Saturday, April 9, 2011

Kaczor on Why Consciousness is Not value-Giving [Scott]

When critics of the pro-life view assert that consciousness bestows value and a right to life on human beings, you should immediately ask: 1)“Why is that value-giving? It sounds ad-hoc to me. 2) What do you mean by consciousness? That is, do you mean one must be able to immediately exercise it or do you mean something else?” The question—“What do you mean by consciousness?”—sets up this soundbite from Christopher Kaczor:
Requiring actual consciousness renders us non-persons whenever we sleep. Requiring immediately attainable consciousness excludes those in surgery. Requiring the basic neural brain structures for consciousness (but not consciousness itself) excludes those whose brains are temporarily damaged. On the other hand, if potentiality for consciousness makes a being a person, then those sleeping, in surgery, or temporarily comatose are persons, but so also would be the normal human embryo, fetus, and newborn.


  1. Your comment box wouldn’t accept my whole comment, so I’ve split it into two. This is part 1:

    You know it’s funny, Scott, but that’s the same feeling I have about life. Why should mere biological life be value-giving? It seems completely ad hoc. Life is just what makes our bodies run. It’s not who we are. But mental life, that’s a different story. The self is inherent in and inseparable from our mental life, by which I mean everything our brains do consciously, not only thinking and perception, but including all those feelings and actions evangelicals are fond of attributing to their hearts. Our mental life is what makes us who we are. Without it we don’t exist. Our bodies might, but except for the case where mental life is temporarily absent (the case you focus on), they would be like abandoned houses, even though the housekeeping functions – metabolism, circulation, excretion – might continue for awhile. That kind of life, which Aristotle called ‘vegetative’ because we share it with plants, even though it might animate a human body, cannot confer the value on it that only a person has, and only a person’s mental life can.

    If mental life is what we hold most dear in ourselves and others, and if being ourselves is unimaginable without it, how could recognizing mental life as the basis of human value possibly be ad hoc?

    A point of clarification: let’s get the claim right that you are criticizing. The pro-choice claim is not that consciousness bestows value and a right to life on human beings. It is that having achieved consciousness is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for personhood. After all, many kinds of animals, if not all, are conscious to some degree, but probably most people who are pro-choice eat meat. Consciousness is a sine qua non for any mental life, but a human-style mental life, one characteristic of persons, is what we seek to protect by recognizing human rights. Therefore, recognizing the first possible emergence of consciousness during gestation as an important moral boundary is being conservative about the protection of human rights, since consciousness is only a prerequisite for personhood.

    The quote from Kaczor brings up the conundrum of suspended consciousness. I think it’s interesting that life has the same problem. In frozen embryos all life processes have stopped. They are about as alive as an ice cube. Yet pro-life advocates claim they have rights. If a person is “a life”, where is the person here?

  2. Your comment box wouldn’t accept my whole comment, so I’ve split it into two. This is part 2:

    In answer to your main point, the problem of sleep brought up by Kaczor, I admit it’s a difficult one. I’ve struggled with it. Here’s my current best stab at it:

    The brain produces our mental life. We don’t know how this is done, but we know of a plethora of intimate, intricate relations between brain activity and the mental, and we know that damage to the brain damages the mind in the same intimate way. The self, I think, is a character in that mental life. It owns the body, senses and acts through it, and perceives the body as its self. But the body is not anybody without that mental character that inhabits it as its own.

    In deep sleep, anaesthesia and coma, the mental character I’m calling the self blinks out of existence. So we, ourselves, have an intermittent existence. This is not quite as outrageous as it seems. Many Christians believe that at death they cease to exist, but will be resurrected. So they already believe in a temporally discontinuous existence.

    I accept Kaczor’s conclusion that, if actual consciousness is necessary for personal existence (which I claim, since the self is a character in our mental life, and mental life as I am defining it is conscious), then one’s deeply sleeping body is neither a person nor currently inhabited by one. But I don’t think this is a serious drawback. It’s true we regard and treat a sleeping body, no less than an awake body, as if it were the person who owns it. But this is not surprising, since we tend to regard our bodies as ourselves. We are confused about this. For instance, people often talk about somebody being buried, although it is only the body that is interred. Great effort is made to recover and treat corpses with respect, as if they were the people themselves, although I think we also believe that a corpse is not the person himself. If we are so confused in the case of death, which is final, it’s not surprising that we regard the body of someone asleep, who may be dreaming and may awake at any moment, as the person himself.

    Despite common belief, let’s say that a sleeping body is a “non-person”, as Kaczor puts it. Then why is it wrong to harm it? Let’s say your neighbor goes away on a long journey. His house contains his means of livelihood and his memorabilia collected over a lifetime. The house reveals his character in every detail, even though he’s not there. After all, it’s his home. Would it be wrong for you to burn it down? He may be in Timbuktu. He may decide never to return, in which case it wouldn’t matter to him one way or the other. But if he plans to return, if he leaves and returns routinely, it would certainly be wrong to harm his house. Does the conclusion change if, instead of Timbuktu, he has left the world altogether for a night? I don’t see why. What if he is delayed, and we are not sure when he’ll be back? I think we take care of his house for him, out of loyalty to the man we know, who lived in this house, and may return.

    Let’s vary the story. Say you began building a house for your future son, a son you haven’t had yet. But circumstances change, and you decide you have to dismantle the house. Have you wronged your son? Have you violated his rights? He doesn’t exist yet. He may never. He never inhabited the house. No one ever made it their home. I think you are within your rights.

  3. This logic is great. It points out that abortion-choicers have no sound definition for personhood and simply keep ammending it in order to disquality the unborn because it is in their self-interest to do so.

    In the course of one debate, I saw an abortion choicer change his definition from consciousness is the deciding factor, to exiting the birth canal is the deciding factor to taking the first breath of oxygen is the deciding factor. Try as they may, abortion-choicers cannot hide the fact their criteria for personhood is arbitrary.

  4. Jerry,
    I have to say that you have thought out your case very well, but you have made subtle assumptions that undermine your conclusions. Your argument is very similar to one that was posed to me by a woman named Alexis Brooke. You may be interested in reading my blog post here:
    First of all, you have said that it is not consciousness itself that makes one valuable but rather the conscious experiences and feelings. I find it interesting then that you have chosen to recognize the humanity of the unborn at the first emergence of consciousness when you yourself stated that at this point even some animals are more conscious. Why do you not instead support Peter Singer’s position that infanticide is also justified seeing as newborns lack self-consciousness and feeling even more than many animals. If you are familiar with Scott’s work, you should know that he will ask you why you can draw an arbitrary line at birth to spare the newborn.
    Of course, you could say that It is the potential for the infant to have self-conscious experiences and feelings that makes it valuable, but wasn’t that potential there from the beginning. I frequently hear from abortion-choice supporters that “potential” has no bearing on value and so that case is undermined from its own side.
    Furthermore, I don’t think that even the self-conscious experiences and feelings of a person are sufficient to say that they are somehow valuable as an individuals. I invite you to consider this scenario:
    Sometime in the future, cloning technology has advanced to the point that we can not only copy a person’s genetic structure, but their minds as well. We can implant memories upon a person’s mind such that we can create a lifetime of experiences for them even though those experiences never actually happened.
    Now suppose that your mother in a very short period of time becomes ill and dies a painful death. Like any person would be, you are very grieved and wish you were able to bring your mother back somehow.

    Now suppose I clone your mother and then artificially age her body to the age she was at when she died. Then using our memory implanting technology, I give her all the thoughts and memories that your real mother once had. Not only is this clone easily recognizable as your mother, it actually believes that it is your mother. However, when I brought her to you, and said, "I brought your mother back from the dead," would you agree with me? Would that clone really be your mother?

    Furthermore, what if your mother had not died but I had cloned her anyway. I then kidnapped her and sent the clone home in her place. You would have no way of recognizing that your mother was gone. Yet suppose your mother escapes from me and comes home, explaining what I did. Would you say to her, "Look it doesn’t really matter which one of you is the real mother, both of you have the exact same body, memories and sentient properties. This is my mother just as much as you are my mother."

  5. I don’t think you would, thus even a person’s memories, conscious experiences and emotions are not sufficient to say that someone is valuable as an individual. I think instead, you are trying to refer to a person’s soul, the essence of who they are, and you are trying to say that this is not present until consciousness is achieved.

    However, consider the words of Greg Koukl,
    "A square always has four sides. What if it had only three sides? It wouldn't be a square, it would be something else--a triangle. If a human didn't have a soul it wouldn't be a human being because that's what human beings are. You can't say that one being gains a property that changes it from one being to another. All beings have the same profile of what they are and they gain and lose and develop properties over time. But that doesn't change who or what they are."

    Thus, if human beings have souls that make them valuable, they must have them from conception.

    Finally, your comparison of a fetus to a house that you are building for your son fails because a house is a constructed thing. The fetus on the other hand is not built by you, it is
    building itself.

    Consider this quote from Scott’s book The Case for Life,

    "Embryos aren’t constructed piece by piece from the outside; they develop themselves from within. That is to say, they do something no constructed thing could ever do: they direct their own internal growth and maturation, and this entails continuity of being. Unlike cars {Or in your case a house}, developing embryos have no outside builder. They’re all there just as soon as growth begins from within. In short, living organisms define and form themselves."

    Pro-lifers are not saying that it is mere biological life that makes something valuable. Rather, value comes from being a whole human being and that happens at the moment of conception. The properties that we gain and lose in a lifetime never fundamentally change who we are, nor can they themselves make us unique individuals. Is this ad-hoc? Not if you believe that all men are created equal and have a right to life.

    I invite you to check out Life Training Institute’s website based on Scott’s book here:

  6. Thanks for your comments, Jay. I have devoted quite a bit of thought to this, but I wouldn’t claim it’s well thought out. Much remains vague. It’s just as far as I’ve gotten. I’m not trained as a philosopher, so this is hard slogging for me. By answering questions like yours I just might find out what I think.

    I don’t claim an arbitrary line at birth. To me the most crucial change that happens during gestation is the development of the brain, and specifically the neocortex. We don’t appear to be able to be conscious without a functioning neocortex. If you poke a pin in my hand and there is not an intact neural pathway from it to my neocortex, I won’t be aware of it. If my cortex isn’t capable of interpreting the sensory information as pain (which requires connections internal to the cortex) I won’t feel pain. If suitable stimulation doesn’t reach the cortex from the thalamus, I won’t be awake, and I won’t dream. None of these conditions is met before the third trimester. In all the pro-life graphics of fetuses, one never sees the most crucial images, pictures of the surface of the brain, which doesn’t begin to resemble a baby’s until late in pregnancy. It’s not a beating heart, not cute little fingers and toes, not motor reflexes, but brain structure that makes something a being like us.

    I didn’t “recognize the humanity of the unborn at the first emergence of consciousness.” Humanity is not the moral issue for me. If “human” means “member of the human species”, then the embryo and fetus are humans at all stages of development. The issue is personhood, not humanity. Personhood is a category that, at least possibly, cuts across species categories. Someday we may meet alien non-human persons (whom we would be obligated to treat ethically because they are persons). Supposedly God is a person, or three, only one of whom is human. I’ve always wondered why, when Christians cite our creation in the image of God as the source of our value, they don’t mention that what we share with Him is not membership in the human species or biological life but membership in the class of persons.
    What I intended to suggested was that, by recognizing as morally significant a point in gestation before which the neocortex could not support consciousness and after which it might, we would be adopting a conservative strategy to protect human rights. (Perhaps I should have said ‘personal rights’.) Before that point, abortion should not be a moral issue, because there is no moral subject, that is, no person or even sentient being whose rights could be violated. Although the fetus at that early stage is not part of the mother’s body, for moral purposes it might as well be, since it is as unconscious as any part of her other than her brain. I have no problem placing restrictions on abortion after that point. You could call this a ‘benefit of the doubt’ strategy. It does not require that there be a sharp line, but there is a transition, a change that matters.

