Sunday, 5 April 2009

New Life From Old

Identical twinsImage via Wikipedia
That's the title of the blog af a chap I used to live with. He did a post a little while ago about an alternative stem cell source, and his thinking on the matter, and we had a bit of a comment box exchange.

He moderates his comments, and I think he decided he didn't want to continue the discussion, but I didn't want my last comment to be lost in the eTher, so here it is:

I think that
it is important to delineate the respective positions. If we're talking about potential human beings that's ethically troubling. If we're talking about human beings, murder is the right word. There's quite a wide range within the word "immoral".

To say that there is no 'magical' moment of conception doesn't strike me as very important. The "moment" of conception can be understood as the beginning of the process, or perhaps the end. By selecting implantation as the 'magical' moment of the beginning of the process of personhood, you're proceeding to answer a philosophical and theological question with a scientific method; strictly speaking, an impossibility, though obviously science can and does aid philosophical and theological enquiry.

With regard to the fertilised egg not being able to be "flushed out", I believe that a baby can be rejected by the mother's body very late term, resulting in a miscarriage or stillbirth. If this were the case, that would make the criterion irrelevant. Moreover, that people die before they are implanted in the womb is no more philosophically unacceptable than that people die at any other stage. Also, I should think that a genome is a distinct individual structure. If so, it doesn't make sense to choose the structures to which you refer in preference to the genome. Neither can the mother's awareness of the pregnancy answer the question. A soul is never demonstrable from scientific observation - the mother's feelings can hardly be a more valid test. Besides, there has already been incredible interplay between the mother and the embryo in conception, where the embryo receives half of its genetic information from her.

I understand that we are currently unaware of what causes the embryonic fission that results in identical twins. This being the case, it may be that the fission is inevitable from genetic or environmental factors. In this case, it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that there were two souls from the beginning. Or it is possible that there is only one soul at the beginning which becomes two. I gather you don't accept this idea, but I don't see that it's possible to reject the idea whilst maintaining at the same time that Jesus is "eternally begotten of the Father, [...] true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father"; He is of one being with the Father, yet is begotten, a distinct person.

Chimeras would be a separate mystery, but no more impossible than the full humanity and divinity of Christ, the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son, the union of the Church as the body of Christ, and that man and wife are "no longer two, but one flesh".

That we don't know how it works can't be an insuperable obstacle. We may think "that a unique genome is insufficient for personhood" but we might also think that 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish were insufficient to feed more than 5,000 people, and yet they weren't. Of course, we know that the second is a miracle - it breaks all the usual rules, but in the case of souls and "personhood", we don't even know the rules unless God tells us.
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Rosy At Random said...

There's some question as to how self-aware even young toddlers are; whatever it is that makes humans human is not a simple factor.

Personally, I would say that the ethics relating to abortion and stem-cell research depend upon matters both scientific and social: the 'human value' of an embryo clearly depends upon both its potential (which is higher before the egg is fertilized, in fact much higher several generations before the mother is even born) and degree of development.

I wouldn't bring matters such as 'souls' into it as, well, I think the term is meaningless. You can spend a lot of time thinking about such things (see also, 'free will,' 'god,' and 'miracle') and spin a lot of gears without really getting anywhere. There's a reason for that....

Consciousness is whatever it is and clearly has a very broad spectrum. At some point the fetus will have one developed enough that it brings about an empathic response; as humans, we recognise something of ourselves in it and wish to see it grow. At that point, it should be a question of human rights. Before that point, the only people who can really have any say in the matter are the parents.

Basically, I'm an existential rationalist here.

Mark said...

I brought the matter of souls into it because I was talking to a Christian - it wasn't really aimed at you cheeky atheist types, you see.

To my mind, taking souls out of the equation makes it more simple rather than less - I don't see any convincing reason from a purely naturalistic perspective to say that a fertilised egg isn't a human life And a human life has human rights. I don't know a way of proving that a fertilised egg is a human life, but I do know that ignorance is no pretext for what may (or may not) be murder.

I don't understand how people reach the conclusion that before a certain point (on which there is never anything approaching a consensus) only the mother or, in your very inclusive view, mother and father, has any say in the matter. When we talk about human rights, we are talking about absolutes, and there's no time limit on human rights. If we're talking about a human life, it makes no more sense to say "my womb, my rules" than it does to say "he's my child - I can sell him into slavery if I like".

