Sunday, September 4, 2011

Challenging Scott on "The Walking Dead"

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


Explaining “The Walking Dead”

By Gary Whittenberger

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

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

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


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


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


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

¶4 & 5:

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


Klusendorf, the author, claims that the character Dr. Jenner is not “doing science” but is “doing philosophy,” but might he be doing both?  It seems that Jenner is merely summarizing a large body of research which demonstrates the dependency of experience, memory, personality, and behavior on the brain, i.e. when the brain changes, the “mind” changes in reliable ways.  Klusendorf presents his version of “scientific materialism” (SM) without naming or quoting even one person who holds this position, and his version largely appears to be a straw man.  If he were accurately reflecting the view of many scientists and philosophers, he would not say that in SM everything in the universe “must” be explained in physical terms; rather he would say that in SM the use of physical terms had proven more useful than the use of any other terms in explaining the universe.  He would say that nonmaterial things like souls, gods, and ghosts are still hypothetical and have not been established to exist by the evidence.  He would not say that in SM matter alone constitutes ultimate reality, but that matter-energy and space-time constitute important parts of reality and yet much remains to be learned about reality.  He would not say that in SM the universe looks designed; he would merely say that the universe has some orderliness which can be comprehended.  He would not say that in SM that science alone tells us truth, but he would say that so far science has proven to be the best method for investigating the natural world or the workings of reality.  Unfortunately, Klusendorf distorts scientific materialism, as commonly held, and makes it out to be more dogmatic and exclusive than it actually is.


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


No, the notions of moral responsibility and criminal justice are not based on a substance-dualist view of a person.  These notions do not depend on either a monist or dualist view.  They only depend on the assumption that altering the environment of an offending person, in some cases administering punishment, lowers the probability that the offender or others will engage in similar criminal behavior in the future.


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


The concept of “human equality” describes how different persons should be treated, but says nothing about when human organisms become persons or about when equal rights should be assigned to developing human organisms.  It appears that Klusendorf would like to assign human rights to single-celled zygotes because they have received souls, but he provides no evidence for souls, no evidence that souls are inserted at conception, and no consideration of consequences of this view for actual persons in the zygotes’ environment.  Why is a human organism always more valuable than a chicken organism?  Might the latter be more valuable if a person is hungry?  Is a one-celled human zygote really as valuable as an 18-year-old human person?  The author does not deal with the tough questions.


Here the author fails to acknowledge that unlike the person who has suffered a stroke and the loss of some cognitive functions, before a certain point in development a fetus has not manifested any cognitive functions.  He is trying to compare apples to oranges.


In the Beckwith example the victim who recovered from a motorcycle accident and coma is not like the early stage living human organism in the womb.  Even though the victim lacks memories of the past, he has consciousness, self-awareness, emotions, thoughts, and new memories.  Before some point the fetus has never manifested any of these things.  The author asks “Could doctors have justifiably killed you during your extended sleep...”  Yes, they could, if you had previously stipulated in writing that you wished to be killed while in the coma when your chances of recovery were judged to be below a certain threshold, as determined by expert opinion.  Klusendorf seems to believe that human rights should be immediately assigned when an organism comes into possession of a soul (or when it is determined to have human DNA), but this is only one of many options and he fails to provide a justification for his position.  The greatest flaws in his position are that a soul cannot be detected or identified and that drawing the line at conception fails to consider the general negative consequences of this to human adults.


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


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

In referring to the “unborn” Klusendorf misuses language, which is typical of anti-abortion-rights’ activists.  It is proper to call early stage living human organisms by their proper names, like “zygotes, embryos, or fetuses.”  It is twice as likely that a human zygote will die or be miscarried than that it will be born, so in talking about the “unborn” the author is inappropriately trying to refer to fetuses as though they are babies.

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

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

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