Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Movie "Self/less" and Christian Pro-Life Philosophy

Below is a very compact note I just wrote, as a suggestion, to the conservative Lutheran podcast "Issues Etc." and to its movie reviewer, Pastor Ted Giese:

Hello. I listen to the Issues Etc. podcast with an especially critical ear, since I am a liberal pro-choice atheist. However, I listen because I want to understand your point of view, and to that end, I would very much like to hear Pr. Giese discuss the 2015 sci-fi movie “Self/less” (now showing on HBO).  The movie is about an old man who, facing death, has his mind/consciousness transferred by a fictional machine to a young man’s body. The technology to do this does not exist, but the concept is not inconsistent with current neuroscience (assuming the microstructure of the brain could be read and altered in the required ways.) The philosophical questions raised concern the nature of the self or person, and its relationship to the body. (John Locke discussed this with his parable of the prince and the cobbler.) The story assumes a fundamental difference between a person (the bearer of personal identity, dignity and rights, and the one who enters into personal relationships) and a human organism, that is, a living human body. It helps us to imagine this difference. The fact that the story makes sense to us means that we understand that a person and his or her body are not necessarily identical. The pro-life position – on abortion, on brain-death and on the moral status of the embryo – relies on the assumption that they are identical; otherwise how could pro-lifers be so certain that the body at whatever stage and in whatever state is a person? Pro-lifers assume that their point of view is the only biblical Christian one, but is this true? I would like to hear you discuss that in the context of “Self/less”. I would also be curious to know how Lutherans, who believe that at death their souls leave their bodies to dwell with Christ, reconcile this belief with their doctrinaire assertion that even a fertilized egg is a person, which implies that it has a soul. If the soul and body are distinct, how do they know when a soul is present? How do they know what to believe about a fertilized egg, an entity which was unknown in biblical times? Perhaps they think they know that the embryo is ensouled because they assume that biological life is the soul. But, according to the science of biology, life is a chemical process going on in our cells. It is not something that could leave them and go someplace else. And it does not have the properties we ascribe to personal identity. The soul (if it exists) and biological life are not the same. What we think of as the soul is more like the mind, since, as “Self/less” shows, the mind carries along with it our personal identity. Aristotle said the soul/psyche/life is the ‘form’ of the body. (He distinguished three types of soul, the vegetable, the sensitive and the rational, which appeared in humans successively during gestation. Only the last was uniquely human.) Moderns believe the mind is essential to personal identity, and that the mind is the ‘form’ of the brain, or, in contemporary terms, it is the ‘information’ governing its operation. That view, I think, is what makes Self/less not fantasy, but science fiction. And it is why the modern worldview is not “pro-life”.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Human-Animal Chimeras and Why Abortion Is Not Murder -- a reply to Albert Mohler

I recently posted the following comment to Albert Mohler's Facebook page. It was a reply to Mohler's podcast, The Briefing, of 8/8/2016. The podcast and its transcript can be found here: Mohler, of course, is a conservative evangelical, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and devotee of "worldview" analysis. I was responding to two stories covered in the four-part podcast, one about human-animal chimeras from a NY Times article by Gina Kolata, the other about a radio talk show interview with Terry O'Neill, president of NOW, in which she evidently said that, even if science proved that life begins at conception, she would still support abortion. Here's my response:

There’s an interesting confluence of ideas in the 8/8 Briefing: science and religion, chimeras and abortion. It is ironic that Mohler is mistaken and confused in part because he doesn’t take differences in worldviews seriously enough. He assumes that, “if science determined that life began at conception,” then “science [would] make abortion itself clearly the murder of a human being,” so he is shocked that NOW president Terry O’Neill would say that, even if science determined that life began at conception, she would still be for it. That is, she would be for murder, he assumes. But that does not follow. An under-appreciated lack of alignment of concepts across different worldviews leads to erroneous conclusions.

