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A Conversation Between Two Philosophers: On Abortion, Persons and Value

My purpose here is to respond to a post published by Steven Dunn over at Philosophic Augustine. I met Steven several years ago in conversations on Tumblr. Over the years, he has maintained a resolute interest in philosophy, which is something I greatly admire about him. Few things remain constant over several years, so the fact that he has retained his passion for philosophy is impressive. He’s also grown a lot with respect to his knowledge and that’s to be applauded.

Prior to reproducing our discussion hitherto, I want to be clear about what I’ll be looking to accomplish in this response: a) address his latest response that features Aristotelian personalism and metaphysics b) circle back around to Bill Vallicella’s argument. I think it’s important not to lose sight of the argument, especially given that that’s the reason I commented on Steven’s Facebook post to begin with. I will make it clear that even if one granted the undeniable personhood of a fetus, it still would not follow that an abortion is equivalent to murder. With that said, here is the discussion as it stands; my reply to Steven’s latest response will follow.

Steven Dunn: Philosopher Bill Vallicella over at his blog Maverick Philosopher considers a brief but important argument:

(a) Abortion is murder.
(b) Abortion ought to be illegal.

The question: Can one consistently hold (a) and not (b)? Suppose an added proposition:

(a) Abortion is murder.
(b) Abortion ought to be illegal.
(c) Murder is illegal.

I posted this argument on my personal Facebook page which wrought the response of one of my old friends from the Tumblr blogosphere, R. N. Carmona. Carmona is a philosophic tour de force, one of whom I’m familiar with conversing and debating since I was 17 in 2013 (now I’m 24).

There was a lot of heated exchanges between me and Carmona. After learning of his upcoming book, Ending the Abortion Debate, I knew that this issue was something he was well-versed in and felt passionate about. The following exchange doesn’t do full justice to Carmona’s overall position, but the highlights I’m sure are as he would see fit. Enjoy!

R. N. Carmona: (a) is unsound, hence making the whole argument unsound. Aborting an embryo or non-viable fetus simply is NOT murder. Most abortions happen before week 16, with a majority of them happening before week 9. At no point in those times does a fetus resemble an infant and more importantly, the hallmarks of a person aren’t present yet. That happens at around week 22, hence the hard cut off in most states at 20 weeks. Specifically, EEG waves register in the neocortex at around week 22 and the neocortex isn’t full developed till around week 36. I’d argue that it’s murder after week 22.

The only time I make exceptions after that many weeks is if there’s a threat on the mother’s life, but if the choice is between the quality of life of a mom and her family and a nine week old fetus, it’s an easy choice. Keeping abortion legal prior to week 20 reduces maternal mortality, which, if you’re pro-life, you should care about. Moreover, restrictive policies increase infant and maternal mortality. We’ve had lots of tries at the conservative Christian way: Northern Island, the Muslim World, the Philippines, etc. Restrictive policies do not work.

This is precisely what my next book is about. Want to end abortion? Get behind the issue. Address poverty, lack of education, lack of access to contraception, domestic violence, etc. That’s the only way to slow the rate of abortion. Restricting it won’t work and those conservative states that have passed heartbeat bills are about to find out the hard way.

Steven Dunn: There is actually a large extent in which I agree with you. I’ve read a lot of your writing on this issue and I appreciate you’ve pointed the dangerous restrictive policies that do currently exist. There is also an importance as you say in addressing poverty, lack of education, etc.

However, my initial problem began when you claimed that aborting an embryo or non-viable fetus is not murder. Even though non-viable fetuses have no chance of survival, that still does not warrant moral permissibility to end its life. I don’t see where the line of moral difference changes with an embryo, fetus, or fully grown human infant. Is it a spatial difference? Is it a temporal difference? Does the week, day, or trimester matter when ending the life of a *potential human?

Of course, we could have a metaphysically more significant conversation than the kinds of questions I’m asking you. I just think that these questions are a good starting point. Also, what is the “hallmarks of a person”?

R. N. Carmona: The hallmark of a person is quite simply, the consciousness attributed to human beings and higher order animals like dolphins and the great apes: neuroplasticity, memory acquisition, language capacity, etc. Even simpler than that, the capacity to apprehend taste, texture, sound, and so on. Even them who are mentally disabled, assuming they aren’t blind or deaf, can have these experiences. The blind and deaf, though lacking an important sense, still have propensities for memory acquisition, language, and so on.

And that’s the difference: spatio-temporal. Of space, because the potential person now occupies a uterus, taking nutrients from the would-be mother; of time because the potential person is currently not in the world, i.e. is not a citizen of a given country; is not protected by laws.

Potential simply is not enough. The fetus is potentially stillborn or potentially going to die of SIDs or will potentially be an ectopic pregnancy or will potentially be born to become a serial killer that will make Ted Bundy blush. You can’t speak of potential as though it’s solely and predictably positive; potential can be very negative. In fact, this child can be the reason the mother dies and leaves behind a husband to raise several kids, including the newborn, on his own. Potential simply isn’t enough to obligate a woman to continue a pregnancy she’d rather terminate.

So yes, the week matters because so long as a fetus isn’t viable, abortion should be permissible. The moral difference changes once the fetus is viable. Potentiality simply isn’t a good argument. Viability is a much stronger argument.

Furthermore, the moral difference changes when purposeful modification comes into play. Sure, an infant doesn’t have that capacity: it doesn’t, for example, set goals for itself. However, the parents, once they are told that the fetus is developing well, start to purposely modify on the fetus’ behalf: they start thinking of a name, buying clothing, setting up its room, putting money in its college fund, etc.

No parent, even if they’re a Christian conservative, begins to purposely modify at conception or even in the early weeks. It’s simply not enough to go on and tells you that, behaviorally speaking, most parents write off potential. Potential isn’t enough for anyone to go on and that’s why most people need something concrete before they begin to purposely modify on their baby’s behalf.

So yes, there’s a simple line to draw between a non-viable fetus and a viable one. I can speak of organismality as well, namely comparing and contrasting between organisms to come to a good conclusion regarding what a non-viable fetus most closely resembles, and it’s clear that they don’t resemble a newborn. There are marked differences, but I digress.

