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.


Anonymous said...


Thank you. This does clear a lot up for me about what you believe. I still disagree, but I now have a better understanding of why you asked many of the questions that you did. I have to agree that we have gotten off on a bit of a tangent from the abortion issue. It has now become a discussion of metaphysics and where we ground our claims about morality.

I never intended for the discussion to come here either, but here’s why I asked what I did. When you made the reference to Christina and her argument based on Christian theism, I assumed you were calling the grounds for my beliefs into question. I had not yet, nor have I still made any explicit appeals to Christianity or supernatural authority as to why I believe abortion is wrong. I was simply trying to point out that the pro-life worldview’s consistency with Christianity (and other religions as well) should not dismiss it as inherently irrational. The abortion-choice side also brings metaphysical assumptions to the table.

So now I’d like to help you better understand why I believe what I do without spending extensive time on where I ground my morals, but before I do I will make one final response to your explanation of morality.

I think that it is true that morals are self-evident, and we don’t need to believe in a God to recognize them. I do, however, believe that without an objective moral lawgiver, no morals can be regarded as objectively true. It seems to me that you think your position about abortion is true. If this is the case, it is therefore true regardless of whether or not anyone believes as such. That’s why you have the right to tell me that I ought to stop fighting against it.

But can we really just discover objective morals that have no objective moral giver? Consider this: I decide to go for a hike in the woods. As I walk along the path I find a group of rocks that are arranged such that they spell a message, “TURN AROUND AND GO HOME.” Now, is my first thought that someone has been here before and created this message, or is it that over time random events like the wind have randomly caused these rocks to arrange themselves in such an order. I think the answer is obvious, but let’s not stop to argue about that.
Let’s just assume that I decide no one put these rocks here. I don’t know how but they are just here, and their message is clear. I should not proceed any farther. I should do as they say and go home. However, another important question needs to be asked and that is how do I know that this arrangement of rocks spells such a message?

Anonymous said...

Can I tell you that the rocks spell their message by using the chemistry of the rocks’ composition? No. My understanding of the message comes from my understanding of the English language, something that exists not because of science or universal forces but because of intelligent designers.

Finally, now we must ask if it is obligatory for me to obey the message that I see. Of course I understand it, but is anyone going to try and stop me or hold me accountable if I don’t do what the message says. Suppose I continue on into the woods for several hours and then return home. Was this wrong?

So we find that there are three major problems with this scenario. First, messages like this do not just happen; they are the kind of things that require a purpose and thus a designer. Second, it requires previously designed language to even understand what the message says as objective science and reason cannot tell me what the formation of the rocks means. Third, even if we ignore these first two problems, no authority holds me accountable to this order, I have the power to obey or disobey it.

So for this reason, I find it impossible for there to be objective moral truths if there is not an objective moral truth giver. It may interest you to watch this video of Greg Koukl:

But now, that aside, let’s get back to the question we started with. You find it unthinkable that I could be against abortion for anything other than explicitly religious reasons, so I am going to attempt to explain my case in terms that are easier to grasp. To do so, I will throw in some personal experiences of mine, since you said that experience is a key factor in determining the truth.

My belief’s can be summed up as this: I contend that human beings are valuable simply because they are human. While factors like consciousness, rationality, and intelligent inquiry are very, very important to what makes humans valuable (in the sense that it allows us to value things), none of these things ground a human’s right to life. As stated in the Declaration of Independence, I believe all men are created equal, and have an equal right to life simply because they are human. While humans differ greatly with respect to talents and accomplishments, they none the less all retain the right not to be killed without proper justification.

Anonymous said...

So now, the question becomes, is an embryo human? You did not deny that this is an objective fact and rightfully so. The scientific community unanimously agrees at every level that from the moment of conception, an embryo is a living and whole human being. It is not part of a larger human being like sperm and egg cells, but rather functions as a unit towards its continued health and wellness as a whole organism.

Granted, however, these scientific facts cannot tell us how we ought to value unborn humans. We will need philosophy for that, and here is where you and I disagree. Correct me if I am wrong, but here is my understanding of your beliefs: Humans do not have value because they are members of the human species but rather because they belong to a special group of humans known as “persons.” While exactly what constitutes membership in this group cannot be easily defined, an important prerequisite to it is consciousness of the mind. For this reason, a human being gains rights sometime during the third trimester of pregnancy when its brain function is capable of generating consciousness (although at this point, they are still not yet persons). Prior to this event, it is impossible to harm or violate a human fetus, unless something is done to it with the intention of harming it in the future. Although the sleeping and those who are comatose do not qualify as persons, we ought not harm them because we owe it to them to let them exist. We have no such obligation to a human being who has not become conscious for the first time.

It’s taken me along time to compile? But would you say that that accurately sums up your beliefs?

Now, I will attempt to explain why my case is correct using personal experience and what I believe to be “self-evident” facts.

