Thursday, May 19, 2011

More Responses to a Pro-lifer’s questions – of stones, notes, cows, and the Enlightenment

This was written in response to Jay Whip’s comments to my last blog entry, which were dated May 6, 2011. He has since posted a version of them on his blog at


Thanks for giving me a much better sense of where you’re coming from. You probably won’t agree, but this is my impression from what you’ve told me: You are not able to (what I would call) make moral sense of the world. You cannot explain why the cows your family raised, which recognized and trusted you, and seemed even to have personalities, and could form relationships with your family (as shown by the pet Amos), could be sold to be butchered, while severely mentally handicapped children, with much more impoverished mental lives and relationships, should be cared for as if they were normal children. You are convinced no rational sense can be made of this, so there must simply be an arbitrary rule, backed up by an authority, which ordains this to be the moral order. The rule is (roughly speaking): human beings count for everything, animals for nothing. If I asked you what sets humans apart in this way (although they too are animals), and on what basis you claim that this holds for human beings at every stage of development and regardless of mental status, it seems you would answer something like this: “I claim it on the authority of God, as attested to by the Declaration of Independence and self-evidence.” You might call on metaphysics too, but in this experience-based account, you refrained. Instead you closed with what I gather was an unstated argument that there are only two tenable positions: yours and a savagely embellished version of Singer’s in which babies, the mentally handicapped and sleepers can be murdered at will and equal rights are abandoned. Only by accepting the species line as the absolute criterion for full human rights, you seem to claim, can all the morally troubling contradictions in how humans and animals are treated be justified, and humans’ special place in the world be preserved.

Two metaphors – stones and notes

Your metaphor for explaining morality, the mysterious found message written in stones, saying “Turn around and go home,” makes your points precisely because it is completely arbitrary. It is not based on any facts or reasons. It is not the moral of any story. It doesn’t try to make sense. It’s just a command: “Do this, no questions asked – or answered.” But this is very different from the way ethical problems and the judgements we make about them normally present themselves to us, so it is a very poor and misleading metaphor. Let me suggest a different one:

When you are listening to a piece of music, if someone sings a wrong note, or plays a wrong chord, if you have any musical sense at all, you wince. Even if it’s a piece of music you’ve never heard before, as long as it’s in a musical tradition you’re familiar with, you know the note is wrong; you sense it. If you’re not a musician, you can’t even give any reasons for your judgement. It’s just wrong. It sounds awful.

Did a musical authority make this wrong? Does it help to think so? If somebody were punished for the wrong note, would that make it any more objectively wrong? Did somebody have to create and ordain the rule the note is breaking, and then plant the rule in your head by divine fiat, so you would know when it was violated? Does the fact that a note can sound awful prove that such a God of music exists? All this is absurd.

So what’s going on here? First, the note is heard in a context. It’s not just an isolated thing that must be judged arbitrarily as right or wrong. That context involves rules. There are right notes and wrong notes. There are also meaningless and meaningful notes. Were the rules for right and wrong, meaningful and meaningless, laid down by a law giver or designed by a designer? No they weren’t, any more than the English language was designed (though curiously you seem to believe that it was). Like English grammar, the rules of Western music evolved, over time, as people made music and listened to the music others made, and improvised, and composed, and repeated, modified and elaborated. Almost all this was done free of musical theory. Experience and intuition guided it. Was the result a completely arbitrary set of rules? Could any old pattern of notes be made right or wrong by this process? No. The rules were shaped by human nature, specifically by the human mind as constrained by human brain structure – by the human musical faculty if you like – but also by historical contingency, including the works of the great composers. That’s why there are different musical traditions, as there are different languages, and why those traditions change over time.

Is it an objective or just a subjective statement to say “that was a wrong note”? If the person making it is musically competent, it’s a completely objective statement. Does that mean that it can be derived from physical science alone? Hardlly. Acoustics does play some role (the Greeks were impressed by the simple ratios of harmonic intervals) but the rightness or wrongness of a note can’t be found in its acoustics. Goodness isn’t in the note itself, if the objective note is something out there, isolated, independent of all observers, just vibrations in air. But that isn’t the musical note, because music takes place in its own rule-governed realm of harmony and melody and rhythm accessible only by the human mind. What a strange thing! It is transmitted and embodied by physical sounds, but it is essentially mental. There is no music without minds to make it and to hear it. Yet we can agree on whether that was a wrong note or a right note, without knowing why. So what kind of objectivity is this? It’s reliable intersubjective agreement about a reality that evolved and exists in an intersubjective, mental realm. That reality wasn’t chosen consciously. It is not arbitrary. It doesn’t just depend on how we feel, or even on our opinions. It seems like something outside us; it transcends the individual. It is an expression of human nature and culture at a particular place and time. I’m not saying this is a perfect analogy, but I think it raises some questions for an authority-based approach.

I listened to the Greg Koukl video you recommended, titled “Grounding Morality”. At the end, he counters Michael Shermer’s question, “Would you still be good if God didn’t exist?” with his own: “Would you still be faithful to your wife if you were never married?” I think an unstated implication of the question is that being good is being faithful to God; if there were no God, goodness would be impossible because there would be no one to be faithful to. Koukl uses rape as an example of a moral wrong. Objectivism, he says, is the claim that the wrongness is in the rape, “no matter who’s viewing it.” (He doesn’t actually say, “independent of all observers,” but he implies it.) So evidently rape is only wrong, according to objectivism, because God deemed it so, and we refrain from rape because we are obligated to obey Him, and we are faithful to Him, not because of anything to do with us or with our fellow humans. But rape is an act involving two subjects. Rape is an intersubjective reality. We judge it wrong, I hold, when we consider that reality, including the two subjects, and their relationship as mediated by the act of rape. It is sufficient for that judgement if we are faithful to the victim. (And the victim may well ask, who is God faithful to?) If someone needs to know that rape is punished to know it’s wrong, there’s something missing in him. No doubt there are many Christian husbands, faithful to their Lord, who believe that God’s arbitrary rule is that a man cannot, by definition, rape his wife, so such an act is not punishable, and who therefore feel justified in ignoring the call of conscience that tells them, despite their beliefs, that there is something wrong with this note.  

