Abortion and the Architecture of Reality

By Sean Carroll | June 4, 2009 7:55 am

George Tiller, a doctor and abortion provider in Kansas, was shot and killed outside his church on Sunday. The large majority of people on either side of the abortion debate are understandably horrified by an event like this. But it sets up a rhetorical dilemma for anyone who takes seriously the claim that abortion is murder. If George Tiller really was a “baby killer” comparable to Hitler and Stalin, it’s difficult to express unmitigated sadness at his murder. So we get Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, admitting regret — but only that Tiller was a mass murderer who “did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God.”

On those rare occasions when they attempt to actually talk to each other, people on opposite sides of the abortion debate usually end up talking past each other. Supporters of abortion rights speak in the language of the autonomy of the mother, and her right to control her own body: “If you don’t like abortion, don’t have one.” Opponents of abortion speak in terms of the personhood of the fetus. (Yes, Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! — “A person’s a person, no matter how small” — is used to teach this point to Catholic children, over Theodor Geisel’s objections.) Opposition to abortion rights can also be a manifestation of the desire to control women’s sexuality, but let’s concentrate on those whose opposition is grounded in a sincere moral belief that abortion is murder.

If someone believes that abortion really is murder, talk of the reproductive freedom of the mother isn’t going to carry much weight — nobody has the right to murder another person. Supporters of abortion rights don’t say “No, this is one case where murder is completely justified.” Rather, they say “No, the fetus is not a person, so abortion is not murder.” The crucial question (I know, this is not exactly an astonishing new insight) is whether a fetus is really a person.

I have nothing original to add to the debate over when “personhood” begins. But there is something to say about how we decide questions like that. And it takes us directly back to the previous discussion about marriage and fundamental physics. The upshot of which is: how you think about the universe, how you conceptualize the natural world around us, obviously is going to have an enormous impact on how you decide questions like “When does personhood begin?”

In a pre-scientific world, life was — quite understandably — thought of as something intrinsically different from non-life. This view could be taken to different extremes; Plato gave voice to one popular tradition, by claiming that the human soul was a distinct, incorporeal entity that actually occupied a human body. These days we know a lot more than they did back then. Science has taught us that living beings and non-living objects are the same kind of things, deep down; we’re all made of the same chemical elements, and all of our constituents obey the same laws of Nature. Life is complicated, and rich, and fascinating, and not very well understood — but it doesn’t obey separate rules apart from those of the non-living world. Living organisms are just very complicated chemical reactions, not vessels that rely on supernatural essences or mystical élan vital to keep them chugging along. Except “just” is a terribly misleading adverb in this context — living organisms are truly amazing very complicated chemical reactions. Knowing that we are made of the same stuff and obey the same rules as the rest of the universe doesn’t diminish the value or meaning of human life in any way.

There is a temptation in some quarters to forget, or at least ignore, the improved understanding of the world that science has given us when it comes to address moral and ethical questions. Part of that is a healthy impulse — science doesn’t actually tell us how to distinguish right from wrong, nor could it possibly. Science deals with how the world works, not how it should work, and despite centuries of trying it remains impossible to derive “ought” from “is.”

But at the same time, it would be crazy not to take our scientific understanding of the world into consideration when we reflect upon moral questions. If you think of a fetus as part of an ongoing complicated chemical reaction, it should come as no surprise that you might reach very different conclusions from someone who thinks that God breathes the spirit of life into a fertilized ovum at the moment of conception.

That’s why it’s equally crazy to believe that science and religion are two distinct, non-overlapping magisteria that simply never address the same questions. That bizarre perspective was advanced by Stephen Jay Gould in Rocks of Ages, but if you read the book carefully you find that his definition of “religion” is simply “moral philosophy.” Which is not what the word means, or how people use it, or how actual religious people think of their beliefs. Religion makes claims about the real world, and some of those claims — not all — can be very straightforwardly judged by the criteria of science. We do not need to invoke spirits being breathed into fertilized eggs in order to understand life, for example. And the fact that science has taught us so much about the workings of the world has enormous consequences for how we should think about moral and ethical questions, even if it can’t answer such questions all by itself.

For example, science is powerless to tell us when “personhood” begins — but it tell us something very crucial about how to go about answering that question. In particular, it tells us that there is no magical moment at which an incorporeal soul takes up residence in a body. Indeed, the concept of a “person” is not to be found anywhere in the natural world; it’s a category that is convenient to appeal to as we try to make sense of the world. But there is not, as far as science is concerned, any right or wrong answer to the question of when the life of a person begins — from Nature’s point of view, it’s just one chemical reaction after another.

At this point, a lot of impatient people declare that morality and ethics are simply impossible in such a world, and storm out in frustration. But this is the world in which we actually live, so storming out is not a productive response. Morality and ethics are possible, but they’re not to be found in Natural Law — they are the creation of human beings, reasoning together on the basis of their shared feelings and experiences. Human beings are not blank slates, nor are they immutable tablets; we are born into the world with certain wants and desires and natural reactions to events, and those feelings can adapt and change over time in response to learning and reasoning. So we get together, communicate, understand that not everyone necessarily agrees on how the social world should be organized, and try to negotiate some sort of mutual compromise. (Or, alternatively, try to impose our will by force. But I like the mutual compromise approach better.) That’s how the world actually works.

“The moment when a fetus begins to accrue the rights we bestow on post-birth persons” is something that we, as a society, have to decide; the answer is not to be found in revelation, or in faith, or in philosophical contemplation of the nature of the soul, or for that matter in the natural world. This starting point is not necessarily prejudicial to what the final answer may be; I can certainly imagine a group of people coming together and agreeing that newly-conceived fetuses should be granted all the rights of any person. I would argue against them, on the basis that the interests of an autonomous and fully conscious mother should weigh much more heavily than those of the proto-person they carry. But I can’t say that they are unambiguously wrong in the same way that an erroneous claim about logic or even the empirical world can be said to be “wrong.”

If the social and political arrangement of a group puts stress on the autonomy of its individual responsible members (which ours does, and I like it that way), deciding what the criteria are for being judged an “individual responsible member” is of primary importance. Who gets to vote? Who gets to drive a car? Who decides when to unplug the respirator? Who is of “sound mind”? Who is a person? These are all hard questions with no cut-and-dried answers. But we can be fooled into thinking that some of the answers are pretty straightforward, if we believe in outdated notions of spirits being breathed into us by God.

There are many reasons why it’s incoherent to think of science and religion as simply separate and non-overlapping. They are different, but certainly overlapping. The greatest intellectual accomplishment of the last millennium is the naturalistic worldview: everything is constructed of the same basic building blocks, obeying the same rules, without any recourse to the supernatural. Appreciating that view doesn’t tell us how we should behave, but failing to appreciate it can very easily lead people to behave badly.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, Philosophy
  • mk

    Such a well reasoned piece. I’m going to print it out and refer to it each time, from now on, I enter into relevant discussions.

    Many thanks for articulating what I’ve been feeling.

  • Not an American

    What a load of irrelevant twaddle.

    > The crucial question (I know, this is not exactly an astonishing new insight) is whether a fetus is really a person.

    Read the policy-defining decisions of the Supreme Court of your country some time when you’re not too busy with political blogging on your physics blog. E.g., Roe v. Wade.

  • http://capacioushandbag.blogspot.com MissPrism

    Supporters of abortion rights don’t say “No, this is one case where murder is completely justified.”

    However, I’ve seen many, and they have a point, say “This is one case, out of many, where one person is not obliged to make any sacrifice to save the life of another.” If you are the only perfect match for a patient with leukaemia , you still cannot be forced to donate bone marrow. If you hit someone with your car and they need a pint of blood, no-one has the right to take it from you. Even if you accidentally push your friend off a cliff and he hangs by his fingers from a ledge, you are not legally obliged to take even a slight risk to your life or health to save him.

    So it doesn’t just depend on whether you see foetuses as human. It also depends whether you see pregnancy as hard work done by a human being, or the storage of a magic sperm in a magic cupboard.

  • Ian

    Erm … not sure I follow this article at all. It’s not Catholic children who are pointed toward Horton hears a Who. Yes, Natural Law does reveal morality and ethics. No, the greatest intellectual accomplishment of the last millennium was not the naturalistic worldview.

    Can I humbly suggest you look at the Theology of the Body for more on this.

  • Tara

    I would agree with mk that your article is well reasoned. However, I disagree with the basic premises you hold…which is why I come down on the opposite side of the fence.

    The biggest disagreement I have would be with that very naturalistic worldview that you hold up as the greatest intellectual accomplishment of the last millennium. I would argue that interactionalist dualism is wins over naturalism any day…and I’m far from the only person in the world to think so. Your conclusions on personhood are quite logical from the naturalistic viewpoint, but I think that this first and most basic premise is false. I think there’s more to the world than atoms and molecules and chemical reactions. And I don’t think that you can really conclude on the abortion debate until you’re able to demonstrate that this premise is true…your conclusions follow strongly from it. You say “But this is the world in which we actually live…” But you have yet to prove that this is, in fact, the world in which we actually live. I submit that it is not.