I grew up in a family of dairy farmers. From an early age, I spent a great deal of time interacting with large numbers of cows. Anyone can recognize that cows are conscious creatures. They are aware of their existence and can experience pleasure and pain through their senses. As I would do chores such as feeding and milking, the cows would come to understand who I was and that when I and my family members came around, it meant it was time to eat or be milked. The cows would often be afraid when they saw strangers, but showed no such fear towards me, because they had learned to trust me.

You might be able to say that my family had a sort of relationship with these cows, because we were able to work together to meet each other’s needs. However, that does not change the fact that there was another reason that we farmed cows, that reason being beef. All the cows took part in the food and shelter that my family provided. All of them came to recognize us and were accustomed to the daily tasks we performed together. However, some of these cows were eventually sold to the butcher who would end their lives so that they might be made into steaks, cheeseburgers, and leather jackets.

Anonymous said...

No one questions whether or not this was immoral (except extreme animal rights activists). We may have raised these cows and cared for them for a long time, but the fact is that they are cows. While they are conscious beings, capable of expressing simple desires and experiencing pleasure and pain, they remain what they are, cows. They are not afforded the same moral status as human beings and we permit them being killed for food and clothing.

This is not the end of my point though. Among, all our cows, my family kept one special cow named Amos. Amos was privileged among his counterparts in the pasture. Brought up by my grandfather as a young calf, Amos became the family pet. He was free to wander the farm as he pleased and was fed special treats from my grandfather’s garden. Amos’ connection to the family was far greater than any other cow. He was regarded not only as an animal for milk and meat, but effectively, he became a member of the family. He recognized the faces of all my family members and was able to express his emotions to us through primitive ways similar to the way an infant or toddler expresses happiness or sadness prior to learning how to speak. Anyone in my family would find it unthinkable to make Amos into a cheeseburger.

However, despite all the subjective value we placed upon him, Amos remained what he was, a cow. What if my family had spontaneously decided to throw him back with the rest of the cows, destined to end up on someone’s dinner plate? This would have been morally acceptable. Even if a criminal had come to our farm in the night and killed Amos he could not be charged with murder. Trespassing? Yes. Destruction of property? Yes. Cruelty to animals? Yes. But not murder.

Functionality, rational thought or the ability to suffer didn’t come into play in any of these questions. It is simply understood that cows are not as valuable as human beings. Now to the most important part of my story.

When I was in high school, I traveled to the Dominican Republic to do humanitarian work. While I was there, I worked at an orphanage for mentally handicapped children. I saw things there that I never could have imagined in my wildest dreams. Some of the children were so deformed and mentally unstable that you couldn’t help but gasp on first sight. This is not to say that all the children were severely handicapped, but at this particular orphanage, most of them were. One young boy in particular caught my attention. I will not disclose his name, but I can tell you that his condition is not one that most people in America have to see very often. His mental capabilities were so crippled that he could not in any way communicate with even primitive means. He was physically handicapped as well, unable to walk or utilize fine motor skills. While some of the children played together, the best he could do was push toys around by flailing his arms.

Anonymous said...

After seeing this boy, an interesting thought occurred to me. Functionally, our cow Amos was even more impressive than this boy, physically and mentally. Yet the government would not afford money to help cows as it did to help children like this. In addition, I would be thrown in prison if I even suggested that we make him into a child burger. Killing him would be regarded as murder just as it would killing any other person. Why?

The only answer I can give you is that despite the fact that he was so severely handicapped, he was still human. He was less conscious then most animals, and functionally could not be regarded by your definitions as a person, yet we are convicted that he has a right to be cared for. There is an important distinction between eating a cheeseburger and eating a child burger even if the cow was superior in every way.

We would not even kill someone who is in a persistent vegetative state. At best, if it became impossible to care for such a person, we would let nature run its course. We would not dismember them or poison them to death, and such an action would rightfully constitute murder.

So can I use any type of scientific theorem or completely non-metaphysical objective to tell you that all human beings are valuable? No. But I don’t think any of us can escape the conviction that they are.

If abortion is going to be legal, then I would ask that the government take several other measures. First, all laws that protect fetuses outside of abortion must be abolished. If it is true that a fetus is not a person, then it is ridiculous that the murder of a pregnant woman constitutes two murders. Second, abolish all government funded programs for mentally handicapped children. In fact, if the parents so desire, they should be allowed to kill their mentally handicapped children. Third, legalize infanticide as well. If my cows are not persons, then newborns certainly aren’t either. Finally, we should be allowed to kill those who are asleep and in surgery. Remember, you conceded that these people are not currently persons. Any value or loyalty we give to them is subjective and no different than the value that my family placed on Amos the cow.

Anonymous said...

I don’t think anyone would be willing to live with these changes, so I can only conclude that instead, we ought to afford the unborn the right not to be killed without proper justification. 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.

Once again this is not necessarily about refuting your claims. It was just too hopefully help you understand where I’m coming from. I look forward to your answers to my five questions.

Jerry Lame said...

On 5/19/2011 I responded to Jay Whip's comments with a new, very long post on this blog, which can be found at