I believe moral judgements arise out of the way we perceive and respond to interactions between subjects (agents and experiencers). These judgements resemble in many ways musical and grammatical judgements, except that the participants in the judged objects are not words or notes, but often fellow moral judges and agents, who together with us constitute our moral world. We don’t fully understand the basis for these judgments, although we may think we do. Their verdicts just seem to inhere, as qualities, in situations perceived as stories. They often come charged with emotion. Our moral judgements are, as a matter of fact, deeply affected by our native place in history and culture. They are not voluntary. They seem to call out from the world itself, as we understand it, but they express everything that we are.

While I have been elaborating this metaphor, I could almost hear you thinking: “Aha! Relativism! But human equality is universally true. That requires a universal authority to make it so.”

That brings up an interesting story I’ve been meaning to mention.

Our Enlightenment Heritage

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

When I first encountered the surprising use of this sentence from the Declaration of Independence to support the pro-life cause, two things struck me. First, the idea that the founders could have meant, by “created”, the conception of an individual in the womb, seemed ludicrous. (The 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, echoing the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man, reads “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” It means pretty much what “all men are created equal” was intended to mean.) Second, emphasis on reference to a Creator in the Declaration is part of a case the Christian Right seeks to make that our government is founded on belief in God, so separation of church and state is a mistake, and Christian morality (as known with certainty by conservative evangelicals) must be respected and reflected in our laws. I regarded this use as a pathetic and desperate ploy forced on the enemies of secular government by the fact that the founders studiously avoided all mention of God in the true legal foundation of our nation, the Constitution. (There is one exception: the document is dated “in the Year of our Lord” 1787. Even this has been grasped by theocrats as confirmation of their cause.)

But you have helped me to see, Jay, that the pro-life use of this sentence is not just a ploy, but plays a pivotal role for you. You believe that morality is founded on God, as revealed by Christianity. And you believe, both as a good American and a pro-life advocate, in universal human equality as a moral imperative. But there are no Christian texts supporting human equality here on earth. The history of the Christian West up until the Enlightenment is a history of inequality: of hierarchy, serfdom, slavery and racism; of monarchs crowned by popes, the divine right of kings, and aristocracies whose privileges attested to their innate superiority and divine favor. This was not because an original, strong Christian recognition of equality had been ignored or corrupted. Early Christians did not free even their Christian slaves. Throughout most of history the ideas of human equality and equal human rights were simply unknown, and would have been rejected as shocking and absurd. This one sentence from the Declaration of Independence, linking God with equality, is the best you’ve got.

The historian Lynn Hunt, in her book Inventing Human Rights: A History, takes up what she calls “the paradox of self-evidence”: “if equality of rights is so self-evident, then why did this assertion have to be made and why was it only made in specific times and places?” Specifically, in the mid-eighteenth century, at the height of the Enlightenment, when equality of rights became self-evident, “how did these men, living in societies built on slavery, subordination, and seemingly natural subservience, ever come to imagine men not at all like them and, in some cases, women too, as equals?”

Revolutions in morals and world-views, like all momentous historical events, are profound and mysterious things with many causes. I will mention two here: a new historical creation myth, and the expansion of empathy.

Lynn Hunt explores the latter. In the eighteenth century there was a change in, and a new kind of attention paid to “sensibility” and the exercise of sympathy. Hunt emphasizes the role in this change of rise of the “epistolary novel” like Richardson’s Clarissa, in which the mind and feelings of characters are expressed in letters, the protagonists often being women of noble character but inferior social class. Even prominent men avowed being deeply affected by reading such novels. There was a debate about their effect on morals. Hunt writes:

“Ultimately at stake in this conflict of views about the novel was nothing less than the valorization of ordinary secular life as the foundation for morality. In the eyes of the critics of novel reading, sympathy with a novelistic heroine encouraged the worst in the individual (illicit desires and excessive self-regard) and demonstrated the irrevocable degeneration of the secular world. For the adherents of the new view of empathetic moralization, in contrast, such identification showed that the arousal of passion could help transform the inner nature of the individual and produce a moral society. They believed that the inner nature of humans provided a grounding for social and political authority.

“The magical spell cast by the novel thus turned out to be far-reaching in its effects. Although the adherents of the novel did not say so explicitly, they understood that writers such as Richardson and Rousseau were effectively drawing their readers into daily life as a kind of substitute religious experience. Readers learned to appreciate the emotional intensity of the ordinary and the capacity of people like themselves to create on their own a moral world. Human rights grew out of the seedbed sowed by these feelings. Human rights could only flourish when people learned to think of others as their equals, as like them in some fundamental fashion. They learned this equality, at least in part, by experiencing identification with ordinary characters who seemed dramatically present and familiar, even if ultimately fictional.” (Inventing Human Rights, pp.57-58)

Later, abolitionists fostered expansion of the circle of empathy still further by promoting first-person accounts by freed slaves, which Hunt calls “novelistic autobiographies.” Probably the main mode of abolitionist argument was to point out that African slaves were men like us, with feelings like ours. Put yourself in the slave’s place, and perceive the injustice done him, they would say.