    So as well reasoned as your piece is, since I don’t actually hold to the naturalistic viewpoint that you assume to be true throughout your article, I’m not convinced of your ideas on the personhood of “proto-humans” either.

    My two cents.

  • http://brokensymmetry.typepad.com Michael F. Martin

    Thank you for a careful and rather nuanced analysis. I was bracing myself for the usual reductionist dismissiveness that many physicists bring to such questions. A few comments on particulars:

    But we can be fooled into thinking that some of the answers are pretty straightforward, if we believe in outdated notions of spirits being breathed into us by God.

    We might be fooled, equally, by assuming that because something cannot be measured today, that it might not someday be measured. We might even be fooled in thinking that something does not exist because it cannot be measured. (Does a magnetic monopole exist?)

    They are different, but certainly overlapping.

    Agreed. But it’s amazing how many people assume that in the overlapping areas, science must always take priority. In doing science, a person must commit herself to a Humean skepticism about what exists. The same person need not be so committed in forming and acting on religious beliefs. There is a set of beliefs that is consistent with both commitments and logically coherent. I believe and live in accordance with one such set of beliefs. It really annoys me when either group pretends that it gets a free trump whenever there is overlap. Each group needs to make its case on the basis of its own methodolgical commitments, not by mockery of the other group’s methodological commitments.

    If the social and political arrangement of a group puts stress on the autonomy of its individual responsible members (which ours does, and I like it that way)

    How much have you looked into the alternative values that compete with autonomy. You should see psychologist Haidt’s work on this topic:

    http://waywords.wordpress.com/2008/08/03/editorial-note/

  • http://tete-tete-tete.com/ smijer

    In particular, it tells us that there is no magical moment at which an incorporeal soul takes up residence in a body.

    does it? really? I’d like to see that experiment!

  • Otis

    The greatest intellectual achievement in the history of the world is stated in the US Declaration of Independence:
    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. “
    That idea has enormously benefited mankind like no other, and it derives directly from a theistic worldview.

    That idea lead to the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution. So, concerning abortion, at what point in the development of a human being does the US Constitution protect his/her life?

    During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama was asked that question. Despite teaching university courses on constitutional law, he answered, to his shame, that he did not know. The answer to that question must be decided.

    I will say that those who claim (such as Hilliary Clinton) that access to abortion is a constitutional right are part of the problem and not part of the solution.

  • George Musser

    Nicely put. I would just add that the lesson of science holds whatever your views on religion may be. Specifically, the transition from non-human to human is a progression rather than a single sharp moment.

    As for “non-overlapping magisteria”, you set up a straw man when you say Gould held that science and religion “simply never address the same questions.” It depends on the questions. A broad question will of course involve overlap, but Gould’s claim is that a narrower question can fall into one domain or the other.

    George

  • thales

    I’ve been pondering this issue for some time recently and haven’t come to a conclusion about *when* abortion is acceptable (this from a naturalistic point of view). I think it’s clear that a zygote is not a person. I think it’s equally clear that a newborn is a person.

    From what I’ve read, Dr. Tiller specialized in late-term abortions. Whenever you deem the transition to personhood to be complete, it seems obvious that it’s over the 50% mark in the last month or two. One can argue about sentience, consciousness, etc, but what really bothers me is that the late-term fetus feels pain, is capable of thought, and has desires. It’s probably aware to a certain degree too.

    So I have mixed feelings about Dr. Tiller’s death. Yes, vigilantism is terrible. Yes, if abortion is wrong then the law is to blame, not the person operating within the law. On the other hand, how much pain will now be prevented? It seems to me quite a lot. Is that worth it? I don’t know. I haven’t yet read or heard any strong arguments for why it wouldn’t be.

  • Brian M

    A thoughtful and well reasoned article. Thanks. I would hasten to state, however, that I have not seen a single mainstream prolife group that did not denounce this terrible act of violence. Mr Terry is, evidently, a far-right kook. And we need to separate the extremes from either end of the discussion if we are to have a meaningful dialogue. As to when a “pre-born” baby becomes human – I would ask pro-choicers to hypothetically step backward in time. Let’s say, one second at a time. Is it ok to kill an infant? No. Is it ok to kill an unborn child one second before birth? Hopefully, no. Walk backward in time and tell me at what point it is ok to kill that fetus? Where is the dividing line after which it is ok to take a human life? Who takes the responsibility of deciding when the life is viable and when it is not? To me, in the light of those arguments, I think it is best to err on the side of defending an innocent life. You may say it is ridiculous to assign human rights to an embryo, and perhaps it is. But at what point would YOU take the responsibilty to say — OK, it’s alright to kill now.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Not an American wrote:

    Read the policy-defining decisions of the Supreme Court of your country some time when you’re not too busy with political blogging on your physics blog. E.g., Roe v. Wade

    The Supreme Court rulings are also the result of chemical reactions. An intitial state of atoms containing information about the legal dispute “Roe v. Wade” evolved via the Schrödinger equation into some final state containing a “Supreme Court Ruling”.

  • http://mychemicaljourney.blogspot.com The Chemist

    Well wow, I was really expecting a little more praise for this than it got, and all I can assume is that some people read through it and projected their own insecurities and ideologies onto what they thought Sean was saying.

    It’s a good assessment of how natural law and man’s law (in which “God’s law” must be included) might interact. We’re not as well equipped to make ethical decisions as we think we are. Numerous psychological studies have shown that we will allow a group of people to come to harm if given the alternative of killing one person ourselves, that we can be commanded to harm by an authority figure, that we can and always will abuse authority entrusted to us, and that we are incapable of completely rational certainty since subconscious thought handles so much of the process.

    Even if you believe that a God or gods exist and the he/they have set laws in stone, the natural evaluation of man’s own nature dictates that we are incapable of ever interpreting these laws consistently no matter how black and white we try to characterize them because human beings don’t see ethical issues in black and white. We see them based on the paradigm of our individual experience and upbringing.

  • http://smadin.wordpress.com/ smadin

    The crucial question (I know, this is not exactly an astonishing new insight) is whether a fetus is really a person.

    I actually disagree with this, mainly for Judith Jarvis Thomson’s reasons. Even if we consider an embryo a full person, with full human rights, those rights never include using another person’s body against the latter’s will, just as I have the right not to donate a kidney even if, because I don’t, someone else will die.

  • mk

    @Brian M…

    I think Sean covers this properly:

    So we get together, communicate, understand that not everyone necessarily agrees on how the social world should be organized, and try to negotiate some sort of mutual compromise. (Or, alternatively, try to impose our will by force. But I like the mutual compromise approach better.) That’s how the world actually works.

    So to turn the question back at you… when is it OK to perform an abortion. Never? Rarely? If rarely, when and under what circumstances?

  • http://capacioushandbag.blogspot.com MissPrism

    thales, this is a bit of a derail, but: Late term abortions are done for medical reasons. Dr Tiller saved the lives of women who could not safely bear children (like cancer patients and eleven-year-old rape victims), and he performed late term abortions when the foetus was already dead or had conditions that would have killed it soon after birth (eg harlequin fetus, anencephaly, or cyclopia, and don’t google those if you’re easily upset).

    If late-term abortions become unavailable due to Tiller’s assassination, a mother who learns at six months that her WANTED pregnancy is doomed will have to wait three more months, go through labour and then watch her baby die, possibly in severe pain. In such cases late term abortion can be the safer, less traumatic and more merciful choice; it should be legal and accessible.

  • Brian M

    Smadin, when you say “those rights never include using another person’s body against the latter’s will” can we assume that you are against abortion except in cases of rape? Otherwise, the latter had plenty of will. mk – when it is ok to perform abortion? Same answer, my opinion only, in cases of rape (and some disagree on that point because they feel that because a great wrong was committed against someone doesn’t mean we should kill the innocent result of that wrong) and also when the life of the mother is in danger. At those times I personally feel that the difficult and painful decision must lay with (in the case of rape) sparing the victim from more pain and (in the case of a life-threatening condition) sparing the mother’s life. I do feel the mother is “more aware” then the unborn child so in those, and only those, rare circumstances I think an abortion is the only unfortunate recourse.

  • Brian M

    Miss Prism, you’re a bit off on Tiller’s criteria. Facts are that he performed late term abortions on anyone who could afford it and he made millions doing it. If the mother’s life is in danger, or the child is already demonstrably dead (then obviously no pro-lifer would consider that an abortion) that’s a different thing and should be allowed.

  • :)

    @smadin
    @MissPrism

    “Even if you accidentally push your friend off a cliff and he hangs by his fingers from a ledge, you are not legally obliged to take even a slight risk to your life or health to save him.”

    “Even if we consider an embryo a full person, with full human rights, those rights never include using another person’s body against the latter’s will, just as I have the right not to donate a kidney even if, because I don’t, someone else will die.”