    As for why allow abortion but condemn infanticide, given that there are animals which may have more developed minds than newborns, first, I believe newborns (as well as late term fetuses) have achieved consciousness, which puts them in a different class than the early fetus. (I guess I would say that they are therefore due at least the respect due to the sentient. It is my belief that no such respect is due to the merely vegetative.) But newborns are more than merely sentient. They are actively learning. They respond to human faces. They return smiles. We can almost see a mind in the process of forming itself. We respond to all this with a strong, probably innate desire to love and protect such a being and to interact with it as if it were a person. In fact, if we did not treat a baby as a person, this would probably interfere with its development into one. I don’t see a problem in recognizing these facts as the basis for a taboo against infanticide separate from our recognition of the rights of full persons.

  7. Pro-life advocates attempt to mobilize outrage over abortion by constantly referring to the embryo and the fetus at any stage of development as a baby, thus calling on our ‘protect-the-baby’ response. But a fetus is not a baby. It is like a baby. Given the right circumstances, it could become a baby. Presumably the reason that pro-lifers resort to this tactic is that there is no similar ‘protect-the-fetus’ or ‘protect-the-embryo’ response. Our emotional tie to these beings is not automatic, unless we substitute the thought of ‘baby’ for them. Therefore it takes thought to decide how to regard them. That’s what we’re doing.

    Next, Jay, we come to your cloning examples. I think your conclusion from these examples is a little confused. You say “thus even a person’s memories, conscious experiences and emotions are not sufficient to say that someone is valuable as an individual. “ But the issue in the examples is identity, not value. Even if I decided that only the original was truly my mother, it would be wrong to mistreat the copy. None of this was her fault. She would be just as valuable as a person as the original. And if I cared about my original mother, I think I would care about the copy just as much, because she would have all the same emotions and memories. She would behave just the same. For all intents and purposes, they would both be my mother. Having memories, conscious experiences and emotions seems to be sufficient for value in this case. What do you think the difference between the two women would be?

    Going now from value to identity, you pose a number of conundrums. Would a cloned copy of my deceased mother (complete with cloned memories) be the same person I had known and loved? If my living mother, with all her memories, were cloned, would they both be equally my mother? I have been puzzling over such questions since, as a boy, I saw the original movie “The Fly”, and tried to decide whether, if I were ‘transported’ in such a machine, I would die at one end, and a new person, a different me, would walk out at the other. I have finally decided that all these undecidable conundrums are the result of mistaken assumptions. You say you think that I am “trying to refer to a person’s soul, the essence of who they are.” On the contrary, I am saying that to think in terms of the soul is a mistake. We are not substances, we are modes.

    Imagine you are sitting on a river bank, and beside you is a whirlpool. It’s a vortex of spinning water caused by the current interacting with a configuration of rocks. While the pattern remains, the water composing it rushes through it. The pattern wobbles, restores itself, disappears, then reappears. Is the whirlpool that reappeared the same one that disappeared a few minutes before, or a new one? It’s a silly question. There’s no way to answer it. The whirlpool is not a substance, it is a mode, a pattern in the water which is a pattern of atoms which are patterns of particles, and somewhere down there at the bottom there may be unchanging substances and there may not. It’s irrelevant to the matter at hand.

    Consciousness is somehow closely associated with the flow of neural activation in the brain. Brain structures and neural connections are like the rocks that shape the flow. I am claiming (or perhaps I should say hypothesizing, or guessing) that we are, like whirlpools, a particular kind of stable structuring of the stream of consciousness. Individual experiences and mental acts occur; the dynamic pattern they are parts of and which shapes them into our actions and our experiences remains. It forms, dissolves, and reforms.

  8. Why should it matter if there is some unimaginable, unchanging substance, different from all its changing qualities, which we ascribe the changes to? The concept explains nothing. It plays no role in modern science. It’s only there because Aristotle thought it up and the Roman Catholic Church adopted it as dogma and evangelicals, having forgotten how much they once reviled Aristotle, have become scholastics in order to defend their pro-life convictions with words that sound pleasingly rigorous, like mathematics, and are irrefutable because they have no empirical consequences. Such concepts belong in the museum of outmoded ideas, along with the four elements and stones that fall because they are seeking their proper place.

  9. As for your final point, it’s true that my analogy breaks down when you consider how the house gets built. But I disagree with Scott and all those Aristotelians and scholastics he is following.

    Before Aristotle came the Greek atomists. It was sheer prescient genius how much they managed to understand about the physical world on the basis of so little evidence. Aristotle opposed them, chiefly because at heart he was a biologist, and the atomists could not explain life. So Aristotle invented substances and natures and three types of souls to explain life and mind along with everything else. If the atomists were right, Aristotle was wrong, and vice versa. Aristotle was rediscovered in the West in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and his metaphysical apparatus was augmented with yet more gizmos, which served to elucidate problems like transubstantiation and the nature of angels, but shed precious little light on the natural world. Then atomism was revived at the beginning of the modern era, and early modern science took off by rejecting scholasticism with its elaborate useless arguments over substances and accidents, and by adopting various versions of atomism and ‘the mechanical philosophy’ instead. Except, that is, for biology, which still couldn’t explain life mechanically, although some tried. Finally, however, in the twentieth century, that feat was accomplished. Molecular biology discovered the mechanisms of life.

    The machines inside a cell that compose it and make it live are no different from the machines in any workshop, except they’re tinier. In fact the cellular machinery is often explained using the apt metaphor of a factory. Despite what Aristotle believed and pro-life advocates repeat, there is no fundamental division in nature between constructed things and living things. If there were, biology would still be vitalist, and there would be active research on souls instead of endless articles about mechanisms. If there were such a division, the biotech industry would not exist.

    It’s true that “embryos aren’t constructed piece by piece from the outside.” They are constructed piece by piece from the inside, by an automated control system made of molecules like DNA and RNA, a system that can go haywire when too many of its parts get broken, and succeeds, when it does, not because it is seeking a goal, but because its mechanisms worked properly. The species into which an egg will develop is not determined by a soul or an immutable nature, but by a sequence of nucleotides, which are parts, which act electromechanically on other parts. Do you really think that what drove and guided your prenatal growth and development was you? Was it your soul seeking its realization? I’d say it was molecular biology. It was a myriad of miniscule communicating automated chemical factories constructing a body by blindly executing instructions stored in your DNA. It’s true that those factories were inside the organism instead of outside. But that’s only an accident of location.

    I agree with Scott that “living organisms define and form themselves”, but they are nevertheless “constructed things.” And like all constructed things, they are not “all there” when construction begins. What they are changes as parts are added and modified. A triangle can become a square. This fiction of an unchangeable essence is blinding you to what is really there at each stage of development.

  10. Jerry,

    Thank you for posting a detailed rebuttal to my original posts. I will admit that I was in a bit of a rush when I wrote my first posts so it does not surprise me that you found my thoughts to be a bit scattered. Now that I have the time, I will attempt to make a more detailed case for my position.

    First of all, it seems I misunderstood what you meant in your first post. When you said, the mental self is what makes us who we are, I assumed that you were referring to a person’s memories and experiences. Thus I provided my cloning dilemma to refute this idea. However, you have now clarified that it is rather the emergence of consciousness that makes a human valuable, which renders that dilemma irrelevant to the argument at hand.

    I will first say that your case is very similar to the philosophies of David Boonin and Paul D. Simmons, both of whom I am familiar with. However, I contend that your case fails for two reasons. First, you have not defended critical assumptions in your case that are necessary for the case to work. Until you explain why I should have to accept these assumptions, I see no reason to accept your conclusions. Second, as David Richards pointed out in his posts, I believe that your case proves too much. You have not considered all the consequences of your conclusions, and I don’t think you would be willing to live with some of these consequences.

    So let’s get started. In your first paragraph you stated that the development of the neocortex is what bestows value on human beings. Prior to this, it is impossible for the fetus to feel pain or be sentient. It is the brain structure that grants us value, not our identity as living members of the human species.

    Here is the first assumption you have made. Nowhere in your posts have you explained why this is value giving in the first place. You have merely asserted that this is case. What if I told you, “The development of a functioning reproductive system is the defining point of human life. Prior to this, there is not yet a human person, thus the abortion of born children is morally acceptable until they pass through puberty.” I believe you would find this statement ridiculous. Why? Because I have not provided any rational explanation as to why that is what makes humans valuable. I merely asserted this to be true. So if you would, please explain why the development of the neocortex and from that the development of consciousness and the ability to feel pain is what makes a human being valuable in the first place.

    In addition, even if you are correct about your assertion that the development of the neocortex is what bestows value upon a living being. You have not considered all the consequences of such a standard. Although you vaguely referred to it, I don’t see a defense in your text as to why sentient animals are disqualified as persons while newborn infants are not. For example, many creatures such as deer, squirrels, dogs and cats possess similar parts of the brain which make them conscious, self-aware beings. They possess the ability to feel pain and make conscious decisions about their surroundings to an even greater extent than the fetus at this point in gestation. Why then are these creatures not afforded the same moral status as infants? Furthermore, why do we hunt some of these creatures for food, and adorn our homes with their severed heads?

  11. Also, what exactly is the moral status of those humans who have underdeveloped brain structures? For example, some people are born with what is known as CIPA disease. These people lack the ability to feel pain and never will be able to, so may we kill them? They lack one of the properties that human brain structure is to bestow. What about those with mental handicaps? Some humans have these conditions so bad that they are no more conscious then very simple animals, lack the ability to make self-conscious and rational decisions about the world they live in, and cannot survive without the support of others. Would I be morally justified in killing such a person? By your premise I think you would have to say yes, but I believe your gut would scream no. Thus, I do not believe you could consistently live according to your premise.

    Next, you bring up the concept of “personhood.” Before I attempt to refute this idea, I think it is important to point out that there is no agreed definition of personhood, even among abortion-choicers. In the past year, I have been in over 100 abortion debates, and I have noticed that nearly every opponent I face has a different definition of what personhood is. Furthermore, if I poke a hole in that person’s definition, he merely changes it on the spot in an attempt to save his argument. It is clear to me that all definitions of personhood are arbitrary attempts to justify the abortion-choice position.

    Throughout history, the idea of personhood has been used as a tool in order to disqualify certain humans as non-persons, not to protect human rights. For example, in early America, those in positions of authority desired a large labor force for which they did not have to pay. They therefore, decided to enslave Africans. In order to dismiss any accusations of human rights violations, the authorities simply declared that Africans were non-persons despite the fact that they are human. By their definition, any man with white skin is a person while any man with dark skin is not. Exactly where was the rational argument here? There was none. They only invented this idea of personhood because it was in their self-interest to disqualify Africans as persons.

    In the same way, I see no rational defense of the idea that self-awareness separates human persons from human non-persons. It is merely something that authority figures have come up with because it is in their self-interest to disqualify the human fetus.

    As for your defense of the humanity of infants, I see no rational argument either. You have merely appealed to our moral intuitions. It is true that most people do not feel inclined to harm newborns, whether they qualify as persons or not. However as abortion advocate Peter Singer points out, if it is indeed self-awareness and the ability to make conscious decisions that bestows value, moral intuitions have nothing to do with it. If newborns lack this property then they are disqualified whether our moral intuitions agree with this idea or not. While most people do not want to kill their infants, on what basis would you tell someone that did that they can’t? You can’t have it both ways. If it is the mere possession of consciousness of some kind that makes something valuable, you must treat animals with the same moral respect that you do infants. If not, infants are disqualified as human persons whether your moral intuitions agree with this idea or not.

  12. You have now continued to appeal to our moral intuitions when you accuse pro-lifers of wrongly calling a fetus a baby. Frankly, Jerry, I’m not quite sure what you are hoping to accomplish by making this distinction. I do not disagree with the statement that a fetus is not an infant. However, it is equally true that an infant is not a toddler, a toddler is not a teenager, and a teenager is not an adult. However, all these terms refer to a living human being. Just because our moral intuitions may not defer us from killing a “fetus” while they would from killing a “baby,” does not affect whether or not such an action is morally acceptable. Moral intuitions once led men to exterminate others on basis of race, enslave minorities, and bar legal rights from women. Did the fact that their moral intuitions encouraged this mean that their actions were morally acceptable?

    Now I will address what I believe the problems are with the idea that consciousness is what defines a moral person from a human non-person. The fact of the matter is that it is wrong to say that the fetus does not have the capacity for consciousness. Rather, the fetus lacks the current capacity to exercise this consciousness, but will in due time unless violently acted upon by an outside force. In the same way a sleeping person, or a temporarily brain-damaged person lacks the current capacity to exercise their consciousness, but will in due time unless violently acted upon by an outside force.