Hunt also cites Adam Smith, founder of economics and conservative icon, who, before The Wealth of Nations, penned The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which the ability to imagine ourselves in the situation of others, feeling what they feel (which Smith called ‘sympathy’), is portrayed as the source of moral judgements. He would say that we disapprove of rape because we identify with the victim and share her suffering and her resentment at the perpetrator. You may wonder, Jay, having quizzed me on the objectivity or subjectivity of my opinions, how moral judgement can transcend the merely personal given such a philosophy. Smith writes, “We endeavour to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it. If, upon placing ourselves in his situation, we thoroughly enter into all the passions and motives which influenced it, we approve of it, by sympathy with the approbation of this supposed equitable judge. If otherwise, we enter into his disapprobation, and condemn it.”  Thus, by combining sympathy and the imagination of an impartial spectator, a kind of objectivity is achieved, which is not based on explicit laws, but the richness of natural emotions. Smith believed that, like our sense of beauty, the moral sentiments could be affected to some degree by “fashion and custom”, but “the sentiments of moral approbation and disapprobation, are founded on the strongest and most vigorous passions of human nature; and though they may be somewhat warpt, cannot be entirely perverted.” Smith promised to treat “the general principles of law and government” in a later treatise that never appeared. Rights play no part in his account. But the year of publication, 1759, coincides closely with that brief period in history when equal, universal human rights began to seem self-evident.

The second cause I’ll mention for the revolution in outlook that led to the declaration that “all men are created equal” can be found in a little book called Common Sense by Tom Paine. One of the most effective pieces of propaganda of all time, it was on everybody’s mind when independence was deliberated.  Paine’s parable begins:

In order to gain a clear and just idea of the design and end of government, let us suppose a small number of persons settled in some sequestered part of the earth, unconnected with the rest, they will then represent the first peopling of any country, or of the world. In this state of natural liberty, society will be their first thought. 

Paine then narrates how and why they would set up their first government. Nothing could seem more simple, more like just plain common sense. But this was literally revolutionary. Paine was expressing, in a way immigrants to a new continent would easily grasp, notions that had come to be known, in the philosophies of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, as “the state of nature” and the “social contract”. In the state of nature, at the beginning, before institutions had been set up, all men started out equal. Governments and laws were their own creations, which they had established for their own benefit – not at the command or for the benefit of any deity, not to serve a king anointed by a priest who spoke for God. The Hebrew Bible’s creation story for the Hebrew nation began with God choosing a man and giving him and his descendants a land and laws to obey, and priests to remind them when they were straying from His wishes. Paine’s was a different kind of story altogether, in which men came to a land and set up a state of their own free will. Christians who love reading that we are endowed by our Creator with rights seem to forget that the Declaration also says that government derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed,” not from God, and that “it is the Right of the People ... to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness,” not on principles declared by God, or to please Him, but to secure our own well-being, by means determined by our own reason. That’s the voice of the Enlightenment.

By declaring all men equal, the signers of the Declaration were denying the divine right of kings and the special rights and feigned superiority of aristocrats.  All such distinctions of rank were man-made, artificial, not ordained, or in the blood, or from the beginning. That’s what “created equal” meant. People figured that out, without being told by an authority, by studying history and thinking for themselves.

I have discussed the now common-sense “creation myth” in terms of liberty and equality in “the state of nature” and the “social contract”. I probably should also have mentioned another innovation: “happiness.” The idea that the purpose of governments is to ensure this-worldly happiness must also have been new. To make miserable sinners happy could hardly have been a goal during much of Christian history. That societies could be improved in order to do this better was the idea of progress, another child of the Enlightenment.

Theologies and political theories often echo each other. Christian theology imagines God a king and lawgiver; Christian monarchs had ruled for centuries by divine right; laws were pronounced in their names. Jefferson, like many of the founders, was a Deist; he worshipped “Nature’s God”. As the creator of nature, He created us equal (without distinctions of rank or privilege), gave us reason to conduct our affairs as we saw fit, with moral sentiments to guide us, and then He let the universe loose, with His best wishes. He did not wish to reign as King. Deists often spoke of Divine Providence. (Martin Luther King Jr.’s "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice" would be at home in this tradition.) But as for laws to govern the affairs of men – those were up to us.  

Christians often claim that atheists unwittingly rely, parasitically, on their religious heritage for their moral values. As you and Koukl claim, only an absolute authority can ground values. But ironically, when it comes to the modern democratic values of self-government, equality and human rights, the situation is just the reverse. Conservative evangelical Christian Americans owe their American values to the Age of Reason, and so to a worldview almost diametrically opposed to their own.

It is true that the founders and abolitionists called on God as an authority in their struggle. But He was invoked to endorse a set of beliefs that the Christian religion had almost nothing to do with. If Christianity were their source, it would not have taken seventeen centuries for them to appear. It was only after centuries of senseless bloody European religious wars had encouraged men to begin to free their minds from the thrall of religion that a new way of looking at things could arise and manage to express itself without being suppressed by ecclesiastical authorities. What Christianity was good for was organization and sustained moral fervor. Once the new moral vision arose, some dedicated Christians concluded that, since God is good, he must have been the Author of the equality and liberty that Christendom had until then so widely suppressed, and it must be their Christian duty to change society to bring it in line with God’s intentions. Bless them.