Steven Dunn: I would clarify that you are *technically correct in saying that potentiality is not enough. A potential X of course is not an X. Because I am a potential speaker of the French language doesn’t mean I can speak the French language. However, potentialities are still nonetheless grounded in being: they are realities not merely possibilities.
They are actual human beings with various potentials.

Though they are not realized among differing spatial and temporal locations/positions, I don’t think you’ve provided a meaningful account of persons. Human persons, as I see it, are instances of personalized being; persons possess phenomenological qualities that make them eligible for relationships – or interpersonal love. I think our definitions of persons should capture something specific (and simple), rather than be a construct of various qualifiers (neuroplasticity, apprehension of the senses, etc).

One biological example worth mentioning that I think you’ll appreciate is the cognitive capacity of bonobos – which is one of my favorite areas of primatology to examine their analogous behavior with humans. They’re sympathetic, they can experience pain, they are highly intelligent, they can have an extensive non-verbal vocabulary, etc.
Despite these striking qualities, they do not fit under the definition of persons I’ve provided above.

What does it mean to be a real person? A couple things: (i) what W. Norris Clark has called the “participation structure of the universe”; rational-intelligibility that allows for human persons and the universe to find meaningful relations/predictions; (ii) existence as a dynamic act of presence and (iii) action as a [self] manifestation of inner-being.

I think your definition of persons is merely conditional; it’s dynamic but not exhaustive. Human beings – that is, if a personalized being possesses such potentialities – are intrinsically valuable; there can be no moral difference among this being’s spatial or temporal location.

In summary. . . I think you are raising issues that aren’t typically addressed by conservatives. It’s important that we better handle areas of women’s reproductive healthcare, which can be dealt with through better and intentional education, personal conviction, etc. However, I think we need to agree that the moral question is not somehow addressed because we’ve raised current social or political problems surrounding abortion. There are consequences and symptoms that need to be taken care of, by all means. However, if structurally we are dealing with the intentional ending of a human life then we need to talk about it.

R. N. Carmona: I disagree there. What I hear is Aristotelian language here and I reject his metaphysics all the way through. Potentialities are not realities grounded in being. I think even Aristotle makes a distinction between potentiality and actuality, and as I recall, he doesn’t conflate them in this manner.

Persons do, however, possess phenomenological qualities, like phenomenal consciousness, but that isn’t what makes them eligible for relationships and interpersonal love. What’s needed there is simple empathy and bonobos and chimps, in general, are capable of that; that’s one reason why some advanced nations recognize them as persons. So rather than a construct of qualifiers, it’s more a recognition of qualifiers taken together to get a basic definition of person.

The base anthropocentrism of theists doesn’t allow them to accept that other higher order animals are persons, and that’s what you’re doing here. Dolphins call each other by name and remember individuals for decades. Elephants can also remember individuals after years of not seeing them. So while there’s certainly a distinction between a human person and a dolphin person, there is overlap that qualifies them both and that overlap is found in the sciences. The issue here is that your definition relies less on science and more so on an implied belief in the soul or on metaphysics rather than science.

I agree with (I) as it’s pretty much purposeful modification paraphrased. (II) relies heavily on Aristotelian metaphysics and I reject it outright. (III) stems from two, but alludes to libertarian action of will, which I don’t think anyone has. There’s no [self] without the [other] and other is much more crucial in action, especially willful. I think human persons can change course, but only after realizing enough deterministic conditions underlying their actions, thus empowering them to experience determinants that may lead to an overall change of course.

Think of the proverbial alcoholic; he doesn’t willfully change his bad habit, but what he does is “change” a given number of determinants so that his actions may change and out of a recognition that if he doesn’t make these changes, he is pretty much enabled: a) stops associating with friends who drink regularly b) doesn’t go to bars when invited c) goes to rehab. And so on and so on and so on.

Action itself isn’t in a vacuum, but dynamic and intertwined with the flux of all there is. So human potential takes course in a deterministic manner and any human looking to have any semblance of control over that will reposition herself with respect to determinants. A fetus is incapable of this sort of purposeful modification, which I think is the most actualized of all.

So my definition, while not alluding to souls or anything religious, is also sufficient because it recognizes the role of the other in the shaping of the self. The embryo and non-viable fetus do not interact with the other in the manner in which persons do and it is simply potentiality and not actuality, to use your language. What is commonly aborted is (what can be) rather than (what is), so that spatio-temporal difference lays the groundwork for a moral difference and the moral difference lies in purposeful modification which I think your (I) paraphrases.

Any metaphysic that doesn’t account for the other, even something as arbitrary as a chair, isn’t complete. Hegel understood this and is the forefather, I think, of modern metaphysics, starting in the phenomenologists that soon followed him. Hurssel relied a lot on Aristotle too and I’m not alone in seeing that he was mistaken for doing so, but again, I digress.

Steven Dunn: I would respond to your outlook on Aristotelian personalism as not fully appreciating what the system has to offer. In our personal conversations on abortion I have mentioned to you that yes, personalism and the potentiality principle has largely been carried and grounded in Catholic moral theology. I understand, therefore, we both don’t share views in the inspiration of Christian theology.

Hence, we need to find anthropological and philosophical commonalities in which we can meaningfully proceed in a discourse about human persons and what exactly is developing in the womb. The best system that does this, in my view, is Aristotle’s conception of being from his Metaphysics and the further extension from Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of persons (with some modifications).

Aquinas argued that persons are that which is “perfected in all of nature.” This essentially means that persons are not merely special “modes” of being amongst others, but that personhood is being when it is allowed  to be at its fullest. In other words, persons are not restricted by sub-intelligent matter. There are a number of reasons why persons – humans – possess the special status that they do, and while I think there are theological reasons for this I think I can still demonstrate that apart from any inspired or “revealed” source.

First, Aquinas’ notion of person was conscious of the distinction between person and nature, because providing a consistent account of personhood meant that a consideration of God as Triune (one divine nature amongst three persons) and Christ as the God-man (divine person possessing two natures) needed to be contextually consistent.

Therefore, it has been an accusation by some leading Catholic philosophers (Wojtyla, Ratzinger, Clarke, etc) that Aquinas falls short of a comprehensive philosophical definition of person because the medievals relied primarily on the Boethian definition of person: “An individual substance of a rational nature.” Hence, I would argue for a further inclusion of the concept of “relation,” which is fundamental to our understanding of what it means “to be.”