"[A]s humans we recognise something of ourselves in it and wish to see it grow. At that point, it should be a question of human rights."

You seem to be saying that the basis of human rights is essentially narcissism, that your human rights are granted to you on the condition that your parents recognise you as something they want. It would make sense, on that scheme, to enshrine the rights of your parents to kill you when they've had enough of you.

Rosy At Random said...

Yeah, I know, I was butting in :D

As to what constitutes a human life... well, like many questions I don't think it has an objective, qualitative answer simply because it doesn't refer to an objective, qualitative concept.

It's like the Sorites Paradox: if you remove grains of sand one by one from a heap of sand, at what point does it stop becoming a heap? It's only a paradox if you consider 'heapness' to be an inherent physical property - really, it's just a human concept that we apply to things.

Even though we cannot currently quantify or qualify consciousness, there's no a priori reason why it couldn't be done. But even then, applying 'human-ness' to it is problematic. Like sanity, humanity is a concept we've made up to apply to ourselves. It can only mean what we define it to mean, and that's a social, pragmatic matter.

People create values, and while science and rationality can be used to shape and utilise them, the values themselves are arational; they just reflect our own inbuilt (whether by developmental or cultural means) preferences. So really, it is up to us to give a value to human life; the universe not only does not care, it does not know what there is to care about.

And really, 'life' is even harder to define than consciousness. My skin cells are alive, but are not themselves human. You could take a tiny bit of my brain out and keep it alive in culture, but it would still not be human. An embryo cannot be called human simply by what it might become; if it can be said to possess the quality of humanity it should be by what it is and does. And I can't think of any other functional property to relate humanity to other than consciousness.

There are probably two ways of saying when it is human - ie, when you could murder it: by what manner of consciousness it possesses, or by how far along it has developed that its future consciousness is already given shape, and a loss would be a qualitative loss to what might have been. The first is a matter of empathy, the second harder to pin down.

I suppose the real point I'm trying to make is that if we value humanity, then to answer questions about how much we value it and at what point something becomes valuable, we have to know what it is about humanity that we value. There has to be some kind of non-ineffable quality to us that we can attach our sentiment to, else that is all it is: empty sentiment.

Mark said...

I see what you're saying. It's all very bleak.

For someone who thinks that human life is objectively and qualitatively contentless, that humanity is a social construct and that values are only really preferences by another name, you certainly have a lot to say.

I know it's a bit of a cliche, but if these things are as meaningless as you say, why exactly are you telling me about them? Wouldn't it be just the same, all things considered, to leave me to live and die in my God delusion, ignorant of the cold indifference of reality?

Still, at least I understand why you were calling yourself an existentialist earlier. I never saw very much in existentialism. To me it seems that if the universe is meaningless, it's meaningless and that's an end to it - arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic sort of thing.

Rosy At Random said...

Ah, but bleakness is just another human interpretation! :D

In a way, there's a kind of faith involved here; I know my feelings are... well, you could call them meaningless without an objective universal valuation, but they sure are meaningful to me! The fact that they have evolved to be useful, and as such reflect 'meaningful' states of mind as regard to observing, planning and acting on the outside world is also unimportant. The fact is that I have a rich internal experience, and share this with the world around me.

Put it this way, would you love any less, or feel with less clarity, if suddenly - and unbeknownst to you - god stopped observing and evaluating you? How would you know? The rulestick by which you give value to things is in your own head; my words, here, and everything you observe about the world is filtered through yourself.

If you feel that something is good and worthwhile, then it does not have to be true. I would consider myself a Romantic: I may know the things I believe in and live for are illusions or just plain incorrect, but believing in them (or at least acting as if I did) is still worth it, and may yet make them become true. Frex, being kind, compassionate and trusting - even if people abuse your good nature, you can still hope that you make a difference and help people to become a bit better. I think this is quite similar to what I heard described as being a Knight of Faith. But I do try to be aware of my self-deceptions, and so transform them more to something like a game theory strategy.

All this makes it sound like I overthink things; really, I mostly just live in the moment.

But the fact is that your feelings exist. Your values exist. They are there, in the universe, eternally and unchanging. In a timeless universe, nothing is ever lost, and your future is not determined by physics: you are physics. You are the physics that is yourself.