    These statements are simply not legally valid. It is true in general that a person has no duty to act or come to the aid of a third party, but there are “special circumstances” in where a duty is owed. Some examples are in a Parent/Child relationship, where if the Child is in danger the Parent does have a legal duty to act/protect the Child. Additionally, if one person creates a situation that puts another person in harm, the first person may have a limited legal duty to act/aid the person being harmed. Therefore, if you push someone off a ledge and they are dangling, you probably have a duty to aid them as long as it doesn’t put you in danger.

    So, in the context of abortion, you could say if the fetus is determined to be a human being, that there is a Parent/Child relationship. Additionally, you could argue that the mother created the situation(becoming pregnant), so she owes a duty to the child to keep it safe. ***These situations would probably only be valid as long as there is no danger of harm to the mother.

    Just my $.02

  • http://mychemicaljourney.blogspot.com The Chemist

    I actually disagree with this, mainly for Judith Jarvis Thomson’s reasons. Even if we consider an embryo a full person, with full human rights, those rights never include using another person’s body against the latter’s will, just as I have the right not to donate a kidney even if, because I don’t, someone else will die.

    HUGE hole in the logic there. True, I’m not responsible for a random person’s kidney failing. However, I am responsible for my genitals (if we can phrase it that way). If you poisoned my kidneys and you’re a match then yes, I would actually expect you to give me one as restitution. If people have sex and a child results, and assuming the fetus is indeed a “person” in that ineffable sense of the word, then the people (since it always takes two, though many Christians and Muslims would disagree) are responsible for that life since they undertook the unnecessary risk that would endanger it in the first place. Barring rape, no one is being forced to have unprotected sex and people are generally cognizant that heterosexual, protected, penetrative sex always carries some risk of pregnancy. Unlike food, sex is not a basic human need.

    Now rape is another issue, and ideally we could make the rapist take the baby to term (assuming again that a fetus is indeed a person at conception). However, this is more of a dangler’s dilemma, I wake up after an accident and find someone is dangling from me by a rope that somehow entangled us both over a cliff’s edge. This person is attached to me and dangling over a cliff. I’m healthy, heavy, and strong enough to support the person (but not so much as to be completely assured of my own safety) as they take the time they need to come up the cliff face. Should I cut the rope because the entanglement does present me with uncertain danger, or would prudence dictate that I wait until such a danger becomes more certain?

  • http://capacioushandbag.blogspot.com MissPrism

    Under Kansas state law, abortions later in pregnancy are legal only if two independent physicians agree that the mother could suffer irreparable harm by giving birth. Despite the best efforts of “pro-life” organisations, Tiller was not found to have broken this law. If you have evidence to the contrary, Brian, a lot of people would really like to see it.

  • http://smadin.wordpress.com/ smadin

    Smadin, when you say “those rights never include using another person’s body against the latter’s will” can we assume that you are against abortion except in cases of rape?

    You could assume that, Brian, but you’d be utterly wrong. Consenting to have sex is absolutely not the same as consenting to become pregnant.
    :) , are you claiming that a parent can be legally compelled to donate an organ to safe his or her child’s life?

    The Chemist, it’s not a question of whether you “would expect” me to give you a kidney. The plain fact is that neither you nor anyone else has any legal or moral right to compel me to.

  • Scott

    MissPrism took the words out of my mouth (fingers?) at post #16. The biggest problem with the rhetoric of the anti-abortionists is that it is misleading. Not unlike the current conservative rhetoric (pick almost any topic) spewed by the fox news pundits, it is intentionally portraying the opposing side as being purposely immorral (eg baby killer rather than mother saver) without ever telling the whole story.

    Those people calling anyone else immorral is aclear case of a pot and kettle.

  • Brian M

    smadin, the person who has sex and somehow thinks they are absolved of the possibility of getting pregnant is an idiot. MissPrism, estimates are that Tiller performed 60,000 abortions in his career. You are free to believe all of those were legitimate if it makes you sleep better.

  • :)

    smadin

    No a parent would not have a duty to donate a kidney. Imposed duties generally need to be reasonable, and they are usually restricted to instances where the person under the duty will not be put in danger.

  • http://mychemicaljourney.blogspot.com The Chemist

    @ Smadin, that’s exactly it! You should be compelled to give me a kidney if you poisoned or destroyed mine, even accidentally, if you were somehow specifically engaged in an act that ran that specific risk. Legality is irrelevant by the way, you can’t link to a philosophical essay and then talk about standing law, they’re two different things. Law may be derived from philosophy, but is not required to be philosophically consistent or valid.

  • Brian M

    Scott, I don’t know which Fox Pundits you listen to – as opposed to the utterly fair pundits on other channels who “feel a chill” up their leg when Obama speaks. I, for one, have only heard Tiller referred to as “late-term abortion doctor” which he most certainly was. And no legitemate pro-lifer questions abortions when the mother’s life is genuinely in danger. You are doing exactly what you accuse the pro-life lobby of doing.

  • http://capacioushandbag.blogspot.com MissPrism

    There are 6 million pregnancies a year in the US, so if 1 in 1000 of them go horribly wrong, and Tiller’s one of only two doctors nationwide who performs the procedure, and he’s been working for over twenty years… well, that would indeed be 60,000, although I do wonder where you got the estimate from.

  • http://smadin.wordpress.com/ smadin

    You should be compelled to give me a kidney if you poisoned or destroyed mine, even accidentally, if you were somehow specifically engaged in an act that ran that specific risk.

    In that case, I’m very glad that you are not in charge of making the law — that point of view strikes me as absolutely horrific.

  • joseph

    thanks for your interesting and thoughtful piece. waaay too many knees have been jeked. :(

  • Sili

    MissPrism has already said it better than I.

    If a person proper was tying down a woman. Preventing her from doing her job. Filling her with chemicals. Endagering her health. Sucking out her nutrients. Against her will. Would we not be obliged to release her from that serfdom?

    So if the foetus is a person, homicide is justified in this case, for there is no other way of saving the mother from her tyrant.

  • :)

    Sili.

    The woman created the tyrant.

  • http://tete-tete-tete.com/ smijer

    thanks for your interesting and thoughtful piece. waaay too many knees have been jeked.

    And jerked, too.

    To you guys obsessed with rehashing the JJ Thompson analogy debate, both sides are tidily summarized in a chart at wikipedia… you can save some keystrokes by referral to it.

  • http://mychemicaljourney.blogspot.com The Chemist

    @smadin,

    In that case, I’m very glad that you are not in charge of making the law — that point of view strikes me as absolutely horrific.

    I could be wrong, but I sense you’re taking an entirely academic and hypothetical discussion about ethics far too personally.

    However restitution is already a fairly well established practice in law (again, not that we’re talking about law) and you have to remember, you (in the example) willfully endangered my kidneys in the first place.

    What is wrong with you, you monster! ;-)

  • Neal J. King

    Sean,

    I’m trying to understand how your posting in any way makes the case that science and religion are not separate & non-overlapping. I’m not getting it.

    Naturalistic view:
    a) There cannot be a person prior to conception, because there is no well-established individual before that point: no defined genetic inheritance.
    b) The development following conception is essentially continuous through to the actual birth.
    c) An attempt to define personhood at the point of extra-utero viability is doomed, because the point of viability is a function of technology: It is a moving target.
    d) Logically, personhood must be established by societal consensus at any event between points a) and b).

    Religious view(s):
    a) There are a range of religious views (as there are a range of religions); but I think most views would not assert personhood prior to conception. (Indeed, otherwise, I’m not sure what would be meant by the term “conception”, in the absence of a detailed biological model of reproduction.)
    b) Likewise, I think most religions would definitely assert personhood by the point of birth.
    d) So there is still the same range of variability on time of attainment of the personhood of the being: sometime between conception and birth.

    You probably would claim that the naturalistic view leaves the issue of personhood as an open issue, bounded by a 9-month period; whereas the religious views (or at least some religious views) would pin that down to the very beginning. OK: But even under a religious view, the real issue is not whether the being is a person but how the rights of that person may conflict with the rights of the mother. Even if the status of that being is conceded to be established, that does not automatically imply that this being’s rights are 100% of those that would be possessed by a fully independent free-standing being.

    So I think Sean’s attempt to entail the question of the religious vs. scientific worldviews into the abortion issue is a red herring, and misses the point: From either perspective, it boils down to an issue of social consensus on rights. In this case, the assertion of a naturalistic worldview in place of a religious one adds precisely nothing to the discussion.

    I would point out that, in the case of the Terry-Schiavo situation, this would not be the case: A purely religious point of view, uninformed by knowledge of neurology, could lead someone to incline towards preservation of the existing life, perhaps in the hope of ultimate cure; whereas a scientific/medical point of view would persuade one that there would be essentially no hope for cure and only a very tiny basis for consciousness at all.

  • Sparkling Medusa

    Thanks for this blog…it was refreshing to read.

    This debate will never be resolved. And it’s terribly tragic that one man had to be murdered.

    Most of you commenters are splitting hairs here, but it’s sure fun to follow.

  • http://tete-tete-tete.com/ smijer

    @35 Neal J King

    I agree that the post doesn’t falsify NOMA… My objection is that Naturalistic v. Religious world-views are each philosophical viewpoints and people who hold either may employ the tool of scientific investigation. There is no such thing as a “scientific worldview” any more than there is a “bus-driving world view”. Science is an analytical tool – not a world view.