A good example of this is Thomas Clarkson, a colleague of William Wilberforce. In 1785 he wrote a prize-winning Latin essay about slavery, based on classical knowledge of early history and social contract theory. For instance it said, (I’m condensing here): “It appears first, that liberty is a natural, and government an adventitious right, because all men were originally free.... It appears secondly, that government is a contract.... It appears thirdly, that the grand object of the contract, is the happiness of the people... [Therefore] as the right to empire is adventitious; as all were originally free; as nature made every man's body and mind his own; it is evident that no just man can be consigned to slavery, without his own consent.” (An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Part II, Chapters III and IV.) Notice it was not necessary to mention God or Christ in this proof. According to Wikipedia, “After winning the prize, Clarkson had what he called a spiritual revelation from God as he travelled on horseback between Cambridge and London... 'A thought came into my mind', he later wrote, 'that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end' (Clarkson, History, vol. 1). It was this experience and sense of calling that ultimately led him to devote his life to abolishing the slave trade.”

You have several times challenged me to account for how my point of view could deal with a society that has gone morally wrong. Without transcendent authority, how resist society’s norms? Two points: 1) People always believe that their moral judgements are shared by God. Southern slaveholders believed themselves good Christians. German Protestant clergy under the Nazis, with very few dissenters, supported the regime and devoted themselves to de-Judaizing their religion. 2) But the Enlightenment, with its this-worldly values, its attention to expanded sympathies, new philosophies, historical perspective, and optimistic pursuit of happiness, set in motion changes that overthrew long-established institutions, and gave us self-government, the end of slavery, and the ideal of universal human rights.

Given this history of the changes in thought and feeling which gave us equal human rights, who do you think more justly claims the mantle of the American revolutionaries and abolitionists, you or I? You claim to defend the arbitrary law of an absolute ruler, whose decrees defy our ability to understand or justify. The suffering and the rational pursuit of happiness by women in difficult circumstances you hold of no account. You sneer at appeals for respect by government of liberty of conscience and a sphere of privacy. When I argue that concern for the unborn is misplaced because they lack minds, and therefore, if we are honest and attentive to the facts, we recognize that we cannot identify with them, because they have no thoughts or feelings, you answer, “What do thoughts and feelings have to do with human rights? What absolute authority told you we have to be concerned with those? It sounds ad hoc to me.”

I ask you to read your account of the cows, but substitute slaves for cows, and “sold down the river” for sold for slaughter. I’m not saying that cows should be accorded human rights. I’m saying, compare your arguments to those of a slaveholder who believed, as some argued, that Africans were descendants of the Biblically cursed Ham, fated by God to serve their betters. Notice that your arguments from sympathy and fellow-feeling fall on one side; from social consensus, long-approved way of life, and God’s will on the other. When you compare your cows with severely handicapped children, I think you would agree that you are able to identify more with the cows. Our Enlightenment forbears did not ignore such sentiments. They reasoned about them; they moralized about them. And they overthrew religiously-sanctioned institutions in part for their sake.

Incidentally, when you say, “Anyone in my family would find it unthinkable to make Amos into a cheeseburger,” but then add that it would be “morally acceptable” for them to do so, doesn’t this reveal a troubling contradiction? You call your family’s sense of how Amos should be treated merely ‘subjective feelings’. I think there is a better word for it: ‘conscience’. Such subjective feelings are what made Huck aid a runaway slave even though he believed he’d be sent to Hell for it. Abolitionists appealed to them when they pointed out that an African slave has the same feelings as a white man. They are not infallible; perhaps they are only one piece in the puzzle; but they are not irrelevant to moral judgements and they should not be denigrated as merely “subjective.”

Paradoxical sympathies

There is one difficult point I noticed while I was finally getting around to reading some Adam Smith on the moral sentiments in preparation for writing this. Smith noted (in his very first chapter, on sympathy) the seeming paradox that sometimes our sentiments are based on a contradiction, an impossibility. We are embarrassed for the boorish person who is insensitive to his own boorishness, by putting ourselves in his position, imagining we had acted as he did, but with the addition that we are sensitive to our errors where he is not. Or we are sensible of the tragedy of the insane, who are unaware of what they have lost. “The anguish which humanity feels... at the sight of such an object, cannot be the reflection of any sentiment of the sufferer. The compassion of the spectator must arise altogether from the consideration of what he himself would feel if he was reduced to the same unhappy situation, and, what perhaps is impossible, was at the same time able to regard it with his present reason and judgement.” Smith also considers the mother who fears for her infant who cannot fear, and our fear of death, in which we imagine ourselves lowered into the grave. “The idea of that dreary and endless melancholy, which the fancy naturally ascribes to their condition, arises altogether from our joining to the change which has been produced upon them, our own consciousness of that change, from our putting ourselves in their situation, and from our lodging, if I may be allowed to say so, our own living souls in their inanimated bodies, and thence conceiving what would be our emotions in this case. It is from this very illusion of the imagination, that the foresight of our own dissolution is so terrible to us...,” although “the happiness of the dead ... is affected by none of these circumstances.”

It struck me that the comment by Christina Dunigan I wrote about, which totally baffled me, might be expressing such a paradoxical act of sympathy. It was even worse to kill a baby, Dunigan said, before she achieves consciousness, because it deprives her of the chance to experience anything at all. In order to make this judgement, Christina seems to be putting herself in the place of the fetus and imagining her loss (though I would say ‘loss’ is not the right word for the fetus, since you first need to have something in order to lose it, though it would be right for Christina, who imagines herself in its place). But what is being ‘lost’ is the ability to experience anything at all, including loss.

