Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Aristotle, Dante, Dawkins, and a multi-millennial Arse-about-Face

Being an expansion of one of my two small points for expansion later

I am going to stick my neck out just this once, since life is too short to be timid. Carpe diem, and all that...

One of many ways our civilisation has parted ways with logic is that the 'anything goes, abort and experiment away' attitude to very small human beings is shamefully associated with a scientific worldview, while the 'don't do that' attitude is more usually than not explained away as an arbitrary theological idea, associated only with people with a strong religious worldview. This is exactly opposite to how it logically should be.
Allow me to explain.
I am going to make two assumptions to start with. Feel free to disagree with them. But if you do, be prepared to mount clear arguments upholding contrary assumptions against minds much wiser and subtler than mine.
1. Only individuals matter. Only individual entities can feel or suffer; only individual entities can have rights or obligations. Everything else is gravy, a second-order level of goods. Think of a Venn diagram of ideas showing where Simone Weil overlaps with Margaret Thatcher. This is it.
2. All non-trivial reasoning is probabilistic. If X causes Y, and Y causes Z, then X causes Z. If Z is bad, we stop X. Duh. But in the real world, there might be a 70% chance X causes Y if W is the case, but only a 20% chance if not-W, with some experts suggesting a very high chance of W and other experts suggesting a very low chance of W. Meanwhile, the high W experts also agree that there is a 70-90% chance that Y causes Z, with the low-W experts explaining at great length that Y has a best a 50% chance of causing Z. And Z might be bad. There's an 80% chance it is bad - say, a 10% chance it will be really bad - unless condition V is met, which is only about 10% likely, but would make Z really good... according to a sizeable minority of both W and non-W experts. So what should we do? That's my simple example of how we have to figure things out in the real world.
Now, to apply these two assumptions to the poorly-phrased question 'when does life begin?' which is not above the pay grade of anyone with a handful of neurons to stitch together into a crude neural net. The question is poorly-phrased, since 'life' began somewhere billions of years ago and ever since then the lives of individuals - the only important moral objects according to my assumption 1 - have been tangled together in complicated ways. What we are really asking is: When does a particular life become individuated enough from other life that it is worthy of moral consideration? Or, probabilistically, how much moral consideration should we pay to an individual life during the process of individuation, relative to the amount of consideration we pay to a fully individuated life?
I'm going to draw a graph showing the relative probability of a particular individual person - let's call her 王芳 - doing something at the extreme right hand side of the x-axis, which is time, if we keep our mitts off the process shown in the graph and do not interfere. This could be something as simple as breathing, or a more complicated thing like eating lunch, robbing a convenience store, winning a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, etc. The y-axis is a normalised arbitrary log axis showing the possibility of 王芳 doing something that we recognise as a behaviour characteristic of fully individuated human beings at time t = 1.
Here is the graph:
Now, in our scientific understanding of what happens at conception, there is a vanishingly small probability that this particular girl, 王芳, will ever do any of the things we have postulated that she might do before a bundle of physical and chemical events that are very close together on the x-axis: after that bundle of events the probability is higher by many many orders of magnitude. This bundle of physical and chemical events is close enough to be, for all practical purposes, a discontinuity in this graph. This is the only interesting point on the graph. This is the only point where there is any philosophical justification, in the scientific (i.e., experimental-evidence-based) worldview for saying: at this point in time we don't need to apply any moral consideration to 王芳; over here, we do. That is what science says. Note that concerning ourselves with an individual is all important. If we were to pretend that people are interchangeable and of no particular value as individuals, and drew a graph showing the probability of some theoretical person, rather than 王芳 specifically, we would not get a sharp discontinuity in the probability function.
Obviously, this discontinuity is a pre-implantation point.  This might not be a convenient point, or a practical point, but it is the only logical point to draw a moral distinction. In a scientific worldview.
So we can overlay a 'should we care?' function on 王芳's graph:
The only philosophically tenable way to pick some other point on this graph is to postulate some non-probabilistic, non-scientific, definition of what it means to be human. Let's say that people are only people if they have 'souls'. People without 'souls' are just meat puppets. How do you know if they have 'souls' or not? They aren't things that you can detect scientifically. You can hope for a divine revelation. Or you can muddle it out as best you can.
Here is the answer given by Statius to Dante in Purgatory, explaining how it works:
The perfect blood, which never is drunk up
Into the thirsty veins, and which remaineth
Like food that from the table thou removest,
Takes in the heart for all the human members
Virtue informative, as being that
Which to be changed to them goes through the veins
Again digest, descends it where 'tis better
Silent to be than say; and then drops thence
Upon another's blood in natural vase.
There one together with the other mingles,
One to be passive meant, the other active
By reason of the perfect place it springs from;
And being conjoined, begins to operate,
Coagulating first, then vivifying
What for its matter it had made consistent.
The active virtue, being made a soul
As of a plant, (in so far different,
This on the way is, that arrived already,)
Then works so much, that now it moves and feels
Like a sea-fungus, and then undertakes
To organize the powers whose seed it is.
Now, Son, dilates and now distends itself
The virtue from the generator's heart,
Where nature is intent on all the members.
But how from animal it man becomes
Thou dost not see as yet; this is a point
Which made a wiser man than thou once err
So far, that in his doctrine separate
He made the soul from possible intellect,
For he no organ saw by this assumed.
Open thy breast unto the truth that's coming,
And know that, just as soon as in the foetus
The articulation of the brain is perfect,
The primal Motor turns to it well pleased
At so great art of nature, and inspires
A spirit new with virtue all replete,
Which what it finds there active doth attract
Into its substance, and becomes one soul,
Which lives, and feels, and on itself revolves.