  • lifeethics

    Pretty good conversation. Amazing how long it took to get to the dueling media.

    However, I must disagree with the idea that belief in God is “outdated,” and that science can inform us in any way about such a belief. The actions resulting from the belief, yes, but not the belief.

    I most certainly agree that the Declaration of Independence is the basis for our US law and would commend it to anyone as a basis for a worldview or a government.

  • ree ree

    smadin said:

    “Even if we consider an embryo a full person, with full human rights, those rights never include using another person’s body against the latter’s will, just as I have the right not to donate a kidney even if, because I don’t, someone else will die.”

    What about after a baby is born. A newborn constantly needs his/her mother/father for care. The parents get very little sleep, the mother breast feeds, one parent has to take time off work, etc. The physical and mental demands are heavy. So what if a parent says “Enough of this. I hate this, I don’t want to do this anymore.” and kills his/her baby because the baby is using the parent’s body/time/mental energy against the parent’s will. If the parent does that, it’s murder. So I don’t think your argument is the relevant thing.

    I guess the issue is what is law supposed to do? We clearly do not legislate morality. For example, we don’t lock a guy in jail for cheating on his wife with lots of other women. But if you think about it, the fetus is obviously a human being. Depending on its stage of development, it has a brain, a heart, arms, and legs. But at conception, it is a single cell but has its own DNA and its own potential for development towards a fully grown person. Since a zygote has human DNA and develops into a baby, why would it not be a new human life? A skin cell won’t develop into a baby, but a zygote does.

    So, for me, the issue isn’t when human life begins, because it’s obvious. Obviously a fetus is a human being, just look at ultrasound pictures. The issue is: does a woman have the right to terminate her pregnancy even though that means the human life inside her dies? Do I want to see human life (whether it’s a fetus, or a newborn) die? No. Do I want the back alley abortions, putting a woman’s life and reproductive health at risk? No. I do think abortion is wrong, but we don’t legislate morality. We legislate for the common good of the citizens of the country, and that depends on who you choose to call a citizen.

  • Neal J. King

    smijer:

    There are people who base their worldview primarily on the basis of current scientific models, and there are people who base it on their religious beliefs. That being the case, there can be conflicts between them. In some cases, the conflict is significant: I refer again to the Terry-Schiavo example. But with regard to the issue of abortion, I think it’s a red herring.

    ree ree:

    I agree with you that the issue is the legality of abortion, which is motivated by the morality of the situation. But you said: “We clearly do not legislate morality. For example, we don’t lock a guy in jail for cheating on his wife with lots of other women.”

    Who do you mean by “we”, kemosabe? If a guy gets caught carrying on like that in a land governed by sharia law, he can get stoned. (And I don’t mean by marijuana.)

    Also, the distinction between a citizen and a non-citizen is not really the issue: Citizenship is also a legal construct, which has different complications in different countries. Even in the US, the citizenship of an unborn child is indeterminate, as it cannot be defined until the day of birth. The real issue is personhood and the way that society wants to deal with conflicting interests of the persons involved.

  • flightoffuries

    Good article, although I would agree with Martin that just because science cannot measure a soul does not mean there is one. Science does explain how the world works, but it doesn’t explain why the world is the way it is. You either accept that things are the way they are because that is how they are, or you can come up with alternative explanations eg there is a God who created everything. Of course, then you could ask the same why question about God, but that’s the point where most Christians seem to do what scientists do and play the ‘we just accept it.’ So really science and religion are just accepting the same reality but at different levels, which means the abortion debate becomes a topic where there can be little reconciliation and no concrete answers. Just like the free speech issue ( http://www.newsy.com/videos/free_speech_or_sparking_violence ) you end up with pundits on both sides spouting opinions as facts and trying to lay the blame on other people.

  • http://tete-tete-tete.com/ smijer

    Neal J King: I think there are several issues at play with abortion. I honestly don’t want to get into all of them. Science does answer some questions about the development of the fetus in ways that may be philosophically and ethically important. It doesn’t, however, exclude the possibility of a supernaturalistic viewpoint of personhood – that is a purely philosophical question…

    I am one of those who bases my world view (in terms of “architecture of reality”) primarily on current scientific models, using an empiricist epistemology. I just worry when the waters between a naturalistic world-view and the practice of science get muddied.

    One way they get muddied is when people with my world-view try to make it incumbent on others by saying that only a world-view that is completely naturalistic is reconcilable with the practice of science. That diminishes competing world-views (incorrectly) by suggesting they are empirically wrong (when one cannot evaluate the necessary philosophical propositions empirically), and it simultaneously undermines the empirical nature of science by imputing to it non-empirical metaphysical viewpoints. This leaves “science” open to the charge of “scientism”.

  • Matt

    To smadin (#14): If however, you were the reason why the person needed a kidney (stabbed them perhaps) and then you don’t give them one and they die, you would be charged with murder. A pregnant mother (usually) had a choice of getting pregnant (a simplistic view) and therefore if they get pregnant and then don’t want to provide their body for the baby and the baby then dies, seems like murder to me.

  • Rules For

    ” It doesn’t, however, exclude the possibility of a supernaturalistic viewpoint of personhood – that is a purely philosophical question…”

    It sounds more like an empirical question about reality; and surely philosophy has matured somewhat beyond discussions regarding the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin?

  • Doug

    Neal J. King-

    You make the wrong conclusion. The religious worldview takes some portion of the issue, whether where life begins or the rights that such personhood entails, to be beyond debate. Whenever we weigh other considerations, we are taking the position that we must accrue evidence of some sort to support our argument – the means of reaching social consensus. It is not the naturalistic, but the religious worldview that adds nothing to the discussion by placing certain areas outside the bounds of discussion, by positing unverifiable entities and notions – by trying to circumvent social consensus by assertion of authority. The article’s point is that it is not (or should not be) that easy to make moral decisions.

    Great article Sean!

  • ree ree

    I agree with Matt. If you have consensual sex with someone, you take the risk of getting pregnant. If you don’t want to have a baby, use protection or don’t have sex. If you get pregnant, too late. If you don’t want the baby, give it up for adoption. No fetus/baby (i.e. a human being) needs to die. There’s two bodies, not one, during pregnancy. There’s the mother’s body, and the baby’s body. The way to have a say over what happens to your body is to choose whether or not to have sex and whether or not you use protection. Of course, rape is the exception. Nothing consensual about that, and a guy who is raping a woman won’t take the time to put a condom on. What does he care?

    Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world, where people make responsible decisions and where rape is nonexistent. So, the state has to ask themselves if they are willing to provide abortion services conducted by trained doctors, or make abortion illegal, given the fact that women WILL seek abortions no matter what, thus posing a significant threat to the lives and health of women seeking “back alley” abortions because it’s illegal.

    If carrying the baby to term poses a significant risk to your life and/or health, then have an abortion.

  • http://tete-tete-tete.com/ smijer

    It sounds more like an empirical question about reality; and surely philosophy has matured somewhat beyond discussions regarding the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin?

    Empirical questions can be answered by observation and experiment. What do you observe in order to test the notion that a supernatural soul exists within a person?

    Mathematics has matured beyond simple arithmetic, but 2+2 still belongs to that class of reasoning and no other.

  • boreds

    I agree with the tone and (most of) conclusions of the post. It’s nice to see it all laid out there.

    I absolutely agree that when personhood begins is something that we as a society have to decide—there’s no obvious answer.

    But what I’m not sure of is whether an opinion motivated by a religious belief is somehow less valid than any other, and I feel that that’s part of what you were saying. If I weigh the considerations carefully and come up with personhood beginning 20 weeks into pregnancy, and someone else figures that personhood begins at conception, who am I to say that he’s wrong and I’m right?

    I also think that the desire to let personhood begin at conception has a strong appeal going beyond religious consideration. Even if we were all to agree that there is no actual event which breathes personhood into an individual, there is something aesthetically unpleasant about choosing an arbitrary number of weeks into a pregnancy. The only two obviously `special’ points in a pregnancy are conception and birth. I think it is hard for people to countenance a substantial difference between the moments before and the moments after a baby exits the womb, leaving conception.

  • Doug

    “One way they get muddied is when people with my world-view try to make it incumbent on others by saying that only a world-view that is completely naturalistic is reconcilable with the practice of science. ”

    While it is certainly consistent with the PRACTICE of science to hold beliefs in immaterial, supernatural, et. al. entities, it is hardly consistent with the PRINCIPALS of science to do so. To be an empiricist about certain aspects of reality but not others is contradictory. This is not a metaphysical view but an epistemological one.

    @Matt – the kidney stabber would be wrong on account of his stabbing, not on account of his refusal to donate a kidney. The analogy to pregnancy/abortion does not work. The analogy to the stabbing is sex, which is perfectly legal.

  • boreds

    And to pick up on one specific comment:

    “I would argue against them, on the basis that the interests of an autonomous and fully conscious mother should weigh much more heavily than those of the proto-person they carry. But I can’t say that they are unambiguously wrong in the same way that an erroneous claim about logic or even the empirical world can be said to be “wrong.””