    In your previous post, you said that these humans are like abandoned houses that are still the legal property of their absent owners. However, you did not respond to the question that David Richards asked you so I will quote him now,

    “Also, you seem to be inconsistent. If what makes bodily violation wrong in the case of someone who is unconscious is the presumption that they will eventually regain consciousness, then this is just to say that we treat them as valuable because they have the potential for consciousness, even though they are not immediately exercising this potential. But if this is the case, then actual consciousness is not doing the work in determing who has a legal right to life; it is the potential for consciousness that counts. To this I would raise the question, what is the difference between a human embryo which has never been conscious and a human adult which used to be conscious but now is not? To borrow an example from Francis Beckwith, if you knew that an adult in a coma would regain consciousness but be in the exact same mental position as a newborn child (and thus, in their comatose state, they are in the same position as a human embryo) would it be morally permissible to dismember them?”

    How about it Jerry? If the fetus, the sleeping human, and the comatose humans are all not persons, then exactly what disqualifies the fetus when all three will become conscious unless violently acted upon by an outside force?

  13. Finally, I believe that your assumption proves too much, even if you are correct. For the sake of argument I am going to grant your premise that prior to the development of the neocortex, there is not yet a human person whose rights can be violated. However, in doing so I would like you to explore all the conclusions that can be drawn from this premise.

    To do this, I will use a thought experiment that has been proposed by physician Rich Poupard. Suppose there is a pregnant woman who is suffering from terrible morning sickness and insists on taking thalidomide to ease her symptoms. Even after being warned about the terrible birth defects that can result from this medication, she insists on taking it any. She claims that since there is not yet a human person in her womb, she cannot possibly be violating anyone’s rights in harming it. After being refused the medication by her doctor, she manages to acquire some through unconventional means and takes it anyway. She then gives birth to a child without arms. Do you think she did anything wrong?

    I’m pretty sure that you would have to agree that she did something wrong, and even if you do not, the woman would still be criminally charged. But what exactly did she do wrong. At the time she took the medication, there was not yet a human person to harm. So we are left with a paradox, a woman may kill her unborn child, but she may not harm it. What is the distinction between to the two?

    If a fetus has no rights prior to becoming a person, you can’t place limits on a mother’s reproductive decisions. Even if she took the medicine with the intention of deforming her child, how can you say she did anything wrong? By your premise, anything done to the fetus prior to the development of the neocortex is morally acceptable because there is no person to harm, and potential has no bearing on value.

  14. As for your final point about humans being modes rather than substances, I have only one question, exactly what makes you a unique individual? I do not deny that I cannot offer empirical evidence that the human soul exists anymore then you can offer evidence that it doesn’t exist. However, if humans have no identity as unique individuals, where do you ground the idea that all conscious humans have undeniable rights?

    By your own premise, you are not the same person you were five minutes ago. In that time cells in your body died and were replaced. Your body is no different than a car. Change a tire or replace the muffler and technically you no longer have the same vehicle.

    Let’s go back to Francis Beckwith’s analogy that David Richards posed to you. Someone you care about is in a tragic accident that renders him comatose. Furthermore, the doctors tell you that he is completely insentient and will not regain consciousness for another nine months. Even then, he will have no memories of his past life. He will be like a newborn infant and have to re-learn everything. When he awakes is he still the same person? By your definition he is not, and killing him during his comatose state is morally acceptable.

    Ultimately, if we have no essential nature that makes us who we are, why ought we place value on human life in the first place. No one is a unique individual.

  15. There’s so much on the table it’s hard to know where to begin.

    Maybe I’ll take Jay’s thalidomide story, because it’s easy. No one has the right to come into existence. Just think of all the children you never had. But people who will exist have rights. That’s why it’s wrong for us to trash the planet, because we are stealing the birthright of those who come after us. If a woman is going to give birth, then by harming the fetus she is doing an injury to a person in the future. She must not. That would be violating the future person’s rights. It would be similar to setting a time bomb in the house of a newlywed couple, which injures their first-born. You are doing a harm to someone in the future. But if the woman is scheduled to have an abortion at week 10 and takes thalidomide for morning sickness at week 9, no person who has yet come into existence or will come into existence has been victimized. (Remember, Jay granted me this premise for the sake of argument.) You may say I am relying on potential. I don’t see it that way. The crime is not present harm to something with potential, but intentional harm to someone in the future. If that someone never comes to be, she cannot be harmed. At least that’s the way I see it.

    I wonder what role the afterlife is covertly playing in these discussions. A comment on ProLife Podcast’s facebook page by Christina Dunigan made me think about this. It really surprised me. It went like this: “Killing the baby before she achieves consciousness is even more mean-spirited than killing her later, because it’s depriving her not only of a chance to live out her natural life, but to in any way experience that life at all.” I would never have imagined that, because, in my world view, it makes no sense. I have no way of conceiving the person she’s talking about. If she had no experience, that puts her on an equal footing with every child Abraham Lincoln had in retirement. She is a member of the infinite host of once-possible nonentities. But perhaps Christina believes that the fetus had a soul, and that God gives this soul an afterlife in which she constantly mourns her missed chance to have a life. It would be hard to decide who would be crueler if that were true, the aborting mother if she believed it, or God if he did it. (I take that back. The woman might have been in desperate straits, and might seek forgiveness from the mourning soul. God would have no such excuses.) But since I don’t believe in God, a soul or an afterlife, Christina’s comment makes no sense to me. It’s true that the pregnant woman chose not to have a child at that time, but no actual child capable of suffering or mourning or knowing whether it existed or could have existed ever came into being. So who was harmed? If the pro-life cause is premised on belief in a soul and an afterlife, that’s perfectly legitimate, but should it be in a position to legislate the consequences of those religious beliefs and impose them on the rest of us?

  16. Jerry,

    I don't think your explanation of Dr. Poupard's thought experiment fails is accurate because the parallels you are trying to draw don't work.

    A fetus is not equivalent with children that you never had because you refrained from sex or used birth control. The development process never began. Sperm and ovum may be alive, but leave them be and they remain sperm and ovum. Leave a human embryo be, however, and it will grow into a whole human being. You must violently and unnaturally interupt this process to prevent them from being born.

    A more accurate analogy would be blowing up a newly built house that the owner has purchased and intends to move into in a couple of weeks. You could say that he had not yet inhabited it, and now he never will. However, like the fetus, he was going to and only now is unable to because of your intervention.

  17. Furthermore, even if I am wrong and you did successfully refute my argument, I only granted you that premise for the sake of argument.

    You still have not answered the question as to exactly how you reached the conclusion that the development of the neocortex is what bestows value on a human being. You merely assert this, and as I pointed out, many others (even those who favor abortion) disagree with you.

    Also, I am intrigued why you support human rights of any kind seeing as you are a materialistic atheist.

    First of all, Jerry, your view point is not neutral. Atheism makes metaphysical assumptions about mankind and his place in the universe that cannot be proved scientifically, so to accuse us of imposing religion on others is not a fair accusation.

    Furthermore, if you don't believe in God, the soul, or anything supernatural, how do you explain human rights of any kind? By your own worldview, the universe came from nothing, was caused by nothing, and mankind is nothing more than one big cosmic accident. How from this did you deduce that the development of the neocortex makes humans valuable. Exactly how can you say anything is valuable if you do not assume a transcendent grounding point.

    Besides the fact that materialism cannot account for values or morality of any kind, exactly where do you ground a woman's right to have an abortion. In your second post you said, "I think you are within your rights."

    Do rights come from the State? If so you can't cry foul if the State decides to revoke that right. History has shown us that the government can also take away the rights that it grants.

  18. Jay, following Scott, asks me to justify my belief in the importance of consciousness and the brain structures that support it to the value of our existence. He even suggests that it would make as much sense to say that a mature reproductive system is what bestows value on human life as to say that a functioning neocortex does. I think this is disingenuous. We all place the highest value on consciousness and a functioning brain.

    I came up with a story to illustrate this. Imagine that a Russian spy has been sent to assassinate you. He uses a nefarious method: somehow he injects your brain with a radioactive isotope. His act is discovered immediately, but only after the deed is done. Doctors give you this choice: you can do nothing, and you will have one more day to live, after which the poison will have passed from your brain to the rest of your body and you will die. Or the doctors can remove all of your brain except your brainstem immediately, before the poison escapes from it. They tell you that the rest of your body would be healthy, and could be maintained in that state for a normal lifespan. So the choice is one day with your full mental capacities, versus a lifetime of biological life, lacking only that which a functioning brain provides. Which would you choose? Which would have more value? If you choose a conscious day over an unconscious lifetime, what is it that you value about being human, biological life (even of a whole unconscious organism) or mental life? If mental life is what gives value to biological life, then the value of biological life is only instrumental, and all this talk of the intrinsic value of human life without consciousness is a sham.

    Would you be in such a serious dilemma if the choice were between your reproductive system and your life? Would you choose one last sex act over a continued life without sex? I suspect not, even if you were tempted! So confess. We all know that awareness is foundational to what makes life worth living, and a functioning brain is a necessary condition for awareness.

    Not only do your “subjective evaluations” (the term David denigratingly uses to describe our judgements of what’s most important) agree with mine – that consciousness is value-giving (or didn’t you just choose a conscious day over an unconscious lifetime?) – but so does your philosophy.

    David claimed that the thesis that life has intrinsic value, far from being an ad hoc right-to-life claim, is “axiomatic” and “the foundation of the theory itself.” But as soon as he tries to answer a question of mine, in this case about frozen embryos, he doesn’t refer to life or its supposed intrinsic value. He doesn’t claim that a frozen embryo is alive and therefore has value, or admit that it isn’t and therefore doesn’t. A completely different principle is called on: “the natural potential to develop rational moral agency.” Isn’t this in effect to import what pro-choice philosophy claims is value-giving – consciousness and personhood (in the guise of “rational moral agency”) – into the evaluation of pre-sentient life, or even nonsentient nonlife (in the case of frozen embryos)?

    So the real issue isn’t whether consciousness is value-giving; we all agree it is. The real issue is why you believe that life before consciousness is morally significant.

  19. And as soon as any of you start explaining that, mysterious rules and weird language suddenly crop up: “natural potential”, “external intervention,” “natural capacity,” “thwarting natural development,” “violent and unnatural interruption,” “being violently acted upon by an outside force.” You argue in terms of these conditions, but don’t explain where all this arcane paraphernalia you are wielding comes from. I don’t know the source explicitly. Perhaps I should. But I recognize the general conceptual framework from ancient physics:

    A stone’s nature causes it to seek its proper place. A stone being earth, that place is the center of the universe. Downward motion is a stone’s ‘natural’ motion because it’s determined by the stone’s ‘nature’. In contrast, fire’s natural motion is upward, because its place is above the air. If you throw a stone upward, you are thwarting its natural tendency, and violently imposing an unnatural motion. But this violent imposition soon wears off, and the stone resumes its downward course. That’s Aristotle. His is a teleological universe, where final causes explain the changes we see in nature. How else could he explain why a chicken egg became a chicken and not a horse? There must be something that oriented the egg toward its goal, which was somehow already present at its creation, in the form of a specific natural potential. After all, it couldn’t be its matter that determined its course. For Aristotle, matter was formless, pure possibility. It had no microstructure, no nature of its own. The atomists disagreed, but, although they fumbled toward evolution by natural selection to explain the apparently functional design of animals, they had no story for how an egg becomes a chicken. Aristotle explained that the chicken’s form was already in the egg when it was laid, as a potential and a goal. Order was imposed, so to speak, from above, by forms on formless matter, like the plan for a house on its bricks. Obviously it couldn’t be the bricks that made the house. Matter couldn’t even move itself (with the exception of those natural tendencies we just discussed). It was the soul, the form of the body and source of life, which was responsible for all self-movement, including growth and development. His was a top-down, goal-directed universe, a philosophy well suited to the medieval Christian world when it was rediscovered.

