Thursday, September 18, 2014

Responding to Philosophical Arguments Against the Pro-Life Position [Clinton Wilcox]

Blogger Brandon Christen has written an introductory article, the first in a five-part series, responding to pro-life arguments. He is looking at the issue from an atheistic perspective. It's refreshing to find a pro-choice blogger who argues from logic and philosophy instead of the usual fare you get from sites like Salon or RH Reality Check. I would like to offer a response to his arguments and when he posts the other parts in his series, I will respond to those.

Christen begins his article by talking about the seeming stark divide among religious lines regarding the abortion issue -- that the religious are pro-life and atheists are pro-choice. But if you look deeper into this, you'll realize this isn't really the case. While it may be true that the religious are more likely to be pro-life and atheists are more likely to be pro-choice, there are certainly pro-choice religious people and pro-life atheists. In fact, as Bernard Nathanson talked about in his book Aborting America, abortion was initially disguised as a religious issue by the pro-choice lobby to help get abortion legalized in the United States. Abortion, itself, is inherently not a religious/non-religious issue, just like the slavery issue wasn't.

He also talks about the soul, but this is another misguided discussion. While it's true that if you're pro-life and religious, you will believe in a soul and that the soul is created at fertilization (unless you believe in the pre-existence of the soul), you don't have to believe in a soul to be pro-life. Atheists believe that murder of a fully grown adult is wrong even without having to believe in the existence of a soul. It's simply not necessary to take a stance on the existence of the soul to take a stance on the abortion issue.

Christen goes on to make the following point: "Under the banner of philosophical and scientific skeptical inquiry, this paradigm eschews the notion -- due to the utter lack of evidence for things like non-corporeal 'souls' -- that something as pure and simple as a soul is imputed to an embryo upon conception. This being the case, the only recourse for finding "personhood" is in looking at the physical brain. Decades of experience with neurological development and brain functioning (or brain damage) affecting character points heavily toward "personhood" being located in the brain, or at the least emergent from the overall process of the brain's computations."

There are a lot of assumptions going on here. It's simply false that there is no evidence for the soul. The fact that we are the same entity through all points in our life is evidence for the soul. There are other evidences but that is beyond the scope of this article. What Christen means is that there is no scientific evidence for the soul, but this should not concern us. Science is not the only method of gaining information about the universe. Science can only gather information about the physical aspects of the universe, so we should expect that science could not give us evidence for the soul (science also can't prove the existence of numbers, morality, or other abstract concepts). But scientific evidence is not the only kind of evidence there is.

Christen also assumes that the only recourse for finding personhood is in the brain, but there is no reason to accept this, either. He may argue that the brain is the best recourse, but why should we accept it as the only recourse? Additionally, how much of the brain must be developed before you can say someone is legitimately a person? Why can't we establish that being a human being is necessary for personhood, since being a human being also means that you will develop a human brain? After all, the brain develops from within the zygote because the zygote has the information stored in her DNA. So why isn't having human DNA the necessary aspect of personhood?

There may be decades of development in fields of science dealing with the brain that has helped us to understand how the brain affects personality, but Christen doesn't even attempt to connect how these developments show that personhood is actually located in the brain.

He then argues that the destruction of "a sufficiently uncomplicated bundle of neurological tissue" does not warrant the same ethical considerations as killing a full-blown adult because there is no person there. This is ultimately question-begging. He dismisses the concept of a soul out of hand without even engaging with any of the evidence for the soul (assuming there is none), he assumes, again without argument, that a soul is not necessary for personhood, and he doesn't even attempt to connect the dots as to how brain function is supposed to tie in to personhood. He just says that adults have psychological brain function, the unborn have none, so the unborn are not persons. But how does this follow, exactly?

Christen ends his article by briefly examining the four pro-life arguments he'll be engaging with in the next four parts of his series.

Argument One: Rights

The argument he's going to make here doesn't seem like it will relate to rights, per se, but as to the actual ontological nature of the unborn entity.

Argument Two: Ageism

This one seems pretty close to an argument that many pro-life advocates make. But again, it's another discussion about the ontological nature of the unborn child. If the unborn child from fertilization is a full-fledged human person, then to deny the unborn their rights would be ageism.

Argument Three: Denial of Future

I will be interested to see where Christen is going with the rebuttal here. This is an argument made by atheistic philosopher Don Marquis, which places the wrongness of killing someone in the fact that you are robbing them of their future of valuable experiences. He believes it has certain advantages because it is not an argument the relies on personhood or "speciesism."

Argument Four: Numerical Identity

This argument states that you are you through all points of your life, and since you were you in the womb, you had the same right to life you have now.