    It’s not central to your argument, but do you personally think there is any stage during pregnancy at which the interests of the mother no longer outweigh those of the protoperson? How do you go about forming that opinion?

  • Doug

    I absolutely agree with your sentiments bored.

  • http://tete-tete-tete.com/ smijer

    While it is certainly consistent with the PRACTICE of science to hold beliefs in immaterial, supernatural, et. al. entities, it is hardly consistent with the PRINCIPALS of science to do so.

    I maintain that science is an analytical practice and its “principals” are only valid in application to that practice. While my own epistemology only recognizes value in things learned through those principals of science, I can only defend that epistemology on philosophical grounds. The appeal that it is “unscientific” to employ a scientific methodology for examining certain questions and to employ a non-scientific methodology for examining other questions is rather like an appeal that it is “unprofessional” to play board games. In the sense that one doesn’t legitimately play them while at work, it is trivially true. In the sense that one must be “unprofessional” to play them – even when not at work – is false on its face.

  • Neal J. King

    Doug:

    - A religious worldview has validity even based solely on the fact that a very substantial percentage of people hold such a view – probably many more than hold a scientific worldview. Look at the numbers of people who can’t credit global warming, for example.

    - But the point was not the comparative validity of these two worldviews, but the fact that the primary issue concerning abortion is invariant to which one someone assumes. Either way, it boils down to social consensus on conflicting rights of persons.

    boreds:

    - If the mother’s life is forfeit anyway (for reasons of medical problems that have arisen in childbirth, or whatever), an ethical decision can be made to favor the survival of the baby. I’m not sure how often the issue comes up in practice, but it features in many novels.

  • thomas

    Thales, two things.

    First, no pain will have been prevented because the people who need late-term abortions will now go somewhere else.

    Second, your post apologizes for terrorism.

  • Brian137

    What is a person?
    Socrates said, “Know yourself.” I recommend that also.

  • JimV

    In solidarity with Miss Prism, I think the onus is on those who accuse Dr. Tiller of killing babies for money to do some research, and come back when they can tell us, for example, what percentage of late-term fetuses aborted by Dr. Tiller were given a reasonable chance of living to maturity, without risking the life of the mother. I have been reading accounts from his patients on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, and they paint a different picture.

    After a reasonable term of years, I have found no evidence, either externally or internally, of this soul which the religious would have me take into account. How can you measure a soul, they ask. You can’t. That’s precisely the point. (I do have a rather nice, rainbow-colored aura, however.)

    This has been another edition of Sean Carroll saying what I would say if I had the talent.

  • http://mogster15.wordpress.com Sven

    I don’t have the energy at 3am to read through all the comments, but here’s what might be a different way of looking at it:

    Why is it illegal to kill a human being?
    There are three reasons that I can think of:
    1) Because we are sentient. This is why it’s okay to kill cows and ants and not to kill humans.
    2) Because we provide thoughts and work that improve life for other humans. Again, this is why it is okay to kill animals and not humans.
    3) Because it somehow feels wrong to hurt someone.

    If killing is illegal for the first reason, then abortion should be legal until a child reaches a certain level of self-awareness, which certainly doesn’t happen immediately upon being thrust from the womb, and no one is killing any 3 month old babies.

    If it’s illegal for the second reason, then abortion should be completely illegal unless it is likely to threaten the life of the mother who is likely to still contribute interesting thoughts and work.

    If it’s illegal for the third reason, then the line gets drawn when fetuses look like babies. This happens around the 2nd trimester, and that’s why the 3rd-trimester-abortions are so much more hated than the others.

    I assume murder is illegal for all of these reasons and probably others that my tired brain isn’t coming up with. And I understand that killing humans is wrong because we have “souls,” but I’m pretty sure that those of us who don’t believe in souls have similar feelings based on 1 and 3, and we can approximate understanding those arguments thusly.

    I can’t offer any thoughts on this, as my own feelings towards abortion are too confused, but I hope considering it this way is interesting or even illuminating to someone.

  • joulesm

    @MissPrism wow those deformities were horrific yet strangely fascinating!!

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  • zachb

    Sean,

    I read all the way ’til the end expecting you to have THE ANSWER at the end.

  • Scott

    A lot of good discussion here. There’s no way to get anyone to agree on this issue though because it deals with questions we can’t answer and extreme moral viewpoints on each side. I simply think that in regards to an issue such as this, there is more of a burden of proof on those that would wish to use the state to enforce their views on others. In other words, the state should err on the side of legality and leaving the decision up to the individual person.

  • ree ree

    Sven:
    “I assume murder is illegal for all of these reasons and probably others that my tired brain isn’t coming up with. ”

    I agree. In fact, by your criteria 1-3, it would be okay for me to give you a painless lethal injection the moment you become unconscious, for whatever reason.

  • Nathan

    Sean,

    Your posts are an oasis of thought I find extremely hard to find in my life. As an impresionable young university student I find you an inspiration.

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  • Jo

    @Scott: Exactly.

    Sean, very well written.

  • Gustav Nyström

    Sven, I would add:
    4)Because having rules that prohibit murder is necessary for a well-functioning society. If murder were legel I would be at greater risk of being murdered. Being in my tweens, I don’t think I’m at risk of being aborted.

    ree ree, responding to Sven: “I agree. In fact, by your criteria 1-3, it would be okay for me to give you a painless lethal injection the moment you become unconscious, for whatever reason.”

    Maybe, if you assumed you existed in a vacuum, without friends, family and society to object.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    1. Correct that one should counter the opponent’s arguments, not present one’s own.

    2. IIRC part of the mechanism of the IUD is preventing fertilised eggs from nesting. If one believes that life begins at conception and doesn’t oppose the IUD, then one is either ignorant or hypocritical. (Some, like the Pope, oppose both, but at least in his case it’s more a side-effect of opposing contraception in general.)

    3. Many, but not all, “pro-life” people (especially in the USA) are opposed to sex education and availability of contraception, especially for unmarried teenagers. In many cases, they are opposed to abortion because they are opposed to sex. They need the fear of pregnancy to make sex dangerous. Of course, this stance leads to more teen pregnancies and thus more potential (and probably actual) abortions, but, see point 1., that’s OK from their point of view: they just didn’t get the message across. The USA has a huge amount of teen pregnancies, while teens there have less sex than elsewhere (especially if one asks “how often have you had sex” and not just “have you ever had sex”). See http://www.stern.de/lifestyle/liebesleben/:Sexualaufkl%E4rung-USA-Dr.-Sommer-%FCbers-Handy/702155.html
    for some numbers. Isaac Asimov remarked in an essay in the late 60s or early 70s that most people opposed to long hair on men are also opposed to beards, since otherwise the argument “long hair on a man makes him look like a woman” no longer works, just as those opposed to abortion and teen pregnancies must also be opposed to sex education, since otherwise their argument (sex has bad consequences) no longer works. (Of course, short hair as a sign of masculinity is just a custom, and I would never mistake a long-haired man for a woman!)

    4. Most people don’t feel they’ve lost a child when they have a spontaneous abortion in the first couple of months of pregnancy (some didn’t even know they were pregnant). Thus, one could argue that abortion during this time is OK. (To be sure, most spontaneous abortions are because something was wrong with the fetus, so point 2. might make this argument better. On the other hand, one could argue that abortion because the fetus is seriously ill should be OK during this time.)

    5. A variant of point 1.: Many, but not all, “pro-choice” people, especially, women, are anti-pornography. Interestingly, they then no longer believe the argument “a woman should be able to do what she wants with her body”. Of course, they will argue that no woman voluntarily does pornography, but then they use the same sort of arguments that many anti-abortion folks use to argue that no woman really wants an abortion.

    6. Stephen Jay Gould is one of my heroes, but Rock of Ages is one of the few of his books I haven’t read, and probably the only one I might never read. A major intellectual goof, up there with the suggestion that atheists market themselves as “brights”.

    7. Some might deem it hypocritical that many “pro-life” folks, especially in the USA, favour the death penalty, but back to point 1., one has to counter their arguments, not present one’s own. (Their distinction is between innocent and guilty life). From their point of view, there is no conflict, and the position is not hypocritical.

  • Jason A.

    smijer:
    “Empirical questions can be answered by observation and experiment. What do you observe in order to test the notion that a supernatural soul exists within a person?”

    Not an observation, simply the principle of parsimony. Your question should be addressed to those who believe in a soul. Because until they make that observation of a soul, the default position is that it does not exist.
    The question of ‘soul’ isn’t any different than the question of ‘leprechaun’ just because more people take it seriously…

  • Davis

    It’s unfortunate that late-term abortion plays such a large role in the discussion of abortion’s legality. Only about 100 abortions annually are performed after week 24, and, generally, these are only legally permitted when the mother’s or fetus’ health is at stake.

    Edge of the American West has a good post on the matter.

  • ree ree

    Gustav:

    “Maybe, if you assumed you existed in a vacuum, without friends, family and society to object.”