Aquinas moved away from the what has been called “self-diffusiveness” of the Good as seen by the NeoPlatonists (the collaboration of the Good with all “substances”) and instead moves to Supreme Being, where Existence (esse) – as I said before – now becomes the root of all perfection. Supreme Being is the subsistent Act of Existence, where now the self-diffusive Good now becomes self-communicative Love.

Hence we have three primary qualities for the relationability of persons: being is (1) self-communicative (showing that persons are intelligible [ratio] by their actuality); (2) being is self-manifesting (persons are immediately relatable to other beings); and (3) being is intrinsically active (persons are not merely present but actively present).

Suppose a being for example that existed in reality but didn’t or couldn’t manifest itself to other beings, or if it didn’t or couldn’t act in any way. If this kind of being lacked such properties then other beings couldn’t have knowledge of its existence; it would be almost as if it had no being at all. Now imagine if all beings existed in this sort of way; the universe itself wouldn’t be connected in the unified sense that philosophers and scientists typically speak of the rationality of the universe.

Now combine this with the potentiality principle. According to Current Anthropology (2013), potentiality is a principle not so foreign to them: potentiality “denotes a hidden force determined to manifest itself – something that with or without intervention has its future built into it.”1

Let me be clear that potentiality is the only relevant metaphysical principle worth considering for abortion. My position, to be clear, is not:

  1. X is a creature of a certain sort.
  2. Creatures of this sort have right R.
  3. Therefore, X has a right R.

Premise 2 of course begs the question in favor of what I want to prove. In summary, my position is that the full and perfect realization of being is always inherent in its nature. All living things, including mindless plants, dolphins and gorillas have a proper end or “good” which is naturally directed within their nature – even from a formless or potential state. Nothing can exist without potentials, and potentials cannot be realized apart from something actual.

Now the metaphysical picture I’ve provided is not mere conjecture but is what historically has served as the foundation of Western intelligentsia for over 1,500 years, until the advent of the modern model by Descartes and Newton. And I would argue that that move away from the model of classical metaphysics has been one of the greatest errors and blunders of Western thought. It was an illegitimate move because it’s not as if new physical discoveries were made, hence “outdating” the Aristotelian system.

Descartes, among other French intellectuals at his time were responsible for the shift away from potential/actual, the four causes, and his metaphysic of being. Bad move.

R.N. Carmona: While not mere conjecture and arguably the foundation of Western intellgentsia for over 1,500 years, one would have to gloss over important bits of history to make that argument. One of the more significant bits of history I have in mind is the Christian and Muslim censorship and destruction of texts that were not in agreement with monotheism, especially works that were of a more naturalistic flavor. Carlo Rovelli puts it succinctly:

I often think that the loss of the works of Democritus in their entirety is the greatest intellectual tragedy to ensue from the collapse of the old classical civilization…We have been left with all of Aristotle, by way of which Western thought reconstructed itself, and nothing of Democritus. Perhaps if all the works of Democritus had survived, and nothing of Aristotle’s, the intellectual history of our civilization would have been better … But centuries dominated by monotheism have not permitted the survival of Democritus’s naturalism. The closure of the ancient schools such as those of Athens and Alexandria, and the destruction of all the texts not in accordance with Christian ideas was vast and systematic, at the time of the brutal antipagan repression following from the edicts of Emperor Theodisius, which in 390-391 declared that Christianity was to be the only and obligatory religion of the empire. Plato and Aristotle, pagans who believed in the immortality of the soul or in the existence of a Prime Mover, could be tolerated by a triumphant Christianity. Not Democritus.2

It’s not a mere coincidence that Aristotelian metaphysics stood in fashion for so long, nor was it established that the Aristotelian system was better than other systems. In that same time period, theists, especially Christians, held a virtual monopoly on ideas and as such, metaphysical frameworks with more naturalistic bents were destroyed or censored. Due to this, there was a reluctance on the part of skeptics and naturalists to offer a naturalistic metaphysical system. They were rightfully afraid of The Inquisition. So, Aristotelian metaphysics didn’t dominate the landscape because it was the best framework, but rather, because the game was rigged in its favor.

Copernicus and Galileo, for instance, dealt with the consequences of challenging theistic thought. Copernicus’ De revolutionibus “was forbidden by the Congregation of the Index ‘until corrected’, and in 1620 these corrections were indicated. Nine sentences, by which the heliocentric system was represented as certain, had to be either omitted or changed.”3 Galileo’s house arrest is a well-known historical fact and there’s no need to tread over old coals here. More to the point, “Bruno [was]…much more of a philosopher than a scientist. He felt that a physicist’s field of study was the tangible universe, so he challenged any line of thought that utilized nonphysical elements and avoided what he considered the juvenile exercise of calculation. To him, computational astronomy missed the true significance of the sky.”4 Bruno held to eight purportedly heretical theses and they served as the reason for his execution. Among these theses were patently naturalistic positions: the universe is spatially infinite, there are other planets very similar to ours, there were humans before Adam and Eve, the Earth moves in accordance with Copernican theory.5  In all but one of these positions, Bruno has been proven correct. So the notion that Aristotle’s system is best overall or, at the very least with respect to defining personhood, is already disputable because as has been demonstrated, competing, especially naturalistic, frameworks were discouraged. Despite this, before I set out on my own exploration with regards to what best explains potentiality, I will challenge Aristotle’s personalism.

Even if I were to grant that Aristotle offered much in the way of explaining personhood, there’s still the question of how any of these criteria apply to embryos and early fetuses. Take for instance, (1) self-communicative (showing that persons are intelligible [ratio] by their actuality). To my mind, embryos and early fetuses are not self-communicative nor intelligible, and that’s because they have yet to develop the organ that makes this possible, namely the brain. Now, while I recognize that Aristotle offers an interesting conundrum worth considering, i.e., as you put it, “Nothing can exist without potentials, and potentials cannot be realized apart from something actual,” I don’t see that a fetus’ obvious intelligibility and self-communication follows. As we will see shortly, there’s a better explanation for the notion that nothing can exist without potentials and that no potentials can be realized separate from something actual.

