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”.