My argument has essentially been that this carries sympathy too far, because the only one who could actually have experienced the loss was a person in the future, who never came to be; and possible people who never come to exist are not of equal status with people who do or have existed. We cannot accord rights or afford sympathy to the first class (it is infinitely large); we do to the second, both the living and, in some respects, the dead. But, unfortunately, then we’re back to metaphysics and what it means for a person to exist. I have argued against the substance-based approach, and for one involving open systems and the centrality of the mental, which appears to be an emergent property of the brain.  

The use by pro-lifers of gruesome photos strikes me as another case of paradoxical sympathy. When we see a little human body dismembered, we are horrified. We cannot help but imagine if that were us, how we would have felt being torn apart. But we are imagining something impossible, if the body we see didn’t have a central nervous system that enabled it to sense anything at all about what was happening to it. How appropriate, then, is our horror? How morally relevant?

Moral reasoning – some methodology

Before I proceed, at long last, to your questions, I have a few observations on moral reasoning.You say:

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.

As I’ve said, I haven’t studied Singer, so I don’t know if this is his position. But, as you’ve stated it, I disagree. For me, what the philosopher John Rawls calls “reflective equilibrium” better describes moral reflection. I may be wrong, but it seems to me Rawls’ concept is very close to what people do in the field of linguistics when they study syntax. You start with intuitions: here moral intuitions, in linguistics grammatical intuitions. Something seems right or wrong, or grammatical or ungrammatical, or possibly something in between, or just strange. Then you come up with principles that would explain the intuitions if the principles produced them. If you try other examples, and the principles hold, then you have a pretty good grasp of the ethics, or the grammar, of these situations. On the other hand, if the intuitions don’t fit the rules you’ve invented to explain them, then typically you change the rules. But it’s a back and forth process. Sometimes, if the rules seem to be very good, and cover a lot of ground, then in a specific instance you may decide your intuitions were mistaken, and the morality or grammar you have devised does give the correct answer, although your first impression was otherwise. Rawls says you go back and forth like this until you reach equilibrium.

As I’ve already indicated, I think morality, like language, is a very complicated thing which we use without deeply understanding it. So I think it’s very dangerous to accept some principle as the true and certain basis of morality, and on that basis to ignore one’s own moral intuitions. That way lie crimes like the Inquisition and Stalinism. We don’t know, a priori, what the basis of morality is. All our moral knowledge is based on our intuitions. Even Bible-believers pick and choose which injunctions to heed and which to ignore according to what seems right to them. So when principles violently clash with intuitions, it is more likely that the principles are wrong than the intuitions. However, there are many ways to misread and ignore and deceive ourselves about our intuitions too. So it is not out of the question that a violent clash could result from one of these.

It’s also possible to mislead someone into substituting their genuine intuitions about one situation for their response to another quite different situation which they haven’t paid sufficient attention to. For instance, it might seem right to sweep Jews out of your neighborhood if you’re led to think of them as dirty rats. (Evoking disgust helps, since it can easily be confused with moral judgement.) Likewise, killing an embryo might seem horrendous because you’ve been led to think of it as a baby. So to get trustworthy intuitions you need to be careful to perceive the situation that you’re judging accurately, for what it is, not for what somebody has called it.

Science can often aid us in doing this. For instance, judging someone guilty of murder is a moral judgement. But it requires evidence, which is why we have trials. If science can reveal that, despite appearances, no murder took place, the verdict will be not guilty. In the case of abortion it’s not so clear cut, since there’s a question of what constitutes murder which science cannot answer. But science does have a lot to say about what is there and what isn’t, what changes and what doesn’t, and when. All this, it seems to me, ought to be relevant. At the very least, while examining our intuitions about abortion, we should pay attention to these facts. You might answer that pro-life forces do emphasize images of the unborn. My impression is that these images tend to be selective; they lack scale information; often they’re designed to evoke disgust; and, as I’ve mentioned before, comparative images of brains are never presented, and the importance of the brain is not considered. Without deep understanding of what they represent, images can be misleading. Something can remind you of a baby when it is actually something very different.

Your Questions

Finally I will try to answer the questions you posed to me on the Life Training Institute Blog on April 26 at

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?

It’s hard to say just how I reached them, because this was something I worked out when I was young, between maybe 10 and 14. I think it started with my learning about physics, about the nature of light, and I realized colors weren’t in the world, they were in the mind. I was concerned with qualia without knowing the name for them. I tried to discuss consciousness with friends and family, but no one seemed to have an inkling of what I was talking about. That’s often still the case. I tried to figure out what made me me. I did thought experiments. If a finger was cut off, I would still be me, my finger wouldn’t. I decided I could lose any part of my body except my brain and still be me. But what was it about my brain that constituted my self? I didn’t know much about the brain, but I imagined there must be electrical currents, electrons moving around. Those were my thoughts maybe. But that’s where I stopped, stumped. I imagined myself very small inside my brain watching electrons moving around, and I couldn’t imagine how these could be related to my consciousness, yet somehow they were. To tell you the truth, I haven’t made much progress since.

A while back I sat in on a graduate philosophy seminar on John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. I had never read it before. I loved it. Others in the seminar tended to be very critical, but to me a great deal of it just seemed obvious, and I agreed with it. David Richards was probably right to call me a Lockian, but that isn’t because I take Locke as my authority. We just have similar points of view about certain things. Locke distinguished the ‘person’ from the ‘man’. We would call Locke’s ‘man’ the organism and his ‘person’ the mind or consciousness. (I think. I’m a little rusty on this. That’s probably an oversimplification.) They aren’t the same. I agree.  