In like manner, let’s consider also (2) being is self-manifesting (persons are immediately relatable to other beings). On the assumption that Aristotle was correct, I don’t see how embryos and early fetuses are self-manifesting and immediately relatable to other beings. If anything, it is only relatable to its parents and siblings, assuming they had children already. Since it has not emerged independently within the world, it is not relatable to other people, the ecosystem in its locale, nor the wider biosphere. The fact that it isn’t independently within the world makes so that it isn’t relatable to any other beings. Furthermore, it’s relation to its parents and siblings is best explained and anticipated by genetics, which we will get to shortly.

Let’s also consider (3) being is intrinsically active (persons are not merely present but actively present). Again, embryos and early fetuses are not present, let alone actively present for the same reasons they aren’t self-manifesting. The fact that it is not independently within the world, once again, proves problematic for the third criterion. I can grant that it is actively present once born, for its parent(s) is now self-modifying on its behalf. It is interacting with other persons in a very obvious manner and relies on them for its physical, emotional, and psychological growth, growth that is crucial for its potential to eventually become a person who has a theory of mind, a sense of self, an ego, memories, desires, goals, and so on. Within the womb, that simply is not the case early in any pregnancy. The woman’s voice and music can help with brain development starting at 29-33 weeks. So harkening back to what I said earlier, interpersonal interaction is only possible when the brain is sufficiently developed, which strongly favors the thesis that the brain is integral to a human person rather than a soul.

Now to the matter of what better explains the predictable potential of a human fetus, after which three conclusions should be immediately clear: either 1) that we do not require a metaphysical explanation for potentiality and personhood or 2) that given genetics and evolution, what’s necessary is a metaphysical framework that is congruous with and readily predicts scientific facts and 3) that nothing can exist without potentials and that potentials are not realized without actuals has been solved.

One of the primary reasons I reject Christian theism as a worldview is because it gives human beings an undue “special status” all while ignoring human evolution. Human potential or more specifically, homo sapien potential wouldn’t exist without an ancestor’s (probably homo antecessor) potential. Furthermore, homo sapien potential would not have been realized without the actuality of ancestors and likewise, without the divergence of ancestors, great apes would not have progressed as they have. As you well know, we share about 98.5% DNA with chimpanzees and some 96% with gorillas, two facts that establish a common ancestry. So this “special status” is actually an example of special pleading because it’s not at all clear why chimps and gorillas do not qualify for such status; also, neanderthals, given what we currently know about them, are in many respects like homo sapiens (a fact that made their interbreeding possible) and as such, would qualify for such status without question. Yet on Christian theism, no human ancestor qualifies for this status, an attitude I find very suspicious.

Human evolution, like evolution in toto, has an underlying genetic component that explains these variations in populations over time. That same genetic component continues among all populations of species and thus, better explains “the perfect realization of being…inherent in the nature of mindless plants, dolphins, and gorillas.” Furthermore, potentiality does not denote a “hidden force determined to manifest itself,” but a rather statistically predictable pattern present in the genome of an organism; it isn’t hidden at all, but rather in plain sight. The pattern is so predictable that one can readily explain how and why that which is formless becomes something with form.

So prior to circling back to Vallicella’s argument, I will offer a brief overview showing how the actuality of parents results in the potentiality and probable actuality of a child. It is also important to note that given genetics, there are a number of factors that determine morphological sex, eye color, hair color, skin tone, and so on. So let’s imagine that in universe A, Jack and Jill have a baby girl named Janice and that in universe B, they have a boy named Jake. Let’s consider the important differences in each child, differences that explain why Janice exists in A and Jake in B.

In universe A, Jack and Jill are both 24-years-old when they agree to having a child. Jack and Jill are wealthy and have spent the last four years of their relationship traveling. Neither of them are stressed and have no trouble being happy and grateful for all that they have. When considering that high stress increases the probability of having a boy, it is no surprise that Jill gives birth to Janice nine months later. Yet that still does not explain why Janice has brown eyes (though both her parents have blue eyes), her mother’s hair color, and her father’s hitchhiker thumb. In the main, had another sperm fertilized the egg, Janice very likely would have been born with completely different features. Despite low stress levels, there’s also the fact that Jack has five sisters and no brothers, therefore increasing the probability of having a girl. This still does not explain why Janice has brown rather than blue eyes, blonde rather than brown hair, and a hitchhiker thumb rather than a straight thumb.

Allelic combination is important in explaining her phenotypic features. Should both parents pass on recessive genes, Janice is born with a hitchhiker thumb. Or alternatively, if there’s a combination of dominant and recessive genes, she may have a chance to have a hitchhiker thumb or a straight thumb. If there’s a combination of dominant genes, then she will predictably have a straight thumb (see reference). Eye color tends to be similar, albeit more complicated.

For instance, the assumption is that since Janice’s parents have blue eyes, she will also have blue eyes. There are two genes integral to determine eye pigmentation: OCA2 and HERC2. An active HERC2 activates OCA2, which determines pigment; given this, we know that this is what explains Janice’s brown eyes. Her counterpart in universe B, Jake, has either a broken HERC2 or a broken OCA2 and therefore, has blue eyes (see reference). He also has brown hair and a straight thumb. He has a straight thumb because instead of a recessive and dominant gene (what we find in Janice’s genome), we find two dominant genes in Jake’s genome. Their disparate hair colors are also explained in this manner as well. It is also likely that in Universe B, Jill gave birth to Jake because of the high levels of stress she experienced during pregnancy. Jack and Jill decided to conceive at the ages of 31. During the pregnancy, they moved from Middletown, NY to New York City because they both wanted more job opportunities. The crowded commutes, her career, the noise pollution, among other things, stressed Jill out to no end and this increased the probability of having a boy, hence (probably) the birth of Jake.

Form, likewise, follows suit. Drosophila have been important in research in evolutionary biology and genetics. In observing curious mutations in these flies, geneticists discovered homeotic genes that determine the body pattern of all organisms. The research gets very technical and makes for quite the tangent, but homeotic, or Hox genes themselves come from a Hox-like ancestor that explains the similarities Hox genes have from organism to organism (see reference). The graphic makes the extrapolations of their research clear.

Hox Evolution

What is also clear is that the following turns out to be false: “All living things, including mindless plants, dolphins and gorillas have a proper end or “good” which is naturally directed within their nature – even from a formless or potential state.” It’s not so much that there’s a natural tendency even from a formless, potential state, but rather, that there’s an evolutionary and genetic history that informs how a comparatively formless embryo develops into a human being. There are also traits that are arbitrary as there’s no purpose as to why someone would have brown rather than blue eyes or a hitchhiker thumb rather than a straight thumb. Some traits are inconsequential with respect to who a given person is.