  20. So let’s consider two zygotes, the fertilized eggs of a monkey and a human. What makes the human zygote different from the nonhuman one? Well, clearly, if both are implanted in their respective species, one will develop into a human and the other into a monkey. But what is responsible for this difference? What is actually there now that causes them to take such different paths?

    There are two available answers, the way I see it. This may not be exactly correct, but it’s close:

    1) Their different natures are what make the cells different, just as the natures of earth and fire determine their natural motions. Each nature endows its cell with its natural potential. The human nature of the human zygote causes it to develop into a human, and likewise for the monkey nature. These natures seek to realize their potential by causing natural development toward the goal for that type of animal, and will succeed, given the right environment, unless the cells are violently acted upon. Each nature is unchanging throughout life. It is the same as the definition of the type of animal, and can no more change, or differ between individuals, than the type of animal can.

    2) What makes the cells different is their chemical components. By far the main difference between the two cells is that one contains large molecules, called chromosomes, of human DNA and the other contains monkey DNA. Otherwise they are nearly identical, and even their DNA differs by only a few percent. If the chromosomes were switched, the species of the cells would be switched. If the DNA mutates, the type of animal will change subtly, and if these changes were to accumulate over time, we would eventually call the result a new species. If the chromosomes change in the wrong way, cancer and birth defects can result. There are also small differences in DNA between individuals of the same species. There is no one thing about the human zygote that acts like a definition of humanity and does not vary between individuals.

    Theory 1 and theory 2 are completely different theories of life. For a biologist to use theory 1 to explain development would be like a physicist using Aristotle’s theory of natural and unnatural motions to launch a satellite or plot the course of a comet. Neither would be successful, for the simple reason that theory 1 is false. Aristotle got it wrong, way wrong.

    It’s not that Aristotle was stupid. It was a decent theory for its time. It did have explanatory power of a kind. But what it can explain doesn’t hold a match to what modern molecular biology can. It was early science or proto-science, and it is now obsolete, as obsolete as astrology. But the terms of the theory are close enough to everyday language that they can still sound like common sense. “Natural potential” sounds harmless enough. And it is, unless it is covertly weighted with its ancient meanings, as an actual specific power that exists in an organism, the goal present at the beginning, the product of an unchanging essence, the manifestation of an individual identity, and, in the case of human development, a moral imperative.

    I have to ask, why would we want to base our moral judgements on 4th century B.C. proto-science instead of 21st century science? I have never heard this choice defended by any of the pro-life advocates who simply assume, without comment or reference, the truth of the worldview of an ancient Greek.

  21. In order to avoid the illegitimate use of “natural potential” to imply conclusions that would only be justified if Aristotelian biology were valid, I think we should stick with the concept of possibility instead. Possibilities aren’t destinies, causes or agents. There is no natural vs. unnatural change in modern biology because there are no natures and no final causes. There is no substantial vs. accidental change because there are no substances and no essences. All change is ultimately change of location – of atoms, electrons, protons and photons. A human cell has the possibility of moving from the fallopian tube to the uterus. It also has the possibility of dividing repeatedly, with accompanying differentiation and cell signaling, resulting in a trillion-celled human organism. There is no plan or blueprint of the result and, in the nonsentient, no desire or striving. Information is stored in the DNA, but this does not describe a goal; it causes certain parts to be manufactured under certain conditions. And if you simply add up the bits of information in human DNA and compare it to the vastly greater number of cells, let alone connections, in a neonate’s brain, you will see that a zygote’s DNA underdetermines the resulting individual. A contingent historical process of development intervenes between the two, supplementing genetic information with unpredictable events. This is demonstrated by the fact that even identical twins are not identical. Worrying about whether both twins were somehow present in a single zygote, and if not, which one was (I have read articles by Catholic bioethicists on this conundrum) reminds me of the proverbial counting of angels on a pin. Such riddles belong to a different age, and depend on assumptions we now know to have been mistaken. What exist at the beginning are possibilities, not natural potentials. You can’t violate them or thwart them. You can only choose them.

  22. Jerry,

    Bravo, you have just spent four posts clarifying scientific facts and theories (most of which are not in dispute). I do not disagree with you about the nature of DNA, or that Aristotle was incorrect about some of his theories.

    However, I still don't see what you hope to accomplish by spouting all these facts. You still have not answered many crucial questions that were possed to you.

    First of all, if it is indeed the first emergence of actual (not potential) consciousness (regardless of how primitive) that makes us valuable, many animals are included as well. How do you account for the fact that we do not afford these animals the same moral status as infants or fetuses in the third trimester of pregnancy?

    Second, what is the difference between a fetus that has not yet achieved consciousness and an adult who used to be conscious but now is not? For all we know, mutations and other such blind processes may cause him to wake up with no memories or anything that ties him to his life prior to going to sleep, putting him in the same position as a newborn infant. Aren't we in our rights to kill such a person since we can't at any given time guarantee that he will be a person again when he wakes up (or that he ever will wake up for that matter).

  23. Finally, how does your own worldview account for human rights or values of any kind?

    Contrary to what you said about everyone placing value on human life because of the conscious brain, not everyone agrees on this. Adolf Hitler said that race is what makes a person valuable and chose to exterminate all races deemed inferior (despite the fact that these humans were valuable by your definition). What makes your viewpoint more valid than Hitler's? Is it the fact that you know alot of people who agree with you? If so, would it no longer be true if suddenly everyone decided not to value all conscious beings and go back to a time of ethnic cleansing, genocide, and discrimination on basis of race and gender.

    You claimed that you are a materialistic atheist, and atheism can't account for morality. According to materialistic atheism, the universe came from nothing and was caused by nothing. We are nothing but the result of blind scientific processes that can spontaneously change at any time. You have merely presuppossed that human beings are valuable and have rights in the first place.

    Just because you can recognize moral truths doesn't mean you can give me any rational case for why I ought to do or believe anything unless you assume a transcendent grounding point (a god, or some other higher law than science).

    Furthermore, your own worldview can't explain rationality either. If we are truly governed by nothing more than blind scientific processes down to the souless meaningless beings that we are, then we do not have free will. Everything we think, say and do is not our own choosing but the result of some sort of scientific process in our minds.

  24. If this is indeed the case, then why are you trying to convince me to believe any different than I already do. My beliefs are not my own choosing but rather the result of predetermined scientific laws.

    You can't derive values from facts, Jerry. If there is no God, no soul, or no transcendent grounding point of any kind. You can't give me a rational explanation for why I ought to do anything.

    What scientific reason can you give for why I shouldn't discriminate on basis or race or gender. The fact that such actions are frowned upon? They weren't always frowned upon, and perhaps someday the whims of society will shift back to this way of thinking.

    What scientific reason can you give for why women have the right to have an abortion? Does that right come from the State? If so, what scientific reason can you give for whey the State shouldn't revoke that right? Abortion was once illegal and still is in some contries.

    The words "should" and "ought" don't have any place in your worldview, Jerry. Your acceptance of science as the only factor for knowledge completely illiminates values of morality of any kind. Sure, society has chosen to accept these things (mostly for religious reasons may I add) but that doesn't mean anyone can give a scientific reason for why this ought to be so.

  25. This is a response to Jay’s guilt-by-association argument involving slavery. Jay wrote:

    “Throughout history, the idea of personhood has been used as a tool in order to disqualify certain humans as non-persons, not to protect human rights. For example, in early America, those in positions of authority desired a large labor force for which they did not have to pay. They therefore, decided to enslave Africans. In order to dismiss any accusations of human rights violations, the authorities simply declared that Africans were non-persons despite the fact that they are human. By their definition, any man with white skin is a person while any man with dark skin is not. Exactly where was the rational argument here? There was none. They only invented this idea of personhood because it was in their self-interest to disqualify Africans as persons.”

    Of course it’s true that white Americans enslaved Africans. But as far as I can tell, the rest of this story is almost completely untrue. Slavery in America lasted for more than two centuries. Southern society was based on it. Southerners believed in it. To suppose they made no rational arguments to justify their way of life is silly. There were many arguments, but to my knowledge, the non-personhood of Africans was not one of them.

    If you’re interested in this topic, I recommend Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South, A Brief History with Documents (2003) by Paul Finkelman. The main defenses were racial and religious. The racial rationale was that blacks were inferior to whites, and so natural slaves, either for their own good or that of their masters. The argument was not that blacks weren’t human or weren’t persons, but that they weren't equal. There were superior and inferior races of men, some born to rule and some born to serve. The religious arguments included very strong evidence from both the Old and New Testaments that God endorsed slavery. Rules for the treatment of slaves are found in the Hebrew bible. Paul, in Ephesians 6, told slaves to obey their masters as they obey Christ, and told Christian masters to stop threatening their slaves, but he didn’t say to free them. No Hebrew prophet, not even Jesus, ever did. Another religious justification for slavery was the Christian duty of masters to “improve the moral condition” of their slaves, who were thought incapable of doing so themselves, on account of their inferior natural capabilities.

    The idea that blacks weren’t persons is not mentioned at all in the book Defending Slavery. However, this quote is found on a pro-life web site: “In the eyes of the law … the slave is not a person. -Virginia Supreme Court, 1858” I was not able to find this case, but I did find another (using Google Books, in Quarterly Law Journal: Virginia, Volume 3). It says “Under our system of law, a slave can make no contract. In the nature of things he cannot. He is, in contemplation of law, not a person for that purpose. He has no legal capacity to make a contract; he has no legal mind. He is the property of his master....” The ensuing description of the “absolute legal non-entity” of slaves is truly horrifying. What is going on here? Is slavery being justified by the claim that blacks aren’t persons? Not at all. What is being described is the institution of slavery. As the same ruling says, “the law regards a negro slave, as far as his civil status is concerned, as purely and absolutely as mere property, to be bought and sold, and pass and descend, as a tract of land, a horse or an ox.” That’s what the sentence “in the eyes of the law the slave is not a person” means. It is not a justification of slavery. It was a description.

  26. Gosh, Jay. I can see now it was a mistake to mention my atheism. You ignored my Russian assassin example, which I am kind of proud of, and instead lobbed about ten old anti-atheist chestnuts at me without even taking time for a breath. Please calm down. I am willing to discuss all this with you, if you are interested and you don’t just dismiss what I have to say because of your preconceptions. But there has to be some reciprocity here. I am working on answering your questions. Please have patience. There are a lot of them, and my answers aren’t simple to explain, given how differently we look at things. But you need to answer some of my questions too, and consider and try to understand my arguments instead of just ignoring them. In addition, I have to request that you stop putting words in my mouth. There’s no point in my talking if you’re just going to argue against straw men.

    For instance, you say “You claimed that you are a materialistic atheist.” I did not. You must have noticed that consciousness is at the center of my worldview. Is consciousness matter? I never said so. In fact I’ve said I don’t know what its relationship to the physical world is, except that it’s intimately related to brain activity. (I actually lean toward some version of dual-aspect monism, but I’m not prepared to discuss that.) I am a materialist about life, however. It could have turned out that life was an immaterial soul or spirit, but instead it turned out differently. Life is a physical process, or a cluster of them. Watson and Crick and their successors cracked “the secret of life” (that is, life in the biological sense, not the biographical or the mental). Do you disagree?

    You said “if it is indeed the first emergence of actual (not potential) consciousness (regardless of how primitive) that makes us valuable...,” and then you argued against that. But I never said that. You made the exact same mistake in your first response (you said “you have chosen to recognize the humanity of the unborn at the first emergence of consciousness”), and I corrected you. If you are not going to listen, there is no point continuing.

    Once again: I distinguish consciousness from personhood. Consciousness is widely shared in the animal world. Personhood is not. Consciousness is necessary but not sufficient for personhood. Is that so hard to understand?

    Personhood basically refers to what’s unique and valuable about people – by which I mean children and adults, not embryos or fetuses. Some non-human animals may also qualify, or occupy some in-between state. I believe personhood is essentially mental. There are movies where people switch bodies with dogs. You never doubt, in that case, that the dog’s body is inhabited by a person, because, despite the canine body, the mental life is that of a human being. It thinks like the guy did before he was switched. This is easy for audiences to go along with because they agree with me that our minds are who we are.

