Monday, September 28, 2015

Responding to Bill Nye's Abortion Video

Bill Nye (AKA The Science Guy) is famous in the US for promoting science and he recently produced an ‘educational’ video where he defends abortion and claims to debunk prolife arguments against abortion.

Nye talks a lot about facts, which is strange because, last time I checked, he was a trained Mechanical Engineer and not qualified to contradict what Embryologists actually teach about when human life begins.

You can watch his video here.

So to demonstrate why Nye does not in fact present anything near a challenge to the prolife position I will go through his key statements point by point.

“Many, many, many, many more hundreds of eggs are fertilized than become humans. Eggs get fertilized and by that I mean sperm get accepted by ova a lot.”

Yes, it is true that more eggs are fertilized than grow to human maturity but it would be wrong to finish there. The fertilization process, when finished successfully produces a new, whole, distinct, and growing human life. But when the sperm and egg unite they do not always produce a viable human life. In some cases they can produce non-viable human embryos or non-human entities like hydatiform moles. What this means is that the fertilization process sometimes goes wrong. However, that does not mean that those embryos that did not implant or died shortly afterwards were not human to begin with. We were all once embryos. That stage marks the earliest of our human development because we do not develop into humans but as humans. Any Embryology textbook will tell you quite clearly that the creation of a new embryo marks the first stage of the human journey. You were once an embryo. So was I and so was Bill Nye.

Nye simply begs the question by asserting that the embryo must be in a hospitable environment to be human, one’s environment has nothing to do with what kind of being one is. As a scientist he should know that one’s environment does not determine one’s species, nevertheless, he seems undeterred in making erroneous claims. In some parts of the world new-born infants die at alarmingly high rates. Are we to assume they aren’t human? Like others before him Nye confuses the distinction between the beginning of a human life and the beginning of pregnancy which are defined differently, only the latter beginning at implantation.

“But that’s not all you need. You have to attach to the uterine wall, the inside of a womb, a woman’s womb. But if you’re going to hold that as a standard, that is to say if you’re going to say when an egg is fertilized it’s therefore has the same rights as an individual, then whom are you going to sue? Whom are you going to imprison? Every woman who’s had a fertilized egg pass through her? Every guy who’s sperm has fertilized an egg and then it didn’t become a human? Have all these people failed you? It’s just a reflection of a deep scientific lack of understanding and you literally or apparently literally don’t know what you’re talking about.”

What do rights have to do with science? Where is Nye discovering these human rights from? Are they hidden in the human ear somewhere? Nye seems to be conflating a number of issues, such as what it means to be human and what it means to have rights (natural or legal, you may ask). You’d think he would answer the scientific question before he steps into the realm of philosophy, another area I’m not sure engineers get much training in. Even the infamous Peter Singer admits that the embryo is a member of the human species, so let’s just answer the easy question first. The embryo is human. After that we can start getting into whether they possess rights or whether others have any duties towards them. Surely one only needs to be human to possess at least some human rights? Unfortunately, Nye doesn’t offer an argument on this, he merely asserts. I’m not sure anyone is sure what Nye is referring to in regards to imprisoning or suing people if we treat embryos as the humans they are. Having a miscarriage is tragic and has nothing to do with the intentional act of killing an unborn human being. The more Nye speaks, the quicker it becomes clear that he doesn’t really know what he is talking about and is just hoping that people believe him because he’s famous.

I feel I should offer a little more clarification (since Nye doesn’t). Using the term ‘fertilized egg’ is a misnomer since the egg and sperm proper no longer exist once the embryo does. Biologically speaking it’s about as accurate as referring to an infant as a fertilized egg. Let me be clear, Nye is asserting that the new embryo is not human and yet embryology textbooks consistently says stuff like this: ‘The development of a human begins with fertilization, a process by which the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote.’ – (Sadler, T.W. Langman’s Medical Embryology. 7th edition. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins 1995, p. 3). Of course, what does the writer of one of the world’s leading Embryology textbooks know? As Nye says he must just be reflecting a deep scientific lack of understanding.