Aristotelian metaphysics is considered outmoded by contemporary philosophers and scientists because it is incongruous with various scientific paradigms. Setting cosmology and physics aside, as I think I’ve shown, Aristotle’s concept of a person is incongruous with evolution and genetics and the system did nothing in the way of anticipating the advent of evolutionary biology and genetics. His system speaks of personhood in a patently non-naturalistic or even supernatural manner whereas genetics and evolution show that personhood is linked to certain types of purely physical organisms. What is required is either no metaphysical framework at all (à la logical positivists) or a framework that coincides with modern philosophical and scientific paradigms. Aristotle’s system doesn’t accomplish that and far from a “bad move,” Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and everyone who eventually stood on their shoulders have every justification to move away from the Aristotelian system. Although interesting, that potentials can’t exist apart from actuals is explained by genetics for that which is animate and memetics for that which is inanimate. In fact, Aristotle was closer to correct with regards to universals and particulars, an explanation that can be applied to inanimate objects rather than living entities. Yet despite the potential for a human embryo to become an actual human person, a roughly predictable, naturalistic set of occurrences take place before every human birth. The process is also a fragile one as an injury to the would-be mother can end the pregnancy; genetic anomalies and an implantation anywhere other than the uterus can make it so that this potentiality never results in an actuality. Aristotle’s system also doesn’t explain the fragility of this process not just in humans, but in other organisms as well. It should therefore be clear that conclusions aforementioned have been firmly established and that if metaphysics remains a concern for philosophers, we have to do better than what Aristotle and his disciples rendered us.

Now to circle all the way back to Vallicella’s argument. Even if one were to grant the undeniable personhood of a fetus, either through the medium of Aristotelian metaphysics or another metaphysical framework altogether, there’s still the issue that the intentional killing of this person doesn’t constitute a murder. The pivotal error pro-choicers make is that they tend to define abortion and ignore what it’s being equated to. They should also consider the legal definition of murder, since Vallicella is alluding to the legal rather than the moral definition.

The killing of an embryo or fetus is done with intentions and motives altogether different from those underlying homicide, and as such, from a legal standpoint, it can’t be approached as murder or even a lesser offense like manslaughter. There is no degree of murder applicable to abortion; the intention and motive are not the same either, so even from a legal perspective, abortion is not murder. It would constitute an intentional killing of a different sort, of an even benevolent sort. Therefore, a woman who has an abortion can’t be tried and convicted as a murderer, neither can the doctor who performed the abortion. Let’s consider first degree murder. Premeditation is already an issue for Vallicella’s argument; the prosecution wouldn’t be able to argue that the mother had a malicious intent to kill this person. As for second degree, even though lacking the premeditation criterion, implies a reckless disregard for human life. The prosecution can’t accuse a woman of that either.

What’s more is that, if you were right in that a fetus is a person despite its viability, then restrictive policies would be the only choice we’d have. Like Vallicella’s argument implies, murder is treated in an extremely restrictive manner; even self-defense has to be established with no room for doubt. So if abortion were murder, it would be dealt with in like manner. So setting metaphysics and ethics aside, from a practical point of view, we should be wary of equating abortion with murder because we have dealt with the latter in a restrictive manner and we should know better, especially given the deadly consequences of such policies. So even if for solely practical reasons, we should shy from such equivalence even if it could be proven that abortion is murder. The issue here is that no pro-lifer has qualified that statement in any manner that doesn’t make for a bare assertion. Abortion is simply not murder and to think of women who have abortions as murderers is to misunderstand this issue altogether. What we should be addressing are the common motivations for seeking an abortion: poverty, domestic violence, lack of employment opportunity, and so on. I can go on, but I’ve probably overstayed my welcome as it is, so for the time being, I will leave this here.

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The featured image to this article was taken from https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/4291/

The featured image to this article is Rembrandt’s Two Old Men Disputing (1628).

Cited Sources:

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Arguments From Vagueness Against the So-Called God of Monotheism

Let’s start with well-known, often disputed verses:

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. Deuteronomy 10:17

God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment. Psalms 82:1

There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours.Psalms 86:8

And the king shall do as he wills. He shall exalt himself and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak astonishing things against the God of gods. He shall prosper till the indignation is accomplished; for what is decreed shall be done. Daniel 11:36

Recently, I brought up the fact that modern Christians are polytheists. On the one hand, they believe in the God of the Bible and on the other, the so-called god of philosophers or as they would put it, the god of monotheism. A commenter on my post over on WordPress brought up the fact that the early Jews were polytheists. He provided a number of verses like the ones above. I responded to him and stated that Christians have a go-to copout. They’ll argue that this is merely a recognition that people at the time worshipped other gods, gods that were mere idols. That, however, demonstrates that they are either ignorant of historical context or they know of the context and yet ignore it. We can discuss the polytheistic origins of Judaism further, but that’s not my purpose here.

My purpose here is to debase the notion of a god of (mono)theism, to disrupt that convenient narrative. A Christian on Facebook recently offered an ontological argument he confused with Godel’s Ontological Argument. That wasn’t the argument he offered. He offered another ontological argument in where ‘God’ could be replaced with ‘Allah’ or ‘Ahura Mazda’ and the result wouldn’t change. Two other people then responded and said that the refutation fails because the argument sets out to prove the god of monotheism.

The god of (mono)theism, as William Lane Craig posits, is timeless, personal, omniscient, and so on. I’ll set exegesis aside because there are ways to prove otherwise given passages in the Bible (e.g. why did god ask Adam questions in Genesis 3 if he’s omniscient?). What I want to offer instead is a new argument against the notion of a so-called god of (mono)theism. We know from mathematics that there are different infinities. Since infinity is already a large value, if we can even call it such, there’s no way for the human mind to apprehend one infinity or another, let alone distinguish them. So given that line of thinking, there’s an element of vagueness we can introduce to debase the notion of a god of (mono)theism.

