Metaphysics Matters

By Sean Carroll | February 13, 2012 8:38 am

Chattering classes here in the U.S. have recently been absorbed in discussions that dance around, but never quite address, a question that cuts to the heart of how we think about the basic architecture of reality: are human beings purely material, or something more?

The first skirmish broke out when a major breast-cancer charity, Susan Komen for the Cure (the folks responsible for the ubiquitous pink ribbons), decided to cut their grants to Planned Parenthood, a decision they quickly reversed after facing an enormous public backlash. Planned Parenthood provides a wide variety of women’s health services, including birth control and screening for breast cancer, but is widely associated with abortion services. The Komen leaders offered numerous (mutually contradictory) reasons for their original action, but there is no doubt that their true motive was to end support to a major abortion provider, even if their grants weren’t being used to fund abortions.

Abortion, of course, is a perennial political hot potato, but the other recent kerfuffle focuses on a seemingly less contentious issue: birth control. Catholics, who officially are opposed to birth control of any sort, objected to rules promulgated by the Obama administration, under which birth control would have to be covered by employer-sponsored insurance plans. The original objection seemed to be that Catholic hospitals and other Church-sponsored institutions would essentially be paying for something they though was immoral, in response to which a work-around compromise was quickly adopted. This didn’t satisfy everyone (anyone?), however, and now the ground has shifted to an argument that no individual Catholic employer should be forced to pay for birth-control insurance, whether or not the organization is sponsored by the Church. This position has been staked out by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and underlies a new bill proposed by Florida Senator Mark Rubio.

Topics like this are never simple, but they can be especially challenging for a secular democracy. On the one hand, our society is based on religious pluralism. We have freedom of conscience, and try to formulate our laws in such a way that everyone’s rights are protected. But on the other hand, people have incompatible beliefs about fundamental issues. Such beliefs are often of central importance, and the duct tape of political liberalism isn’t always sufficient to hold things together.

When it comes to abortion and birth control, there’s no question that down-and-dirty political and social aspects are front and center. Different political parties want to score points with their constituencies by standing firm in the current culture wars. And there’s also no question that restricting access to contraception and abortion is driven in part (we can argue about how big that part is) by a desire to control women’s sexuality.

But there is also a serious question about human life and the nature of reality. What actually happens when that sperm and ovum get together to make a zygote? Is it just one step of many in an enormously complex chemical reaction that ultimately gives rise to a new person, who is at heart just a complex chemical reaction him-or-herself? Or is it the moment when an immaterial soul, distinct from the material body, first comes into being? Question like this matter — but as a society we hardly ever discuss them, at least not in any serious and open way. As a result, different sides talk past each other, trying to squeeze metaphysical stances into political boxes.

If it were really true that “a human life” was defined by the association of an immaterial soul with a physical body, and that association began at the moment of conception, then making abortion illegal would be perfectly sensible. It would be murder, pure and simple. (Very few people are actually consistent here, believing that mothers who have abortions should be treated like someone who has committed murder; but there are some.) But this view of reality is not true.

Naturalism, which describes human beings in the same physical terms as other objects in the universe, doesn’t actually provide a cut-and-dried answer to the abortion question, because it doesn’t draw a bright line between “a separate living person” and “a collection of cells.” But it provides an utterly different context for addressing the question. Naturalists are generally against murder, but it’s because they recognize certain collections of atoms as “people,” and endow those people with rights and privileges as part of the structure of society. It all comes from distinctions that we human beings ultimately invent, not ones that are handed down from a higher authority. Consequently, the appropriate rules are less clear. A naturalist wants to know whether the purported person can think, feel, react, and so on. They also will balance the interests of the fetus, whatever they may be, against the interests of the mother, who is unquestionably a living and functioning person. It’s perfectly natural that those interests will seem more important than those of a fetus that isn’t even viable outside the womb.

Most everyone, religious believers and naturalists alike, agrees that killing innocent one-year-old children is morally wrong. Consequently, we can happily live together in a society where that kind of action is illegal. But our beliefs about aborting one-month-old embryos are understandably very different. The disagreements about these issues aren’t simply political, they run much deeper than that.

It matters how people think about the world. Political liberalism is a good system, but it only works insofar as the citizens can agree on a core set of values and push cultural/religious differences to the periphery. Naturalism doesn’t answer all the value-oriented questions we might have; it simply provides a sensible framework in which they can be profitably discussed. But between naturalists and non-naturalists, profitable discussion is much more difficult. Which is why we naturalists have to keep pressing, making the best case we can, trying to convince as many people as we can reach that there is only one realm of existence, governed by unbreakable laws, and that we are part of it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Top Posts
  • Lonely Flower

    But what about 4 old months embryo is it still moral to abort him/her?

  • psmith

    You say “But our beliefs about aborting one-month-old embryos are understandably very different.”
    That is because you look at it narrowly in terms of now, strangely, when one thinks of your writings on time.

    My mother, a naive 17 year old girl, fell pregnant to a serviceman going off to war. She decided to keep the child despite her family’s fierce opposition, abandonment and her own desperate circumstances. Somehow she clung to hope despite her humiliation and abandonment.

    I am that child. If she had aborted that foetus she would have murdered me, she would have killed that life with all its rewards, fulfillment and happiness. Trapped in her own despair she had no way of foreseeing the gift of happiness and fulfillment that she would be giving to me, and to my children. Because she clung to hope she made the unforeseeable possible.

    Abortion would have murdered me.

  • MPS17

    It has intrigued me that the only people with a self-consistent moral standing to argue against abortion are vegetarians, and yet the overlap between vegetarians and pro-lifers is surely an extremely tiny set. (This, I think, speaks to the importance of status rivalries and group identification / allegiance vs actual logical reasoning, in deciding and rationalizing political preferences.)

  • http://www.drewdistilled.com Drew

    @psmith – Speaking in counterfactuals (“would have”) assumes a metaphysical position-possible worlds- that need not be true. I believe Sean here is not demarcating a line where humanity begins insofar as he is shouting a call to arms to think about this issue outside of political boundaries in order to arrive at a metaphysics acceptable to all members of a secular democracy.

  • MPS17

    psmith: if your mother had aborted you, you wouldn’t exist now. But you also would never have really known existence, and so it’s hard to see how exactly you would have been wronged, or how anyone else would have been wronged.

    Look at it this way: various combinations of my sperm and [pick any woman]’s ova could produce all kinds of people. By men not going around impregnating every woman every possible moment, we are denying life, with all its rewards, fulfillment, and happiness, to countless people. Yet surely this is not a moral evil. So I don’t think it’s reasonable to argue about the value of life and personhood by looking at the potential.

  • http://www.drewdistilled.com Drew

    @MPS17 – I think the reason group identification/allegiance trumps logical reasoning is evolutionary – in that the cost/benefit of accepting the group’s decision outweighs that of obtaining the knowledge individually; if I see I long line of people waiting to get in a bar I have to assume the bar is good, even though it may suck; I save time and energy by assuming the group knows something that I do not.

  • psmith

    @Drew – barring some strange multiverse we can take it is a given, that had she aborted that foetus you would not be reading my words. My life, my existence, would never have taken place.

  • psmith

    @MPS17 – “So I don’t think it’s reasonable to argue about the value of life and personhood by looking at the potential.”

    Once life has started it is no longer just some potential. It is actual life, accurately defined by DNA, and its continuance would have been ended. The potential was the future possibilities of that life.

  • Jeff

    @Drew — There is no metaphysics that is acceptable to all members of our democracy. As long as there exist “ignorant folk” such as myself who are unabashed dualists, alongside physical naturalists like Sean, then we will disagree on issues like abortion.

    As a matter of political strategy, each side only has one option, as Sean states in his last sentence. It must win over hearts and minds. Until then, it will be a continual battle.

    On the bright side, if Sean’s metaphysics is correct…none of this really matters in the long run, and it was all predetermined anyway by the initial conditions at the big bang. ;-)

  • Physicalist

    psmith : “If she had aborted that foetus she would have murdered me

    What if she and your biological father had used a condom? You still wouldn’t be here; the egg and sperm would have died. Would that be “murder”?

