Tagged: evolution

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:

The Evidence For Evolution: A Succinct Introduction For Denialists

By R.N. Carmona

In the U.S., there are a few striking examples of science denialism. Perhaps the most troubling among these instances is the rejection of evolution. Fundamentalist Christians have fought to keep evolution out of schools and have fought equally as hard to push creationism and/or Intelligent Design (ID) into the classroom. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, 42% of Americans deny evolution and accept creationism. Given this, it is imperative to be capable of explaining evolution and the evidence in support of it. Having this capacity does not ensure that denialists will come to accept it. There’s still the issue of comprehension; there is, in other words, a pervasive problem arising from two distinct and yet related facts: science denialists are not familiar with the relevant jargon and thus, cannot comprehend, for instance, an informal argument for evolution; science denialists usually have a disdain for both alternative opinions and reading and therefore, would forego reading a piece defending an alternative opinion. On that last issue, they would much rather accuse an “evolutionist” of lacking substance or not being an expert–despite the fact that said individual is citing experts and reputable sources. Given this, it is necessary to be brief and effective when presenting the evidence for evolution. This is what I’ll endeavor to do here.

There are a number of lines of evidence for evolution: biogeographic distribution, homologies, atavisms, vestigial organs and traits, and perhaps the most compelling stemming from genetics: GLO (short for gulono-y-lactone oxidase) and ERVs (endogenous retroviruses), which will be discussed at length. Since I am not an expert and I am sans pretenses to the contrary, I will cite reputable sources and experts in order to make a brief case. Since the evidence for evolution is vast and requires a grasp of multiple sciences–e.g., paleontology, anthropology, genetics, evolutionary biology, environmental science–I will narrow my focus and speak only of the evidence that is arguably most compelling. I will begin with GLO, which is a pseudogene or a non-functional gene. Jerry A. Coyne, Professor of Biology at the University of Chicago, provides one of the better evidences of evolution:

The most famous human pseudogene is GLO, so called because in other species it produces an enzyme called L-gulono-y-lactone oxidase.  This enzyme is used in making vitamin C (ascorbic acid) from the simple sugar glucose.  Vitamin C is essential for proper metabolism, and virtually all mammals have the pathway to make it — all, that is, except for primates, fruit bats, and guinea pigs.  In these species, Vitamin C is obtained directly from their food, and normal diets usually have enough.  If we don’t ingest enough vitamin C, we get sick: scurvy was common among fruit-deprived seamen of the nineteenth century.  The reason why primates and these few other mammals don’t make their own vitamin C is because they don’t need to.  Yet DNA sequencing tells us that primates still carry most of the genetic information needed to make the vitamin.

It turns out that the pathway for making vitamin C from glucose involves a sequence of four steps, each promoted by the product of a different gene.  Primates and guinea pigs still have active genes for the first three steps, but the last step, which requires the GLO enzyme, doesn’t take place:  GLO has been inactivated by a mutation.  It has become a pseudogene, called ΨGLO (Ψ is the Greek letter psi, standing for “pseudo”).  ΨGLO doesn’t work because a single nucleotide in the gene’s DNA sequence is missing.  And it’s exactly the same nucleotide missing in other primates.  This shows that the mutation that destroyed our ability to make vitamin C was present in the ancestor of all primates, and was passed on to its descendants.  The inactivation of GLO in guinea pigs happened independently, since it involves different mutations.  It’s highly likely that since fruit bats, guinea pigs, and primates got plenty of vitamin C in their diet, there was no penalty for inactivating the pathway that made it.  This could even have been beneficial since it eliminated a protein that might have been costly to produce.

A dead gene in one species that is active in its relatives is evidence for evolution, but there’s more.  When you look at ΨGLO in living primates, you find out that its sequence is more similar between close relatives than between more distant ones.  The sequence of human and chimp ΨGLO, for example, resemble each other closely, but differ more from the ΨGLO of orangutans which are more distant relatives.  What’s more, the sequence of guinea pig ΨGLO is very different from that of all primates.

Only evolution and common ancestry can explain these facts.  All mammals inherited a functional copy of the GLO gene.  About 40 million years ago, in the common ancestor of all primates, a gene that was no longer needed was inactivated by mutation.  All primates inherited that same mutation.  After GLO was silenced, other mutations continued to occur in the gene that was no longer expressed.  These mutations accumulated over time — they are harmless if they occur in genes that are already dead — and were passed on to descendant species.  Since closer relatives share a common ancestor more recently, genes that change in a time-dependent way follow the pattern of common ancestry, leading to DNA sequences more similar in close than in distant relatives.  This occurs whether or not a gene is dead.  The sequence of ΨGLO in guinea pigs is so different because it was inactivated independently, in a lineage that had already diverged from that of primates.  And ΨGLO is not unique in showing such patterns: there are many other such pseudogenes.1

The above is a compelling example demonstrating that we share a common ancestor with apes and monkeys. However, it arguably isn’t the most compelling example serving as evidence for evolution. Another example of such a gene demonstrates that we descend from egg-laying ancestors. Dennis Venema, Biologist at Trinity Western University, stated the following:

Common ancestry also predicts that, beyond human-chimpanzee common ancestry, the common primate ancestor also shares ancestry with other vertebrates in the more distant past. For example, evolutionary theory predicts that humans, like all vertebrates, are descended from egg-laying ancestors. As with all placental mammals, humans do not use egg yolk as a source of nutrition for their embryos. Other vertebrates such as fish and birds do employ egg yolk, as do a small number of extant mammals such as the platypus.

