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 http://lti-blog.blogspot.com/2011/04/kaczor-on-why-consciousness-is-not.html. 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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_GBwuYuOOs&feature=fvwrel 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.
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.
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?
I will try to take a stab at answering your five questions next.