    Nevertheless, although personhood is a natural idea, it is admittedly vague and slippery and complex and not-well-understood. No doubt this is why the pro-choicers you argue with change their definitions. It doesn’t mean they’re just making excuses to justify their position, as you claim. There’s a genuine idea there, but it’s hard to get a handle on. Just because we can’t articulate all the reasons for our judgements doesn’t mean they’re baseless.

    Given the difficulty of nailing down, let alone detecting, personhood, I suggested that it would be safest, if we didn’t want to violate the rights of a person, that we treat a fetus, after the structures necessary for personhood and capable of consciousness first developed, as if it were a person, because we don’t know how to draw the line any better than that. Is that clear? You may not agree with me, but do you understand me?

  27. If we do choose to continue, I suggest that each of us both ask and answer some questions in each multi-part response. Ideally we would keep the questions to less than some small number, say at most five, which already may be too large. I will list my questions for you at the end of this four-part response (of which this is part two).

    I will now try to answer some of your questions.

    David Richards asked, and you have repeated, this question:

    “To borrow an example from Francis Beckwith, if you knew that an adult in a coma would regain consciousness but be in the exact same mental position as a newborn child (and thus, in their comatose state, they are in the same position as a human embryo) would it be morally permissible to dismember them?” You added to the question that the comatose person was someone I cared about before the accident, and you asked: “When he awakes is he still the same person? By your definition he is not, and killing him during his comatose state is morally acceptable.”

    I am going to modify the question a little before I answer it. One problem I see with it is that we could never know, the way the question is stated, that the original person – his memories, his personality – was completely wiped out by the coma. We are asked to assume it, but when we try to imagine ourselves in that situation, we have a hard time getting ourselves to be certain of it, maybe because the structure of the brain is such that such a complete erasure consistent with recovered personhood is probably impossible. You are right that the crucial thing for me is whether the man who awakens is the same one I knew, or whether he is someone who never existed before. As long as there was a slim chance that my old friend might recover in some form, and I thought he would want that, I would hold out for him.

    So I am going to make this change, to make the example clearer: what happened to the man completely destroyed his cerebral cortex, the organ responsible for storing all his memories and for producing his unique personality. It is not even there anymore. It’s gone. He is literally ‘decorticate’. The accident therefore resulted in a vegetative state or worse. (I don’t know the technical diagnosis here.) But let’s suppose that a scientist has come up with an astonishing treatment. He can make the brain regrow its cerebral cortex by activating its own stem cells. It would be like a lizard regrowing its tail. The new cortex would be as close to the man’s original cortex as an identical twin’s would be. I think this puts him closer to the position of an embryo than the original story did, since neither possesses a cerebral cortex. Under these conditions, I can be certain that none of the unique personality or memories from my old friend would remain.

    I also want to make one more change: instead of dismembering a grown man, the question will be whether to pull the plug or not. I know dismembering comes from the abortion parallel, but this just introduces visceral biases without adding to the philosophical problem. In ‘trolley problems’ posed by ethicists, people change their answer if they have to push someone onto the tracks instead of just pulling a switch, although the results are the same. Different parts of the brain come into play when you’re making judgements about bodily attacking someone, I think. So let’s keep it simple.

    I can think of three questions:

    (1) Would the awakened man be the same one I once knew? Would he be the same husband and the same father? My answer is no. Different brain -> different mind -> different person.

    (2) Would it be wrong to pull the plug instead of ordering the treatment?

    (3) If the treatment had already been accomplished and a new cerebral cortex grown, but the man had not yet been awakened from his coma, would it be wrong in that case to pull the plug instead of reviving him?

  28. My answer is that it would not be wrong in either case to pull the plug. The reason is one I have already expressed: no one has the right to come into existence, by which I mean waking up for the first time. Whether a person has been conceived yet or not, whether the body is small or large, whether it’s breathing or frozen, it’s all the same. If no mind has yet come into being, no person has. So killing a body that has not developed a mind does not harm anyone. Bodies don’t have rights. People do.

    In this weird case, it’s a matter of killing a body that once had a mind, but has not developed the new mind that would inhabit it next. Since that mind has not yet awakened, I say it lacks rights.

    I think neither you nor David understood two aspects of my position. One was its relationship to potential. The other was the importance I place on loyalty.


    David posed, and you repeated, this objection: “you seem to be inconsistent. If what makes bodily violation wrong in the case of someone who is unconscious is the presumption that they will eventually regain consciousness, then this is just to say that we treat them as valuable because they have the potential for consciousness, even though they are not immediately exercising this potential. But if this is the case, then actual consciousness is not doing the work in determining who has a legal right to life; it is the potential for consciousness that counts.”

    The problem here is subtle. David wants to substitute for the way I see things this picture: a person is a substance with attributes. Consciousness is just an attribute. The person is present, physically, in his body or as his body, whether he is conscious or not. So protecting the body is treating the person as valuable, even though he is not currently conscious, but is only potentially so. So the coma patient is just like an embryo. Both are currently present, living, potentially conscious persons.

    This is the way I see it. (I’m not trying to prove this. I’m just trying to express my view here.) We are not our bodies; we own and inhabit our bodies. (That’s why switching bodies in fiction is so easy to understand.) When our brains are not functioning, we are not present. So protecting the body is not treating a person who is potentially conscious as intrinsically valuable. It is treating a body, which is not a person, as a means to ensure that the person we know and value has a chance to return and inhabit it. There is no actual person present. It’s a little like this: imagine that your car was stolen, but you still have the key. You keep the key because you still hope the car will be returned. Are you treating the key as valuable? Well, yes, in a manner of speaking. But the key is not the car you love, whose return you hope for. It’s just the key.

    Given what I just said, the difference between the comatose person and the fetus, for me, is that in one case it’s possible that someone who has already begun a life may return to his currently uninhabited body, and in the other it is possible that this not-yet-inhabited body may soon have an owner, a person who has not yet come into existence.


    Maybe this is not the best way to say it, but it seems to me that we care for sleeping and comatose bodies out of loyalty to their owners, whose return we hope is imminent. They have begun life stories. They’re in the middle of them. It’s not up to us to end them just because they’re in hiatus. We wouldn’t want them to do that to us. On the other hand, we don’t owe loyalty to those who have not begun a life story. We may fervently desire and work for such an advent. But it is not owed. Until it actually happens, it is only a possibility, and we have a choice.

  29. That’s my answer. My questions for you are:

    1) In my Russian assassin story, given the choice of one day with your full mental capacities versus a lifetime of biological life lacking only that which a functioning brain provides, which would you choose? If you choose the conscious day over the unconscious lifetime, do you agree that consciousness is value-giving?

    2) Assuming you chose consciousness over unconsciousness, do you think your choice is reliant on transcendent values, which I take to mean roughly God’s opinion of what’s valuable, or might the value of having a conscious mental life be immanent in the experience, and not depend on any outside standard?

    3) Do you disagree that Watson and Crick (the discoverers of DNA’s structure) and their successors cracked the secret of life? If not, why not?

    4) You said “I do not disagree with you about the nature of DNA, or that Aristotle was incorrect about some of his theories.” Take the human and monkey fertilized eggs I discussed. Can you say how the human cell is different from the monkey’s in such a way that we understand why it has human rights, but without using Aristotle’s concepts of substance and natural potential? If not, can you defend the use of these concepts to describe a single cell in a world where molecular biology is true?

    5) In my version of the comatose patient story (with the regenerated cortex) do you think, when he wakes up, he’s the same person as before? And do you think it would be wrong to pull the plug instead of ordering the treatment in the first place? Why?

    I’m not asking you to answer all these at once, but if you’re going to demand explanations of me, please make an effort to reciprocate. Thanks Jay. And if anybody else wants to take a shot at answering my questions (Scott?), be my, or rather LTI’s, guest.

  30. Jerry,

    I apologize if I offended you in anything I wrote. I did not intend to put any words in your mouth or attack any straw men. Rather, I found that based on what you had written, these were logical inferences to draw and the relevant issues that needed to be addressed. In the same way, I do not believe you have done a very good job of addressing the primary questions that I have posed to you, but I think this is rather the result of the fact that we are both looking at the issue from drastically different perspectives.

    So I accept your suggestion that we specify what questions we want answered in our rebuttals. I will use this next series of posts to address each part of your previous rebuttals with your questions at the end. I will also post my questions for you.

    First, I do not think it was a mistake for you to mention the fact that you are an atheist. It is important for me to understand where you are grounding your claims about moral truth if I am to understand how you are drawing your conclusions.

    However, I don’t understand how you can say that you are a materialist about life but not consciousness. In a nutshell what I hear you saying is that you are completely rejecting the substance view of human beings. We have no essential nature that maintains our identity over time. Life can only be explained in the scientific sense, and thus we are constructed things like cars and houses.

    I don’t see how this follows that the soul is therefore non-existent. Science can neither prove nor disprove its existence. It may be true that you see no reason to suppose that the soul exists, but this does not mean that scientific facts about the physical processes of life disprove its existence. In the same way, science cannot prove the existence of dark energy, the big bang, and macroevolution. These are theories based on scientific evidence that we can observe, but cannot be regarded as absolute fact. So do I disagree about Watson and Crick? No. I do not, however, believe that the science of DNA shows that the soul does not exist.

  31. Also, following your logic, I don’t understand why you believe that consciousness is an immaterial property. Since it is related to brain activity, wouldn’t it have to follow that it can be explained in scientific terms (although at this point in time we are yet unable to do so)? I also don’t understand what you mean by consciousness is the center of your worldview. Exactly how did you reach the conclusion that consciousness bears such weight in the meaning of life? Furthermore, how do you know that this conclusion is valid or that there is a meaning to life?

    I understand your distinction between consciousness and personhood; I do not, however, understand why you are choosing to give rights to the fetus once its first primitive stages of consciousness develop.

    “Given the difficulty of nailing down, let alone detecting, personhood, I suggested that it would be safest, if we didn’t want to violate the rights of a person, that we treat a fetus, after the structures necessary for personhood and capable of consciousness first developed, as if it were a person, because we don’t know how to draw the line any better than that. Is that clear? You may not agree with me, but do you understand me?”

    It would seem to me that personhood in the view of most abortion-choicers is self-awareness and the ability to make deliberate, moral decisions about the world around you. Most philosophers agree that this is what separates us from animals. Now, if I understand this correctly, you are saying that we ought to grant the non-person, conscious fetus the rights of a person in order to err on the side of caution. Because the brain structures necessary for personhood are now present, this is the best way to draw the line between persons and non-persons.

    However, I do not follow this logic. The brain structures necessary for personhood are not present at this point. A third trimester fetus and a newborn infant are completely incapable of making deliberate moral decisions about their surroundings. Their brains (while functional) are simply too underdeveloped. In fact, the best research to date indicates that an infant does not become aware of the fact that it is a separate entity from its mother until more than a month after birth. Conscious memories from infancy to roughly two years of age are not retained in adults, and thus, I believe your rejection of the substance view of human beings defeats your own argument here.

  32. Early on in this debate, you said human beings are modes not substances. Thus, as the parts change, a different being comes to exist. To borrow an illustration from Greg Koukl, if you replace every piece of wood on the deck of a house, do you have the same deck afterwards? Not really. Although it may look identical to the original deck, the parts are different, and there is no inner substance with which to retain identity.

    By the time an infant has become a toddler and obtained the present capacity to begin making deliberate moral decisions, he technically no longer has the same brain that he did as an infant. Throughout the growing process, too many cells have died and been replaced to constitute the same organ. So why exactly do we protect fetuses that have reached the conscious point in brain development, when those are not the same brain structures that they will be using as human persons?

    Furthermore, to say that the structures necessary for personhood first become present at this point is really not true. From the moment of conception, those structures are part of this new human being, embedded in their DNA. The embryo’s cells are functioning together as a whole organism towards the continued health and well-being of its body as a whole, building these structures from the very moment it came to be. Think of it more like a picture from a Polaroid camera that has just been printed. We can’t see the image yet, but it’s there from the start.

    So now I’ve reached what I believe to be the most confusing aspect of your position. Since we can’t pinpoint exactly when personhood begins, but we are certain that both fetuses and newborns lack some of the important properties of personhood, why can’t we draw the line after birth? In your earlier posts, you said that because an infant is actively heading towards personhood, we now feel inclined to love it as a person, but is this really sufficient? At any point on from conception, the embryo is actively heading towards both consciousness and personhood. This is what the DNA structures that you cherish so much are driving it to do. Since the structures required for personhood are neither present at conception or birth, what is morally wrong with infanticide? Sure, we typically don’t feel inclined to practice infanticide, but what objective reason is there to say that someone ought not to?