However, probably taking that class caused me eventually to take my last step away from the idea of personal identity as something that is preserved over time as the owner of experiences. So, in your thought experiment, if my mother were destroyed one night in her sleep, and an exact replica replaced her and woke up the next morning with the same thoughts and experiences that she would have had, I don’t believe there is any point in saying that is not her, or that anybody has lost anything. Nothing carries over but the structure and content of our minds. Although, in the real, non-thought-experiment world, the same biological open system called our body is the cause of our mind's continuing to appear in time. But being the cause of something is not the same as being that thing.

Incidentally, Locke’s Second Treatise on Government was probably the greatest influence on the American founders’ ideas on liberty, equality, and the social contract. But I haven’t read it. He also wrote “A Letter Concerning Toleration” that was probably influential in promoting religious liberty, although he denied it to atheists.

I have studied aspects of cognitive psychology, neurology and neuroscience. They haven’t forced me to revise my beliefs about consciousness, they’ve only informed them. What I wrote about the fact that owning a body depends on a functioning brain, and that without a functioning brain, the body is no one’s, is related to the work of the neurologist V.S. Ramachandran reported in Phantoms in the Brain. Ramachandran treated people with pain in phantom limbs – limbs they feel even after they’ve been amputated. He discovered that the pain was produced by neural signals from other parts of the body stimulating the area of the brain that represented the lost limb. The pain was felt in the missing limb because the brain representation of it continued to function. Other patients, who had had strokes destroying the brain representation of a limb, thus paralyzing and numbing it, might deny it is theirs and try to throw it out of the bed. Still other patients have a weird syndrome where they want to amputate a part of a limb. It doesn’t feel like it belongs to them. It is somehow foreign, and they want to get rid of it. Ramachandran discovered (I believe) that these patients were missing a brain representation of the offending part of the limb. These neural representations which allow us to own our own bodies reside in the cerebral cortex. So when I say that a fetus, before its cortex has developed, isn’t anybody’s body, I think I have good scientific evidence to back that up. How a body that isn’t owned by anyone in the way that we own our bodies (by mentally representing them to ourselves as ours) could be a person with rights is hard to fathom.

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?

I have intended to make one strong, clear claim: if we have not become conscious, we have not begun to exist. Consciousness, I said, was a necessary but not a sufficient condition for personhood. But it even goes further than that. Consciousness distinguishes sentient from nonsentient beings, which means, for me, it distinguishes moral subjects from things. This has one important implication, which is really the only point I care about: the killing of an embryo or fetus before it develops to the point when it can support consciousness is not wrong, not even a little bit, because a nonsentient being is not the kind of thing that can be wronged. I expect Singer would agree.

You have pressed me to give my opinion about the treatment of infants and the mentally handicapped. These are not issues I’ve thought hard about. I like babies. I think they’re cute, and I’m not for killing them. I also realize there are difficult situations. I don’t believe I’ve read Singer on this subject. He can be very convincing. I once read a single paragraph by him, and consequently changed my diet. So he might convince me. But it has seemed to me that the thorny issues surrounding the criteria for personhood, and how personhood relates to rights, are completely independent of my main point, that whatever other criteria you may wish to argue about, there is one that must come first: a person is a sentient being. It’s a bit like my saying, “Whatever else a candidate for president is, he must be an American citizen,” and your answering “Yes, but why do you think he needs to be 35, or does he?” I don’t care how old he needs to be. That’s not what I was talking about. And by the way, I haven’t proposed any criteria for personhood or for allowing abortion other than this minimal one: sentient being.  

From the start you have been trying to get me into an argument with Singer. This puzzled me. Now I think I understand. You think you have a good argument against Singer: criteria for personhood will get things wrong. They will rank cows higher than infants and some mentally handicapped, and we all know how we treat cows. We eat them. So that gets you to Harold burgers. This is absurd and revolting, so the only alternative is the prolife stance. As you put it: “Humans must have value simply because they are human, not because of any acquired property or even if you don’t believe that a “person” currently inhabits their body. If you deny this, it is difficult if not impossible to account for equality among men. Any way you define personhood would render some humans more personal than others. If this is true we might as well burn the Declaration of Independence and just admit that such a system does not permit for an absolute right not to be killed.”

I understand this is what you believe, but it’s not that simple. This is black-and-white thinking. “If we don’t choose white, all hell breaks loose!” But not only are there grays in this world, there is a large assortment of other colors. (I’ll explain that comment shortly.) I will agree with you that, if we reject the species boundary as the qualification for equal human rights, then we must think deeply about what goes in its place, and that’s not easy or comfortable. But reliance on reason and moral intuitions is what got us this far. At least we should make an effort to come up with something that makes sense before accepting a one-sentence rule that doesn’t even make the pretense of being rational and which also seems to get it wrong in important ways. If we follow Rawls’ method of reflective equilibrium, we don’t have to fear that the answer we come up with will revolt us. Legal abortion doesn’t lead to unrestricted infanticide or cannibalism any more than gay marriage leads to cross-species weddings.

Essentially, what you have attempted to present is a reductio ad absurdam argument based on a forced choice between two alternatives, one of which (an exaggeration of Singer’s position) has horrible consequences, and the other is yours. But there are many other positions possible, and the issues are much more complex than you assume. Without personally choosing one of these positions, I’ll try to lay out some of the issues that make your forced-choice fail.