“And so when it comes to women’s right with respect to their reproduction, I think you should leave it to women. This is really – you cannot help but notice. I’m not the first guy to observe this. You have a lot of men of European descent passing these extraordinary laws based on ignorance. Sorry you guys. I know it was written or your interpretation of a book written 5,000 years ago, 50 centuries ago, makes you think that when a man and a woman have sexual intercourse they always have a baby. That’s wrong and so to pass laws based on that belief is inconsistent with nature.”

Obviously you have to ignore the irony of a man of European descent displaying his views about abortion whilst telling men not to communicate their views an abortion. It’s also ironic that an all-male Supreme Court decided for Roe in the infamous Roe v Wade case in 1973. I hope Nye will join me in campaigning for this example of male patriarchy to be overturned!

Oh no, you didn’t! Nye seems to think that only European men who believe the Bible are against abortion. Unsurprisingly, he is mistaken. Women actually make the same prolife arguments men do because arguments don’t have genders. You also don’t need to believe the Bible to know that abortion is wrong, any more than you need to believe the Bible to know it’s wrong to strangle an infant. I think Nye should spend a few hours reading the Song of Songs. Nowhere does it say that we ought to believe that every sexual act must always produce children. I’m not sure what point Nye is trying to make because I’m not quite sure how making it illegal to intentionally kill your unborn offspring is consistent with ‘nature’. I would tell you what he means by nature but he never tells us.

“I mean it’s hard not to get frustrated with this everybody. And I know nobody likes abortion, okay. But you can’t tell somebody what to do. I mean she has rights over this, especially if she doesn’t like the guy that got her pregnant. She doesn’t want anything to do with your genes, get over it, especially if she were raped and all this. So it’s very frustrating on the outside, on the other side. We have so many more important things to be dealing with. We have so many more problems to squander resources on this argument based on bad science, on just lack of understanding.”

I must admit, like Bill, I’m struggling to not get frustrated. Why does nobody like abortion? What other ‘human rights’ are there that nobody likes? Of course you can tell someone what to do. Nye is doing it right now and our parents, colleagues, and governments do it every day. Would Nye never tell anyone it’s wrong to steal, cheat, harass, bully, or assault anyone? If something is morally wrong, we ought to encourage people not to do it (e.g. drunk driving). Once again demonstrating his question begging case against the prolife view, he simply assumes without basis that the unborn are not human. We have to remember that women don’t know they are pregnant until after implantation. So Nye’s earlier argument about the early embryo is a red herring because he has offered no argument against the later embryo or fetus not being an individual human who is a bearer of rights. He thinks it’s okay to kill the unborn if you don’t like the father. Would that be acceptable after they were born? Oh no, of course not, because infanticide is much harder to hide and much harder to use bad science to defend. For that, you just need bad philosophy.

So as you can see, it’s the prolife community who doesn’t understand science. What do prolife philosophers or embryologists know when you have mechanical engineers to show you how it is. Clearly it was too much work for Nye to engage with the arguments prolife philosophers actually make. Instead he opted to ignore the work of those like Robert P. George, Patrick Lee, Christopher Kaczor, Stephen Schwarz, Francis Beckwith or any number of others. In conclusion, Bill Nye hasn’t debunked anything, instead he has demonstrated that he doesn’t understand the prolife argument and is ignorant of the basics of modern embryology.

Happy to clarify anything and look forward to your thoughtful comments. This post was originally posted at the Failed Atheist Blog.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Book Review: Aborting Aristotle: Examining Fatal Fallacies in the Abortion Debate by Dave Sterrett [Clinton Wilcox]

Special thanks to Dave Sterrett for the free copy of the book to review.

There are a lot of great books out there defending the pro-life position. There are also some great books to help you get started in pro-life apologetics. Dave Sterrett's book really functions as a pre-starter book, whereas in introductory books the information you learn about are the basics that you need, Aborting Aristotle gives a grounding, the sort of metaphysical basement, for our pro-life views. You won't learn how to defend the pro-life view, that's not its purpose. You'll learn about why the pro-life position works and why pro-choice thinkers fail to justify abortion by jettisoning an Aristotelian framework.

There is a lot of great information contained in this book. His discussions on how naturalistic metaphysics is self-refuting is especially important to understand. His chapter on personhood was also very good. Usually discussions of personhood certain around who counts as persons, but it seems that rarely do these discussions get to the heart of what the concept of "person" actually means. Sterrett shows admirably that our personhood, while different than our humanity, cannot be separated from it. He even talks about some common ground that we can find with pro-choice people in his concluding chapter, which is an excellent thing for pro-life people to keep in mind when talking to pro-choice people.

