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My irreverent yet conservative opinion on topics relevant to the cosmos.

Wednesday, August 07, 2002


To be continued, might be more accurate, as I'm too busy at the moment to give a real response to Julian's most recent post, but in the meantime, read what Eve had to say on the matter.

Monday, August 05, 2002


Julian Sanchez has posted a response (more of a rebuttal, actually) to my speech, which can be found on his blog, Julian’s Lounge. He makes a few very interesting points, to which I am compelled to respond.

In my speech, I attempted to show that the pro-life position is supported by science, certainly more so than the pro-choice position, by illustrating that according to our scientific standards, fetuses are human beings.

Julian objected to this characterization of my argument, noting, “If the argument were really purely scientific, the appropriate response would be: ‘so what?’” And he’s right here to a point. Certainly, I think that you need more than science alone to establish the pro-life position, as you need more than science alone to establish any moral position, such as the position that human beings are any more special than insects or trees, and therefore deserve to be treated differently. Fact alone, in my view, doesn’t establish anything by itself, but merely gives us a foundation for science and philosophy, though I suppose Randians (existence exists, non-contraditiction, etc) and, in a much deeper philosophical sense, some Christians (this gets into the forms, ousia, very complicated stuff) would disagree. What my pro-life argument is meant to show is exactly what I said it would. That is: “science does support the pro-life position. And that it’s by contrast the pro-choice position that is based on superstition and on vagueries.”

While I claimed that the argument itself was purely scientific, certainly I didn’t mean for that argument to exist in a void. The whole purpose of the speech was to establish a common groundwork between pro-lifers and pro-choicers, so that discussion on this issue would be possible. I took for granted (and you can object to this if you want, but please realize the philosophical quagmire you’re getting yourself into) that human life is innately valuable, that it is a good thing that our government and constitution have seen fit to protect it, and that as a nation and a species we have in the past perpetuated great evils by failing to protect that which is scientifically human (ie, chromosomes, DNA, all that good stuff) as that which is morally human.

I don’t think I’m going out too far on a limb here to say that most people in America, and most people who consider themselves pro-choice, would agree with these statements, or at least the first two (the third being a bit more catty).

Now, I take it from the example Julian gives, at the end of his post, that he disagrees with at least point one (all human beings are innately valuable). To quote his example, in full:

“So, what should we believe about the inner life of the fetus, if it has one? It has not yet developed any capacity for abstract symbol manipulation. It almost certainly is not reflectively conscious of itself. The sum total of its experience, if it has any, is limited to the flow of amniotic fluid, and perhaps the feel of its own limbs. What would we say about a 30 year old human male, say, raised and fed intravenously in a sensory deprivation tank, who had these traits? Would it really be appropriate to call him a person? How seriously wrong would it be to kill this creature, if it were necessary to avoid some significant cost? Now, here I may lose a few readers, but I think if we strip away the purely visceral reaction to the idea of something that looks like an adult human person being killed, we see that the answer is that it wouldn't. The mind destroyed is almost certainly less developed than an adult dog's. Why, then, should we treat it differently? We should not, unless we think moral worth inheres, not in minds, but in the orderings of DNA base pairs. And that view seems more absurd than any religion.”

Now this of course gets into a whole barrage of issues, but to take on just a few:

1. I hardly need to say it, but this raises about a gazillion questions about which life is valuable and which isn’t. Cases in point: retarded person, more severely retarded person, boy raised by wolves (can’t speak, has no “abstract symbol manipulation”), person in a coma, healthy human infant, elderly man drugged up on morphine, etc, etc. Julian will probably respond that these are just cases to be looked at individually (and I certainly wouldn’t argue the “slippery slope” as a sole argument for or against anything) but it’s worth pointing out as a problem. It becomes even more of a problem when the death of any one of these stands to benefit others. Like human organs, fetal tissue is considered a valuable commodity.

2. We really know very little about the inner life of the fetus, but what we do know suggests that it experiences a great deal more than “the flow of amniotic fluid and perhaps the feel of its own limbs.” There have been numerous studies done that show unborn children can hear sounds outside of the womb (my mom tells me that I used to kick her in time with her typing). Furthermore, experiments involving very young infants show that they are born with an incredible amount of innate knowledge and intuition (they can sense depth, understand the difference between solid objects and ones that can be squished, know that a large ball can’t fit through a small hole, and so forth). This is really fascinating stuff, and it suggests that unborn children may have a lot more going on in their minds than we can speculate about.