This is all based on the 4th century BCE embryology of Aristotle. This is why there is ambiguity in the writings of the Christian theologians of the high middle ages about 'when life begins'. These ideas of Aristotle have also been taken over into the main schools of Shi'a and Sunni jurisprudence, which is why most of them don't have a problem with very early term abortions. Much as I hate to say it, they are probably the source of the Talmudic concept that the fertilised egg is a 'tissue of water' in the first 40 days after conception.
In a religious worldview, this pernicious hypothesis of the soul might give us the following 'should we care' function on 王芳's graph:
Historically, for other reasons, mainstream Christianity has usually drawn the line more conservatively than implied by Aristotle's embryology. But whatever line we draw based on this unverifiable concept of ensouling will be an arbitrary one. Because this silly non-scientific idea of a 'soul' is embedded deeply in our culture, we think it is a difficult question to decide 'when life begins'. And that's the only reason.
Would you believe, I tried to make this point to someone a few months back in a Tweet? No wonder @damonayoung had no idea what I was getting at.

As an illustration of the complete and perfect storm of muddle a reasonably intelligent famous Professor of Biology can get into in these matters, here is a long quotation from a famous book by Richard Dawkins, where he discusses the notorious murder of John Britton, a Florida abortionist, by Paul Hill, a religious zealot:

Richard Dawkins: There are people who, because of their religious convictions, think abortion is murder and are prepared to kill in defense of embryos, which they chose to call ‘babies’. On the other side are equally sincere supporters of abortion, who either have different religious convictions, or no religion, coupled with well-thought-out consequentionalist morals. They too see themselves as idealists, providing a medical service for patients in need., who would otherwise go to dangerously incompetent back-street quacks. Both sides see the other side as murderers or advocates of murder. Both sides, by their own lights, are equally sincere.
A spokeswoman for another abortion clinic described Paul Hill as a dangerous psychopath. But people like him don’t think of themselves as dangerous psychopaths; they think of themselves as good, moral people, guided by God. Indeed, I don’t think Paul Hill was a psychopath. Just very religious. Dangerous, yes, but not a psychopath. Dangerously religious. By the lights of his religious faith, Hill was entirely right and moral to shoot Dr Britton. What was wrong with Hill was his religious faith itself. Michael Bray, too, when I met him, didn’t strike me as a psychopath. I actually quite liked him. I thought he was an honest and sincere man, quietly spoken and thoughtful, but his mind had unfortunately been captured by poisonous religious nonsense.
Strong opponents of abortion are almost all deeply religious. The sincere supporters of abortion, whether personally religious or not, are likely to follow a non-religious, consequentionalist moral philosophy, perhaps invoking Jeremy Bentham’s question, ‘Can they suffer?’ Paul Hill and Michael Bray saw no moral difference between killing an embryo and killing a doctor except that the embryo was, to them, a blamelessly innocent ‘baby’. The consequentionalist sees all the difference in the world. An early embryo has the sentience, as well as the semblance, of a tadpole. A doctor is a grown-up conscious being with hopes, loves, aspirations, fears, a massive store of humane knowledge, the capacity for deep emotion, very probably a devastated widow and orphaned children, perhaps elderly parents who dote on him.
Paul Hill caused real, deep, lasting suffering, to beings with nervous systems capable of suffering. His doctor victim did no such thing. Early embryos that have no nervous system most certainly do not suffer, And if late-aborted embryos with nervous systems suffer- though all suffering is deplorable- it is not because they are human that they suffer. There is no general reason to suppose that human embryos at any stage suffer more than cow or sheep embryos at the same developmental stage. And there is every reason to suppose that all embryos, whether human or not, suffer far less than adult cows or sheep in a slaughterhouse, especially a religious slaughterhouse where, for religious reasons, they must be fully conscious when their throats are ceremonially cut.

You probably know the name of Professor Dawkins' book, so it is not surprising that he associates opposition to abortion only with religious worldviews. Note how totally his argument embodies the arse-about-face confusion I have been discussing: although he says opponents of abortion are 'almost' all deeply religious, he doesn't consider any possible non-religious motivation for believing that life begins at conception, and that therefore abortion and embryonic research are wrong.

I am going to go off on a tangent briefly and look at the argument Dawkins poses that Paul Hill killing John Britton was wrong, but John Britton killing embryos and foetuses is okay.
How do the ‘well-thought-out consequentionalist morals’ of Dawkins distinguish between the two cases?