  • psmith

    @Physicalist – there is a world of difference between a foetus with my exact DNA configuration and the two separate components, egg and sperm.

  • http://www.drewdistilled.com Drew

    @Physicalist – perhaps you’re right in that there isn’t, but shouldn’t there be?

    I am not a lawyer and possess little knowledge on the subject, but I’m pretty sure “murder” is defined very specifically and to use that word in this context serves only as semantic rabble-rousing.

  • psmith

    @Drew – I would call “semantic rabble-rousing” as obfuscated disapproval.

  • Physicalist

    there is a world of difference between a foetus with my exact DNA configuration and the two separate components, egg and sperm

    A difference, yes, but not a world of difference. The real question is whether there’s a morally relevant difference.

    Personally, I find it obvious that I’m not the sort of thing that could exist without a complex functioning brain, and so I was never a single-celled organism. That blastocyst was alive, but it was never me.

    For these same reasons, it seems obvious to me that killing a blastocyst cannot count as “murder,” but I don’t expect to be able to convince you of this.

  • psmith

    @Physicalist – ha, I never thought I would meet a dualist physicalist!

  • Josh

    @psmith

    I believe the reason MPS17 (#3) noted that “the only people with a self-consistent moral standing to argue against abortion are vegetarians” is because the neural complexity of a fetus or embryo is on par with a much simpler animal (say, a chicken or a cat at best).

    Even you implicitly take this tack in your argument when you argue “Once life has started it is no longer just some potential. It is actual life.”

    So is abortion wrong because it ends a life? If so, I assume you are a vegetarian.

    And no arguing that animals and humans aren’t comparable because the potential of an animal is less than a human’s. As others have pointed out, preventing potential does not equal murder. Otherwise you would have to view contraception as murder.

  • Physicalist

    @psmith (#15): I’m accustomed to encountering a wide variety of misunderstandings on this topic, but I’m still utterly baffled that you could think my position is in any way dualist.

  • http://vacua.blogspot.com Jim Harrison

    Think of the hundreds of people who don’t exist today because Law and Order wasn’t a rerun that night. Will no one shed a tear for them?

    Treating possible people as actual people results in unnecessary puzzles. I’m reminded of the old German joke in which the pessimistic philosopher muses “Life is suffering. One is fortunate not to live too long, and it would be better still never to have been born at all though scarcely one in a million is that lucky.” What seems at first blush to be a debate about metaphysics may actually have more to do with modal logic.

  • Dronewatch

    Well, the moral debate should continue. But the secular issue is really at what point the state is justified in taking control of a woman’s body.

    Imagine two brothers, one with kidney disease that can only be saved by a transplant from the other brother. Do we accept that the state has the right to force the healthy brother to provide the kidney? What about requiring person “B” to risk their life to save person “A”? We think it’s commendable, but not legally required.

    So what, exactly, are we doing when we start demanding that a woman MUST carry a fetus to term? Especially when it may risk her life. Simply put, the state is taking possession of her body for state purposes. She is no longer a free person — she is a life support system, a breeder, under state control. Some people are fine with this. The ones that want to control everyone and everything. But that’s not religion. It’s fascism.

    So I don’t think the real debate is about when a fetus becomes a person. It’s more about what it will mean to to be a free human in the 21st century in the United States.

    If it was really all about saving babies, think of the thousands that would be alive now (or never conceived) if education, assistance, and responsibility had been pursued with as much vigor and capital as has been invested in attempts to control. But there’s not much power to be gained in those directions, is there?

  • Brutus

    I don’t know as much about the topic as I would like, but I find it both logical and noble to accept ethical axioms grounding high standards for the inviolability of human life. I don’t want to live in a world in which crushing the skull of an infant in utero is basically a matter of moral indifference. Or where human embryos are created and destroyed as raw material for therapies and experiments. I don’t pretend to have a well-informed and thought out position here. Thought-provoking post…

  • Avattoir

    @ 7: “My life, my existence, would never have taken place.”

    It depends completely on how you define “my life, my existence”. The stuff that makes up ‘you’ right now (as distinct from now, and now, and now, etc.) is stuff that made up other beings & things before ‘you’. The stuff that makes up ‘you’ right now doesn’t think of itself as ‘you’, because inexorably it’s in the process of leaving you to become someone (more likely some thing) else. The stuff that will make up ‘you’ in another second, minute, hour, day, week, month, or year isn’t part of ‘you’ now; it doesn’t have any intention of becoming part of ‘you'; once it joins in as part of ‘you’, it still won’t be conscious of having ceased to be part of this or that plant or rock or slime mould & become part of ‘you'; and having joined ‘you’, been ‘you’, & left ‘you’, it won’t retain any memory of any of that, nor will it ever have been conscious of becoming you, being you, or having been you.

    One might conceive of the possibility that your belief in there being a ‘you’ – your conceit of there being such a thing as “my life, my existence” – is simply a part of a larger strategy aimed at propagating your species, of which ‘you’, including ‘your life, your existence’, is simply a very tiny, and extremely probably, a not-at-all critical, part; and that under this understanding, you might wish to take comfort from the fact that currently there are ~7 billion others attending to that strategy, most of whom are unintentionally and wittingly working against the end goal of that strategy. If that’s the case, I would wonder how it is that you’re able to determine to be one of those working towards that end goal, and not one of those working against it.

  • GM

    8. psmith Says:
    February 13th, 2012 at 9:28 am
    @MPS17 – “So I don’t think it’s reasonable to argue about the value of life and personhood by looking at the potential.”
    Once life has started it is no longer just some potential. It is actual life, accurately defined by DNA, and its continuance would have been ended. The potential was the future possibilities of that life.

    That life begins at conception is a horrible argument. What about the oocyte and the spermatozoa, aren’t they alive too? Life is a continuum, and has been since the first self-replicators appeared 4 billion years ago. There is no beginning. What matters is what a collection of cells is, not what it could become. We don’t murder each other because we recognize each other as persons even though we are all just collections of cells, which are in turn collections of molecules. So that’s where the line should be logically drawn – whether a collection of cells can be considered a person or not.

    Which BTW, has the curious and certain to be disturbing to many but inevitable implication that not only is abortion perfectly fine, infanticide is perfectly fine too because infants are not persons – ironically, when the lunatics talk about “killing babies”, they are onto something – there is no real reason to draw any lines at X weeks, months, or even birth; development is a continuous process. But when a baby is born, it is not yet a person – it has no developed self-awareness yet (humans fail the mirror test during their first year, and so on). The whole debate has erred enormously in the wrong direction. Now where you draw the line is difficult to establish but two things are certainly correct:

    1. The religious view on the subject is completely wrong because religion itself is completely wrong
    2. The naturalistic view indeed can not give you any clear cutoff at which is it OK to terminate a fetus/infant development.

    From which it follows that this has to happen safely within any reasonable boundaries, and since as I said above, newborns are not persons yet so it necessarily follows that infanticide is perfectly OK, then any abortion or morning-after-pill type of contraception method is perfectly OK too. And everyone would be OK with that if we were having the right kind of debate (i.e. when does a human being become a person after its birth) and if it was acceptable to come out and say “Religion is stupid” in a serious conversation on the subject. And we wouldn’t be wasting all that valuable time in such a silly manner.

  • aew9

    I agree with @Josh (#16), and @Physicalist (#14), but by extension I’d argue that humanity at large ( and you can go beyond if you wish ) is implicitly agnostic on psmith’s (#2) argument.

    His/her sense of self came to be because the initial step was not terminated, and thus he/she gives a lot of importance to it. Our collective scientific knowledge is conditioned upon the well being of a lot of scientists and to protect that we try to not kill each other ( or sometimes even other species ). And you can go higher up. Or to break it down, “I” or “self” or whatever you think is being selected for can be divided up into components :-

    self = … + a1 * atoms + … + a2* genes + … + a3 * phenotype + … + a4 * memes + …

    @Drew (#4) says that psmith is talking in counterfactuals, but so are we; the only difference is the in distribution of the components of “self”; some are very local to “phenotype” while the others slightly broader.