Take, for instance, timelessness. A Christian will posit that their god has no beginning; he’s eternal and exists outside of time. All well and good. Let’s say there’s another being who had a beginning outside of the universe billions of years ago, e.g., Satan. What disqualifies this being from being timeless as well, especially given that we can’t ascertain the beginning of this being’s existence? In other words, if god is present at point 0 and then Satan at point 0.00000005, what difference is there? There are some beginnings that result in a virtual eternity and so, just like there are different infinities, there are different eternities, different versions of timelessness.

The same goes for omniscience. What if there’s a being that knows all things except one thing; let’s suppose this being doesn’t know how to play billiards. What is the difference between an omniscient being who knows all things and another being who knows all things save the required know-how to play billiards? Again, as there are different infinities, there are different levels of omniscience and we simply wouldn’t be able to distinguish between a being who knows everything and one who knows everything except for how to play billiards.

Omnipotence, omnipresence, the capacity to be personal, and so on, all fall victim to vagueness, and as such, the same defeater that exists for Godel’s Ontological Argument, namely that parallel arguments work just as well (see Oppy 1996), also exists for the notion of the so-called god of monotheism. There is no such entity. It is logically possible that, given vagueness, there are millions of beings that fit the description. However, one should not draw ontological conclusions on the basis of logical considerations. Just because there could be a million such beings doesn’t mean they actually exist; likewise, just because one such being is logically possible doesn’t mean it actually exists. The god that apologetic arguments allude to is a product of Christian obfuscation.

Given that Christians are overly fond of deductive arguments, I will do my best to formulate an Argument From Vagueness, which isn’t necessarily an argument on its own. Let’s consider Plantinga’s Victorious Ontological Argument:

  1. A being has maximal excellence in a given possible world W if and only if it is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good in W; and
  2. A being has maximal greatness if it has maximal excellence in every possible world.
  3. It is possible that there is a being that has maximal greatness.
  4. Therefore, possibly, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being exists.
  5. Therefore, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.

Now, consider a parallel Argument from Vagueness. D1 is crucial to the argument.

D1: A being with maximal excellence* has omnipotence* (which is to be so close to all-powerful that its lone incapacity is negligible; it once failed to push a universe to the left), omniscience* (which is to be virtually all-knowing; it doesn’t know how to play billiards), and perfectly good* (which is to be virtually morally perfect, but it once told a white lie). Maximal greatness* is to have maximal excellence* across all possible worlds.

  1. A being has maximal excellence* in a given possible world W iff it is omnipotent*, omniscient*, and wholly good* in W.
  2. A being has maximal greatness* if it has maximal excellence* in every possible world.
  3. It is possible that there is a being that has maximal greatness*.
  4. Therefore, possibly, it is necessarily true that an omniscient*, omnipotent*, and perfectly good* being exists.
  5. Therefore, it is necessarily true that an omniscient*, omnipotent* and perfectly good* being exists.

Once this counter-argument is offered, what a Christian has left is the bare assertion that a being with maximal excellence* isn’t truly god because it has negligible limitations. The question remains: how do we know that the purported attributes of god are true? It is, as it will always be, a matter of faith. There is no way to ascertain that god is eternal, omnipotent, and omniscient. We can ask whether he is perfectly moral, but that’s a separate issue entirely. The thrust that Arguments From Vagueness drive is that there’s no justification for speaking of any infinity with such certainty. There may be an infinity so near to the one a theist reveres that the differences are negligible. That’s precisely what these arguments are designed for.

 

The Logical Failure of Divine Command Theory

I wrote the following in response to a Muslim on a New York Times opinion piece on Facebook. Everyone who discusses the actions of the Judeo-Christian and/or Muslim gods focuses far too much on the moral and legal ramifications of said actions. No one realizes that, per the theist, their god is perfectly logical. As such, the logical dimension of an action attributed to this god has to be captured. With that in mind, I offered the following.

Even if punishing children for the crimes of their parents is either moral or legal, though we haven’t apprehended that as of yet, there’s still the issue that it isn’t logical. Logic is a priori and therefore, logic for humans is logic for the god of monotheism. Just as we can’t make a round square or sided circle, neither can god. Per the philosophically inclined theist, the laws of logic, as an extension of his creative power, are part of him and as such, he can’t violate his own nature. As such, god would be perfectly logical and would thus reason perfectly, which means he wouldn’t commit logical fallacies. Given that, he wouldn’t commit an act that’s based in the fallacy of guilt by association. To punish a child for their parents crimes is exactly that! God would be finding someone guilty do to their association or more specifically, their relation to a sinner.

To my mind, this is the ultimate defeater because it should be clear that the Judeo-Christian and Muslim gods have acted on the basis of fallacious logic. It would make more sense that such actions are the actions of people who wished to attribute said actions to a god, perhaps for sake of justifying their actions and attempting to spare themselves any guilt they might have felt. Clearly, however, a perfectly logical god wouldn’t base any of its actions on fallacious logic. The doctrine of original sin, for instance, is itself based on guilt by association. So even if a Christian fails to see the moral failing in such a doctrine, they would have to concede that there’s certainly a logical failing.

As is commonplace when discussing religion, there’s always someone who will disagree, either because they’re religious or are agnostics who favor belief over non-belief. This individual contended that the soundness of informal fallacies is established a posteriori rather than a priori. He also stated that god might have written guilt into our DNA and that therefore, it is heritable. I found that both of these contentions neither change my argument nor succeed at defeating it.

The reason for this is because I don’t think that every informal fallacy’s soundness is determined a posteriori. If soundness is reached via reason, and I see no reason to add an empirical dimension to determine the soundness of an informal fallacy, then that is also a priori. Even still, however, a perfectly logical being wouldn’t reason fallaciously, let alone base his actions on fallacious reasoning. Even if inherited guilt was built into our DNA, which no empirical research has shown, there’s still a logical issue with making a child pay for their parents sins. So even if I somehow inherit the guilt of my mother’s marital infedility, that doesn’t mean that I should pay the price for her adultery.