    So what? The issue is empathy. The vast majority of people would not want that to happen them. So it shouldn’t be done whether we are in a society or in outer space away from everyone else.

  • http://mcwong1948.blogspot.com/ Mac McCarthy

    Thank you, a thoughtful piece by a modern, reasonable person about this very difficult issue. I appreciate it.

    –mac

  • http://blog.edenbaumstudio.com/ seth edenbaum

    The post states a truism but ignores the fact that the fight over abortion is not primarily about abortion but political power.
    An anthropologist in the jungle listening to the stories of men with animal bones stuck through their noses will be looking for signs and structure behind the narrative. But when we talk amongst ourselves we want to imagine something more direct. That’s not how it works. Nobody says what they believe, they just describe what they want to believe, and how they define themselves in relation to others. That holds to to doctors, scientists and engineers as much as to backwoods preachers and born again housewives. People defend the structures they know and to which they see themselves as belonging, against what they see as the incursion of powers which they see as threatening that relation.

    “The greatest intellectual accomplishment of the last millennium is the naturalistic worldview”

    The naturalism of the ethnographer is not the naturalism of the logician. They are in fact fundamentally opposed.

  • brooks

    seth:

    blah blah blah. my personal belief is that you have your structuralist head stuck up your levi-straussian butt.

    just because we construct beliefs out of personal narratives doesn’t mean beliefs as such don’t exist. and i know you’d be hard-pressed to argue otherwise without contradicting your own presuppositions all over the place.

    what we definitely do NOT need is not more arguments minus evidence.

  • Rachel

    On a slightly different tack, Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings has what I’ve find a very compelling argument that part of the essence of democracy is that one doesn’t take the law into one’s own hands, even if one believes the law is allowing murderers to go free.

    http://obsidianwings.blogs.com/obsidian_wings/2009/06/in-which-i-disagree-with-megan-mcardle-some-more.html

  • http://blog.edenbaumstudio.com/ seth edenbaum

    Sorry brook, numbers don’t have subtexts, but words do, at least when we use them. Most people who say abortion is murder don’t think abortion is murder, but they won’t admit it unless pressed. Ronald Dworkin has been making that argument for years. But that still won’t change their vote; and that’s the point, right?

    The argument that abortion is murder serves a purpose for some people. You want to think people are rational in the sense of knowing what they say, but their arguments follow a logic -in the sense that a pattern is a logic- and that’s not the same thing. To understand people who have to listen to what they say as well as what they think they mean. Scientists are not trained politicians and we experience life in a political world not a Platonic one. Successful politicians are realists and realism is a form of naturalism. Con men are realists.

    By the way I think also that it’s logical to assume that a number of the leaders of the anti-abortion movement are more interested in protecting their power base than in the issue of abortion itself. So it’s useless to argue with them as if they believe what they say. But what form of logic am I using when I make that assessment?

    There’s plenty of data on the history of demagogues and hypocrisy but you won’t find that data in the arguments of demagogues unless you refuse to take them at face value.

    If you want me to give you a list of scientists acting irrationally, acting through a mythification of their relation to the world of facts, (as people tend to do regardless of their profession) I’ll give you one.

  • http://blog.edenbaumstudio.com/ seth edenbaum

    My re-edit didn’t take:

    “There’s plenty of data on the history of demagogues and hypocrisy but you won’t find that data in the arguments of demagogues unless you refuse to take them at face value. You look for tropes, codes, implications, tone; in short you look for structure.
    thank you and good night.

  • Patty from Canada

    While I commend the many respondents for their well-argued and largely civil treatment of a fundamentally emotional issue, I find it curious that not one of the 76 respondents addressed the only question a woman truly faces when considering her options with an unwanted pregnancy (e.g., pregnancy from rape) or unplanned pregnancy (pregnancy from unprotected intercourse with a stranger or casual partner’). To wit: “What would I choose if the issue of choice is no longer the thrust-and-cut of academic debate, but instead a decision applied to my life in real time?” I predict that many pro-choice and pro-life advocates would pause, if only for a moment, when faced with the decision to either keep or terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

    At the expense of illustrating my point esoteric hyperbole, would a woman who was ardently pro-choice perhaps soften her conviction if her partner in a casual sexual relationship were to plead that his life would be complete were he to father a child, further vowing to raise their child as a single parent? Or would a woman who was pro-life discover that her certainty on ‘life starts at conception’ was not fully robust if she were faced with the prospect of bringing her attacker’s child to full term?

    These scenarios above, however facile or even hackneyed, offer an important perspective. It is a truth of good governance that lawmakers are truly effective when they temper their sanctimonious convictions with a dash of real life. Pro-choice and pro-life advocates are cautioned with that same advice.

  • Brenda Flutie

    Withdrawn.

  • http://blog.edenbaumstudio.com/ seth edenbaum

    In response to #77.
    I haven’t read most of the comments, but the relevant question is one of law, not personal preference.
    Being pro-choice is not being pro-abortion it’s simply saying that, up to a certain point, the state should not be in the position to interfere with the decisions of individuals.

    Your question only applies in a society where abortion is legal.

  • andyo

    It’s funny how easily religious people tell others they’re just plain wrong without providing any coherent argument (referring to some of the first few posts).

    Sean is not saying “the greatest intellectual accomplishment of the last millennium is the naturalistic worldview” in the same way that you say “no, it’s NOT. It is…” and then provide your opinion. It is not just Sean’s opinion (he can correct me if I’m wrong).

    The assumption of a naturalistic worldview has brought about pretty much all of scientific discoveries. And EVERY time a scientific discovery is made, at the same time it has supported that assumption more and more. If scientists didn’t assume that and proposed a supernatural explanation, what kind of discoveries would have been made?

    The exact same kind of discoveries that theologians and psychics make all the time, of course.

    When supernaturalists who claim naturalism and science are in some way equivalent to supernaturalism as forms of knowledge admit they think their iphones and computers, and cars and airplanes work by magic, then they’ll be intellectually honest at least.

  • http://blog.edenbaumstudio.com/ seth edenbaum

    andyo, are you arguing with me? If so you haven’t read what I wrote.

    I’ll put it simply: How does a logician argue with a liar?
    That’s the difference between the rationalist naturalism of the mathematician and the empiricist naturalism of the politician or the trial lawyer. Supernaturalism has nothing to do with it.

    But if brooks wants an example of an irrational knee-jerk response from a science geek, we’ve just found one.

  • Peter John

    Abortion may not be murder, but it sure seems sexist to me. Why doesn’t the man have the right to abort a pregnancy? He is expected, by law, to take responsibility for a child, even in cases where it’s been proven he’s not the biological father. Yet the female can choose not to take that responsibility.

    If abortion is nothing more than a medical procedure, which relieves social/financial burdon, then abortion should be the right of everyone who suffers that burdon; i.e. the dude. No matter if she wants to keep the child.

    Now you may say, “It’s her body, it’s her choice”. But if she claims full ownership of the fetus on the bases of the woombs’ location inside her body, she should also have to accept full responsibility if she lets a mass of cells turn into a human being.

    You may also say that aborting a child without its mothers consent will traumatise the female. But she can’t be that bothered about it if a fetus is nothing more than a soul-less growth. Removing it is a bit like getting a haircut I imagine.

    Before I decide between pro-life and pro-choice, can the pro-choice camp please explain to me why only one of the two parents gets the choice.
    And why, if this is her privilege, are fathers forced to subsidise the consequences of a decision which is exclusively hers. Taxpayers as well as fathers. Instead of having wellfare for families, it would probably be cheaper to make abortion free and available for everyone. Why should the taxpayer pay for a womens’ choice. That’s not democracy.

    There is nothing in the pro-choice argument that I’ve heard so far, not that I’m deeply knowledgable about the subject, that explains why only women have the choice.

    And if there is something unethical about man-choice, than surely, there is something unethical about either abortion itself, or the child support laws forced upon the men that didn’t get the same choice as the women did.

    If a father doesn’t pay his child support, he’s a criminal, but a women has the right to erase the (potential) child itself. It’s not fair I tells ya.

  • andyo

    seth, I was not arguing with your post. It’s some of the first few posts I was.

  • Cedric

    Absolutely ridiculous essay, Seth. Maybe you should submit it to the National Catholic Reporter instead of a science site.

    Anyone who can seriously conflate science and religion such as you have done here (I’m making a slight assumption that you are indeed serious; if I’ve missed some sarcasm here, please accept my apologies) disrespects the real scientist, who would never do such a thing.

    I >used< to really look up to "Discover" but not anymore, especially given the (apparent) lack of a counterpoint essay.

    Abortion is not, never was and never will be murder, at any stage of gestation. That is the scientific viewpoint. Why? Because a fetus is not a human until it is separated from the mother at birth. Not being a human, a fetus cannot be murdered.

    The religion viewpoint, on the other hand, is that sex is for exactly one purpose – reproduction – and any other use or manifestation is sin. Anything that in any way interferes with the single solitary religious-mandated purpose of sex is a sin. There is no science in that.