    Epistemologically, mental inertia some people have against abortion is not very different from scientists not taking Many Worlds Interpretation seriously.

  • GM

    20. Brutus Says:
    February 13th, 2012 at 10:38 am
    I don’t know as much about the topic as I would like, but I find it both logical and noble to accept ethical axioms grounding high standards for the inviolability of human life. I don’t want to live in a world in which crushing the skull of an infant in utero is basically a matter of moral indifference. Or where human embryos are created and destroyed as raw material for therapies and experiments. I don’t pretend to have a well-informed and thought out position here. Thought-provoking post…

    This relates to the issue of the world as it is versus the world as we wish it would have been. Sure, it would have been nice if the world was created with us in mind and we were created in God’s image and basically everything revolved around us. But that’s not the case and the world turns out to be an enormous cold indifferent colorless place that does not at all care about our utterly insignificant existence in a tiny corner somewhere in it. And we can’t do anything about it.

    Similar thing with abortion and infanticide. We can decide that those things are bad and try to eliminate them but the reality is that they are inescapable and necessary part of our existence. Cannibalism, especially towards young individuals is widespread and perfectly normal practice in many species. Ugly, but that’s how it is, there are reasons for that behavior having to do with the cold brutal logic of evolution. Then, what is more important, all species are products of that process of evolution the only dictate of which is that you should be a very successful self-replicator, and as a result all organisms are very potent self-replicators.

    This has two very important consequences for us humans living in a sedentary modern culture:

    1. Women can get pregnant even when they do not want to get pregnant and more importantly, when they are not ready to give birth to and raise a child.
    2. On a more global level, because we have become the dominant species on the planet and there are no external checks on our numbers anymore, we have the potential to overpopulate the planet, with disastrous consequences for both us and the planet as a whole. In fact, we’ve already done that.

    So it is inevitable and necessary, not matter whether some of us may find the thought repugnant and horrifying, that:

    1. Women are allowed to not have babies they do not want / can not raise
    2. As a whole, we need to drastically reduce our numbers and keep them in check forever after that, which clashes head on with our fundamental biological urge to procreate so any successful program to achieve that would involve either a lot of voluntary abortion and crushing of baby heads in utero (in the best case scenario in which everyone is on board) or a lot of forced abortions and infanticide (in the more likely scenario in which people resist such measures).

    The alternative is certain end of civilization as we know it, likely extinction of humans and possible extinction of all life on the planet.

    Again, it’s not pretty, it’s unpleasant, but nobody owes us a pleasant carefree and meaningful existence – the universe is a cold and indifferent place that doesn’t care about us, its laws are what they are and we either face reality and adapt our behavior accordingly or we ignore them at our own peril

  • Charles Ames

    If my moral code prevents me from aborting a pregnancy, why do I need a law saying I am forbidden to do so?

    My country promises religious freedom by establishing that you may not abridge my rights because of your religious beliefs. In other words, your religious freedom does not give you the right to force your beliefs on me, or anyone else. What you do in your church is your business. Stay out of my house, stay out of my bedroom, and stay away from my body.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Perhaps I’m overly pessimistic, but I’ve pretty much given up on any satisfactory resolution to the debate on abortion. Given the core nature of the moral principles that inform the pro and con positions, there just doesn’t seem to be any middle ground: either it’s murder, or it’s not, and since murder is completely unacceptable, it’s either completely unacceptable or it’s not. Expecting this to change is tantamount to expecting the eradication of religion. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.

    I think a much more fruitful debate must be had among the so-called “pro-choicers”: What do we do if Roe-vs.-Wade is overturned? Seriously, what should we do? What can we do?

  • ldj5000

    Dronewatch: Excellent explanation of the actual issues involved in the abortion battles being waged in this country. The moral and metaphysical debate is for each woman to have privately, not for us or the government to decide. These blastocysts arent abstract features of our environment, they are inside the bodies of women, bodies which are governed by those women, not by the state. Women can make these decisions based on their own moral and metaphysical understandings as well as other considerations, not have the decision forced on them by the beliefs and metaphysics of others.

  • Catholic

    Quote:

    “Catholics, who officially are opposed to birth control of any sort…”

    This kind of statement is ambiguous, at the very least. Catholics can control when to have babies by choosing to avoid sex during periods of fertility.

  • Chris

    What always got to me is those who are against abortion but pro-death penalty. They justify it by saying babies are innocent, that’s a murderer. But they conveniently forget the “love your enemy” part from the Bible. Saving babies is the easy thing to do, saving murders is harder.

  • Gene

    If we need to solve problems of ultimate reality in order to create legislation, we’re clearly in even
    more trouble than I thought.

  • David C. R.

    First and foremost, to the author: Whether or not you are a scientist, or just a writer, who are you to make such a definitive statement as your claim that humans have no souls? (Before anyone argues with me on that re-read paragraph #7. If that is not what the author is stating then it needs to be rephrased. Remember kids: phrasing matters.) You live in a time where it is becoming increasingly obvious that as much as the human race knows there is STILL vastly more that we know nothing about. Until we have answered every last question that can ever be asked, such a statement, (especially on the part of both scientists and people who write for reputable science magazines), is pure foolishness, and frankly goes against the scientific ideal. In science all things must be approached with an open mind and tested, and the end results, even if they go against EVERY previously held notion MUST be accepted or else science is a waste and should be stopped. In science one MUST accept that there are things for which there is presently no method available for testing, and that there are things which currently are still unexplained; to do less is to cripple science. Further, as a person who believes that the concepts of God and of science are NOT mutually exclusive concepts, I find such an assertion flatly insulting, and would appreciate it if you would keep your personal opinions out of your writing, or at least state that they are, in fact, merely your personal opinions.

    Second for those arguing with psmith: The simple fact of the matter is that had the sperm and egg that went on to become the person we think of as ‘psmith’ then the entire discussion becomes irrelevant. Since however they clearly did AND psmith’s mother chose not to abort the entire subject has changed to the question of now that we have an entire strand of DNA that is arguably unique that will, if allowed to develop uninterrupted, into what we would not argue to call a human being, is it right that we crush out that life? It doesn’t really matter from a physical OR a spiritual perspective when you would actually deem it a human being since we are in agreement as to what the end result will be. And since no one has yet called any of you on it allow me to be the first: I notice that rather than addressing the immediate issue/question/dilemma you have nearly unilaterally drug things into the discussion that ultimately aren’t relevant. Contraception is a seperate issue from abortion based on the fact that one is to prevent unwanted, or unprepared for, children from being conceived, and some have the additional purpose of attempting to stop the spread of diseases, whereas the other has to do with the extermination of what, regardless of what it is labelled as initially, will eventually in all probability become an entire person. It’s not as if a human sperm and human egg will cause the mother to give birth to, say, a platypus, and ignoring the invariable end result of a pregnancy when discussing whether or not to terminate said pregnancy, is more than slightly myopic.

    Moral issues aside, the fact is that ultimately, as in so many other places, this isn’t exactly a place governments should be sticking their collective noses. What a person believes and chooses to do is on them, up until they begin to step on the toes of others. People do not live in a vacuum, but neither do they ordinarily live in cages. A government has no business in topics such as abortion beyond ensuring they are as clean and as safe as they can be for the people who choose to have them. Who has them and who pays for them is not a decision a government has any right (or for that matter, qualifications) to decide for anyone. (Yes I realize I sound terribly anti-government, but I’m not. I, like every other country boy, just want people to keep their nose out of business that isn’t their own.)

  • David Brown

    “… there is only one realm of existence, governed by unbreakable laws …” The laws of psychology might depend on placebo beliefs, some of which are objectively false. According to Nikos Kazantzakis. “Every perfect traveller always creates the country where he travels.”
    http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Nikos_Kazantzakis

  • Physicalist

    David C. R (#31) says:

    Until we have answered every last question that can ever be asked, such a statement [that we don’t have souls] is pure foolishness, and frankly goes against the scientific ideal.

