I have spent a lot of time recently studying and talking about agnosticism. Agnosticism in this post is simply the position that the proper response to a state of affairs or a body of evidence is to say that you cannot know the truth with any certainty. There are other things that people mean when they say “We can't know X” from objecting to the idea that we can know anything with certainty at all (except our certainty of that particular statement of knowledge) to objecting to the idea there are any objective truths to know at all (except the objectively true fact that there are no objective truths).
This particular form of agnosticism is a response to multiple opinions on a subject of some importance. I suppose we can be agnostic about unimportant things as well, but that form of agnosticism is more disinterest. For example, when a disturbing number of women and girls were consumed as to whether the heroine of the fictional Twilight series of books should choose her vampire boyfriend or her werewolf boyfriend I honestly had no opinion on the matter. Sure I didn't know, but more importantly I didn't care to learn enough to form an opinion. The agnosticism we are talking about is not just disinterested laziness. Intelligent and reasonable people see a large number of people with varying positions on a certain point and determine that given all that disagreement or given the large number of possibilities then the only answer that escapes arrogance or does not overreach is to humbly say, “I don't know given the evidence at hand.”
We see this when people argue that we simply can't know when life begins or when humans become valuable. They aren't saying that embryonic or fetal human life isn't intrinsically valuable like Peter Singer argues. They also are not saying human life absolutely does not begin at fertilization. They are arguing that there are too many variables to be able to know which position is true. In the face of such a state of affairs the only reasonable position is to say, “I don't know.” Then comes the next part of their reasoning, they conclude from this that we ought support liberal abortion laws given this inability to know. Wait... what?
Let's sort through a few problems here:
- As Alvin Plantinga points out in Warranted Christian Belief, any attempt to skirt the charge of arrogance by pleading agnosticism fails. Saying that given the evidence there is only one correct position is still claiming the superiority of a position. You are still saying that you are right and that holding any other conclusion is a mistake. If the people that argue that value begins at fertiliaztion with the presence of a new life or that say - like David Boonin - that value begins at organized cortical brain activity can be considered arrogant for arguing specific positions than so can the agnostic for arguing the specific position of intellectual agnosticism.
- We don't stop trying to determine the truth simply because a truth is difficult to determine. Plantinga says philosophy is just thinking really hard about something. Richard Feynman says the essence of science is patience in that if you looked, and you watched, and you paid attention, you got a great reward. If these two brilliant men are right then we know that science and philosophy – the two disciplines we use to argue the pro-life position - begin with subjects that require patience and hard thinking. As Hadley Arkes says, the absence of a consensus does not indicate the absence of truth. It may be that we need to be patient in our reasoning and invest some energy into our careful considerations to eliminate insufficient options and hone in on the best answer. That is usually the answer that best fits what we already know.
- As Frank Beckwith points out in Defending Life, when someone like Boonin argues that it is unclear at what point in the fertilization process it is accurate to say we have a new life and as a result the argument that life begins at fertilization is undermined they commit the fallacy of the beard. He writes, “just because I cannot tell you when stubble ends and a beard begins does not mean that I cannot distinguish bearded faces from clean-shaven ones.” He goes on to point out that any developmental marker that abortion rights advocates choose to bestow value is equally as fuzzy in its attainment whether it is something like determining when a child has self awareness or organized cortical brain activity. Yet they don't argue that because their own criteria arrive in an undetermined moment of development that it undermines their own position. At the end of fertilization we have a member of the human family and we argue that the members of that family are valuable by virtue of what they are not what they can do.
- Similarly, when some people claim that all life is one big indistinguishable process and so it is hard to say what a new life is they make the same mistake. We certainly do not seem to struggle between determining the mother from the unborn child in the process of aborting the child. When was the last time we heard an abortionist claim that due to the complexity of life and the indistinguishable nature of the whole life process in totality he accidentally killed the mother? It was just so hard to grasp what individual life was during the abortion procedure.My wife used to watch a show called Everwood. On one episode that dealt with abortion the pro-choice surgeon that the show centered on refused to perform an abortion. He had recently lost his wife and after the trauma of that loss the character began to understand something that I thought was profoundly stated in the midst of a deeply morally flawed episode. He said, “I may not know when life begins, but I sure know when it ends.” You hear the same sentiments in the writings of pro-life surgeons that were fighting abortion in post Civil War United States. They had seen so much death on the battlefield that they could no longer stomach the idea of people using medical knowledge to end innocent human life.Medical science has equipped doctors to identify embryonic human life and fetal human life with enough precision to successfully terminate that life to benefit either research or to end pregnancy. Therefore, we must accept that however fuzzy some biological processes seem we know what an individual zygote, embryo, and fetus are scientifically. They are whole, distinct, human life. We demonstrate our intimate knowledge of their individuality every time we target them for destruction.
- Finally, the idea that we can't know the identity or value of nascent human life cannot possibly lead to the conclusion that it is morally permissible to destroy that life without justification. I understand that the basis for this is the reasoning that if we don't know what the unborn are - whether in value or in biological identity - then we cannot impose on women that they must continue undesired pregnancies or limit the ability of science to pursue therapeutic cures for serious and debilitating illnesses. But even if we stipulate the case for agnosticism for sake of argument, the comparative costs paid by the different lives in question is such that it would seem the proper response is restraint not permissiveness.As Ronald Reagan once argued, if you are a hunter in the woods and you suddenly see and hear a rustling in the bushes it would be irresponsible and dangerous to start firing into the bushes. You have a duty to determine what it is in the bushes before you kill it. Greg Koukl's “Can I kill this?” analogy points that out as well. The central question comes back to “What is the unborn?” As many others have said including Beckwith and Arkes, only the most cynical understanding of neutrality imaginable would say the current abortion on demand laws in the United States – laws that permit abortion through all nine months for any reason when the ridiculously broad Doe v Bolton health exception is applied – do not favor one side over another. If the argument is that it is impossible to know which view is correct, then the neutral legal response can't be to say that we will then craft all the laws to reflect the views that they are not humans and do not matter. This is not agnosticism but radical abortion advocacy masquerading as something more reasonable.