First, let’s clear up a confusion. You claim that a system that is not based on your species criterion “does not permit for an absolute right not to be killed.” But if we were to accord equal human rights to one class of humans and deny them to another, all members of the first class would still have “an absolute right not to be killed.” As it happens, brain-dead humans, which are biologically alive, do not now have a right not to be killed (their biological lives terminated). This does not endanger your life, except if you were to have the misfortune to suffer devastating brain damage. And if you did, there would be no good reason for you not to be killed, if this allowed your organs to save another’s life. There would be nothing more of value you could lose. Does this mean you didn’t have “an absolute right not to be killed”? Well, you did, except in certain circumstances. Or, if you adopt the brain-death criterion (which is a personhood criterion) that a living person no longer exists once brain function has been permanently lost, then there would not even be an exception.

Now I’ll just list some of the complicating factors and possibilities that make this not simply a forced choice between two alternatives:

Policy versus morality. Given vast differences in individuals, how shall we treat them? If we choose to treat them equally in some respect (say before the law), this need not imply that they are intrinsically equal in any sense. It may simply be that, for policy reasons, it is best to treat them equally. For instance, by treating all people as innocent until proven guilty, we minimize the chance for injustice toward the innocent. This doesn’t imply that all the accused are equally innocent. Conversely, treating two classes of beings unequally doesn’t necessarily imply that they are intrinsically unequal; consider citizenship. (Could taboos like those against incest and cannibalism and even infanticide resemble citizenship rules, policy decisions relating to membership in certain classes which have moral implications but are not moral laws per se? Could the eating of animals also be a policy decision rather than a judgement of value on some scale of being? Some traditional hunters thanked their prey, even worshipped it. Eating something need not preclude respect.) Finally, just because we might decide that a certain class of humans lacked personhood and rights doesn’t automatically dictate what policy to take toward them. Policies affect not only those who are subject to them, but those who carry them out, often under conditions of uncertainty, and those who witness and know about them. We might opt for a policy of equal rights because making life-or-death choices about fellow human beings is too difficult or painful or scary.

Gray areas. Instead of just persons or non-persons, there may be gray areas. These could consist of possibilities that fall neatly into neither class, or ones for which we cannot decide the classification with confidence. In these cases, a different set of rights might be appropriate.

Threshold models. Instead of a gray area between black and white, consider a gradual change followed by a new, discrete state. For instance, imagine a leaky faucet that produces droplets that are all exactly equal in size. Each droplet begins to grow from nothing, gradually developing until it reaches the threshold, upon which it drops from the faucet. So on one side of the threshold all are equal, on the other there may be infinite gradations.

Multidimensional personhood. (Not just grays, but other colors.) I think I regret accepting the language of “value” in the first place. ‘Value’ implies that beings can be ordered on a single dimension. Morality doesn’t necessarily imply such a scale. People who want to define what sets humanity apart have picked a few simple-sounding properties like rationality or moral agency, and then we try to grade creatures on this scale. This leads to seeming paradoxes like the ordering problem you pointed out between infants and cows. But humans are incredibly complex and multifaceted. Just think of the different kinds of fragments of humanity which are preserved by brain damage or malformation. The savants who can’t tie their shoes or navigate their own homes, but who can draw masterfully or can play anything they hear. Social skills, emotions, intellect, memory, perception, language, music, humor, and on and on. Each of these big terms involves many smaller facets. There are beings who excel in some of these and are destitute of others. Someone could have abilities in some areas inferior to cows, while preserving uniquely human abilities in other areas. Your idea that I must allow the killing of all the mentally handicapped, when this involves a vast range, from the practically decorticate to high-functioning individuals, and all kinds of variations in all kinds of dimensions, is a symptom of your black-and-white approach to complex problems. But I do agree that, under my approach, the question is open. We can’t rule out options without thinking about them.

Sentience in addition to personhood. I have in mind two Venn diagrams. Instead of drawing them, I’ll just describe them. (1) In my view, we have: two large non-overlapping circles representing the sentient and the nonsentient. (By sentient I mean either currently conscious or undergoing a temporary gap in consciousness. The nonsentient comprise all other entities.) Within the set of sentient beings lies a smaller circle of persons. All sentient beings are moral subjects (which means they demand some amount of concern.) No nonsentient beings are moral subjects. (We need not be concerned for them for their own sake.) Additional moral concerns apply to the subset of persons, and perhaps there are other special groups. (2) Your view: two large non-overlapping circles for the sentient and the nonsentient. A smaller circle representing human beings overlaps both the sentient and nonsentient. Now the nice, intelligible generalization that morality applies to all and only the sentient has one exception: human nonsentient beings. Why we should be concerned for them is unexplained. I suggest that we can eliminate this exception and still have a great deal of latitude in defining and privileging the class of persons and any other special classes of sentient beings.

I will not make a case for one possibility among this plethora of choices. Even if I did, for your argument to go through, you would have to eliminate them all.

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.

I would not say, Jay, that you must respect the right to abortion regardless of your personal convictions. If your convictions tell you it’s wrong, then you must oppose it, though not necessarily by means of legislation. My goal has been to convince you to change your convictions. I had thought that the core of the pro-life movement was mistaken beliefs about the nature of life. If I could explain the modern, scientific view of life and show that it conflicts with and has replaced the ancient, Aristotelian one, I thought that this might lead pro-lifers to change their minds.  