    No. Science demands evidence, but it is also willing to accept conclusions that are well-supported by scientific evidence. Your position, on the other hand, lands us in total skepticism (i.e., we’d have to say we know nothing at all).

    But we do know that all matter is composed of quarks and electrons. And we do know that quantum electrodynamics governs all neural processes. And we do know that there are no souls.

    (I frankly can’t follow your second point — we all agree that contraception is different from abortion and that a human won’t give birth to a platypus. I’m surprised but pleased that we also agree that the government should not try to take control of a woman’s body by restricting abortion.)

  • GM

    31. David C. R. Says:
    February 13th, 2012 at 2:46 pm
    First and foremost, to the author: Whether or not you are a scientist, or just a writer, who are you to make such a definitive statement as your claim that humans have no souls? (Before anyone argues with me on that re-read paragraph #7. If that is not what the author is stating then it needs to be rephrased. Remember kids: phrasing matters.) You live in a time where it is becoming increasingly obvious that as much as the human race knows there is STILL vastly more that we know nothing about. Until we have answered every last question that can ever be asked, such a statement, (especially on the part of both scientists and people who write for reputable science magazines), is pure foolishness, and frankly goes against the scientific ideal. In science all things must be approached with an open mind and tested, and the end results, even if they go against EVERY previously held notion MUST be accepted or else science is a waste and should be stopped. In science one MUST accept that there are things for which there is presently no method available for testing, and that there are things which currently are still unexplained; to do less is to cripple science.

    One does need not know everything to know that certain things are not true. Accumulation of sufficient amount of evidence incompatible with a certain idea is generally enough for reasonable people to reject it. If humans had souls the whole monumental corpus of scientific knowledge, all the billions of pages of it, will have to be completely scrapped and rewritten because souls are incompatible with the laws of physics as we know them. The evidence in support of the existence of souls is, to put it very mildly, insufficient to warrant such overturning of all of the accumulated knowledge of humanity

    Further, as a person who believes that the concepts of God and of science are NOT mutually exclusive concepts, I find such an assertion flatly insulting, and would appreciate it if you would keep your personal opinions out of your writing, or at least state that they are, in fact, merely your personal opinions.

    There is no such thing as a “concept of science” that is no equal footing with the “concept of God”. Science is a proper epistemology applied in practice to advance our understanding of the world around us. Faith is the precise opposite of proper epistemology and with that the supposed compatibility of science and religion simply evaporates

    Second for those arguing with psmith: The simple fact of the matter is that had the sperm and egg that went on to become the person we think of as ‘psmith’ then the entire discussion becomes irrelevant. Since however they clearly did AND psmith’s mother chose not to abort the entire subject has changed to the question of now that we have an entire strand of DNA that is arguably unique that will, if allowed to develop uninterrupted, into what we would not argue to call a human being, is it right that we crush out that life?

    There is no such thing as an unique strand of DNA that is allowed to develop uninterrupted, there are 46 strands of DNA in a zygote which then turn into billions and trillions of variants of those original 46 strands due to somatic mutations, V(D)J recombination, etc.. Each of them could potentially develop into a human being if it is cloned (technical difficulties aside). Do we shed tears for every murdered human being in each skin cell we shed every fraction of a second and for every erythroblast that loses its nucleus? What is the difference between those and a zygote, blastocyst, etc.?

    It doesn’t really matter from a physical OR a spiritual perspective when you would actually deem it a human being since we are in agreement as to what the end result will be.

    We’re not – the end result could be anything from the next Newton to something going horribly wrong during neural tube development and an anencephaly. A lump of cells is a lump of cells, not a person – it has no self-awareness.

    And since no one has yet called any of you on it allow me to be the first: I notice that rather than addressing the immediate issue/question/dilemma you have nearly unilaterally drug things into the discussion that ultimately aren’t relevant. Contraception is a seperate issue from abortion based on the fact that one is to prevent unwanted, or unprepared for, children from being conceived, and some have the additional purpose of attempting to stop the spread of diseases, whereas the other has to do with the extermination of what, regardless of what it is labelled as initially, will eventually in all probability become an entire person. It’s not as if a human sperm and human egg will cause the mother to give birth to, say, a platypus, and ignoring the invariable end result of a pregnancy when discussing whether or not to terminate said pregnancy, is more than slightly myopic.

    Yes, we should be distinguishing contraception and contragestion but for most people that’s too much terminology so we lump contragestion into contraception and treat contraception as a mild form of abortion. There is a very good reason to do that – according to the Catholic Church contraception is just as evil as abortion so we do in fact have to fight opposition against both from the crazies

    Moral issues aside, the fact is that ultimately, as in so many other places, this isn’t exactly a place governments should be sticking their collective noses.

    Well, by banning abortion, which is what the lunatics want, government would very much interfere with one’s personal choices. It’s not as if government is going to force abortions onto people, although this is a critical necessity right now because of how drastically we have overshot the carrying capacity of the planet. But that’s not what we’re talking about – the debate is should government ALLOW and provide abortions for those who want them. One side says “Yes, it should”, the other says “No, abortion is murder, ban it”. The latter is very much interfering with people’s personal lives and it is tragically ironic that the very people who are so loudly anti-government will hold to that position for dear life

    What a person believes and chooses to do is on them, up until they begin to step on the toes of others. People do not live in a vacuum, but neither do they ordinarily live in cages. A government has no business in topics such as abortion beyond ensuring they are as clean and as safe as they can be for the people who choose to have them. Who has them and who pays for them is not a decision a government has any right (or for that matter, qualifications) to decide for anyone. (Yes I realize I sound terribly anti-government, but I’m not. I, like every other country boy, just want people to keep their nose out of business that isn’t their own.)

    The government can best make sure abortions are safe by providing them. That’s the hidden gotcha in what people like Ron Paul are saying on the subject – you can not let people pay for these kind of things themselves because the typical situation is some poor naive 17-year old girl with some Jesus-obsessed parents who got pregnant and simply can not afford to pay for an abortion on her own. By keeping government out of these things, you effectively force the most vulnerable to have their unwanted babies because they will be simply out of the market for abortion services.

  • http://www.music.freakout.biz Andi Chapple

    Sean, you write: “But between naturalists and non-naturalists, profitable discussion is much more difficult. Which is why we naturalists have to keep pressing …”

    if profitable discussion is difficult, then perhaps you have to work harder at learning how to do it, rather than aping the people you disagree with by making big claims about your knowledge of reality and trying to win by getting more people on your side.

    I didn’t like the way this post joined a discussion of the way a naturalist way of thinking might lead one to behave to a stoking of the coals of the American abortion debate – it seemed to guarantee that most readers would become too upset to think straight – but on reflection, perhaps you were right to do that as a demonstration that we do all have to share the world with people whose beliefs can’t really be reconciled with our own. it’s very difficult.

    but it’s one of those problems that isn’t going away soon. you’re right, ultimately a political solution to a problem (or a compromise that stops it exploding) does depend on the different factions having plenty of people on their side, but is having one’s side rally under the banner of one’s truth going to help much? there are loads of ways to convince people to support things.

    if you have a little time, I recommend Richard Rorty’s book ‘Contingency, Irony and Solidarity’, which is an attempt to work out how ‘we’ (liberals/leftists) could argue for and hopefully achieve some of our vision of a good society to live in if we had decided to leave the idea of truth alone since we thought it was part of the problem rather than part of the solution. after all, we think all people have worth just because they’re people, don’t we? so shouldn’t we respect people’s ideas even if we don’t share them, not because we might one day be convinced by them but because people have them?

    it comes down to appealing to people to help you stop some other people doing something that you are afraid of or makes you angry or upset. I think I am saying that a little less metaphysics, and a little more emotional honesty, could help in these really gnarly debates.

    I understand that you have really good reasons for claiming that, as a physicist, there are some domains of existence that you understand a lot better than other people. I’ve re-read ‘Physics and the Immortality of the Soul’ to remind myself and you put your arguments well. it’s just that being right won’t help much here unless you are thinking on multi-generational timescales.

    I feel I’ve not expressed this very well, but I wanted to have a go. cheers, Andi.