Collective guilt, for example, is a thing. I am, for instance, ashamed of my country’s actions. I am American and at the moment and for practically my whole life, I haven’t been proud to be one. I feel guilty being a citizen of a country that murdered millions of Native Americans and stripped them of their lands, allowed slavery, incarcerated Japanese citizens in internment camps, and incarcerates rates Blacks and Latinos disproportionately in comparison to other ethnic groups — aside from the many other human rights infractions this country has committed. That, however, does not mean that I should pay the price for American crimes. While some people may be perfectly content to make me pay on the basis of guilt by association (i.e. well, he’s an American, so his arrest or death is good enough for me!), a perfectly logical being simply should not and would not be content with passing such a sentence. It isn’t logical, just, or moral, but alas, the Judeo-Christian and Muslim gods are said to behave accordingly. If a theist or an agnostic who favors theism is reluctant to admit that there are moral or legal failings in the actions of these theistic gods, they must admit that there are clear logical failings in their actions. That poses yet another problem in a long list of problems for theism.

A Short Excerpt From My Upcoming Book

In this, Erdogen can learn a valuable lesson that will vastly reduce the negative impacts women in Turkey are currently facing. The return of restrictive policies also marks the return of illegal contraceptive and abortion methods, which, in turn, are a prelude to higher maternal deaths. Turkey, like Albania before it, must not go back to the days when abortion was criminalized. There is precedence in the Muslim World and in the world at large that should discourage Erdogen from continuing his de facto ban on abortion and eventually passing legislation that would officially ban abortion. If nothing else, the history of reproductive rights in the Muslim World not only serves as exemplary for majority-Muslim countries, but also countries around the world — especially countries currently enforcing prohibitive abortion policies.

Restrictive policies do not end abortion. Such policies end the lives of many women. In country after country, women literally bleed to death after experiencing complications related to unsafe, illegal procedures. Legalizing and decriminalizing abortion not only saves their lives, but also slows the cycle of poverty. For women in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Chile, Brazil, Northern Ireland, and other countries not surveyed here, the battle is ongoing. We are morally obligated to see what measures need to be taken in order to provide these women with safe, legal access to reproductive healthcare. Also, once this access is provided, we must ensure that there are no barriers keeping some women, be it for economic, educational, or other reasons, from getting and being able to meet the costs related to reproductive healthcare.

What Game of Thrones Taught Me About God

By R.N. Carmona

Before I express my most current thoughts about the idea of god and where I now stand, it is important to go over exactly what relation the Game of Thrones character Bran Stark has to a common concept of god. Bran Stark, who is currently an entity known as the Three-Eyed Raven, has omniscience as it concerns people and events. It has been shown that he can be touched in the future (when the Night’s King grabbed his arm), manipulate the present (by employing his warg ability), and influence the past (as shown when he called out to a younger version of his father Ned and when young Hodor heard Meera in the present telling present-day Hodor to hold the door). Yet despite his omniscience, he is powerless to prevent the war between the living and the dead, the armies of men and the Night’s King and his army of White Walkers and wights.

In fact, many theories concerning Bran have been circulated. One theory says that Bran Stark is Bran the builder. Bran the builder, legend has it, built the Wall where Jon Snow completed his watch and also Winterfell. Another postulates that Bran is the Lord of Light, the god of the Red Priestesses who reveals future events in fires. According to such theories, Bran reincarnates and lives forever in a repeating loop or he’s ascended to the role of an all-knowing god. Game of Thrones could be a literal time loop in where Bran is trying to prevent a number of catastrophic events like the creation of White Walkers by the Children of the Forest, the Mad King’s holocaust of Westerosi citizens, and the events that have yet to transpire – which may include the deaths of Daenerys and Jon, not to mention every person in Westeros.

Game of Thrones could literally be a story about an omniscient and all-powerful or nigh-all-powerful mystic or god being rendered powerless by chaos theory. In other words, per Littlefinger: “Chaos is a ladder” and only that ladder is real. All else is illusion. In trying to prevent the creation of the White Walkers or the Mad King’s holocaust, Bran unintentionally sets off other horrific events. The prevention of one bad outcome or consequence results in the emergence of a new bad outcome or consequence. Thinking about Bran’s predicament got me thinking about the idea of an omniscient being.

God’s predicament, should one exist, wouldn’t be any different. Preventing a murder on one side of the world only ensures the emergence of a new, unintended one on the other side of the world. If the flapping of a butterfly’s wings results in a derailed train that kills dozens, a god might reason to prevent the flapping of the wings, but in doing so, an unintended volcanic eruption wipes out dozens in a separate location. The idea of omniscience along with omnipotence would ensure that such a being is rendered powerless! Westeros may not work very much like our world; there is after all magic, undead, dragons, and voices speaking from fires. Chaos theory might not feature in Westeros, but it certainly features in our world. A being like the Three-Eyed Raven would have incredible power, but will resign himself to inactivity.

God, should one exist, might have realized this long ago and has thus resigned himself to inactivity and indifference. Omniscience entails foresight and omnipotence entails prevention of what one foresees, but the two powers together would inevitably result in voluntarily powerlessness. In a world of chaos, an order that prevents all evil and all suffering is simply not possible; it is unachievable. Should there be a god, Nietzsche might be best read literally. God is effectively dead. He is a celestial vegetable, eternally inactive upon realizing that he could never achieve a perfect world. I am firmly a post-theist in that I am beyond entertaining the ideas of religion and writing extensively and frequently about such topics. But should there be a god, I would approach it with compassion and pity because despite having all that power, it’s as though it has no power.

A simply corollary might make things clearer. Humans are no doubt limited and finite in their power to prevent unappealing outcomes and consequences. They are equally limited in their capacity to formulate and execute contingency plans. Yet even when one succeeds at preventing one’s business from failure by taking out a sizable loan, there’s now the unintended consequence of realizing several months down the line that an extensive layoff is necessary to turn enough profit to pay off the debt and continue to operate the business. Preventing one bad outcome seems to ensure the emergence of another. Though some regard this study as debunked, the jury is still out on whether extensive gene editing results in hundreds of potentially harmful mutations.

It could be that chaos requires a balancing of the scales and it is only in that balance that order is achieved. God might have done all he could to prevent the abusive childhood of one person only to ensure the emergence of another person’s abusive childhood. The Three-Eyed Raven’s predicament might not be any different from what a god’s would be if it existed. Joan Osborne’s song comes to mind in thinking that perhaps god is essentially one of us. The poor bastard has all that power and can do absolutely nothing with it.

