientist and he was not even a good philosopher.

¶12:

There are many problems with the dualist views of Moreland, Rae, and Beckwith, but among the greatest is that they are unable to provide a way to detect or identify an immaterial nature or soul.  In his discussion here Klusendorf uses the concepts of substance and organism in odd ways, e.g. he says “substances are living organisms” when a more accurate description is that living organisms are composed of substances.  He says “As a substance grows, it does not become more of its kind” when it is more accurate to say that “as an organism grows its kind is still determined by its DNA”.  The author claims that properties don’t make the kind of thing something is, but he considers only simple cases where one property might be missing.  A difficult question which he must ultimately address is “What percentage of change in properties constitutes a change in kind?”  This question is relevant to determining when a new species has been identified in biology.

¶13:

Klusendorf’s discussion seems to suffer from equivocation on the use of the word “property”.  At times he uses it to refer to an attribute of something but at other times he uses it to refer to something belonging to a human person, something owned or controlled.  And he doesn’t seem to be aware of this equivocation.

¶14:

The author repeats a question he has already asked “If we are nothing more than physical beings, how can we account for personal identity through time and change?”  The answer I gave earlier still seems valid – the overall structure or pattern of physical components can account for personal identity through time.  

¶15:

No, the notions of moral responsibility and criminal justice are not based on a substance-dualist view of a person.  These notions do not depend on either a monist or dualist view.  They only depend on the assumption 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.

¶16:

The author thinks that Jenner implies that personhood begins at birth, but where does he get this?  It is surely not from the presented quotes.  The author talks about “the substance view,” and he must mean “the nonmaterial substance view,” but if this is the case he should say so explicitly since even from his perspective there are two types of substance.  Contrary to the author, the “adult you” is not identical to the “fetal you”; it is similar, but not identical.  Klusendorf seems to confuse the ideas of “identical” and “identity” (“numerical identity”).  Once again the author asserts that human beings possess a nonmaterial human nature, but he provides no evidence of this.  The author provides no explanation or justification that human organisms are “intrinsically valuable” throughout the life span from conception to death; he merely asserts that this is the case and expects the reader to accept it.  Ultimately, the author must deal with the questions “How is value determined or assigned?” and “Valuable to whom?”

¶17:

The concept of “human equality” describes how different persons should be treated, but says nothing about when human organisms become persons or about when equal rights should be assigned to developing human organisms.  It appears that Klusendorf would like to assign human rights to single-celled zygotes because they have received souls, but he provides 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.  Why is a human organism always more valuable than a chicken organism?  Might the latter be more valuable if a person is hungry?  Is a one-celled human zygote really as valuable as an 18-year-old human person?  The author does not deal with the tough questions.

¶18:

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.

¶19:

In the Beckwith example the victim who recovered from a motorcycle accident and coma is not like the early stage living human organism in the womb.  Even though the victim lacks memories of the past, he has consciousness, self-awareness, emotions, thoughts, and new memories.  Before some point the fetus has never manifested any of these things.  The author 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.  Klusendorf seems to believe that human rights should be immediately assigned when an organism comes into possession of a soul (or when it is determined to have human DNA), but this is only one of many options and he fails to provide a justification for his position.  The greatest flaws in his position are that a soul cannot be detected or identified and that drawing the line at conception fails to consider the general negative consequences of this to human adults.

¶20:

Klensendorf’s question about the clone scenario near the end of his article is challenging and deserves more time and space than can be given to it here.  However, it seems clear to a secular humanist when the proposed actions would not be ethically permissible.  It would be wrong if the cloned fetus had crossed the boundary of consciousness or sentience.  It would be wrong even before then, if the persons providing the sperm and egg to produce the cloned fetus had not given their prior informed consent for the planned procedures.  The author should address these scenarios similar to his own: “If Jenner engineered human sperm, not fetuses, to eventually become adults who had ‘minimally firing synapses’ and who were trained to blow themselves up in the presence of walkers, would this be wrong?  Or “Would it be wrong if Jenner engineered chimpanzee fetuses (or early stage cockroaches) to eventually blow themselves up in the presence of walkers?”    

¶21:

The author asserts that there is a Creator of human souls or organisms and that humans bear the image of such a Creator, but these are merely hypotheses which have little or no evidential support.  Klusendorf is not justified in using these speculations to develop a theory of human value, equality, or rights.  He boldly states “Humans have value simply because they are human.”  And yet he does not deal with the issues of “Value to whom?”  “Value under what conditions?”  “Why does value depend on type of living thing or potential?” “Do organisms of other species have no value because they are not human?”

In referring 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.”  It is twice as likely that a human zygote will die or be miscarried than that it will be born, so in talking about the “unborn” the author is inappropriately trying to refer to fetuses as though they are babies.

If the author is wrong in his position and Jenner is right, the author’s view of human equality is a myth, but there are other versions of human equality which would not be made into myths.  For example, if human rights are assigned to conscious or sentient fetuses, then they are equal under the law after that point.  Contrary to the author’s view, secularists don’t justify their assignment of human rights to fetuses on the basis of quantity of brain activity, but usually on the basis of brain function, e.g. the presence of consciousness, sentience, perceived pain, or rudimentary decision making.

In conclusion, Klusendorf fails to adequately flesh out his Christian dualist view in the article, and the position itself is poorly supported by evidence.

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