  • Raw

    Courageous, Sean.

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

    A rarity: a balanced discussion. Just two points: First, there seems to be a feeling that people who are against abortion even in the case of rape, incest etc are somehow more evil than those who make exceptions in these cases. However, if one really believes that abortion is murder, then it is clear that no exceptions should be made here, so really these people are less hypocritical. One might disagree with them, but the disagreement has to be about whether abortion per se is murder. One might disagree with the other side’s reasons, but any argument has to acknowledge those reasons. (Of course, for those whose real aim is to punish (by forcing them to have an unwanted child) people for having sex, then the exceptions make sense.) On a similar note, if one really believes that a human life begins at fertilization, then it is hypocritical not to oppose the IUD as a form of contraception since part of its effect is due to stopping very young embryos from nesting into the lining of the uterus. Also, many embryos are spontaneously aborted, but even religious fundamentalists don’t hold funerals for them, which they should by any logic, from which I conclude that they are hypocritical, misinformed or have another agenda. I actually don’t know of anyone who opposes only the IUD. Some oppose (almost) all forms of birth control, but clearly the motivation here is different since in many cases no fertilization ever occurs.

  • AI

    Personally I don’t believe in free will and see no value in human life in itself. I consider quick and painless death a blessing. I would have preferred to be aborted in fact and not because my existence is particularly miserable but rather because all existence is miserable.

    As a product of our species evolution I do however have certain pro-social mechanisms like empathy encoded in my psyche and therefore am against needless suffering. Suffering is bad not only for the individual, it also cripples productivity and is therefore bad for society in general.

    Abortion and death are good when they minimize suffering and this is the only criterion that matters. As the fetus doesn’t suffer much if anything and others (with the possible exception of mother) haven’t yet formed strong enough bonds with it to be seriously affected in the event of it’s death I am all for abortion if the child is not wanted.

    I would even support killing already born children and adults if there was some reliable way to prove that this would result in less total suffering. Hitler and Stalin should have been aborted or killed in retrospect. But since there is no way to know it beforehand and since children and adults already have strong bonds with family and friends whose suffering in the event of killing would have to be taken into account I am against it.

  • http://www.naturalism.org Tom Clark

    “It’s perfectly natural that those interests will seem more important than those of a fetus that isn’t even viable outside the womb.”

    Indeed, unless of course an ideology (e.g., life is sacred) or worldview (Christianity) distorts one’s natural value hierarchy. Abortion rights can be defended on the basis that there are no good *secular* grounds for thwarting our hard-wired psychological preference that the interests of visible, actual beings trump those of merely potential beings; see “Faith in hiding: is there a secular case for banning abortion?” at http://www.naturalism.org/abortion.htm

    Nice to see the argument described as one between naturalists and supernaturalists and their respective metaphysics, an argument which as you say doesn’t get much air time in our culture. To make the case that there’s just one realm of existence (the natural world), I think we have to first address the epistemological question of what are good grounds for knowledge claims, and make the case (not so difficult) that empiricism has no rival, http://www.naturalism.org/epistemology.htm#rivals

  • http://www.catholiclab.net Ian

    Sean, oddly your defintion of human life does not include references to scientific literature on the beginning of human life and viability of new borns let alone a fetus outside the womb. Nor do you cite any teachings of the Catholic Church with respect to the beginning of human life, abortion (and treatment of women who have had an abortion) and birth control. Do I detect a straw man?

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

    Hhmmm…lots of folks might not be viable without external help outside the womb, even adults. I find this one of the stranger criteria by which to decide.

    @#38: Be my guest. I’m sure folks can advise you on painless ways to end your life. Yes, in some societies attempted suicide was punished by death (really!), but I don’t think that’s the case where you live now.

  • Jonathan McDowell

    Sean – good post, and I completely agree.

  • Pavonis

    I’m a philosophical property dualist rather than a materialist. That is, I believe physical processes can have both material and experiential (conscious) aspects. To take a classic example, which equations would you use to describe the color red? Not the wavelength of light, mind you, but the actual experience of seeing the color. Besides, one can hypothetically rewire the nerves in the brain such that 680 nm maps to blue and 460 nm to red. The actual experience itself is impossible to reduce to QED or anything else. So I think there is something “more” there (but not some magical material which has never been detected!).

    But it is pretty clear that consciousness only exists within brains, not zygotes. So I would draw the cut-off for legality of abortion at the development of capacity for consciousness as a marker for “ensoulment”. As for people who worry they would never have existed had their mother used abortion, perhaps they would have been born to somebody else, use a different brain and body, and see the world from different eyes.

  • steven johnson

    DNA is a chemical substance, not a human being. You might as well say that a CD is a live concert, just because it has the unique code for that particular performance on it. The exaltation of DNA as the materialized soul of humanity is I think a remnant of scientific racism, which is alive and well in evolutionary psychology. Religious people usually love evolutionary psychology because it usually affirms that God wrote human nature as religion has portrayed it into the genes.

    People grow, physically and mentally. It is true that a newborn cannot pass a mirror test, or many kinds of tests at all. But it has the potential to grow if someone simply feeds and clothes him or her. Thus, you can point at a newborn and say, correctly, that it has the potential to be a full human being and ascribe it rights. But, if you try to point at a fetus, you point at the mother. Worse, the fetus doesn’t really have the potential to grow into a full human being until some undetermined point. Taking away a woman’s rights on behalf of an uncertain potential?

    Science itself has been corrupted by the influence of religion. Notably, in terms of the abortion debate, scientists have refused to measure the natural abortion rate. There is a powerful political tendency to downgrade this. In more leftish times, the estimate I recall was that eighty percent of conceptions fail. Now, if you can find any estimate at all, hardly anyone would dare to estimate more than fifty percent. Quite aside from raising serious question as to the strength of sexual selection versus in utero selection that demolish the foundations of evolutionary psychology, no one wants to acknowledge that God is the greatest abortionist at all.

    The abortion debate is so intractable because one side is irrationalist and too many people want to pretend rationality and irrationality are somehow equal.

  • Joel Rice

    Why would a naturalist agree that killing a one-yer-old is morally wrong ? I took an anthropology class back in the sixties that studied severe famine, in which the old and the young were expendable – nobody else had any energy to deal with it anyway. So, never mind abortion – why should I get dinged to pay for someone else’s sex change operation ? Who annointed Planned Parenthood anyway as the favorite provider of various services. I have no personal objection to abortion except that, as Clinton said, it should not even be necessary. Religions are generally against it because until recently, if you had 10 kids, 7 of them would die anyway from epidemics and whatnot. Today, thanks to antibiotics, we have more humans than anyone would have guessed, and all the attendant problems. Do people have a ‘right’ to act like disgusting and irresponsible pigs ?

  • Jesse M.

    psmith wrote:
    “I am that child. If she had aborted that foetus she would have murdered me, she would have killed that life with all its rewards, fulfillment and happiness. Trapped in her own despair she had no way of foreseeing the gift of happiness and fulfillment that she would be giving to me, and to my children. Because she clung to hope she made the unforeseeable possible.
    Abortion would have murdered me.”

    I think it would be more accurate to say she would have destroyed something that had the potential to become “you”, just like if your parents had used some type of spermicide that killed the sperm that in reality went on to fertilize an egg which in turn grew into you. And speaking of potentials, my mother aborted another pregnancy very shortly before she became pregnant with me–so if she had kept that baby, I would never have existed. Thus, I could equally well say that my mother not aborting that other fetus “would have murdered me.” (similarly, by the butterfly effect in chaos theory it is reasonable to say that any possible change to history occurring more than a few days before my conception would have resulted in my not existing, but that doesn’t mean I should think every possible historical event was “good”, including massacres and disease epidemics and such).

  • Jesse M.