3. Julian is right to pick out my point that we can detect brainwaves in a fetus as early as 40 days (6 weeks post-conception) as a particularly convincing one in my favor, but by comparing the brainwaves of fetuses to those of cows and gerbils, he ignores the obvious point that fetuses have human brains, and that aside from their present limitations they will one day be capable of metacognition (being able to evaluate the relation of their own thoughts to reality). No other animals except humans are capable of this feat. Lest this becomes an argument about potential, let me point out that children, up to the age of four years old, aren’t capable of metacognition either. The “deer in the forest” argument also plays somewhat of a role here when we’re talking about fetal cognition. In the same way that a hunter, spying what he thinks is a deer in the forest, ought not to shoot until he is absolutely sure it is not a human being, we should be very, very careful about making assumptions about a fetus’ mental state before we kill it. I think there are much better arguments against abortion, but this one may appeal to Julian’s rationality-oriented ethics.

4. On to Julian’s final point: Why should the biology of the fetus (DNA base pairs and all) matter more than its rationality? Julian doesn’t think it should, and calls that view “more absurd than any religion.” Now, this is a philosophical question, and it’s a question that my speech wasn’t really trying to address.

Scientifically, when we speak of human beings, we’re talking about the species homo sapiens, with 46 chromosomes. When we speak of human life, medically, and, for the most part, legally, we’re talking about hearbeats and brainwaves. So what I set out to do in my speech was to ask: according to our scientific and medical definitions, is a fetus a human being? Does it have a distinct identity (speaking now in terms of cells and DNA)? The answer to this is undeniably yes, it does. Proving this was the goal of my speech, and it’s why the speech focused so much on fetal biology and development.

Now, Julian is right in pointing out that the speech, for the most part, did not take the next step. It did not attempt to prove why DNA and biology are more important than rationality. That would take much longer than a half hour speech, and lest anyone say that the point I proved is obvious, well, you might think so, but pro-choicers are extremely vehement in denying it. To quote Stanley Fish again, “Nowadays, it is pro–lifers who make the scientific question of when the beginning of life occurs the key one in the abortion controversy, while pro–choicers want to transform the question into a ‘metaphysical’ or ‘religious’ one by distinguishing between mere biological life and ‘moral life.’” This is exactly what Julian is doing here, and I hope that he recognizes it.

But back to Julian’s philosophical question—because I want to at least begin to answer it here, even if my speech wasn’t aimed at that goal.

I think that my speech approached this philosophical question during the “thought experiment” section that he describes, where I asked people to think about the continuity of their own identity, to think about their growing, changing, variable body and mind as linked. The link between our minds and our bodies is not merely coincidental. It has a great deal to do with our biology, and the way our neurons are arranged. Human rationality can not arise from the brain of a chimpanzee, not matter what we do to the physical gray matter, whereas it can from the brain of a fetus, given time.

So when Julian asks, why should biology matter more than rationality, my answer is that they are inevitably and inextricably linked. Furthermore, because they are thus linked, just because a human being (that is, someone with human DNA) is not experiencing rationality at the moment, that does not preclude them from doing so in the future. This is an issue that always comes up when we’re talking about people in comas, and the case with a fetus is actually much simpler. While we’re unsure that someone will ever experience rationality again, we can be pretty certain that, barring accident or injury, a fetus will be fully rational within a number of years. Does Julian really want to say that human biology minus rationality does not deserve human protections?

Going even deeper into philosophy, I’d say that the reason the human mind and human biology are inextricably linked is because there is a “form” or pattern (going back to Aristotle now) of a human being, that it the model for all of us, and that humanity, human dignity, and ethics involving human beings is all tied to this form, and thus tied to our physical status as living human beings, irregardless of our current mental state. I don’t expect Julian to agree with this point, but I think it follows from my preceding point about the connection between our physical bodies and our mental faculties.

I apologize for the length of this posting, and eagerly await any responses.

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