    The difference between science and religion is that science has no such concept as faith, while religion is entirely about faith.

    If abortion is murder, what do you call a miscarriage, suicide?

  • Cedric

    @mk: “So to turn the question back at you… when is it OK to perform an abortion. Never? Rarely? If rarely, when and under what circumstances?”

    As long as the mother and her physician agree it is in the best interest of the patient (i.e. the mother), I believe it is always OK to perform an abortion. This is the scientific view.

    The religious view is that sometimes it may be OK and at other times (probably more often) it may not be OK. This is based on “bizarre” (Seth’s word, not mine) religious superstitions about the presence of a physically undetectable entity often referred to as a “soul”.

  • Neal J. King

    Cedric,

    There is nothing particularly “scientific” about claiming that a fetus is not human until separated from the mother’s body at birth. The cutting of the umbilical cord is just a tiny change; it is pretty unreasonable to think that the status of personhood is a discontinuous function of the amount of connecting tissue.

    You don’t come across as “scientific”, but rather as “dogmatic”.

  • brooks

    seth:

    from what i can see, we probably agree on substantive points of this issue; but you are terribly unconvincing because there seems to be little discernible point to your commentary. what exactly is it you’re trying to say again?

    Reality Itself is not political; Politics is political. the fact that people aren’t always rational and/or straightforward is not evidence that they cannot be. and just because scientists can be unscientific does not mean that science-as-practice is just another narrative, as (i’m not sure, but) you seem to be implying.

    i think a large number of the anti-abortion bent DO believe it is murder; it’s pretty plain that Tiller’s assailant did.

  • Cedric

    @Neal J. King: I don’t particularly care if I come across as “dogmatic” to you – that’s just your personal opinion, which is another thing that religion is all about while science is not so much.

    As long as the fetus is attached to the mother, the fetus is an appendage of the mother and is not a human: that’s a basic scientific fact. If the mother felt so inclined to do so, she could legally take any number of actions upon her own personal body which would ultimately result in rendering the fetus non-viable; that would be her prerogative and no one including you would have any right or ability to try to prevent it. That’s a basic scientific fact.

    Once the fetus is delivered and disconnected from the mother, it exists as a separate human body which the mother could no longer affect by taking action on the mother’s own body. That’s a basic scientific fact.

    Now if you want to argue about silly religious superstition or personal opinion, I guess you win because I’m not about to engage in debates or discussions which are not fact-based.

  • http://blog.edenbaumstudio.com/ seth edenbaum

    Everybody creates narratives out of facts. Most of them are absurd, if not worse.
    Look up chapter 15. Ignoring the fact that the author is a defender of racial separatism, how did such a touchy subject end up in this book, by a nobel prize winning physicist?
    People are irrational. The create patterns to conform to their desires. They believe their own lies.

    There’s a reason we live by the rule of law and not of reason. If people were capable of reason justice would be ad hoc. But it isn’t: the justice system is a formal one. Someone guilty of a crime gets off scott free if the government doesn’t follow the rules, and that’s the way it should be. In the political world- the one one we experience- even the facts are trumped by law.
    “But we have the murder weapon, with his fingerprints!!”
    “They didn’t have a warrant.”
    End of story. In the our legal system too, Galileo sometimes loses. And we as a society have decided that this is the logical choice.

    There is no right answer to the abortion question. There’s no way to avoid the ambiguity and mess. The argument is about when the state should have a right to intervene. It’s a political discussion not a scientific one.
    I’m sorry, but science bores me for the same reason the mechanics of the internal combustion engine bores me. I’m more fascinated by the animal capacity for invention and delusion. A capacity scientists have as much as anyone.
    I’ve spent far too much time arguing with atheist philosophers who rage against democracy as being founded in a lie, while they stand for truth.
    I don’t like Platonists.

  • http://blog.edenbaumstudio.com/ seth edenbaum

    I feel I need to add one more point, just to be clear. I am a secularist, third generation.
    And rationalism began as theological argument.

  • andyo

    Cedric,

    First, I think you mean Sean, not Seth.

    Secondly, I pretty much agree with your POV, but what you’re saying are scientific facts are not. They’re your opinion. You’d be hard-pressed to find a significant number of scientists that agree with those views unambiguously, and that’s because there isn’t scientific evidence that it’s “right”. Thus, no “scientific fact”. Coincidentally (or maybe not), that’s what Sean was saying.

  • ree ree

    Cedric said:

    “Abortion is not, never was and never will be murder, at any stage of gestation. That is the scientific viewpoint. Why? Because a fetus is not a human until it is separated from the mother at birth. Not being a human, a fetus cannot be murdered.

    “As long as the fetus is attached to the mother, the fetus is an appendage of the mother and is not a human: that’s a basic scientific fact. If the mother felt so inclined to do so, she could legally take any number of actions upon her own personal body which would ultimately result in rendering the fetus non-viable; that would be her prerogative and no one including you would have any right or ability to try to prevent it. That’s a basic scientific fact.”

    Cedric, I think the opinion that a fetus is not human until you cut a measly little cord is pure nonsense. When a baby is born and is still connected to its umbilical cord, it has its own DNA, it cries, has two eyes, two ears, a nose, a mouth, two arms, two legs, a beating heart, and a brain. If that is not a human being, I don’t know what is. Are you married, Cedric? Suppose your wife was pregnant, and was in labor. When she gave birth, suppose that before the doctor cut the umbilical cord your wife got out a knife and stabbed and killed your baby. Now, according to your position, you have no right to be angry with her, for she was well within her right. She shouldn’t be charged with anything.

    “The religion viewpoint, on the other hand, is that sex is for exactly one purpose – reproduction – and any other use or manifestation is sin. Anything that in any way interferes with the single solitary religious-mandated purpose of sex is a sin. There is no science in that.”

    For some religions, this is true, but not for all religions (eg. Catholicism).

    “If abortion is murder, what do you call a miscarriage, suicide?”

    If killing an 80 year old person is murder, what do you call an 80 year old having a heart attack and dying, suicide?
    Miscarriage does not equal the fetus killing itself. Heart attack does not equal old man killing himself.

    “Once the fetus is delivered and disconnected from the mother, it exists as a separate human body which the mother could no longer affect by taking action on the mother’s own body. That’s a basic scientific fact.”

    Cedric, if you were unconscious, and you needed blood, and I was beside your hospital bed, and a (grown) tube made out of my own tissue was connecting my body to yours in an effort to transfer blood from my body to yours so that you can life (a hypothetical experiment, of course), are you a human being? Is it ok if I kill you in that situation because you are just an appendage of my body? According to your position, I am perfectly justified.

    What if you and I were conjoined twins? Can I consider you an appendage, and kill you because you aren’t really a separate human being?

  • Brian

    I don’t know Sean. It seems to me that you’re dismissing the importance of the soul to those of a religious persuasion. Furthermore I suspect that many of weak or non-existent religious beliefs would cop to believing in a soul, since that concept can be separated from any specific religion and is often used in non-religious ways.

    When a person says, “so-and-so has an old soul” I don’t attach any religious meaning at all to the phrase. That’s just an example of how the concept of soul can be meaningful and relevant to us. Maybe that’s too far off the mark; let’s move on.

    When you say “… if we believe in outdated notions of spirits being breathed into us by God…” you irrevocably part ways with a huge number of people.

    Think of it this way. Most religions believe in an afterlife of some type. It’s the soul, they say, that lives in the afterlife. Even religions based upon reincarnation have to move “something” from one life to the next, and that something is the soul.

    Now this sets up a nice narrative arc, with a beginning and an end. If when you die, your soul leaves your body and goes to the afterlife, when does your soul inhabit the body? The easiest and most straightforward answer is at conception. I don’t think I’m being facile or misrepresentative here. It’s internally consistent logic to the religious frame of mind.

    On a slightly different topic, when you say “…We do not need to invoke spirits being breathed into fertilized eggs in order to understand life…”, I think you again commit an act of departure with most religions. Religion, as I see it, rarely tries to “understand” life in the mechanical sense. They aren’t much interested in ‘the neck bone connects to the backbone, which connects to the thigh bone’. And, when religions have tried to explain the physical universe, the results have not been great.

    The great religions of the world are typically concerned with much higher order issues. Things about which science often has little or nothing to say. What is moral? What is immoral? What is the nature of morality itself? Philosophy can probably address some of those issues too, but I’m ill-equipped to delve into that subject area.

    Anyhow, great article, very thought provoking.

  • brooks

    seth:

    i agree that there is not one simple answer to be found here. but:

    “we live by the rule of law and not reason”.

    poe-tay-toe, poe-tah-to. what is the law, if not a form of meta-reasoning? but it’s evident you buy completely into your own hand-waving, so no doubt these keystrokes are wasted….

    “I’m sorry, but science bores me for the same reason the mechanics of the internal combustion engine bores me.”

    indeed, the mind is more complex and mysterious than any atom or artifice. subjectivity is an eternal mystery that resists the hard sciences. but keep in mind that your apathy where the material world is concerned is the convenient (for you) result of millions of hours of decidedly rational thought and hypothesis-testing, without which most of us would likely not exist. so despite your boredom with the stubborn solidity of the physical world, it is fortunate indeed that some have felt differently.