    Ian wrote:
    “Sean, oddly your defintion of human life does not include references to scientific literature on the beginning of human life”

    There is no such literature, because “human life” is not a term with any technical scientific meaning (it is mostly used in ethical or metaphysical discussions). For an example of why our colloquial use of the phrase “human life” doesn’t really translate into any precise scientific definition, consider this question: how much of an adult’s body can be lost such that if the remainder is still alive on a cellular level, it still qualifies as a “human life”? I think colloquially most people would say that a person with an artificial heart is still a “human life” even though the organic part of their body would not be able to function on its own, but they might have doubts about a hypothetical case like a body where the head has been cut off and destroyed but everything below the neck is being kept alive on life-support machines, and if we consider a case like that shown in Woody Allen’s movie “Sleeper” where a human nose is kept alive after the rest of the body has been destroyed, I think virtually no one would call that a “human life” even though it’s living human tissue with human DNA.

  • David C. R.

    @ Physicalist: My second point was simply that the people who are bringing the topic of contraception into an argument regarding an abortion are bringing something into the conversation that isn’t really relevant to the issue at hand.

    @ GM: First let me say thank you for doing a point by point breakdown of why you disagree with me. It’s a nice change of pace for me to see a person address each issue seperately. However: there is a ‘concept of science’. The word concept is defined as an abstract idea or a general notion. Which in this case fits since there is no concrete object one can point to and name ‘science.’ You can only point to scientific equipment, personnel, research, results, etc. The same goes in any discussion one has regarding the concept of God. Since there is no physical entity one can point to and call ‘God’ it, like scieince, can be referred to as a ‘concept’. (Yes. I admit that in the case of God that much of the evidence is open to debate as to cause.) On your response to my statement regarding DNA, since it was abundantly clear what I meant, your response to that is just splitting hairs. You know what I meant, and while it IS true that there can be catastrophic failures in the DNA sequence, or reproduction of cells, or environmental hazards that could cause a pregnancy to end prematurely, they all fall under the category of interruptions of the natural process of fetal development. And in regards to your response regarding my belief that the government has no place in the abortion debate: You treated the first sentence as though it were part of a seperate point, which it was not. The rest of your argument to that, while well worded and well thought out, seems to disregard the fact that doctors, clinics, and hospitals, are the ones who actually carry out abortions, and that people should not be forced to pay for something they disagree with. If the government were to provide abortions it would be paid for with taxpayer money, and many of those taxpayers would be furious to have their money spent on something they disagree with. (Not that it typically stops the government anyway, but many people feel VERY strongly about this particular subject. As evidenced by the fact that abortion clinics have been bombed and doctors have been killed over it.) As I said, the government would do best to simply NOT disallow it but mandate that any person or organization must meet certain minimum safety and health requirements. Which is what the government is currently doing, though apparently some people are pushing for more than that.

    @ Physicalist and GM: Both of you state that science says that souls do not exist. My question is this: How do you figure? Most scientists will admit that our concept of the universe and how it functions is terribly incomplete, which is evidenced by the numerous competing theories for how it all began, how many dimensions there actually are, where it’s all going, how it all fits together, and so on. GM you specifically pointed to the crucial flaw in that argument when you made the statement ‘souls are incompatible with the laws of physics AS WE KNOW THEM’ (emphasis mine). Can either of you point to a single theory on how to test for the existence of a soul? What they are made of? Experiments performed testing for the existence of a soul? Can you point to an explanation that even explains HOW they are incompatible with the laws of physics? I’ve yet to find any information stating any of these points, at least not from a credible source. I understand your assertions, and I do see your reasoning, but I disagree based on a lack of evidence.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    #45: I think you’re being a little over-the-top, but you touch on another intractable problem: Either you think there is objective morality, or relative morality. Though it’s not a guarantee, I’d say any Venn diagram that includes naturalists is going to show considerable overlap with moral relativists. Same goes for the overlap between moral realists/objectivists and religionists. Again, what hope is there of persuasion? If God is real to some people, and God determines what is moral, then to them those morals are not subject to question. Moral standards may be ignored by the hypocritical, but to certain among the religious they’re not dependent on airy-fairy things like historical context or cultural mores. Period.

    People (like me) who see morality in purely naturalistic terms find the notion of objective morality absurd, even bizarre. To some degree we can understand how those who believe morality is defined by God might find certain practices completely unacceptable if they also believe those practices are subject to holy interdiction. But we certainly can’t sympathize. In a very fundamental way, we view the world completely differently.

    There is no “argument”, only opposition. Someone wins, someone loses. Anyone who chases after mutual agreement of some form more satisfactory than grudging tolerance of ideological defeat in a democracy is probably kidding themselves. And history tells us many will likely never tolerate certain practices they deem immoral. Meaning either one side or the other is defeated utterly, exits each other’s legal sphere of influence (e.g. secession), or we’re locked in perpetual strife.

    Which do you think is our most probable future?

  • GM

    @ GM: First let me say thank you for doing a point by point breakdown of why you disagree with me. It’s a nice change of pace for me to see a person address each issue seperately. However: there is a ‘concept of science’. The word concept is defined as an abstract idea or a general notion. Which in this case fits since there is no concrete object one can point to and name ‘science.’ You can only point to scientific equipment, personnel, research, results, etc. The same goes in any discussion one has regarding the concept of God. Since there is no physical entity one can point to and call ‘God’ it, like scieince, can be referred to as a ‘concept’. (Yes. I admit that in the case of God that much of the evidence is open to debate as to cause.)

    My precise wording was “There is no such thing as a “concept of science” that is no equal footing with the “concept of God”. That is a bit different from what you are replying to – what I am saying is that science can not be treated as something comparable and on the same level as God, it isn’t. The conflict is between science and faith as ways of knowing the world. Faith has been conclusively shown to be a very poor way of understanding the world around us, that’s why I also talked about proper epistemology and bad epistemology. God is a hypothesis. Faith in its validity is incompatible with scientific thinking because the evidence to support it simply isn’t there.

    On your response to my statement regarding DNA, since it was abundantly clear what I meant, your response to that is just splitting hairs. You know what I meant, and while it IS true that there can be catastrophic failures in the DNA sequence, or reproduction of cells, or environmental hazards that could cause a pregnancy to end prematurely, they all fall under the category of interruptions of the natural process of fetal development.

    Things go wrong a lot of the time, in fact the majority of fertilization events do not result in live births. And again, a lump of cells is not a human. You can only argue that it is if you believe in souls but such a belief is just as unjustified as belief in God.

    And in regards to your response regarding my belief that the government has no place in the abortion debate: You treated the first sentence as though it were part of a seperate point, which it was not.

    I wasn’t actually replying to you there, I was making a general point.

    The rest of your argument to that, while well worded and well thought out, seems to disregard the fact that doctors, clinics, and hospitals, are the ones who actually carry out abortions, and that people should not be forced to pay for something they disagree with. If the government were to provide abortions it would be paid for with taxpayer money, and many of those taxpayers would be furious to have their money spent on something they disagree with. (Not that it typically stops the government anyway, but many people feel VERY strongly about this particular subject. As evidenced by the fact that abortion clinics have been bombed and doctors have been killed over it.) As I said, the government would do best to simply NOT disallow it but mandate that any person or organization must meet certain minimum safety and health requirements. Which is what the government is currently doing, though apparently some people are pushing for more than that.

    Well, pretty much everything the government spend money on is objectionable to someone. Should the government just cease to exist then and stop doing anything? Also, people can object to whatever they want, if they are wrong about it, the government is not only fully within its rights to override their objections but it should in fact do it. The assumption that people know what is best for them is demonstrably wrong but its prevalence is one of the main reasons for the dysfunctionality of most of modern democracies. We should have gotten rid of religion using such a mechanism a long time ago by actively teaching kids as soon as they start school why religion is a bunch of nonsense. A lot of current societal problems we wouldn’t be having now had this happened.

    @ Physicalist and GM: Both of you state that science says that souls do not exist. My question is this: How do you figure? Most scientists will admit that our concept of the universe and how it functions is terribly incomplete, which is evidenced by the numerous competing theories for how it all began, how many dimensions there actually are, where it’s all going, how it all fits together, and so on. GM you specifically pointed to the crucial flaw in that argument when you made the statement ‘souls are incompatible with the laws of physics AS WE KNOW THEM’ (emphasis mine). Can either of you point to a single theory on how to test for the existence of a soul? What they are made of? Experiments performed testing for the existence of a soul? Can you point to an explanation that even explains HOW they are incompatible with the laws of physics? I’ve yet to find any information stating any of these points, at least not from a credible source. I understand your assertions, and I do see your reasoning, but I disagree based on a lack of evidence.