The only main problems I had with the book are:

1) There was no real discussion about substances and why humans count as substances. It really seems like you'd need at least a basic familiarity with Aristotle in order to know what he's talking about, even in his excellent rebuttals of naturalistic philosophy.

2) There was no real discussion about potentiality and actuality. It was mentioned, but not really discussed. This does seem like a glaring omission, since not knowing what potentiality actually means leads even modern philosophers to make bad arguments against the personhood of the unborn. Two examples are when Michael Tooley, in his book Abortion and Infanticide, argues about injecting a rationality serum into cats, and when Singer, I believe in his book Practical Ethics, argues that potential presidents don't have the same privileges and duties as actual presidents. If Sterrett does a second edition, I think a chapter on potentiality vs. actuality would be in order.

3) The 17.00 price tag is a bit steep for a 120-page book. Granted, this is not the fault of the author, the publisher sets the price tag.

There are a couple of other minor issues that should probably be corrected for future editions. In at least a couple of the chapters, I felt the endings weren't tightened up. They seemed to just end abruptly. Additionally, for many of the quotes regarding Aristotle, he used secondary sources, not the primary sources, themselves. This may affect credibility.

I am an Aristotelian/Thomist in my view of metaphysics. As such, I think this is an important book to add to the discussion. It's a helpful primer on the metaphysical grounding of the pro-life position.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Responding to a Video From Bill Nye, the Anti-Science Guy [Clinton Wilcox]

I've seen a video being shared on Facebook from a website called Big Think, in which Bill Nye (heralded as "The Science Guy" because he plays one on TV) condescendingly tells pro-lifers that we should not tell women what to do, and that the pro-life position is based on "outdated" science. That is, the science that Alan Guttmacher, in 1933 said is "so simple and evident that it is difficult to picture a time when it wasn't part of the common knowledge" (see Life in the Making: The Story of Human Procreation). The science that every embryology textbook of the 20th and 21st centuries supports. This science is "outdated" to Bill Nye. Perhaps most egregiously he tries to pit science against religion in this video, which belies a severe ignorance of how science actually developed.

Let's take a look at Bill Nye's "scientific" claims against the pro-life position. He also tries to deny abstinence education works and a few other things, but they are not related to his scientific claims. So I will not address them here.

He starts off by saying that many more human eggs are fertilized than become humans. This is true. Many become choriocarcinomas, or hydatidiform moles, or other non-human entities. But this doesn't show that human beings are not human from fertilization, all it shows is that something can go awry in the fertilization process and create a non-human entity, or a human entity that won't survive very long due to a severe defect.

Next he says that the sperm fertilizing the egg is not all you need. You also need to attach to the uterine wall. However, Nye is incredibly vague here. What needs to attach to the uterine wall? The fertilized egg does. But fertilized egg is a misnomer. Once the egg is fertilized it becomes a zygote, an early embryo. It's the embryo that needs to attach to the uterine wall. What is the embryo? Nye doesn't even begin to talk about it. Once the embryo is fertilized, it is a new, genetically distinct, whole human organism. Attaching to the uterine wall is essential for the embryo to continue developing, but the embryo's life doesn't begin at implantation, anymore than the fetus' life ends at birth.

After that, Nye asks if we grant personhood rights to the unborn entity from fertilization, then whom are we going to imprison? It's actually a half-question. Is he insinuating that we should lock up women because not all of their embryos implant? Why on earth would we do that? The woman isn't responsible for that. We only lock people up if they are responsible, whether knowingly or if they should have known, for a crime. Nye says this results from a deep lack of scientific understanding, but as is evident from the video, Nye fits this description, not pro-life people.

That's all I'll really say on the video. Nye's other claims are just as bogus as his scientific ones in this video, but I wanted to focus specifically on the scientific claims, since Bill Nye is held up as a knowledgeable scientist and his claims are being shared around Facebook uncritically. We should always check the facts, no matter who it is that is doing the speaking. Pro-life people aren't out to tell women what to do with their bodies. We are only out to make the very modest claim that human beings are human from fertilization, and to kill them unjustly is immoral and should be illegal.