Christian apologists often speak of metaphysics as if it’s indisputable and therefore safe ground on which to take a stand. They say: “I have my metaphysics and you have yours. We are both equally taking a stand on faith, because metaphysics is a set of a priori assumptions. So the materialistic scientific world view is just another religion, like Christianity, and scientists are just another priesthood.” I don’t agree. Of course, anyone can insulate himself against all argument and experience by adopting some tenets as supreme and certain, and dismissing anything that contradicts them. But science doesn’t do this, nor do most reasonable people except in matters of faith. Metaphysics is not insulated from science, which is to say, it is not insulated from the attempt to learn from experience. For instance, one aspect of metaphysics is ontology. It lists the basic kinds of things that exist. If you live in a universe where there are five elements, earth, water, air, fire, and the incorruptible quintessence of which the heavenly bodies are made, you have a different ontology from that of modern science. Ontologies can be treated like scientific hypotheses. Just as a physicist could posit the existence of some unobservable subatomic particle like a quark, and then support that hypothesis with improved ability to explain phenomena based on that assumption, we can dismiss the five-element hypothesis for lack of explanatory power in comparison with its modern rivals. Aristotle’s soul-based theory of life falls for the same kinds of reasons. It lacks explanatory power compared to modern biology. (Which is not to say that no soul exists, just that life is not a soul, nor is life proof of the presence of one.)

A while back there was an ad campaign by Dow that spoke glowingly of “the human element” while showing a periodic table, thus linking chemistry with something more touchy-feely in a catchy way. Traditional worldviews regard “the human element” as almost literally true. Man, according to this view, is part of the basic furniture of the universe, like earth, air, fire and water – present, so to speak, from the creation, an ontological primitive. The modern view is completely different. The human race is more like the United States than it is like a chemical element. Man is not a universal category, but an historical occurrence, his nature conditioned by the circumstances of his birth and recorded in three billion nucleotide pairs, each an independent fact about him. To the extent that morality is universal (we don’t know to what extent it is), man should not appear in it as a basic element.

The upshot is that I think the two sides can argue about metaphysics as a part of public discourse, even when legislation is involved. But calling on supernatural authority as an endorsement of one system of metaphysics over another, and using this to justify legislation, is not kosher. I made an argument to this effect in a set of responses on your blog at

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.

This is a question for political theory. I’ve already spoken at length about the historical circumstances surrounding the recognition of human rights. They were motivated by sympathy and involved appeal to social contract theory. God, it seems to me, was only called in afterwards for His endorsement. But He’d endorsed absolute monarchies and the Inquisition before that, so His stamp of approval was not that persuasive or important in practical terms. It’s a serious question you ask – what is an objective reason for why rights of any kind exist – but perhaps it is not a fair one. All you have to do is say that God gave them, but you adduce no evidence for that but historical documents produced by people you wouldn’t see eye to eye with, and who knew as little about what God decrees as you or I do. I, on the other hand, would have to produce a book like John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. It is beyond me, and besides, I’ve gone on far too long already.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Some responses to a pro-lifer's questions

Intro to Renewed 'Lame Thinking' blog

It’s been a few years since I started this blog with a couple entries and then abandoned it. Since then I’ve thought quite a bit about what might explain the intractability of the abortion and embryonic stem cell debates in this country. Specifically, I’ve tried to understand what assumptions might underlie the pro-life point of view, a point of view I still find incomprehensible, and which I am convinced is mistaken. I believe there is nothing wrong with abortions performed during the first two trimesters of pregnancy. They should not be cause for guilt or outrage, because there is no victim, since the embryo and fetus are not sentient beings, and sentience is a necessary (though not a sufficient) condition for there to be somebody there. A nonsentient being is morally equivalent to a plant or to a part of one’s body.

Recently I’ve gotten into some conversations with pro-life activists. On April 9, 2011, I responded to a blog entry by Scott Klusendorf, the author of A Case for Life, on the Life Training Institute website, at It was about consciousness, one of my favorite subjects. Scott said he thought bringing up consciousness in relation to abortion was “ad hoc”. For me, this is one of the great mysteries of the abortion debate: how some people just naturally assume that consciousness is a key consideration, and others don’t see the point at all, and assume that their opponents are just using it as an excuse to justify their murderous intentions. Scott also raised the thorny issue of whether it was actual or immediately attainable consciousness that was supposed to be “value-giving”, or if it was only a potential for consciousness, in which case an embryo would qualify. I responded with a very compressed account of my current views on this issue, which may not have been wise in terms of debating abortion, because my unsettled musings on the self, consciousness, the brain and time are far from obvious or intuitive, and not likely to be shared by many. But they are my beliefs.

At any rate, I answered, and was in turn responded to by two pro-lifers, Jay Whip and David Richards, neither of whom, as far as I know, are officially connected to LTI, though they seem to be fans. Unfortunately, Scott Klusendorf never responded. Jay and I had an extended exchange. But when I tried to address his questions more fully, LTI, without comment, stopped posting my responses. Perhaps they decided that they could not risk exposing the tender minds they were training to questions and criticisms they could not easily answer. Or perhaps I offended them. Or I was too prolix, and they just lost patience. I don’t know.  But, since they interrupted the dialogue, I’ve decided to post my last entries here. If Jay or any other pro-lifer cares to respond, they are welcome. Regardless of the response, I may decide to continue to fill out these views here in the future.

Here's what I wrote to Jay and submitted to LTI's website:
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.

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.

Some Science-Related Themes

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.

I would just add to this that I don’t quite agree with your usage of the word ‘scientific’, as in "blind scientific processes." 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?

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.

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.

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.

Response to Jay’s Russian Assassin Answer

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.

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.

A New Hunch  -- The Nub of Our Disagreement about Consciousness?

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.

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.