An Excerpt From My New Book

It is useful to note that even if Plantinga or any Christian rejects the contra-argument, the first premise can be challenged. Rather than quibble with what is meant by maximal excellence, an atheist can accept the definition as it stands. The atheist can, however, question whether this is possible world W in where a being of maximal excellence exists and explore the consequences if it turns out that this isn’t that possible world. In other words, if this isn’t that specific possible world, then the argument is speaking of a possible world that is inaccessible to the believer and the believer is therefore in no better position to convince the non-believer. Put another way, if a being of maximal excellence doesn’t exist in this possible world, then it possibly exists in another world that cannot be accessed by any of the inhabitants in this world. There is therefore no utility or pragmatic value in belief. The argument would only speak of a logical possibility that is ontologically impossible in this world.

The atheist can take it a step further. What Christian theists purport to know about god stems from the Bible. The Bible, in other words, gives us information about god, his character, and his history as it relates to this world. Assuming this is possible world W, does he represent a being having maximal excellence? Is he, for instance, identical to a being who is wholly good? Any honest consideration of parts of the Bible would lead one to conclude that god is not identical to a being who is wholly good; god, in other words, isn’t wholly good. So obvious is his evil that Marcion of Sinope diverged from proto-Orthodox Christians in concluding that the Jewish God in the Old Testament is an evil deity and is in no way the father of Jesus. Yet if he’s evil, then he isn’t wholly good and if he isn’t wholly good, he fails to have maximal excellence.

Moreover, and much more damning to Plantinga’s argument, is that a being of maximal greatness has maximal excellence in all worlds. Therefore, if this being does not have maximal excellence in one of those worlds or more specifically, in this world, then it does not possess maximal greatness. Far from victorious, Plantinga’s argument would taste irreparable defeat and this, in more ways than one.

R.N. Carmona Philosophical Atheism: Counter Apologetics and Arguments For Atheism

A Missing Factor in Accounts of Truth

By R.N. Carmona

Whether Correspondence Theory, Semantic Theory, Coherence theories, Foundationalist theories, Deflationary or Pragmatic theories, every account of truth is missing a factor that philosophers recognize. In fact, attentive, everyday individuals have recognized this factor. So many have captured this factor without confining it to its rightful bottle.

That factor is unpleasantness. A good indicator of truth is the level of unease or discomfort it makes one feel. Let us suppose you believe the complete opposite of a true conclusion, to find out that you’ve been wrong all along is in itself unpleasant. This is not what I’m suggesting. What I’m suggesting is that there’s an unease or discomfort that is inherent to the truth or fact in question, that arises quite often when the truth or fact is expressed.

Take as examples the wage gap in the Western world, evolution, and mortality. If someone were to state that women get paid less than men for doing the same job, an unease or discomfort immediately arises. For he that disagrees, it’s immediate because it’s contrary to what they believe is the case. For one who accepts the fact, the unease arises from the character of the statement itself. To them it is unconscionable that women should make less than men given that they work the same position and stay with the company for a greater or equal length of time. Yet this is the case.

For one who is religious, specifically one subscribing to one of the Abrahamic faiths, the truth that they recognize is the one that coincides with their holy text, be it the Bible, the Torah, or the Qur’an. Evolution, for many of these believers, challenges one of the statements they accept: the notion of special creation. For Christians, human beings were created in God’s triune image. We are distinct from nature in a certain way. Evolution disturbs that portrait and thus, leads to discomfort. But again, this is not the unease I speak of.

The unease I speak of stems from the character of a statement like: we share a common ancestor. If so, we are not distinct from sharks and ants in the way in which we thought. We come from the same source biologically and physics tells us we come from the same source chemically. I am not expressing this to cause debate, but before the beauty of such a picture can be appreciated, discomfort often arises. It was the same unpleasantness that resulted from learning that the Earth is not at the center of the solar system and universe.

In terms of mortality, all people commonly agree. We agree to the degree that we all confirm Terror Management Theory. To some minds, religion and mysticism are ways to cope with and respond to our shared fear of dying. Death is true. Death is inevitable and will happen at one point to me and everyone reading this. Aside from that, its unpredictability is also unsettling. We don’t know when it will happen and we don’t know how; all we know is that it will. Add to that the fact that we also know it’ll happen to those we love. So we are grief stricken long before it happens and once it does, a common stage of dealing with death is denial. The truth in this case is so discomforting that we do not immediately accept it.

On these grounds and others not mentioned, I think unpleasantness should be a pivotal factor in any account of truth. I am speaking here of concrete facts and hard truths, usually philosophical and scientific in nature. I’m not speaking of mundane truths like the location of your local grocery store or the names and ages of your parents.

This factor can be challenged and I’m aware of that. Someone may raise the point that falsehoods can be unpleasant. They will mention the oft stated belief that the more absurd a thing is, the likelier it’s true. A Christian might say that the fact that we’re sinners makes people uncomfortable. The nature of human psychology does make me uncomfortable; we agree in principle, but not on the source of such shortcomings. So this unpleasantness can cut both ways as it is indicator of what may be false as well.

We agree that human psychology isn’t perfect, but they go further and tell us that we can be made clean if we repent and accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. There’s an inherent unease in the notion of any scapegoat, divine or otherwise. So while this falsehood is unpleasant if taken as truth, it’s curious that it must be believed as true in order for its unpleasantness to weigh on someone. Then there’s the fact that if it’s recognized as false, one is uneasy and has recognized that this is patently absurd and can’t be the case, especially in light of the fact that any successful system of morality accounts for personal responsibility. If I cast my burdens on Christ, I am no longer accountable for my own improvement; I have passed the buck. So this system can’t be right. A convincing falsehood does well to capture unpleasantness and feature it in its purported truth, so falsehoods confirm unpleasantness rather than challenge it.

So while such a challenge to unpleasantness is interesting and worth attention, it isn’t a decisive blow against this factor. The truth is often tough, if not, outright ugly and horrible. Hard truths and facts are cold, indifferent, and often leave one unsettled. To learn about the children who died in Iraq due to economic destabilization, caused entirely by the US meddling in their affairs, is unsettling for any American with a conscience, any human being who isn’t American, and to anyone who doesn’t have a political axe to grind. To learn that, moreover, the number of children who have died in Iraq is more than the children who died in Hiroshima is more unpleasant still. This is a cold, hard, unpleasant fact that one might deny at first glance. If you find a statement or set of statements that make you feel this way, it is likely you’ve discovered some truth or fact for yourself. As Carl Sagan once stated: “Better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy.”