I will be looking forward to seeing Christen's future articles in the series, and will respond to them after they go live.

15 comments:

  1. i have full confidence that you will shred Mr. Christen. Pro-abortion arguments just don't stand up to scrutiny.

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    1. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Drew. He's already posted up his two next articles, and so far he's not off to a very stellar start.

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  2. Leaving out the Bible can be a huge problem when establishing the value of unborn babies. Secular society tends to associate the brain with personhood and self. You’d accept a heart, liver, arm, or lung transplant. But you’d never accept a brain transplant, because it wouldn’t be "you" any more. As another example, when a person has brain-death, they are declared "dead" and a "non-person" – you can lose any other part of your body and still be considered alive as long as your brain is functioning. Even if the world of secular fiction, make-believe characters can be considered "persons" if they have sufficient brain activity – anything from Treebeard to Ninja Turtles is given "personhood" by readers, or otherwise we wouldn’t care about the storyline. If intelligent life we’re ever found on another planet, we’d probably have similar methods of determining their personhood -- DNA would be meaningless. Lastly, associating DNA with personhood creates massive problems if you’re an evolutionist. Evolution states that there is a continuum of DNA between us and a monkey-like ancestor – so when in evolutionary history did we become "persons"?

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    1. Brain-death is the irreversible loss of brain activity. If brain-death was just temporary, it would be wrong to bury the patient. Rather, we'd recognize him as a temporarily disabled person (not a thing). His ability would still be inherent.

      A human embryo is more like someone temporarily without brain function rather than someone with an irreversible loss. The human embryo only needs the standard things we all need (nourishment, protection) until she wakes up.

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    2. I had a couple issues with your post. You use the term "waking up", as if the embryo is like someone sleeping. A sleeping person has merely relaxed his consciousness, whereas with an early embryo, consciousness isn’t there to begin with. It would be like if you compared a car without a motor to a car that has its ignition turned off.

      But you say the embryo is different because with the proper "nourishment and protection", it will eventually gain consciousness. This is the whole "potential" argument, and it has some serious problems. Scientists can take any somatic cell in your body (say from your left elbow), and turn it into a self-replicating embryo that will eventually become conscious. (This is how cloning is performed. ) So any cell in your body already has a blue print for another person. Using DNA as the basics for personhood quickly gets you into deep water without a floatation device.

      Don’t despair though. You’re making this way too hard. You want a bullet-proof argument against killing an embryo? Try Jeremiah 1:5.

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    3. "Leaving out the Bible can be a huge problem when establishing the value of unborn babies."

      I disagree.

      "Secular society tends to associate the brain with personhood and self."

      That's true, but they have to argue for it, not assume it. When atheists speak of personhood being tied to brain function, it's always assumed, never argued for. This was actually one of the points Marquis raised in his essay Why Abortion is Immoral.

      "You’d accept a heart, liver, arm, or lung transplant. But you’d never accept a brain transplant, because it wouldn’t be 'you' any more."

      How do you know that wouldn't really be "me" any more? If personhood is not tied to the brain, then while I may have different memories, that would still be "me". The problem with brain transplant examples is that it may not even be realistically possible to transplant someone's brain into another body, or transplant someone's consciousness, etc. A more discrete example: Consider someone who gets a severe blow to the head and has amnesia. Their memories are gone -- so has the previous person died and now a new person has been born? What if they get their memories back? Is that a resurrection? If someone suffers amnesia and they're a "brand new person," then we couldn't justly prosecute someone who commits a crime then suffers from amnesia, because they're a brand new person.

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    4. "As another example, when a person has brain-death, they are declared 'dead' and a 'non-person' – you can lose any other part of your body and still be considered alive as long as your brain is functioning."

      The problem with this example is that brain death isn't really death. As Drew mentioned, the thing about brain death is that your brain function has been irreversibly lost -- because of this, it is permissible to take you off of life support. If you had any chance of your brain function returning, that would be a different story. So doctors use "brain death" to determine when you can harvest someone's organs, but we have real-world examples of people we thought were brain dead coming out of it. There was a recent example of someone who was actually conscious and heard doctors talking about harvesting his organs. True death is when your cells stop communicating with each other. The human's life begins at fertilization, when their cells *start* communicating with each other; so if we're to take a symmetric view to life, true death is when the cells *stop* communicating with each other. Doctor Maureen Condic wrote a paper about this topic that is definitely worth reading, and which I have mentioned in another article on this site.

      So the thing is that your brain is important to your life (but you can suffer brain damage and still be alive), and you also can't lose your heart without dying. This is because your brain and heart are essentially to the proper functioning of your body, but they are not what makes you "you" in the sense of the "you" that exists. They make you "you" in the sense of the kind of person that you are.

