Wednesday, June 18, 2014

How Not to Address Pro-Choice Arguments in 1,000 Words [Clinton Wilcox]

There's a video on YouTube that claims to be able to destroy "pro-abortion" arguments in two minutes by vlogger Buster Stein. I believe that we should be making the best arguments we can for the pro-life position, and responding adequately to the best arguments from the pro-choice side. Unfortunately Mr. Stein here does neither of those two things. Despite the title of his video, he doesn't address a single pro-choice argument nor does he make a very compelling case for the pro-life position. Stein's pro-life arguments are just taken from internet memes that you see floating around Facebook, but as is the case with memes they make lousy arguments. Additionally, his entire video is spent making a positive case, defending the pro-life position, instead of making a negative case, responding to pro-choice arguments against the pro-life position. Let's take a look at his arguments.

"If we're considered dead when our heart stops beating, shouldn't we be considered alive when it starts?"

Sure, but what about before that? Does Stein believe human life begins when the heart starts beating? My guess would be no. So why is he using this argument? Human life starts at fertilization. Once the heart starts beating it is required to keep you alive. But before that point, you are able to survive without a heart. Besides, as Dr. Maureen Condic has written in her essay "Life: Defining the Beginning by the End," it's not brain death or when the heart stops beating that determines true death. It is when your cells stop communicating with each other. She writes, "The medical and legal definition of death draws a clear distinction between living cells and living organisms. Organisms are living beings composed of parts that have separate but mutually dependent functions. While organisms are made of living cells, living cells themselves do not necessarily constitute an organism. The critical difference between a collection of cells and a living organism is the ability of an organism to act in a coordinated manner for the continued health and maintenance of the body as a whole. It is precisely this ability that breaks down at the moment of death, however death might occur. Dead bodies may have plenty of live cells, but their cells no longer function together in a coordinated manner." This is what happens at the moment of death, and this is what determines when you are truly dead. You may irreversibly lose the ability to function as a person when your brain dies or your heart stops, but it is the ability for your cells to act as an integrated whole that determine whether an organism is alive. So if we want to take a symmetrical view to human life, if our cells stop communicating when we die, then when our cells start communicating as an integrated whole (which happens at fertilization) is when we should be considered alive.

Even aside from the symmetrical view, there are reasons to know that the unborn are living organisms: They metabolize food for energy, they respond to stimuli, and they grow through cellular reproduction. So Stein is correct that the question is are the unborn alive, but he is using a bad argument to get himself there. Aside from that, everyone agrees that abortion kills something. What is at issue at the abortion issue is: are unborn human beings things that are morally permissible to kill? In that respect, Stein has not addressed this pro-choice argument.

"The same people who are for abortion have already been born."

This is a fair point, attributed originally to Ronald Reagan. It's true that no one advocates for their own people group to be killed. But again, this doesn't respond to pro-choice arguments. This is a pro-life argument of its own.

"Eagle eggs, unborn eagles, are protected whereas unborn humans are not."

This is another bad meme argument. Eagle eggs are protected because eagles are an endangered species. Chicken eggs are not protected. If the human race was on the verge of extinction, I think it's entirely possible that our government would outlaw abortion to attempt to get our population numbers back up.

Conversely, it's also true that many people care more about animals than they do human beings. This is a confusion, of course, as there are many reasons to think that human beings are intrinsically valuable whereas animals are not. In fact, many people who believe this way have probably been hurt by people in the past. But someone can believe both that it is wrong to kill animals and that it is wrong to kill unborn human children.

"People are concerned about the right to choose, but the right to choose what? Murder?"

This is a question-begging statement, as he hasn't made the case that abortion is murder. People who are pro-choice are not advocating for the right to choose murder because they don't believe that abortion is murder. You need to have that discussion, first.

Also, it's excellent that he points out that we're not trying to condemn women who have had abortion. Massive brownie points for that.

"These children deserve a destiny and a future."

This is one of the better statements he makes in the video, especially since a very similar argument has been expounded by philosopher Don Marquis. But unfortunately, he doesn't go into detail regarding their right to their future.