From O’Neill’s statement “When you take religion out of it, the issue goes away,” Mohler (relying on a false dichotomy, as if science and religion exhausted the kinds of knowledge) concludes that “she is presumably arguing that science is the only authoritative means of knowledge,” and then goes on to claim that “pro-abortion advocates going back long before Roe v. Wade ... have been arguing that all of the arguments concerning abortion should be limited merely to matters of medical science. This was actually”, he continues, “one of the arguments that was made by Justice Harry Blackmun in his majority opinion in the Roe v. Wade decision.” But Blackmun made no such argument. The word “science” does not even occur in his decision. He reviewed the history of medical, religious and philosophical views on abortion, as well as the legal history. For instance, he noted that in English common law, abortion before “quickening” was not considered a crime, and that this was probably related to an ancient thought tradition of “mediate animation”, the idea that the soul did not enter the body until some time after conception.

Both pro-life and pro-choice advocates call on science to substantiate their claims. Pro-lifers call on the authority of science to prove that “life begins at conception,” and then conclude, like Mohler, that abortion is proved by science to be murder. If life were the soul, or a person were “a life”, then this conclusion might be justified. But biological life is not the soul, and it is not the person. The modern, scientific conception of life – the one that comes out of the lab – doesn’t line up with Biblical ones. When a biologist says an organism is alive, he is talking about a collection of physical chemical processes. Biological life is not the New Testament’s psyche or zoe. It is not soul or spirit. Human life, the life in our bodies’ cells, shares so much with the life in other species’ cells that it is possible to make human/non-human chimeras. The very idea boggles Mohler’s mind, shaped as it is by a biblical worldview, according to which human and animal souls (if animals have souls) are unitary (not composed of, or arising out of, parts, like cells, the units of life) and are absolutely different, and life (psyche) is the soul, so how could animal and human lives mix? The possibility of such creatures does not just present a moral dilemma, but a metaphysical one for the Christian. (Organ transplantation should also.)

Not only did the authors of the Bible have no notions of atoms or molecules, chemistry or physics, sperm cells or egg cells. They did not know what the brain did. Instead, in the Hebrew bible, human emotions and conscience were ascribed to the liver and kidneys, often translated as “heart”, “spirit” or “inmost being”. I don’t know, but perhaps heart, soul and spirit have such functions in the New Testament. But according to the modern science-based worldview, the brain is the basis of all such mental phenomena, including all thought, emotion, consciousness, and our sense of personal identity. That is why Paul Knoepfler, the stem cell researcher, focused on the brain: “When human cells injected into an animal embryo develop in part of that animal’s brain, difficult questions arise.... There’s no clear dividing line because we lack an understanding of at what point humanization of an animal brain could lead to more human-like thought or consciousness.” For the secular scientific worldview, that is the crucial question, not amount of human vs. animal DNA, or proportion of human cells. Because what the brain is doing CONSTITUTES our personal identity. It is what makes us human beings, something beyond just living bodies. And that is why the beginning of life (or rather the continuation of life in a new genetic form) is not the beginning of us. It is only a necessary condition for our eventual existence. And that is why, according to a modern science-based worldview, even if science shows that life begins at conception, abortion in the first two trimesters of pregnancy is still not murder. This roughly corresponds to the Christian worldview idea of mediate animation, with brain function playing the role of the soul.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Gay Marriage, Religious Liberty and Logic

Here is an email I wrote to the participants in two Issues Etc. (Lutheran Public Radio) podcasts:

To: Pr. Todd Wilken, Mr. Mark Tooley and Dr. Gregory Schulz

Dear Todd, Mark and Gregory,

The juxtaposition of these two topics was just too much for me. I need to say something, because the contradictions between your positions on gay marriage and religious liberty are just too glaring for you to be lecturing others about logic!

Todd and Mark discussed the case of a retired Methodist bishop who performed a same-sex wedding, defying a ban by the United Methodist Church. Clearly you didn’t approve of the bishop’s actions. You approved of the ban, you lamented the failure of church discipline to prevent such an occurrence, and you discussed differences of opinion between liberal American and conservative African Methodists about what is the true Christian view on this issue.