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    5. "Even if the world of secular fiction, make-believe characters can be considered 'persons' if they have sufficient brain activity – anything from Treebeard to Ninja Turtles is given 'personhood' by readers, or otherwise we wouldn’t care about the storyline. If intelligent life we’re ever found on another planet, we’d probably have similar methods of determining their personhood -- DNA would be meaningless."

      That's why it's called *fiction.* I highly doubt we'll even encounter sentient turtles that go around fighting crime. It's easy to tell the metaphysical assumptions that writers of fiction bring to the table. But this doesn't make them correct. I believe that the Ninja Turtles are persons, but that's because being human is a sufficient, not a necessary, condition for personhood. What matters is the kind of thing you are, not what you can do now. Human beings are inherently rational beings from fertilization, so they are persons from fertilization. The Ninja Turtles, for example, had personhood "thrust upon them" when they became rational entities. They came from non-rational turtles, and would not have become sentient were it not for the ooze.

      "Lastly, associating DNA with personhood creates massive problems if you’re an evolutionist. Evolution states that there is a continuum of DNA between us and a monkey-like ancestor – so when in evolutionary history did we become 'persons'?

      I don't think evolution presents a problem for this view. We share traits and DNA in common with apes, but it's the differences that matter. I'm not sure, on an evolutionary time table, when human beings became rational enough to become persons, but there was a point at which it happened. As soon as human DNA evolved to the point of rationality, they became a personal species.

      And yeah, we won't know if an alien race is sentient unless we meet adults of that species. But again, that's not a defeater for this view, because the same rules of genetics would apply -- human aliens (say, Vulcans) would only be rational if they are an inherently rational species, which would be in place from fertilization. The reason that dogs don't engage in rational thought is because it is not in their nature -- it is not a tragedy when dogs fail to develop rationality. It *is* a tragedy when a human fails to develop rationality because it's in their nature to do so, and to not be rational prevents the absolute flourishing of that human individual.

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    6. You bring up the example of temporary amnesia. This again falls more in the "relaxation" of the brain, as in when a person goes to sleep or gets intoxicated. Moreover, the part of the brain that people associate with "self" is one of their consciousness, and not their memories or even their personalities. (Having said that, if you ever talk to family members of a person with long-term dementia, many will say the victim is like a "different person".)

      I want to end by telling you that I don't need to be convinced that abortion is evil. I’m convinced. Rather, my argument is that the personhood-argument is an uphill battle with secular society. It’s a view of personhood that’s foreign to them. Not only that, your view of personhood is arbitrary: "having cells that communicate with each other, with the DNA of a species that can potentially achieve rational thought". That's a person? Says who? And my major point is this: There’s was a time in our nation’s history where abortion was condemned except by a few fringe groups. And yet few if any could express any personhood-defenses of unborn babies. It was enough to say abortion was a grave sin, and that was enough. Now we’ve lost Christian morality in society at-large, and we hope that this personhood argument can replace all that.

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    7. That's not really "relaxation" of the brain. It's brain damage -- what the person once knew/believed has been lost and has no guarantee of coming back.

      I understand that you agree that abortion is immoral; the problem is that you're trying to prove that we need the Bible to talk about personhood and by so doing, you're falling into the same bad reasoning that pro-choice people have to make. Personhood isn't an uphill battle -- We can use science and philosophy because it lines up with the Biblical view of the world. All truth is God's truth. I have convinced people of the personhood of the unborn. Will there be people who aren't convinced? Sure. But those people definitely won't be convinced with Biblical arguments. You have to tailor your arguments to your audience.

      Having cells that communicate with each other is a scientific expression of life. The person I quoted is an embryologist, Dr. Maureen Condic, and embryologists are the experts on human embryos. If a pro-choice person tries to deny this, they are denying science.

      You're right that we've lost Christian morality in society at large, which is why it's essential now to take up the personhood debate and argue apart from Scripture. It's no longer sufficient to argue that the unborn are persons according to God. We now have to show, step by step, why the unborn qualify as persons. But this is a good thing, because the pro-life position is reasonable and the pro-choice position leads to absurdities (such as justification of infanticide).

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  3. @Paul Reed, you say "This is the whole "potential" argument, and it has some serious problems. Scientists can take any somatic cell in your body (say from your left elbow), and turn it into a self-replicating embryo that will eventually become conscious. (This is how cloning is performed. ) So any cell in your body already has a blue print for another person. "

    This is a false analogy. Every cell has your human DNA but every cell is not a human being by itself. The zygote or embryo is a distinct human being capable of self-directed growth without anything special (nourishment and hospitable environment are not special). My skin cell does not exhibit self-directed growth into a human being. If a scientist can use my skin cell to create a clone, that raises ethical issues - especially about such a procedure and the treatment of the clone. It does not warrant the destruction of embryos.