They found that these genes were present side-by-side and functional in the human genome; then they performed an examination of human sequence between them. As expected, the heavily mutated, pseudogenized sequence of the vitellogenin gene was present in the human genome at this precise location. The human genome thus contains the mutated remains of a gene devoted to egg yolk formation in egg-laying vertebrates at the precise location predicted by shared synteny derived from common ancestry.2

Another line of evidence for evolution comes from molecular biology, namely endogenous retroviruses. In humans, “endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) represent footprints of previous retroviral infection and have been termed “fossil viruses.”3 Also, ” it has been shown that the human genome contains numerous ERVs (HERVs) distributed in several multigenic families comprising a few to several hundreds elements (264548). These elements are hallmarks of ancient infections of the germ line by retroviruses which have thereafter been “endogenized” and can be used as molecular markers of evolution.”4

Someone who doesn’t believe in evolution needs to offer alternative explanations for these facts. Their probable next move is predictable: indulge their confirmation bias by consulting creationist and intelligent design websites. Those sites will certainly have “refutations” of these facts, but keep in mind, having a Ph.D. doesn’t imply that one has expertise even on matters unrelated to what one studied. In other words, a Ph.D. in law doesn’t mean one can speak with authority on biology; a Ph.D. in biochemistry doesn’t mean one can speak with authority on physics. This is a common mistake made by creationists: anyone with a Ph.D. is an authority on absolutely anything they purport to be an expert in. Donald Prothero, who was a Professor geology and paleontology for 35 years, states the following:

One of the principal symbols of authority in scholarship and science is the Ph.D. degree. But you don’t need a Ph.D. to do good science, and not all people who have Ph.D.s are good scientists either. As those of us who have gone through the ordeal know, a Ph.D. only proves that you can survive a grueling test of endurance in doing research and writing a dissertation on a very narrow topic. It doesn’t prove that you are smarter than anyone else or more qualified to render an opinion than anyone else. Because earning a Ph.D. requires enormous focus on a specific area, many people with that degree have actually lost a lot of their scholarly breadth and knowledge of other fields in the process of focusing on their theses.

In particular, it is common for people making extraordinary claims (like creationism or alien abductions or psychic powers) to wear Ph.D. (if they have one) like a badge, advertise it prominently on their book covers, and feature it in their biographies. They know that it will impress and awe the listener or reader into thinking they are smarter than anyone else or more qualified to pronounce on a topic. Nonsense! Unless the claimant has earned a Ph.D. in the subject being discussed, the degree is entirely irrelevant to the controversy. For example, leading creationists include Duane Gish, who has a doctorate in biochemistry, and the late Henry Morris, who had a Ph.D. in hydraulic engineering. However, they both earned their degrees almost 50 years ago, so they are not likely to be up-to-date on these rapidly changing fields that they have not practiced in decades. If they stuck to discussing just those topics, they might be halfway believable, but all their criticisms focus on the fossil record, geology, thermodynamics, and so on—topics in which they have absolutely no first-hand experience, published research, or training. Their entire knowledge of these fields (vividly demonstrated by reading their books) consists of skimming and misquoting popular books by real experts in those fields who did the actual work, not going out and doing the research themselves or publishing in peer-reviewed journals. They are no more qualified to comment on paleontology, geology, or thermodynamics than they are qualified to critique music theory! Yet they always flaunt their Ph.D.s to awe the masses and try to intimidate their opponents. The same goes for creationists like Jonathan Sarfati (physical chemistry), Michael Behe (biochemistry), and Jonathan Wells (cell biology)—none of those subjects gives them ANY background in fossils or paleontology, and none has published in any peer-reviewed paleontological journals, so they are complete amateurs when it comes to fossils.5

Given this, one can’t trust any purported authority. One must consult actual experts. Going back to what was mentioned earlier, the issue all creationists and ID advocates have, is that they have a misunderstanding of science. The Christian persecution complex is palpable among such people. They honestly and generally believe that their ideas are being suppressed by the scientific community, a sentiment overtly present in Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. That sentiment is, however, wrong since it has no place in science. Carl Sagan said it best: “The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge, and there’s no place for it in the endeavor of science.”6

Therefore, it is something about creationism and ID that exempt them from science. The reason they’re exempt is not simply because they’re religiously motivated views, but because they’re akin to astrology, homeopathy, and alchemy—i.e. they are pseudoscience. Jack Ritchie puts it succinctly:

Science is a self-critical enterprise. It provides resources for criticizing itself and other disciplines. We have good and obvious reasons to exclude topics such as astrology or creation science. These disciplines are not successful by their own lights. Astrologers do not accurately predict people’s future on the basis of planetary motions. Advocates of intelligent design, whatever the merits of the problems they raise for various parts of the theory of evolution, have no alternative scientific story to put in its place; they have no suggestion as to how to undertake research into the nature of the “intelligent designer.” Science is different. The sciences have made progress—at least by their own lights. Physicists know more about the subatomic realm than before. No doubt the Large Hadron Collider will enhance that process. Evolutionary biologists know more about the evolutionary process than Darwin. Good science is, furthermore, rich in unsolved problems that this deeper knowledge throws up. We don’t need any general definitions or criteria of what science is to make these points.7

The lack of success of these views is literally the tip of the iceberg. That they’re not successful isn’t what determines that they’re pseudoscience. Pick any of the demarcation theories put forth by philosophers of science and you’ll find that creationism and ID don’t meet the requirements to pass as science. Take, for example, Popper’s falsification. Can we falsify the intelligent designer who, according to many ID advocates, is the Judeo-Christian god? What matters here is not whether a naturalist or an atheist can falsify him. What matters is whether ID advocates are willing to attempt falsification of the intelligent designer. Since their view is rooted in religion, we can be reasonably certain that they’re not going to attempt to falsify the intelligent designer.

Let’s assume, however, that Popper’s falsification isn’t a good marker of demarcation. Let’s instead go with Kuhn’s paradigm shifts. Let’s assume that creationist and ID advocates try for centuries to locate this intelligent designer or creator. Will they put a new theory in place and allow their enterprise to go through a paradigm shift? In other words, will they, like early chemists who discarded Phlogiston theory and introduced theories that better describe the phenomena in question, introduce a new theory that perhaps eliminates an intelligent designer or creator altogether? Again, we can reasonably expect that no matter the evidence, no matter how stacked the odds are, creationists and ID advocates will not discard their current theory in favor of more tenable ones.

Let’s set Kuhn aside. Perhaps his demarcation marker is wrong. Let’s instead look at creationism and ID from the point of view of Lakatos’ research programmes. Lakatos posited that within normal science there are research programmes. The aim of science isn’t hypotheses in isolation or trial and error or conjectures followed by refutations. According to Lakatos, the reason Copernicanism succeeded where Ptolemy’s astronomy failed is because Ptolemy’s astronomy lagged behind as a research programme. The facts, especially after Galileo, supported heliocentrism rather than Ptolemy’s geocentrism, which featured epicycles. Are creationism or ID viable research programmes? No because their so called scientists are not doing normal science. Furthermore, they have no heuristic that serves as a problem-solving mechanism. Therefore, on Lakatos’ view, creationism and ID don’t qualify as science.

With this brief survey of demarcation theories in the philosophy of science, one can see that creationism and ID don’t qualify as science under any of these theories. That’s a problem. It follows that creationism and ID are not suppressed. Rather, it’s that they don’t qualify as scientific theories. Their proponents don’t participate in normal science. They have no research programme in place. They have no interest in falsifying their theory. ID and creationism do not belong in the science classroom and definitely not in a scientific discussion.

Given the case above, creationism and ID should be rejected. They are pseudoscientific theories. Even if they could be falsified, proponents of ID or creationism have no interest in falsifying them. This is due to the fact that advocates of these theories are not practicing normal science. As we can gather from what Prothero said, creationist and ID advocates mislead people with Ph.D.s in normal sciences. However, some of these fields progress rapidly and they are thus required to stay up to date on the changes in their field. This is usually not the case given that some of these people received their Ph.D.s literal decades ago. Therefore, their authority is dubious and upon closer examination, entirely lacking. These purported experts cannot be trusted. Yet this isn’t the reason evolution should be accepted. The reasons outlined above are great starting points. The experts cited are also trustworthy scholars who have done far more work in their respective fields than I was able to showcase here. My hope is that readers who are currently evolution denialists make the choice of doing honest research and coming away with a level of understanding they currently lack.

Works Cited

1 Coyne, Jerry A. Why Evolution Is True. New York: Viking, 2009. 67-69. Print.

2 Dennis Veneme as quoted in Farrell, John. “The Fossils in Our Genes”Forbes. 21 Oct 2011. Web. 22 Dec 2014.

3 Nelson PN, Carnegie PR, Martin J, et al. Demystified. Human endogenous retroviruses. Mol Pathol. 2003; 56:11–8.

4 Benit L., Dessen P., Heidmann T. Identification, phylogeny, and evolution of retroviral elements based on their envelope genes. J. Virol. 2001; 75:11709–11719. doi: 10.1128/JVI.75.23.11709-11719.2001.

5 Prothero, Donald R., and Carl Dennis Buell. Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. 16. Print. 

6 Sagan, Carl. Cosmos, Ep 4: Heaven and Hell. 1980. Web. 22 Dec 2014.

7 Ritchie, Jack. Understanding Naturalism. Stocksfield, England: Acumen, 2008. 108. Print.