    I know I have mentioned this already, but I don’t believe I’ve seen an answer other than most peoples’ moral intuitions draw them away from infanticide. Peter Singer, in his book Practical Ethics, infamously defends the position that the conservative approach for personhood is that abortion should be allowed until thirty days after birth. Although, I am appalled by Singer’s conclusions, I would have to say that his case is probably the most consistent abortion-choice position out there.

    I’m not saying that moral intuitions are useless when trying to determine the truth, but I think Singer rightly points out that if there is not a rational argument behind them, we must follow the logic wherever it takes us, regardless of how appalling the conclusions we reach are.

  33. Also, you said,

    If the pro-life cause is premised on belief in a soul and an afterlife, that’s perfectly legitimate, but should it be in a position to legislate the consequences of those religious beliefs and impose them on the rest of us?

    To this I would ask why your beliefs are in a position to legislate against Singer’s. Both yours and Singer’s positions are inherently religious as well, since any question of rights and values requires metaphysical reasoning. What gives you the right to tell Singer that he can’t act on his convictions and practice infanticide?

    So, now to your amended version of Francis Beckwith’s thought experiment. I would first like to point out that you cannot substitute pulling the plug to dismemberment because without this, the situations are not parallel. Pulling the plug refers to simply withholding life giving support despite the fact that an individual will die without it. This doesn’t work, because abortion is not simply the withholding of life giving support, it is a search and destroy mission that actively kills the child by poisoning or dismemberment. I may not have an obligation to attempt to save a man that I see dying of a heart attack, but am I then justified in shooting him in the head so to accelerate the death process? Dismemberment must remain in the thought experiment or the two situations are not parallel.

    Anyways, I understand what you mean by loyalty over potential. You do not believe that a person is present when a body sleeps or becomes comatose, but it is your loyalty to the absent individual that drives you not to harm their body. In this way they can return and interact with you again.

    However, this explanation lacks explanatory power. You and many others may choose to respect these non-person bodies such that they might return, but you did not try to explain why this is a moral imperative. Suppose I am not loyal to whoever happens to be absent from his body.

    Here’s a scenario I thought of. I hate my son. I wish he were dead, and I care for him only because I have a legal obligation to. My son then is in a car accident leaving him comatose. The doctors tell me that it is very likely that he will regain consciousness three months from now, but I tell them to pull the plug. I feel no loyalty to my son, nor any moral obligation to spend my money on the possibility that he may become a person again. Why is it a moral imperative for me to maintain his body so that he can return? Sure, you think I should, but on whose authority must I do so.

  34. You see Jerry; you say we owe it to someone who has already existed to protect their body, but not to someone who has not yet existed. However, I’m not really sure how you reached this conclusion. Why is this the case that I have such a moral obligation to a former person but not to a soon to be person? If I don’t agree with you, how are you going to argue that I must respect the body of my born son but not my unborn son?

    Finally, on to the questions that you posed to me:

    1. In your Russian assassin story, I think any person I know would pick one day with full mental capacities versus a lifetime in a vegetative state, including me. However, I don’t think this in itself shows that consciousness is value-giving.

    What I think you are trying to do here is appeal to my moral intuitions. If you can get me to realize that deep down I believe that consciousness really is what gives value, I will be forced to concede that you are correct. However, why would such a concession validate your case?

    As of yet, the only argument I have seen you use for your position is that everyone allegedly agrees with you. You tried to show subtle flaws in both mine and David’s positions that show that we don’t really believe what we are saying, and deep down we agree with you that consciousness is value-giving. However, even if David and I do concede and agree with you, would your position then be true?

    My point is that throughout history many civilizations did not base value on consciousness/personhood. For millennia, cultures held that things like gender, race, and functional ability are what made someone valuable. Whether or not they defined everyone as human persons is irrelevant, because the fact of the matter is that they said these people were morally inferior to others. If it is really just the consensus of people that validates a position, why were these cultures wrong? Furthermore, what would happen if society suddenly shifted back to this line of thinking?

    To amend your question just a bit, would you rather spend one day as a fetus at 32 weeks gestation, or an entire biological life in a vegetative state? I don’t think anyone is compelled to pick either of these scenarios, so why is this mature fetus valuable?

  35. 2. Yes, I would have to say that my choice is reliant on transcendent values. I hold that all human beings are valuable regardless of size, level of development, environment, or degree of dependency. What makes them valuable is their inherent capacity to exercise rational agency, not the present capacity to do so. This standard of equality among men is referenced in the Declaration of Independence, with an obvious appeal to divine authority.

    If we remove a transcendent source from the equation, what reason can you give as to why we ought to value all conscious human beings? I don’t think you can deny that not everyone agrees with you on this. It is true that in this day and age, a far greater number of people do, but can morality really be based on the random whims of society. If it is the collective opinion of all that makes something valuable, how are you going to oppose a society that decides not to treat all conscious humans equally? Some of these cultures still exist today. On what objective basis can you tell them that they are wrong unless you assume a transcendent source?

    Furthermore, if there is no God, how can we trust our moral intuitions to tell us the truth about anything? Per Darwin himself, Evolution isn’t concerned with the truth; it’s only about survival of the fittest. If there was no plan with truth in mind, why would our brains function this way?

  36. 3. I am not necessarily sure what you mean by “the secret of life.” It is true that the discovery of DNA gave us an understanding of the physical processes of life. However, it does not necessarily invalidate the notion that life is spiritual as well as physical. If something cannot be proved or disproved by science that means only that science is inconclusive, not that it doesn’t exist.

    I think DNA advanced the pro-life cause more than the abortion-choice one. DNA showed that all creatures do develop according to their own kind. They are not constructed piece by piece from the outside but rather develop themselves from within. From the moment of conception, DNA lays the framework that determines what the person will grow into (unless acted upon by an external force).

    I don’t really understand why you referred to human embryos prior to consciousness only as “possibilities.” The science of DNA shows that a human embryo has begun to grow from the moment of conception and will grow into an adult human being unless the process is unnaturally interrupted. It seems that you think because, random mutations, disease, or other spontaneous scientific phenomena may kill the embryo or perhaps split it into twins, there is no reason to suppose that a person will come into existence anyways.

    However, how does it follow that because nature may spontaneously abort a human embryo, I may deliberately kill one? Am I justified in killing an adult because he could have just as easily died of a heart attack?

  37. 4. Why does a human embryo with human DNA have more value than that of a monkey embryo with very similar DNA? Because of the kind of thing that they are intrinsically. The human embryo, if uninterrupted, will naturally grow into an adult human being and has the inherent capacity for moral and rational agency. A monkey embryo is a member of its own species. It will grow into an adult monkey, if uninterrupted, and will not develop the inherent capacities that humans have. This has been demonstrated time and time again through scientific observation, not with any theories of Aristotle.

    I know you will reject this position and say that humans do not have value in virtue of the kind of thing that they are, but exactly what makes your position correct? Can you offer me a biological or scientific reason for why this is the case, or will you have to do metaphysics? If we are really nothing more than a bunch of randomly changing, scientific possibilities, how can you say anything is valuable or has a right to life?

  38. 5. Yes, I think he is still the same person because I believe in the substance view of human persons. We are not property things that change over time like cars and houses, but rather we possess an inner nature that makes every person a unique individual. A person is still a person even if he is mentally or physically handicapped. You can reject this if you like, but if you do, I don’t see how anyone is a unique individual or how you can presuppose any kind of human rights.

    Would it be wrong to pull the plug rather than attempt the treatment? Yes, I believe that if we have the means to save a human life we should do so. Of course, the medical world is not perfect and I know that it is impractical to think that in every such situation it is possible to save such a person.

    However, as I stated before, your “pull the plug” analogy doesn’t work. Abortion is not merely the withholding of life giving support. It is actively choosing to attack and kill the child by poisoning or dismemberment. As Francis Beckwith says, “Euphemistically calling abortion the ‘withholding of support’ makes about as much sense as calling suffocating someone with a pillow the withdrawal of oxygen.”

  39. So now here are my questions for you:

    1. How did you reach your conclusions about consciousness and personhood, and to whose authority do you attribute them? Is it merely the consensus of society?

    2. What makes your definitions about when abortion ought to be allowed more valid than other abortion supporters? Specifically, why can you tell Peter Singer and his followers that their definition of what makes humans valuable is wrong? Why shouldn’t they be allowed to practice infanticide if that is what they see fit?

    3. What is the moral status of the mentally handicapped and those that will never achieve personhood? May these humans be killed since they will never be able to function as moral persons?

    4. Why is it my moral imperative to support the right to an abortion? Or should I say, why should I not fight against this right? All evidence aside, what if I simply don’t like abortion and therefore think it should be illegal? It seems you think abortion-choicers can fight for legislation based on their metaphysical views, but pro-lifers can’t.

    5. Where does the right to an abortion come from and furthermore where do rights of any kind come from? If from the State, why shouldn’t the state revoke those rights? If you do not assume a transcendent grounding point, I don’t see how you can give me an objective reason for why rights of any kind exist.

    Thanks Jerry.

  40. Thanks, Jay, for your thoughtful response. You haven’t offended me. Once again, there are many issues to discuss. This is going to take me awhile, so please have patience. Sorry for the delay.

    You keep wanting to go into questions of ethics, not just practical ethics but the foundations of morality. This has never been my focus, and my ideas in this realm are not worked out, so I am reluctant to talk about it – which is not to say that I won’t.

    Instead, my interest in the abortion question has centered on a hunch of mine that the reason people differ on this question, and the reason that they can’t seem to communicate about it (each side taking the other’s arguments as not just mistaken but completely bonkers) is that we have very different, largely unexamined assumptions about what’s there – what an embryo or a fetus is, what it means to be alive, etc.

    Another hunch of mine – a hopeful belief – is that the two sides don’t really differ in their moral sense. I think most people on both sides are basically decent people. If we could agree on the situation – the story, what’s really going on – my hope has been that we would then just naturally come to agree on the morality of the situation, without having to go into much moral reasoning, and certainly without having to bother about metaethics.

    I think in a way you guys tend to agree with me on the importance of getting clear what’s there – what an embryo and a fetus are, that they’re alive, that they’re human, etc. You may disagree on the basic decency of your opponents however. I think that’s because you have no grasp of the differences in our world views, so you think we’re not being honest when we tell you that issues like personhood and consciousness are really of central importance to us, independent of the abortion debate, and that they play a decisive role in our moral judgements.

    So far my hopes have not been realized. Nothing has come clear. We still talk at complete cross-purposes. And it may turn out that people come to their moral judgements and then fill in the metaphysics to support those judgements, instead of the other way around, as I had supposed. I guess that’s what you were saying about the use of personhood. I have similar suspicions that the whole Aristotelian rigmarole – substance and accident and natural potential and the rest – was never part of any of your thinking until you needed to justify your pro-life positions, and the Catholics happened to have all this St. Thomas Aquinas stuff at their fingertips, and suddenly all you evangelicals forgot your grudges against the pope and became honorary Scholastics.

  41. First let’s get this out of the way: You repeatedly ask me, as you do in your Question 1 for me, some version of this: “To whose authority do you attribute your conclusions? Is it merely the consensus of society?” No. It’s never that for me. After all, I’m an atheist. That puts me in a distinct minority right off the bat. I was brought up Jewish, another small minority. Both have been oppressed by the (usually Christian) consensus of society. Seeing pictures of the Holocaust is one of my earliest memories. I have known Holocaust survivors. Members of my extended family were lost to it. It has shaped my moral outlook. So you don’t need to lecture me on the dangers of relying on social consensus alone for ethical norms. You may think that abortion resembles the Holocaust. I might agree if I thought abortion was murder. But I don’t think abortion is even wrong. That opinion is not the result of some tortured rationalization; it’s my strong moral conviction. So I think that the pro-life movement is an unjustified and therefore an unjust attack on women’s consciences and on their freedoms, and is therefore (and for many other reasons) a great evil. I also think pro-life activists are so obsessed with the evil they think they’re fighting so righteously that they are completely oblivious to the great harm they may be doing if they’re mistaken. So, as you can see, you don’t have a monopoly on moral outrage. As a matter of fact, if you ever want a proof of atheism, here’s a powerful one: The Holocaust. Q.E.D.