    Souls have very little to do with modern cosmology and particle physics. The basic issues is how exactly souls, if they exist, interact with the well established material foundations of neuronal activity. You do need new laws of physics to explain that. But there is no need to invent such laws because there isn’t any evidence for the existence of souls any way, not is there any need to invoke the existence of such entities to explain anything – material explanations for how the brain functions are more than sufficient. Yes, we at present do not understand how exactly higher cognitive functions arise from the basic neuronal biology, but there is absolutely no reason to think that with another few decades or centuries of research we won’t be able to figure it out and that souls are involved in that.

  • http://www.naturalism.org Tom Clark

    Pavonis on property dualism in 38:

    “So I think there is something “more” there (but not some magical material which has never been detected!).”

    The experiential aspect or property (the experience of red) of physical processes (brain events) is of course not available to observation, only the physical processes themselves. Such properties can’t figure in scientific explanations of behavior, since science only deals in observables, like brains and bodies. In which case, consciousness qua the “experiential aspect” can’t play a causal role in explaining behavior. Whatever the “more” of consciousness is, it doesn’t add to what the brain accomplishes in behavior control, http://www.naturalism.org/privacy.htm

  • http://www.naturalism.org Tom Clark

    oops make that Pavonis on property dualism in #43

    Btw, re: “… it is pretty clear that consciousness only exists within brains, not zygotes. So I would draw the cut-off for legality of abortion at the development of capacity for consciousness as a marker for ‘ensoulment’.”

    Consciousness, for instance the capacity for suffering, seems to be a system property dependent on certain sorts of fairly complex neural processing. But maintaining the existence of consciousness per se whenever it’s deemed to come into being (and there may be no clear line separating conscious and non-conscious fetuses) still wouldn’t necessarily trump the interests of the potential mother.

  • tsardrosdobrad

    Nature performs a lot of murders, but these are not taken into account in these heated debates. Nature has a good metric system and determines the viability of an embryo soon after conception. Most miscarriages occur in the first 12 weeks post conception, and most are even un-noticed by the woman. Only sometimes months later would she recall uncomfortable feeling or slight bleeding to suggest miscarriage. I think that the most natural thing about nature is its nature to make errors, which in consequence leads to mutations and consequently evolution. Exactly this particular property of nature leads to some ‘errors’, in which nonviable embryos survive the entire pregnancy. Sometimes nature is not wrong, and the embryo can be ‘compatible’ with life, even if that is only ten seconds, because if time were the measure of viability all humans are not compatible with life because we die within 100 years of conception which is <<<<compared to the age of the universe.

  • JimV

    Or in other words, to those who say shame on us for not admitting souls as a plausible mechanism with any explanatory value, shame on you for not believing in pink unicorns – with magical powers, that is. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were pink unicorns somewhere in the multiverse.

    Let’s suppose there are souls, though. By souls I mean persona which are somehow created in or downloaded into collections of cells around the time of conception, and which are then uploaded into some cosmic server at death. Sounds silly to me, but to each his or her own. In that case, what would be the problem with abortion? It can’t kill an eternal soul once one has formed, can it? No harm, no foul.

  • David C. R.

    @GM: I see where you’re coming from on the rest of your arguments and while I don’t entirely agree with you, I can at least see your points and admit that they’re perfectly valid. The God/Science thing is the only place I have any serious disagreement with you. And no, I’m not going to attempt to convert you. This isn’t the place for that. I’m just clarifying my reasons for disagreeing with you, and originally, with the author of the above article. I suspect I might have saved myself some time had I stated these things at the outset. My reasons for disagreeing are as follows: First, I don’t see how any system that encourages people to be better than they are, even if such a system uses threats of eternal damnation for failure to make the effort, are a bad thing in and of themselves. Religions, like most things we humans play with, are not dangers in and of themselves. Religions, at least at their beginnings, all have (or had) the intention of inspiring people to look above and beyond themselves. To realize that we are smaller than we think, and stronger than we imagine. To dream big impossible dreams. To have hope. Many people who become scientists get into science because they have done these things, or want to, or if not that, they at least aspire to understand a little more clearly the universe they live in. I don’t see science as very seperate from God and religion at all. Second, I find it hard to accept the belief that God is not relevant to science when an overwhelming number of scientists, particularly in the fields of quantum physics and astrophysics, claim belief in a higher power of some type. They may disagree as to what to call it, or even with the idea that any current human religion has the right of it, but that is kind of a side issue I would think. Finally, I think you may have a misunderstanding of what the purpose of faith is. It’s not a way to ‘understand the world around us’ as you put it. It is accepting the world as it is and accepting that it doesn’t have to make sense to you or be understood by you, and that no matter how ridiculous it seems, all things work out for the best, even if you disagree or dislike the way it turns out because in the end it isn’t about just you. And I would like to remind you that, as cliched as it’s become, the truth is that absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. Maybe we haven’t found proof of a soul yet, or of God for that matter, but since we have no direct evidence to the contrary, neither can we assume that these things do not exist. So far all evidence to the contrary seems to me to be inferred by people, and most often by people who are not even open to the idea that such things could exist to begin with. Personally, I’d love to see some direct proof in EITHER direction just so people would quit arguing over the whole thing. Ultimately, my argument goes back to my original statement that, at least at present, I see no reason why belief in God and belief in science are treated as mutually exclusive options when there is more than enough room for both.

  • GM

    55. David C. R. Says:
    February 15th, 2012 at 1:48 pm
    My reasons for disagreeing are as follows: First, I don’t see how any system that encourages people to be better than they are, even if such a system uses threats of eternal damnation for failure to make the effort, are a bad thing in and of themselves. Religions, like most things we humans play with, are not dangers in and of themselves. Religions, at least at their beginnings, all have (or had) the intention of inspiring people to look above and beyond themselves. To realize that we are smaller than we think, and stronger than we imagine. To dream big impossible dreams. To have hope. Many people who become scientists get into science because they have done these things, or want to, or if not that, they at least aspire to understand a little more clearly the universe they live in. I don’t see science as very seperate from God and religion at all.

    There are two main problems with religion:

    1. It is wrong
    2. It makes faith a virtue and faith is believing things without any evidence in their support. Faith therefore directly leads to people living in disconnect with the world they live in because their foundational beliefs about it are wrong. This can become self-destructive if people’s behavior determined by their belief in something that is out of touch with the reality they live in gets too out of line with what their behavior should be if they were firmly grounded in that reality. It has in fact become so – there is a quite high likelihood there won’t be any humans on this planet 100 years from now and the major reasons for that are faith and religion and how they have shaped people’s thinking.

    Does religion provide purpose, meaning and inspiration to people? Yes, it does so. But the fact that it is wrong alone outweighs such benefits, and its negative consequences dwarf them.

    Second, I find it hard to accept the belief that God is not relevant to science when an overwhelming number of scientists, particularly in the fields of quantum physics and astrophysics, claim belief in a higher power of some type.

    That’s simply not true – the majority of theoretical physicists and cosmologists are atheists. Where did you get that idea from?

    Finally, I think you may have a misunderstanding of what the purpose of faith is. It’s not a way to ‘understand the world around us’ as you put it. It is accepting the world as it is and accepting that it doesn’t have to make sense to you or be understood by you, and that no matter how ridiculous it seems, all things work out for the best, even if you disagree or dislike the way it turns out because in the end it isn’t about just you.

    Faith is not “accepting the world as it is”, it is belief in things without any evidence to back them up. That’s by definition exactly the contrary to accepting the world as it is. Miracles and divine intervention exist only in the holy books, not in the world we live in.

    And I would like to remind you that, as cliched as it’s become, the truth is that absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.