So I appreciate Buster Stein's enthusiasm and his desire to talk about the issue. The problem is that he's not using the best arguments that he can to defend his position, and a thoughtful pro-choice person won't be convinced by them.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Who is the Subject of Our Experiences? [Clinton Wilcox]

Allons-y!* Yes, it's high time I out myself as a huge nerd. Last night I attended a screening of the two-part Doctor Who adventure, "Rise of the Cybermen" and "The Age of Steel," seamlessly combined to make a feature film. It was glorious. Now, I know that science fiction is not what the "cool kids" watch, but it really does offer a great medium for exploring philosophical questions, especially in areas like personal identity and the philosophy of mind. Even many analogies surrounding the abortion issue are science fiction scenario (e.g. Thomson's violinist and Warren's captured astronaut).

This episode is one that should seem familiar to veterans of science fiction: The Doctor and his two companions, Rose and Mickey, find themselves trapped in a parallel universe, on an Earth that is very much like their own but with minor variations. On this parallel earth, a man by the name of John Lumic and his staff have created a race of cybernetic creatures as a way to transplant his own brain (and the brains of everyone on Earth) into an immortal body. Of course this makes the President of England (parallel Earth, remember?) uncomfortable, and he denies allowing the project to go forward. In a fit of rage, Lumic unleashes the Cybermen on the people of London, forcing them to surrender for "upgrade" or be exterminated.

Personal identity and personhood tend to be a favorite subject for science fiction franchises. Like the Borg of Star Trek fame, human beings are turned into cybernetic beings. But unlike the Borg, in which the organic parts of the person assimilated remain largely intact, to upload someone's brain into a Cyberman, the organic body must be destroyed and the brain is transplanted into the cybernetic body. Supposedly their identity remains intact, though there is a chip that suppresses their emotions so that they can kill without remorse and not be troubled by the new body they find themselves in.

The question of personal identity is an important one, because it has far-reaching implications. If a person commits a crime and becomes literally a different person later, we can't justly hold the new person responsible for the crime. Thankfully, we have very strong intuitions that we retain our identity throughout our entire lives -- when I think back to when I was a kid, I can be confident that those really were my parents and it really was my school that I attended, not a similar person whose memories I now have and thinks myself to be the original. So it seems that whatever view of personal identity we hold, it has to account for the fact that we retain our identity throughout our entire lives.

Many people (including philosophers) tend to believe that a person is the sum total of all of one's memories and personal experiences. But this doesn't seem correct, since it doesn't account for who, exactly, is the subject of our experiences. Plus, I was still "me" even at the points in my life that I can't remember, or before I was able to form memories. As philosopher Peter Kreeft wrote in his book Heaven: The Heart's Deepest Longing, Expanded Edition (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, 1989, p. 176), "The only thing whose presence can make an all-encompassing difference, a difference to everything in my life, to something not contained by but containing my life. That's me. I am the constant amid millions of variables that make up my life. All my experiences are not X or Y or Z, but all my experiences are mine. Each experience is 'I experiencing X and Y in way Z'. X, Y, and Z are the variables: I am the constant."

There are many drastic changes we go through from the time that we are conceived until now, but all of these changes are identity-preserving changes. My five-year-old self and my present-day self are drastically different: I am several feet taller, I have gone through puberty, I have gained many more and new experiences, my skin cells have died and been replaced, I am now able to engage in higher thought, etc. Yet that was still "me."

But the problem with science fiction scenarios is that we can only speculate regarding them -- we cannot test them, empirically. There may come a time when it becomes scientifically possible to transfer someone's brain into a machine and have them continue to live, or it may never happen because it's simply not possible to do. You could transplant the brain but the person may not survive the transplant. In fact, if all we are is a sum total of our memories and experiences, then if our brain is transplanted, how do we know the original person hasn't died? What we may be left with is a similar (but different) entity, with all of the original person's thoughts, experiences, and memories, believing himself to be the original.

As a Christian, I believe that what accounts for my continuity of existence through all points in my life is the soul, and I believe that our continuity of existence is evidence for the soul. I think that trying to adopt an alternate view regarding personal identity and personhood leads to many absurdities. I can't remember what it was like to be an embryo, but that was certainly "me" in my mother's womb. I can look back and say there was a time in which my mother was pregnant with me, and "I" was born.

*Allons-y is a French phrase which means "let's go!" It's a phrase that the Tenth Doctor repeated often.