    As to whose authority I rely on, I don’t regard authority as a reason for doing or thinking anything. Any authority worthy of respect would have to have reasons and evidence. Once you have those, you don’t need the authority. I believe what I do, out of a lifetime of trying to make sense of things for myself, constrained only by what I take to be sound science and my own experience, and by whatever assumptions I have not yet thought to examine. These are the conclusions I’ve come to so far. As the founding motto of the Royal Society, an engine of the scientific revolution, had it: Nullius in Verba, on the word of no one. I also admire Kant’s motto for the Enlightenment: Sapere Aude, dare to think for yourself.

  42. You wrote, “I don’t understand why you believe that consciousness is an immaterial property. Since it is related to brain activity, wouldn’t it have to follow that it can be explained in scientific terms (although at this point in time we are yet unable to do so)?” That’s a good question.

    First, I wouldn’t say that I believe that consciousness is an immaterial property. I am agnostic on the relationship between consciousness and the brain. ‘Completely stumped’ would probably describe it better.

    There is a problem in philosophy of mind called “the explanatory gap.” You can read about it in Wikipedia’s entry on ‘Qualia’. ‘Qualia’ (the plural of ‘quale’) refers to the subjective qualities of conscious experience – the redness of red, the smell of peppermint, the way a toothache feels, etc. You mentioned that you “don’t understand how you can say that you are a materialist about life but not consciousness.” Well, my understanding is that all the known life processes (metabolism, inheritance, development, movement, sensation, etc.) have yielded to mechanistic biology to a very great extent. Myriads of details have yet to be filled in, but why things are alive, and how life operates, are now understood at a very deep level on the basis of physics and chemistry. There is also a great deal of knowledge, but also persistent ignorance, about how brains go about doing what they do. So what keeps them alive we understand, but just what brains are doing is still a frontier. And on the far edge of that frontier lie qualia. We have no idea how to derive qualia from physics or chemistry or physiology. Physics can predict, given cell structure, metabolism. It cannot predict, given brain structure, that laying one’s eyes on something red will result in the experience of redness as we know it, or even that it will lead to any qualitative experience at all. There is no known way of going from nerve firing to the quality of redness, nor is there any known theory or method for how to do so. When I say consciousness I mean what it is like to experience, and essential to that are qualia. If you haven’t explained qualia, you haven’t laid a finger on consciousness.

    The philosopher David Chalmers distinguishes two aspects of this problem of the explanatory gap, epistemological and ontological. Epistemological: We don’t know the relationship between consciousness and the brain. We may someday; we may not. Ontological: consciousness may be a property of matter or it may not. It could be that consciousness is material but we could never know it. I am no expert on this tangle. Professional philosophers are all over the map on these questions. Some deny such a gap exists; some (amazingly) deny qualia exist; some say the gap is real and insoluble. To my knowledge, there is no similar gap in any other field of science. This makes consciousness, for people like me, the central mystery of the universe.

  43. I would just add to this that I don’t quite agree with your usage of the word ‘scientific’. You seem to use it as a synonym for ‘physical’. To me, science is a critical experimental approach to knowledge. I believe (this seems to be a minority view) that science does not presuppose that the explanations it discovers will be physical. For instance, there was a long controversy, within science, (the vitalism/mechanism debate) over whether life would be explained by physical mechanisms and general physical laws, or whether a separate, immaterial, ‘principle of life’ or ‘life force’ (read ‘soul’) was required to explain vital organization. I believe it could have turned out either way, depending only on which alternative was actually the case. That is, the scientific method didn’t bias the result. At the very least, if the explanation had been a life force, then physical mechanisms would have been inadequate to explain things like evolution, development and inheritance. This was confidently predicted by vitalists, but turned out to be wrong. Likewise, if Zeus made thunder and lightning, forensic science would detect it, and physics would be shown to be inadequate. The reason it’s easy to confuse ‘scientific’ with ‘physical’ is that everything science has investigated so far, except consciousness (on which the jury is still out), and phenomena dependent on consciousness, has turned out to be physical. Although I have to say that what ‘physical’ means has greatly expanded, to include things like fields, energy/matter equivalence, curved space-time, and quantum peculiarities. It is no longer just solid atoms and the void. Perhaps, if we ever understand consciousness, we will expand the meaning of ‘physical’ again to include it.

    I agree with you that science cannot prove that the soul does not exist. However, I think it is beyond reasonable doubt, given the phenomenal success of molecular biology in the last half century, that the soul, if it exists, is not life, because we know what life is. Life is a suite of physical processes, not an unchanging essence. It follows that, if there is a soul, we cannot conclude that, just because a human organism is alive, it has been ensouled. So the adage “science shows that life begins at conception” has no bearing on when a human soul might enter the body, and so implies nothing about soul-based claims to human rights.

    You say, of my claim that human beings are modes and not substances: “if you replace every piece of wood on the deck of a house, do you have the same deck afterwards? Not really. Although it may look identical to the original deck, the parts are different, and there is no inner substance with which to retain identity.” This is just to say that, if you assume that the only kind of identity is the kind found in a substance-based ontology, then modes don’t retain identity. However, there is no reason to stick with this assumption. The world we live in shows continuity within change. Most entities familiar to us are best described as open systems: the sun, a waterfall, a tree. These are systems which maintain their structures while energy and matter flow through them. The biological theorist Ludwig von Bertalanffy made a career promoting the concept of open systems. Likewise, Ilya Prigogine, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, whose field was non-equilibrium thermodynamics, explained self-organization in open systems. Living organisms are best understood in this framework. They are not the same over time if this means nothing flows in and nothing flows out. But then they wouldn’t be alive. The idea of constancy without change is the antithesis of life. It shouldn’t be a surprise that ancient philosophers and theologians didn’t get this. But what is keeping you from doing so?

  44. A technical note, which is made less significant by the point I just made: you say that a toddler’s brain is not the same one as the infant’s because “throughout the growing process, too many cells have died and been replaced to constitute the same organ.” This might be true of other organs, but not the brain. For a long time, it was believed that no new brain cells were grown after birth. Some new cell growth has recently been detected in the brain, but this is very minor in comparison to the bulk of the organ. There is massive nerve cell death early on (called ‘pruning’) and growth of new nerve connections, but I don’t believe there is substantial replacement of old with new nerve cells in the brain. This presumably is in order to retain learning, which is stored in the detailed structures of neurons.

    I am also skeptical of your claim that “the best research to date indicates that an infant does not become aware of the fact that it is a separate entity from its mother until more than a month after birth.” I would appreciate a reference for this. It sounds to me like an assumption in the tradition of Piaget or Freud rather than the result of experimental research. Recent work in developmental psychology has transformed our knowledge of early infancy. Very young infants have surprising abilities. They are not blank slates.

    Finally, staying with this science-related theme, I want to criticize the Polaroid metaphor: “we can’t see the image yet, but it’s there from the start,” you say. It’s hard to know just what this metaphor is meant to convey, but it definitely gives the wrong impression. If by ‘image’ is meant some likeness of the final product, this is definitely not the case. I’d like to suggest some other metaphors.

    You quoted Greg Koukl about the triangle and the square. The essence of a square is to have four straight equal sides joined by right angles. That’s what it is by definition, and it can’t change. Very well, consider a ‘computer program’ that consists of a list of instructions for a plotter:

    “Start with pen up. If starting, move the pen to (0,0). If the pen is up at (0,0), put it down and draw to (1,0). If the pen is at (1,0), draw to (1,1). If the pen is at (1,1), draw to (0,1). If the pen is at (0,1), draw to (0,0). If the pen is down at (0,0), lift the pen.”

    Let’s say that this ‘program’, if run on a computer connected to a plotter, would draw a square. Does the program have four equal sides joined at four right angles? No. It doesn’t have any sides at all. It consists of a string of symbols, just as DNA does. But if the essence of a square is to have four sides, then the program lacks this essence. Was there perhaps some invisible image of the square that ‘developed’ like a photograph? No, there was nothing squarish at all to begin with. There was just a string of numbers and letters. If we consider the program, the computer and the plotter as a single system, do they together contain the essence of a square? No. Yet if we press ‘Enter’ and do nothing to halt it, the computer will run the program and produce a square. Where did the essence come from, and when? I’ll leave that to you. You’ll say this is a manufactured thing, but the example has important parallels to the processes controlling embryonic development, resemblances which the metaphor of a Polaroid photograph completely lacks.

  45. A similar but more surprising example would be a program to produce images of the Mandelbrot set. This is an infinitely complex mathematical object called a fractal. Wikipedia describes the math, and lists a ‘pseudocode’ program for the algorithm of just 17 lines, which must be repeated for each pixel in the image. So a few hundred symbols is sufficient to create wondrous designs of surprising and endless complexity. YouTube has many colorful videos zooming in or out of the Mandelbrot set, often with musical accompaniment. Here’s a particularly beautiful one, displaying many biological-style forms, called Fractal Zoom Mandelbrot Corner: These forms aren’t suggested by a perusal of the symbols in the program, or even by a consideration of the mathematics they represent. Even Mandelbrot, who defined the set, had no idea what it would look like. The same questions could be asked: are these forms already present in the lines of code, or do they emerge from a process of computation which a computer, using the code, carries out?

    Other questions suggest themselves which seem closer to your way of thinking. Did Mandelbrot create this object or discover it? Most mathematicians, I believe, take a Platonic view of mathematics. They discover truths, which were somehow waiting to be discovered in some ideal realm of pure logic. In which case the program is making an image of something ideal, like the square we began with, or like your idea of the human species. Math defines the set. An algorithm approximates the math. A program implements the algorithm. The computer runs the program, and produces one imperfect, physical image of the ideal set. Was the set there all along, in the computer? Was it making an image of itself? I don’t think so. I don’t think the Mandelbrot set has causal powers. What made the image was something else.

    I recently attended a lecture by a computational neurophysiologist who is modeling the formation of neocortex using a program that represents cells and genes and chemical signaling in abstract form. Each simulated brain cell contains rules for it to carry out, specified by the genes inside it which are activated. The rules say things like, “if you detect chemical X, divide asymmetrically into two daughter cells, and activate gene Y in one of them.” Or “send out an axon horizontally”, or “move upward”. All the rules are local to the cell. Nothing contains the big plan for what is being made. The computer simulation showed hundreds of cells migrating, growing, branching, until they formed the layered structure characteristic of cerebral cortex, with several different nerve cell types, each with its distinct pattern of arborization determined by a combination of the cell’s activated genes and the environment it encountered as it grew, which was in turn produced by other cells doing the same thing. With its iterated local-rule-based construction, and lack of any overall plan or goal, this simulation of brain development looks a lot more like the plotter and the Mandelbrot set examples than the Polaroid.

  46. The idea that inherited information would be stored in physical form on incredibly tiny strands of millions of symbols written in a chemical code, that each of the tiny cells making up our bodies would contain all that information, and would use it in a way dependent on its location and history, nobody had imagined. It is a completely different way of creating biological forms than Aristotle or any other philosopher or scientist had ever conceived of. Aristotle invented his scheme, his analysis of reality into substance and accidents, form and matter, potentiality and actuality, in part to explain the obvious facts of life, like growth and development and species membership. Those concepts had work to do in the context of the theory, a theory in which there were no atoms or cells or genes; in which unitary forms had causal powers. To retain Aristotle’s terminology and apply it to a reality that we now know is completely different requires that the words be drained of meaning. I hear you using the terms, but it’s like you’re just repeating a formula to justify a conclusion you’ve already come to for other reasons. As far as I can tell, the words now mean next to nothing.

  47. In response to my Russian assassin story, you wrote: “I think any person I know would pick one day with full mental capacities versus a lifetime in a vegetative state, including me. However, I don’t think this in itself shows that consciousness is value-giving. What I think you are trying to do here is appeal to my moral intuitions. If you can get me to realize that deep down I believe that consciousness really is what gives value, I will be forced to concede that you are correct. However, why would such a concession validate your case?”