  • http://blog.edenbaumstudio.com/ seth edenbaum

    You don’t seem to understand how the legal system works. It works on the assumption that we are irrational (or self-interested if you want) and that objectivity is impossible. It’s first of all a formal system of behavior regulation, not a formal system for determining truth.

    If you want to defend the grandeur of science go ahead. But if you want to claim moral grandeur then join me in demanding that every project funded by the USG, including NASA be able to account for the lives saved as a result of its activities. If you want moral seriousness “Gee Wizz! I wonder what Neptune is like!”
    just doesn’t cut it.
    Science is not a value it’s a tool.

  • andyo

    90. seth edenbaum Says:
    June 8th, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    I feel I need to add one more point, just to be clear. I am a secularist, third generation.
    And rationalism began as theological argument.

    Do you mean Descartes?

  • brooks

    oh please. don’t tell me what i do and don’t know, you self-righteous.. er, yeah. but i’ll leave you to your soap-box.

  • Fill

    Seth said: “If you want moral seriousness “Gee Wizz! I wonder what Neptune is like!”
    just doesn’t cut it. Science is not a value it’s a tool.”

    I’m sorry? Such discoveries as the fact that every living thing on earth is descended from a single common ancestor and that humans do not inhabit a privileged cosmological position do not influence your moral outlook at all?

    I can imagine a slightly different history in which our system of commonly-agreed-upon morals descended from science rather than religion; a great deal of modern history is the former replacing and modifying the dogma of the latter.

  • http://blog.edenbaumstudio.com/ seth edenbaum

    Since when is Descartes the founder of rationalism? Or do you mean “modern rationalism?”

    I get my morals from the need to get and long and an understanding of the need for a rule of law as opposed to men. We makes rules and then we follow them even when they lead to decisions that do not follow from the truth, but which preserve a sense of formal and thus moral balance, When we want to change them we or our elected representatives go through all sorts of convoluted rituals to make sure we accept the new terms. My interpretation of this logic requires me to be a defender of the decision by the US Supreme Court in Miranda v. Arizona. But I am also not a defender of the decision by the Catholic Church in Galileo v. Holy Trinity
    Think about that for a few minutes. There’s a bit of a disjunction, but I think it’s necessary. OTHERS DO NOT.
    I’m repeating myself. If you were a bit more empirically minded wouldn’t have to.

    My politics and philosophy are based on empirically inquisitive rationalism: I reason about what I experience. Modern arch rationalism has given us the formal logic as philosophy and philosophy as science, economics defended as formal[!] science and the absurdities of Chomskian linguistics, and to be honest the absurdities however well-intentioned of Chomskian moral philosophy. His philosophical anarchism is as based on wishful thinking as his linguistics. He’ll go down in history as a great amateur reporter of fact who spent his professional career attacking their importance. Go figure.

    Don’t get me started on dualism and transubstantiation

  • http://blog.edenbaumstudio.com/ seth edenbaum

    “I can imagine a slightly different history in which our system of commonly-agreed-upon morals descended from science rather than religion; a great deal of modern history is the former replacing and modifying the dogma of the latter.”

    The function of religion is social. ‘Truth’ is not the point. But when science is seen as undermining community then religion is defended ideologized as truth in a defensive response.

    Science is about desire for unknown facts, that’s all. When the facts are known they go back to being the same thing they were when no one cared about them. A driven scientist may discover penicillin but what kind of imagination does it take to wonder if over-prescription might become a problem?
    The telos of science is the telos of enthusiastic and unified group purpose, and that makes you dumb.

    After the Huygens probe landed one of the project managers, describing her near ecstasy as the data began coming in referred to her relation to Titan as akin to love. This was said seemingly without self-consciousness or irony.
    I was more fascinated by the wide-eyed, childlike expression on the woman’s face than by the rocks.

  • Fill

    I am not really sure what the Cassini story has to do with anything, nor how anything you said in your post really rebuts the point that science clearly informs our modern moral systems.

    It would be expedient to the understanding of your arguments if you used standard english syntax in your next post.

  • andyo

    Seth,

    Since when is Descartes the founder of rationalism? Or do you mean “modern rationalism?”

    That’s why I asked the question. I didn’t know what you meant by “rationalism”. When you said that “rationalism began as a theological argument” I think it’s not the “rationalism” most scientifically minded people talk about. This rationalism is more akin to empiricism, in that “rational” means non-dogmatic and following evidence. It’s probably loosely used, but the only ones who think to make a big deal of it is philosophers or lawyers.

    Anyway, I hadn’t read all your posts, I wasn’t even arguing with you. I just asked an honest question so where did this come from?

    I’m repeating myself. If you were a bit more empirically minded wouldn’t have to.

    I don’t get it, was it directed at me?

  • http://blog.edenbaumstudio.com/ seth edenbaum

    andyo.
    It was general, mostly to brooks and others. But I assume the worst of everyone in these arguments.
    Apologies, again.

  • http://www.users.bigpond.com/pmurray Paul Murray

    “science is powerless to tell us when “personhood” begins”

    And that’s because personhood is – at heart – a political question.

  • Jeff

    Abortion is an ugly. complicated argument, but it becomes a lot simpler when you ask *the right questions*

    For example, as the article alludes to, a debate about female freedom, rights and sexuality is completely secondary to the question ‘is abortion murder’. If abortion isn’t murder, then we can move on to those issues, if it is murder those issues become irrelevant.

    Unlike the author though, I don’t think the question we should be asking is “When does the fetus become a person?”, if only because it is an impossible question. Rather, the question should be phrased something like: “Is it murder to kill something that you know will develop into a person?” Think of someone aborting you as a child, would that not end your existence as much as a knife or gun wound could right now? On the other hand, can someone really be accountable for knowingly killing a future person?

  • Anthony Rotz

    If we could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the human person exists at the moment of conception, women would still have abortions. All life needs protection the unborn child more so.

  • IngS

    I don’t think we can call miscarriage suicide, nor we can call a person’s death suicide or homicide if the person has died due to natural causes. The truth is that homicide, abortion, and suicide are all synonyms. It means that you are consciously killing a human being. When you have a miscarriage, it was something that went wrong, you did not intend to kill the future baby, and if you intentionally had a miscarriage, that is killing. It all goes down to the ethics and moralities of a society. I support Obama, but I don’t agree with the liberal idea of accepting abortion. The United States, as a nation that believes in God (like we say in everything we do “In God we trust”), then we should abide by His rules instead of trying to satisfy our own sexual needs. Getting laid with someone you’re not married to is a sin, as it is sleeping with 10x different people. And if we analyze it, it has its reasons. That’s how diseases are transmitted. If you don’t want to have a baby, then please close your legs (to the females), and to the males.. keep it in your pants! Just stop sinning because that is what’s sinking this nation. True, we will never be perfect, but it is our duty as daughters and sons of God to follow His rules. Just like parents want their kids to follow their rules while they live under their roof, so should all of us kids and adults follow God’s rules, because we live in Earth, which is His home… let’s follow his rules! He does it because it’s just going to benefit us.
    And as a former fetus myself, I oppose abortion! And I think we all should, because once we were a fetus and we could have been aborted, but we weren’t. We are here for a reason, let give others the chance to have a life, because the truth is that either of us can create or reproduce life (cloning..not really), so let wonder take place, don’t take it for granted because God is big, if He created life, don’t destroy it. It is not up to you to decide when a person’s life should end.

  • IngS

    I don’t think we can call miscarriage suicide, nor we can call a person’s death suicide or homicide if the person has died due to natural causes. The truth is that homicide, abortion, and suicide are all synonyms. It means that you are consciously killing a human being. When you have a miscarriage, it was something that went wrong, you did not intend to kill the future baby, and if you intentionally had a miscarriage, that is killing. It all goes down to the ethics and moralities of a society. I support Obama, but I don’t agree with the liberal idea of accepting abortion. The United States, as a nation that believes in God (like we say in everything we do “In God we trust”), then we should abide by His rules instead of trying to satisfy our own sexual needs. Getting laid with someone you’re not married to is a sin, as it is sleeping with 10x different people. And if we analyze it, it has its reasons. That’s how diseases are transmitted. If you don’t want to have a baby, then please close your legs (to the females), and to the males.. keep it in your pants! Just stop sinning because that is what’s sinking this nation. True, we will never be perfect, but it is our duty as daughters and sons of God to follow His rules. Just like parents want their kids to follow their rules while they live under their roof, so should all of us kids and adults follow God’s rules, because we live in Earth, which is His home… let’s follow his rules! He does it because it’s just going to benefit us.
    And as a former fetus myself, I oppose abortion! And I think we all should, because once we were a fetus and we could have been aborted, but we weren’t. We are here for a reason, let give others the chance to have a life, because the truth is that either of us can create or reproduce life (cloning..not really), so let wonder take place, don’t take it for granted because God is big, if He created life, don’t destroy it. It is not up to you to decide when a person’s life should end.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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