    Well, yes, but you do need a reason to believe in something. There isn’t anything in the world to suggest that Gods and souls exist, the only reason we take such a hypothesis seriously is that it has dominated the thinking of humanity for most of its existence during which people were too ignorant to think of anything better to explain the world around them.

    I personally happen to be one of the few people on this planet that has been raised without any exposure to the concept of God until quite into my childhood (I was never told there is no God either, it just was never discussed) and in the same time I had already learned a good amount about the standard cosmological model of modern science (Big Bang + evolution, etc.) by the moment I was confronted with it. And when I first encountered the idea of God, I just laughed at how ridiculous it was. I am ready to bet that most of us would have done the same had they been raised without the pervasive influence of religion of almost every aspect of our culture and already knew the basic facts when they were first presented with the concept.

    Atheists do not reject the possibility that God exists, they just think it is too small to be taken seriously and science does not reject the existence of God, it just sees no need for it as an explanatory mechanisms because materialistic explanations have not only been more that sufficient so far, but the more we learn, the less room remains for God to hide in.

    Maybe we haven’t found proof of a soul yet, or of God for that matter, but since we have no direct evidence to the contrary, neither can we assume that these things do not exist. So far all evidence to the contrary seems to me to be inferred by people, and most often by people who are not even open to the idea that such things could exist to begin with. Personally, I’d love to see some direct proof in EITHER direction just so people would quit arguing over the whole thing. Ultimately, my argument goes back to my original statement that, at least at present, I see no reason why belief in God and belief in science are treated as mutually exclusive options when there is more than enough room for both.

    Again:

    1. There simply isn’t any need to invoke the existence of Gods and souls
    2. There is an awful lot of stuff to explain if they do exist

    That’s the reason why we reject them as explanations for anything. We do not reject the possibility that they exist, but we can not take them seriously. This is also the reason why science and belief in God are incompatible – the existence of God is a hypothesis that is not supported by any evidence (while there is tons of evidence that we just made it up); it goes directly against the core foundations of scientific thinking for someone to believe 100% in that hypothesis.

    God is not mutually exclusive with science if God actually existed and there was evidence for that. Then science would happily accept his existence and would have to incorporate him in its cosmological model. But there is no evidence so belief in him is at present incompatible with being a good scientist (yes, there are a lot of highly accomplished scientists who believe in God, and yes, they are not good scientists). What is completely incompatible with science is faith, i.e. the belief in things that are not supported or rejected by evidence.

  • DZ

    Re: “Abortion would have murdered me”

    @psmith: There is “potential” (i.e. randomness) and room for making choices, only going forward in time. Once a person is born, the path that led to her existence is fixed. In probability language, conditional on you being around, any chance is completely eliminated from your history: you are here one hundred percent, and it is the fact rather than a possibility. There is no randomness in it, and the two following statements are completely equivalent:

    “If she had aborted that foetus she would have murdered me” <- (the quote from you)

    "If she haven't had sex with a serviceman going off to war she would have murdered me".

  • Zach

    Jumping in without reading all the previous comments: Two points

    1) The rights of viable individual organisms capable of thought, decision, and action always supersede and consideration due to non independently viable parasitic organisms. With that said, if @psmith’s parents had aborted him/her the world wouldn’t care, there are 7 billion people on the planet, I guarantee you the next generation will not have a deficit of warm bodies each with the same statistically relevant potential to better or worsen the world they have been born into. I.e. there is nothing significant about the individual, the individual is unique like all other individuals.

    2) Religious beliefs, wants, desires, pressures will be tolerated within a democracy until such a point as those wants begin to conflict with the right of all other members of the society to do what they will with their own life. That means as far a a truly secular democracy is concerned churches should be just as responsible for the contraceptive needs of their employees as a secular organization. To illustrate, my right to choose chocolate ice cream does not extend to my right to deny you or anyone else the choice of vanilla or no ice cream at all. With that said, if the state requires that employers provide health care they don’t mean some health care, they mean all health care. If we give churches the right to deny this kind of health care what is to stop them from refusing to pay for vaccinations? What about Christian Science organizations, do they have to provide health care at all?

    I personally think that we give religious organizations far too much latitude within our country, they already have tax-exempt status, can’t they just leave the sane world alone?

    Lastly, I can understand the issue around a womans right to choose being about control over her body but what about a mans right to choose not to have a kid? I kinda think there should be an opt out option where if a man officially requests the termination of a pregnancy and the woman refuses his duty to that fetus should be eliminated, she can keep the kid but the kid shouldn’t work as a handcuff for the individual who was denied a choice in the matter.

  • DZ

    @David C.R. wrote: “Both of you state that science says that souls do not exist. My question is this: How do you figure?”

    How does science figure there aren’t exactly 12 gremlins inside of a human head?

    Exactly 12 gremlins or the soul, both possibilities have about the same likelihood, given the evidence. It is possible that there are 12 gremlins inside of my head, but the probability is nearly zero. Quite similarly, according to science, souls “don’t exist”, i.e. they’re possible, but just as unlikely.

    @David C.R. wrote: “EVERY previously held notion MUST be accepted or else science is a waste”

    Well, here is a notion: EXACTLY 12 gremlins, not 11 or 13. Please disprove. What happens is that since possibilities of what is possible are endless, the probability for each of them is close to zero, when evenly divided. There is no evidence for either gremlins or souls, and therefore there is no data update for the prior belief.

  • Guido

    interesting discussion: the trend is lets get rid of religion, let’s get rid of morals – well, religion is a long standing institution tasked to promote survival of life (some religion even speak of eternal life, i.e. survival of the species) – non religious behavior tends to be disorganized, risky and wasteful.
    “morals” refer to acting (not as a follower but as an indepentent agent) based on the highest cognitive life- celebrating ability.
    some day we might have mastered “life” well enough (eternal life?) that we might not need religion any longer……until then….

  • Brian Too

    I suspect all the heat being generated here does speak to the values clash that Sean addressed in the OP.

    One thing I have not seen addressed is that outcomes matter.

    While I have a certain intellectual admiration for those who take purist positions (all death is wrong & murder, versus let’s say, life is pain and death merely a part of life, etc.), there is the issue of the outcomes. The purist positions on abortion generally lead to logical outcomes that are distasteful to most and horrifying to many.

    Thus our societies tend to move to, not a moral centrist position, but an arbitrary one. Set a dividing line and state openly that you’ve done so. This of course does not satisfy the purists from any camp. However I think that is what we have done.

    The funny thing is that abortion itself is distinctly distasteful. There aren’t too many people going around with messages like ‘abortion: A great way to spend a Saturday!’ It sounds wrong even as I write it.

  • http://theoperspectives.blogspot.com/ James Goetz

    Wait a minute. Are there actual Roman Catholic laity who own businesses and feel that they would disobey God if their corporate insurance pays for birth control? I thought only a bishop would care about that? : -)

  • yogi-one

    I am with those who think that the difference between what we call a living entity and what we call a material object is a difference of degree, not of kind. The living have the same elements as the non-living, or as astrophysicists like to remind us, the heavy metals in your body were birthed in supernovae millions or even billions of years ago. We are, as a matter of easily provable, indisputable fact, star stuff. The elements are the same. The atomic weights are the same. The effects of the four known forces of nature upon us are the same.

    I have heard it said, concerning the existence of miracles, either there is no such thing as a miracle, or everything which has ever or will ever exist is a miracle. Either existence itself is a miracle, or there are no miracles. The middle ground cannot ever be self-consistent.

    I could be with the atheists and state there is no such thing as soul, but truth be told, I can equally see the animist viewpoint that EVERYTHING, rocks, dust and all the rest are nothing but spirit.

    If the concept of quantum fluctuation – the idea that something, can indeed arise out of nothing because the quantum field is itself unstable, is true, then it will be the case that everything that can possibly exist has, does, or will exist, and that the nature of it all is truly emptiness.

    If this line of thought corresponds to reality, then I must see each and every one of us as infinite beings (that is, expressions of infinity in an existence where all possibilities must exist) and whose true nature is, at the same time, emptiness.

    That’s pretty much how I see it, actually.

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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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