    I suspect that the heart of our disagreement and mutual misunderstanding lies here somewhere. I was not trying to trick you. I was trying to understand you and get you to understand me. But if we are going to make progress, we have to go one step at a time. If you look down the road and say, “Oh, if I answer this then he might force me to say that, so I’m going to say the other,” then it’s just a contest, not a search for understanding. As a matter of fact, in this question I was not appealing to your moral intuitions. I was appealing to your intuitions about value.

    Maybe the problem was in the term “value-giving”, which I borrowed from Scott’s original post. Now that I think of it, my claim was never that consciousness alone is ‘value-giving’. It is that consciousness is a necessary condition for any value, including those associated with personhood. Consciousness is the foundation, the context in which value takes place. The point of the example was that you saw, and everybody sees, that consciousness is a precondition for any other value in life, without which it’s not worth living. That was a step I thought we could agree on. What followed would be a matter for discussion.

  48. Maybe where we differ fundamentally is that I assume that value is always value for someone. Nothing has value unless it exists at some point for someone, valuably (so to speak), in their consciousness. You may immediately disagree with this. You may think that value is objective, and is independent of all such subjective evaluations, which merit no more respect than any other opinion. This is just a hunch, but perhaps you are mistaken, not in believing this, but in believing that you believe it. Perhaps the dependence of value on consciousness is masked for you by your theism.

    If you think of something of which no one (not even an animal) will ever be aware, and which will cause nothing of which anyone will ever be aware, and it is not aware of itself either, you may think: Even though no one ever values it, God may. God is the one who decides on value. We just perceive it, or fail to.” Ok. But isn’t God conscious, according to your belief? If He values something, doesn’t He hold it in his mind? If He loves it, isn’t He also aware of it? Doesn’t His love, or anyone’s love, depend in some way on awareness of the object of that love? So it would appear that even for you value depends on consciousness as a precondition. Or am I wrong? You seem to think that, in a Godless universe, nothing would have value. Doesn’t this mean that as a precondition for value, something has to be held in a conscious mind, namely God’s? The fact that you think things would lose value without Him seems to confirm that you don’t actually believe value inheres in an object alone, independent of all minds.

    If this is right, where we differ is that for me all value depends on living sentient beings. There is no special one that gives THE value of something, as there may be for you. For me, value is realized in lives, conscious ones. It is immanent in lived experience. Without consciousness of some kind there is no value. Does that make clearer why I said consciousness is at the center of my worldview? You asked me about that: “Exactly how did you reach the conclusion that consciousness bears such weight in the meaning of life? Furthermore, how do you know that this conclusion is valid or that there is a meaning to life?” Can you see now why I have trouble making any sense of these questions? Without consciousness there is nothing worth talking about.

    Perhaps, for you really to understand, you would also have to know about my views on primary and secondary qualities, and qualia, so you could see how bare and spectral a world without minds would be, but I’ll leave that for another time.

  49. OK. I think I just figured something out, something that should answer a lot of your questions, something I didn’t think to say, perhaps because it seemed so obvious I never even said it to myself. I finally realized this when I was thinking about your answer to my question 1, about the Russian assassin. You wrote: “My point is that throughout history many civilizations did not base value on consciousness/personhood. For millennia, cultures held that things like gender, race, and functional ability are what made someone valuable.” I found this completely baffling. What did history, culture or prejudice have to do with the fact that value depends on consciousness? Was your answer to the Russian assassin question a product of your culture or place in history or sense of equality? Wouldn’t anyone who understood the question always have answered as you did?

    Then I realized. Maybe you thought that valuing consciousness was this arbitrary thing one does from outside. I look at something and say, “that’s sparkles, I like it.” Or “that person has white skin, he’s worth more than someone with dark skin.” Or, “I like that guy – he’s conscious. He’s cooler than those zombies, whom I wouldn’t be caught dead with.” It seems weird to me, but I think I get it. You’re asking me, on what basis do I privilege a conscious being over an unconscious one? Why should I place a greater value on them just because they’re conscious? Isn’t it just an arbitrary prejudice?

    Will this help? What I forgot to mention is that, when I say that consciousness is the foundation of value, I mean value for the conscious subject him- or herself. I asked you whether you would choose a day of consciousness over a lifetime of unconsciousness because I wanted to point out that all value, for you yourself, of your own life, depends on your being aware. (Of course you can affect other people’s consciousnesses, and God’s too, and you might value that even more than your own life. But that would be in addition to the awareness-dependent value to you of living your own life.)

    Both of us, I think (I hope), agree that things (events, people, emotions, whatever) have value for us. It’s not just God that things have value for. People’s lives have value for them. And this is important. This matters. It matters to me. (I say that. I’m making a choice there.) You may say that what God values matters more. For me that’s not a consideration. And even if there were a God, I don’t see how you could know what He values. Let’s put it this way: I wouldn’t take your word for it. But I’m confident that there are people and animals whose lives matter to them. The value that sentient beings’ lives have for those beings sets them apart from everything else in the universe and demands some measure of respect.

  50. You may ask, why should the fact that people’s lives matter to them matter to me? I could say it’s some version of the Golden Rule. I told you I haven’t made a study of the foundations of morals. But my sense is that it doesn’t start with a rule. It starts with putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, that is, with an act of imagination. What is it like for that being? Given that, how shall I behave toward it? That is the crux of morality for me.

    We could discuss what comes next. I would not be very good at it. I don’t have satisfactory answers, given the different types of minds that exist, from gnats to professors. I swat gnats. I don’t swat professors. And I confess, I can’t give you a very good account of why. Personhood seems to me much less fundamental and unequivocal than consciousness. But what does seem clear to me (if we put all the problems involving time aside for the moment) is that I can’t put myself in the shoes of something without a mind. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be it, because it is like nothing at all. Put another way, even if it is alive, I don’t believe it values its own life, because value is always value for someone or something, that is, for someone or something conscious. I cannot be called upon to put myself in something’s place when there is no such place. Therefore the Golden Rule cannot apply, and how such beings are treated is not a moral issue, at least with respect to the effects on them. Of course, once you introduce time, and consciousness starts and ends and is intermittent, things get complicated. But I don’t think the central role that consciousness plays in moral questions therefore goes away.

    That is a lot more involved than I had expected it to be, given that I thought it went without saying, and more crudely put than I would like. I am embarrassed that my thought is so little developed in this area. Nevertheless, have I managed to make my position more intelligible to you?

    I will try to take a stab at answering your five questions next.

  51. Jerry,

    I would also like to add one more thing that is wrong with your Russian Spy story. That is that you are asking an either or question, which does not help when arguing for abortion.

    My point is that you asked me if I could have one conscious day or a vegetative lifetime which I would choose. You did not, however, ask whether I would deliberately kill a conscious man or an unconscious man. The fact that I would choose one over the other given an ultimatum does not show that the other is completely void of value.

    For example, suppose you were asked if you would like to be able to see or be blind for the rest of your life. Everyone would pick the ability to see, but that does not mean that those who are blind are any less valuable.

    Of course, your question is far more dramatic than a choice between sight and blindness, but the same concept applies.

    Let's say you walk into a hospital room where there are two patients. One has been permanently paralyzed, but is still fully conscious and operating at complete mental capacity. The other is perfectly healthy, but is in what may be a permanent vegetative state. I imagine you would feel more connected to the paralyzed patient with whom you can interact, but would you attack and kill either of these individuals? I certainly hope not, and even if you did, you would still be criminally charged.

    Despite assertions by abortion-choicers that membership in the human species is irrelevant to value, we cannot escape the conviction that all human life is valuable, whether a given human can function as a person or not.

    To borrow an example from one of Scott's earlier blog posts, there is an important distinction between cooking a hamburger and cooking a Harold burger. Even if because of his mental handicap, Harold was no more conscious than a cow.

    We may always opt for consciousness given an either or choice, but that does not mean we would deliberately attack and kill another human being, even if he was in a permanent vegetative state.

  52. I asked the Russian Spy question (whether you would choose one day of consciousness over a lifetime of health without your brain above the brain stem) to rebut Scott Klusendorf’s skepticism about the value-giving nature of consciousness. You chose as anyone would who understood the question, because the only way one can obtain value from one's own life is by first being aware of it. I also asked you if you believed your answer depended on transcendent values or if the value you were choosing might be imminent in the experience of life itself. You answered that your choice is reliant on transcendent values, but I just don't believe you. The fact that we value being aware of our own existence is a completely natural fact. You don’t have to ask your minister or consult a theologian to answer the Russian Spy question. You don't have to know whether God exists or the soul or an afterlife. You just have to be a rational being, it seems to me. So please reconsider your answer, and tell me, if you still disagree with me, how transcendent knowledge helped you decide.

    You suggested some variations on the question. I will respond, but first let me suggest one closer to my original. Let's say that somehow your auditory system has become an immediate threat to your life. If you don't have an operation immediately that will leave you totally deaf, you will die in 24 hours. You decide you value your hearing so much that you will choose a life of only 24 hours but with normal hearing over a full lifespan as a healthy deaf person. It so happens that an advocate for the deaf and your minister learn of your decision. The deaf advocate tells you that not only is life without hearing worth living, but your choice shows that you are prejudiced against the deaf. You seem to think that their lives are worthless. They would beg to differ. Your minister warns you that choosing to let yourself die after only one day instead of saving your life at the expense of your hearing doesn’t show proper respect for the gift of life. You listen to them and relent.

    Recall now the original dilemma. You chose one more day of normal self-aware life, followed by death, over a lifetime of existence without a brain and therefore without awareness of any kind. Now imagine that an advocate for anencephalic babies and the permanently comatose learned of your decision and tried to dissuade you. She might say,”Your decision shows prejudice against the brainless. I find this surprising, since you have been an advocate for the anencephalic and the comatose. You yourself said ‘We cannot escape the conviction that all human life is valuable.’ But now you are willing to throw away decades of life for a mere day of continued awareness. This shows disrespect for human life. If the brainless had brains, they would beg to differ.” (Just as I’ve heard pro-lifers say, “If the fetus could think and speak as we do, it would say ‘I want to live.’”) If this pro-life advocate for the anencephalic happened to be connected with the website she might add, “Remember, you don’t need a complete brain to give and receive love- all you need is a heart!” But she would be lying. We love with our brains, not literally with our hearts.

  53. I believe this example points up what should be an obvious fact: by ending the life of an anencephalic fetus or a permanently comatose patient you are not depriving anyone of anything of value. Keeping either of them alive is a waste of precious resources. If useful organs could be obtained from the living body of a person whose brain had been destroyed, I would not hesitate to remove the organs even though this would result in death. I would not be criminally charged (except for practicing medicine without a license) since we already recognize the state of such a body as brain-dead.

    You say “we cannot escape the conviction that all human life is valuable.” That is exactly what I have been disputing. Unconscious human life is not in itself valuable. By your answer to the Russian Spy story, you have shown you would not value it for yourself. You now object that making a forced choice doesn’t show that either alternative is “completely void of value.” Very well, if a lifetime of merely vegetative life is not worth a day of life with awareness, how much is it worth? An hour? A second? Would you pay a penny for the prospect of 80 years of continued bodily functions after you let go of consciousness for the last time? I wouldn’t. Many people would pay to escape such a fate, and to spare their loved ones the pointless heartache and expense.

    So tell me, why would killing such a body be wrong? You have asked me whether my claims are objective or merely subjective or whether they depend on social consensus. Is this conviction you say you “cannot escape” anything but a prejudice acquired from living in a pro-life community and from being exposed to fervent pro-life propaganda? After all, we’re talking here about human bodies which lack all potential for mental activity. Why hold onto this life? Why can’t we at least find common ground here? If your answer is based on authority, what is it? I hope it’s not that same one sentence from the Declaration of Independence penned by a Deist slaveholder to justify a revolution.

    Incidentally, for anyone following this discussion, during a delay here Jay and I branched off to an exchange on my website, . Jay, I’m working on an answer to your very thoughtful contribution there. Sorry for the delay.


All comments are moderated. We reject all comments containing obscenity. We reserve the right to reject any and all comments that are considered inappropriate or off-topic without explanation.