(1) Suffering of the Victim.
An embryo without a developed nervous system does not suffer, while a more grown human does. Richard does not take this argument very seriously, or else he would take much more care to distinguish between an early-aborted embryo and a late-aborted foetus with a developed nervous system. Instead of citing some experimental data on foetal suffering in animals, drawing a line at say, three months of gestation, and standing firm with Jeremy Bentham, he throws in an irrelevant statement that foetal suffering is, at any rate, less than that of sheep in halal or kosher slaughterhouses. This is a complete non sequitur as far as logic goes. Emotionally, it is a different story, and I have long felt that the anti-abortion movement should logically also take a stand for innocent animals and oppose carnivory. But suddenly bringing in halal butchers has no logical connection whatever with the ‘they can’t suffer, so it’s okay to kill them’ argument. It is just there to provoke people’s self-interest: ‘Gee, Professor Dawkins is implying that if I oppose abortion, I ought to give up eating meat. But I don’t want to do that…”

Conversely, let us now consider the suffering of Dr John Britton. Is it really his suffering that is important? Let's say that instead of laying in wait for him with a shotgun, Paul Hill had waited until he was deeply asleep and then painlessly administered a lethal injection? Would the State of Florida have said, ‘Oh, that’s fine, you can go on your merry way, plucky lad?' As far as I know, Paul Hill was a pretty good shot and John Britton’s death was instantaneous and painless. On the other hand, if I were to go to Florida and try to shoot an abortionist, having never had much hand-eye coordination, I’m sure I would at worst wing them and they would come good in the end, after a whole lot of immediate pain and months or years of physio. Yet, Jeb Bush would not have connived at my judicial murder for the attempted killing of a doctor. 

The question ‘can they suffer?’ is the wrong question. It is irrelevant to proper ‘well-thought-out consequentionalist morals’, since you can murder someone without them suffering at all and we all agree this is bad.

(2) Suffering of the Victim’s Friends.
Richard points out that John Britton had: ‘…a devastated widow and orphaned children, perhaps elderly parents who dote on him.’ All of these people will obviously feel real suffering at his loss. But if this is the consequentionalist reason not to kill him, then what about people who have no friends? Is it more permissible to knock them off? I have seen this argument seriously advanced with respect to animals (e. g., C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain) but so far as I know, only facetiously with respect to humans (e. g., Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal). 

Does the argument that it was wrong to kill John Britton because people were sad about his death imply that if I were to distribute lurid details of his activities beforehand to millions of members of my militant anti-abortion group,* so that his continued existence caused them suffering and they were really happy about his death, then it would be okay? I think the answer would have to still be, no.

(3) Loss of Potential.
Richard points out that John Britton had ‘…hopes, loves, aspirations, etc.’ What does this mean? It means that if he had not been killed, chances are he would be enjoying his retirement now. He might be out playing golf. He might be writing entertaining novels, like the retired Colorado Planned Parenthood bigshot Sheri S. Tepper. He could be travelling around in a campervan, or sitting in front of the TV doing Sudoku. These are all things he could have been doing that have been brutally and unfairly taken away from him . Chances are, he would have been doing something that pleased him and enriched the universe in some way. He is not; his life has been cut short with his potential unfulfilled, and that was why it was wrong to kill him.

That is also why it was wrong for him to kill those embryos and foetuses.

For, if those embryos John Britton killed had not been killed, they too might now be playing golf or sitting in front of the TV. There is very nearly as good a probability that they would have gone on to do these things as there was that John Britton would go on to do them. The only difference is the difference between the seen and the unseen: we saw a great deal of John Britton’s potential unfold; we did not see the potential of those embryos and foetuses unfold, because their lives were brutally and unfairly taken away from them. The consequence of the killing of those human individuals is that they were denied the whole of the life that we other human individuals take for granted, and if ‘consequentionalist morals’ do not consider that as a valid consequence, I think they need another name.

Note that this tangential discussion has not mentioned God. It has not mentioned religion. It has not assumed the existence of an absolute morality. It is based purely on what we all, intuitively, understand to be so bad about premature death. To my mind, it is a 'well-thought-out consequentionalist morality' eminently suitable for theist and atheist alike.


To dispose of one more possible objection, the idea of 'being able to live independently' is sometimes raised as a logical place to draw a line netween people we should care about and people we shouldn't. This is not tenable, because no human being can live independently. We are social animals who need the support of others of our kind to became capable of independent life. So, a foetus cut out of its mother cannot breathe, and dies. A newborn infant left in a room next to a fridge full of formulae cannot feed itself, and dies. An urban man dropped naked in the wilderness is clueless, and dies. There is no discontinuity in this curve where we can draw a line.


Finally, you are free to think that I am only playing logic games to reach a pre-determined conclusion. I can't testify objectively as to whether that is true or not. I did try to be a Catholic for a very long time, and how I think and feel is shaped by my life experience. I can only say that, subjectively, my life has seemed from the inside to be a process of figuring things out, of trying to approach truth in a logical and self-consistent way, of painfully letting go of things I had felt I ought to believe that didn't fit into this process, and of reluctantly believing things I couldn't disbelieve any more as this process went on. That's what it looks from here.

*: I am not really the mastermind of a militant anti-abortion group with millions of members. This is a hypothetical. Please don't tap my phone.

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