I recognize that the United Methodist Church is a voluntary organization, and it has a perfect right to make rules of membership and to enforce them. And I recognize that conservative Christians believe that same-sex marriage violates God’s law. But here is an example of a Christian bishop who holds a different opinion. You must recognize – don’t you? – that this is his religious conviction, and he lived out his religion by performing that wedding. You insist that religious liberty is not just the freedom to worship, but to live by one’s religious beliefs. Yet you would have the government prohibit these Methodists from exercising their religious liberty and following their consciences by participating in this religious ceremony. At the same time, you loudly complain that the failure of the government to obstruct this free exercise of religion abridges your religious liberty! Can’t you see how you are contradicting yourself by insisting that a general principle of religious liberty must be enforced by denying it to others?

Dr. Schulz gave what seemed to me a very simple-minded exposition of logic. He juxtaposed an attack on postmodernists with an Aristotelian approach to the meaning of words. Now I share his disdain for postmodernism. But by jumping from Aristotle to postmodernism he skipped over all of modern  philosophy! He mentioned the meaning of “marriage”, remarking that any discussion should begin with definitions. Implicit was the idea that there is some fixed definition of marriage, its essence, which will clearly define, by essential characteristics, what marriage is and what it is not.

A modern philosopher by the name of Wittgenstein took issue with this notion of the meaning of words. He didn’t think language worked like that. He took as an example the word ‘game’. What do we mean by ‘game’? What are the essential characteristics which all games must have in common? Consider card games, ball games, board games, games like ring-around-the-rosey. I’ll quote Wittgenstein a little from Wikipedia’s entry on “Family Resemblance”:

“We can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; we can see how similarities crop up and disappear.... And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing.... I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than "family resemblances"; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. – And I shall say: "games" form a family.”

He then applied this concept of family resemblance to the word “number”:

“Why do we call something a "number"? Well, perhaps because it has a direct relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this can be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things we call the same name. And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.... I can give the concept 'number' rigid limits ... that is, use the word "number" for a rigidly limited concept, but I can also use it so that the extension of the concept is not closed by a frontier. And this is how we do use the word "game". For how is the concept of a game bounded? What still counts as a game and what no longer does? Can you give the boundary? No. You can draw one; for none has so far been drawn. (But that never troubled you before when you used the word "game".)”

The word “marriage” is like that – like a thread twisted of many fibers. One man and one woman? Well yes, and... remember how Jacob was married to sisters Leah and Rachel? Leah, who was foisted on him under false pretenses, whom he did not love but who bore him children, and Rachel whom he did love but who at first was barren. And then each gave her servant to bear him children. “So she gave him her servant Bilbah as a wife.” Well, sort of a wife, just as Bilbah’s children counted as Rachel’s children, sort of. “So that she may give birth on my behalf, that even I may have children through her.” So even the institution of motherhood is a flexible category in the Bible, extensible by a sort of family resemblance. This complicated business is certainly not by the book, but it’s in the book.

Marriage is a human institution that is different in different societies and has changed through history in Western societies. Just as words are flexible things, lacking fixed eternal essences, human institutions are flexible too. “Marriages”, like “games”, form a family. Same-sex marriages resemble stereotypical heterosexual marriages in many respects but differ in others – they share some fibers of the thread, but not all, just as second marriages do, and marriages between seniors, and marriages by nuns to Jesus, and the marriage between the Church and Christ.

So saying “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman,” as if this were a belief about a definition, is either disingenuous or based on a mistaken idea about the rigidity of meanings. After all, even you can see – can’t you? – a family resemblance between straight and gay marriages. What you probably mean to say is, “I believe marriage SHOULD only be between a man and a woman, because God so decreed it, and the institution and meaning of marriage SHOULD NOT be extended to include bonds between two men or two women.” But for you that is a religious belief, based (you believe) on Scripture. What about the Methodists you discussed who believe the opposite? How does your religious belief give you the right to deprive them of their religious liberty? You may disagree with them; you may preach at them; you may threaten them with hellfire; you may expel them from your church; but the state is not your tool to establish your faith-based concept of marriage as the law for everyone. Recent popular culture has educated people on the previously under-appreciated similarities between homosexual and heterosexual relationships. So the family resemblance between straight and gay marriage has become compelling to many Americans, too compelling, in the view of many, to deprive same-sex couples’ families of its benefits.

You might answer in terms of so-called “natural law”, but that sham is a topic for another day.

Gerald Lame