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  4. After all, the brain develops from within the zygote because the zygote has the information stored in her DNA. So why isn't having human DNA the necessary aspect of personhood?

    Are there any genetic conditions where the brain will not form? That is, not merely because some other part of the body, like the skull does not form properly and thus the brain can't physically develop. In that case, it makes sense to me to say that the child still has a capacity to develop a brain, and thus think rationally. However, how can we say that the child has the ability to think rationally if, say, all the dna that directs brain growth is missing? Is there a way to do so without appealing to a soul, which might put some pro-choicers?

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    1. If that was the case, I still don't think we can say the human being doesn't have the capacity to form a brain. The nature is what directs our development, and our DNA is the physical manifestation of our inherent capacities. We would still say the entity in question is a human being whose capacity for brain development is blocked by an external factor. It's not really appealing to a soul but to the fact that the child is missing what all human beings, by nature, should possess in order to flourish as a human being.

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    2. Hello,
      Thanks for the reply. Coming from the perspective of tragedy, it does make sense to think that the genetically defective human with anencephaly still has the capacity to think rationally, even with out appealing to a soul. He is still human, and it is tragic for humans to not be able to develop to the point of thinking, whatever the reason why they can't. At the same time, I have a hard time accepting that, since what external factor is blocking this capacity if his DNA is sufficiently corrupt? It is not as if he ever had a correct DNA code which was then damaged. It seems hard to view this as a privation if nothing was lost during his lifetime.

      On this topic, Francis Beckwith comments: "We may or may not be dealing with human beings in the case of anencephalic babies. Citing the work of Professor Germain Grisez, Krason argues that “there are two ways we may view the ‘anencephalic monster,’ depending on when the abnormality originates.” One way, “when the abnormality or the genetic certainty of it is present from conception, is to view the organism as human in its conception, but incapable of developing beyond a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks.” He argues “that in such cases, especially if the specifically human genetic pattern is greatly transformed, we may not consider the conceptus a human individual.” (http://www.equip.org/article/abortion-rights-answering-the-arguments-for-abortion-rights/) He wrote this back in 1990, so I don't know if this represents his current view.

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    3. "It's not really appealing to a soul but to the fact that the child is missing what all human beings, by nature, should possess in order to flourish as a human being."

      But would what you suggest necessarily assume the existence of the soul, which would not help in convincing secular people? Perhaps, given my thoughts above, you can elaborate what you mean, or direct me to anyone who has written on this subject, specifically on those with severely deformed DNA that "inhibits" the formation of a brain, and thus any expression of rationality.

      I am aware that Moreland and Rae wrote a book about ten or fifteen years ago on substance dualism, since I have bought the book - Body & and Soul, that is. However, I have not yet have time to read it. I did glance through the index looking for sections on genetic defects of DNA in general. I did see them say that DNA is an instrument of one's nature that is grounded in the soul (or something in somewhat like that, I can't quite remember, and so, given my newness to the topic, might remembered hat they said), but didn't see anywhere where they commented on humans with genetic defects such as what I'm talking about; which is not to say they didn't, I just merely did not see that they had.

      If I am not able to sort this out, I don't think that my case against abortion is too severely damaged, since I don't think that beleiving in the soul is neccesary to beleive that human beings are substances, and so that much should not be too hard for a secular person to accept. They can then affirm that they began at their conception. Then an argument from potentiality will show that they had the potentiality to be rational back then. I could then draw on some points made by Patrick Lee when he asks why such a capacity is valuable, or at least why there is no important differenc between an inherent capacity for ratioanlity and a presently capacity for such, and thus, the fetus has a right to life. All that I would leave out are the ancelphic; though, I don't think I have ever gotten into a discussion where they were brought up (over than now, of course). But I have had someone affirm that in the volunatry birth thought experiment it would be acceptable for the woman never to get birth! He also presented all pregnancy as a "medical/surgical trauma" and described it in terms that sounded more like torture. So you never know what people will bring up!

      On another note, how do you view the tacit consent objection? I used to view it as consent to the state of affiars where the fetus is now using the woman's body, which is simmilar to how Boonin construes it. However, now I present it as consent to parental obligations which entails giving the fetus a right to one's body that can't be easily revoked. However, in my mind this might seem to blur together the tacit consent objection and the responsibility objection. What do you think?

      Thanks for your time and work.

      Take care,
      Sean

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