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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Stem Cell Advocates Tread Dangerous Ground

By Dennis Byrne

University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey R. Stone objected to President George W. Bush's veto of funding for embryonic stem cell research because it's not worthwhile protecting human life that's "smaller than a period on this page."

From this we should conclude that the comparative worth of human life is determined by size. The smaller you are, the fewer human rights you get; when you're the size of a dot and you have none. That's bad news for shorties. Stone, writing in an op-ed column for the Chicago Tribune, never gets around to saying how big a person must get before being endowed with the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Years ago, I was discussing this point with a liberal editorial board colleague at the Chicago Sun-Times. She insisted that a woman's "reproductive rights" trumped any fetal rights because "it" wasn't yet a person. So, I asked, when did you become a person? Her pause indicated an intellectual void on the topic, until the answer came to her with sudden and absolute clarity. "Well, at birth," she proclaimed. She reasoned that at birth the fetus no longer is intimately dependent on the woman.

From this we are to conclude that the comparative worth of human life is defined by the degree of dependency. Which isn't good news for the developmentally disabled, the failing elderly and even newborns.

Continue reading at RealClearPolitics.com

45 comments:

Dr. Chemical said...

And why not use aborted fetuses as a resource for research and curing disease? After all they are headed for the trash heap anyway and a woman has the right to decide what she does with her own body. Right?

Anonymous said...

I find it amusing that some insist that a single fertilized cell (zygote) is a complete human being who has the same rights and protections as a child of say 2 or 3. To set up a straw man equating age, size, dependency, or ability to humanness and then easily knocking it down is emotionally appealing but intellectually lazy.

A neither a zygote (non-implanted cells) nor an embryo (8 weeks into pregnancy) is human. If it were truly recognized as such, one must face the difficult questions associated with natural reasons the zygote does not successfully cell cleave or successfully implant. Or why embryos don't successfully remain implanted or why they don't always successfully continue to develop. All result in early pregnancy failure aka miscarriage. What about disease or infection leading to miscarriage? Who is to blame for this? What about chromosomal damage leading to a non-viable embryo? Who is to blame? If no one is to blame, was it even human?

Miscarriages are certainly not discussed or even acknowledged by those who insist all phases of human reproduction from initial cell fertilization through and including actual delivery are fully human.

It is not for me to state if there is a sharp demarcation from clearly non-human to clearly human or if it is fuzzy or where it occurs during pregnancy.

However, it is clear to me that a zygote is no more human than a finger nail. Whether it is naturally lost or I deliberately remove it, the result is the same. The loss of a few human but non-human being cells.

Second Opinion said...

I would just note that in Mr Byrne's analysis, there are no other transformative moments that approach conception. I must disagree - the awakening and connectedness of brain cells producing what might be considered an early form of sentience is a much more pivotal moment.

Everything before sentience is a response to a given set of inputs: the mother's chemistry, the individual DNA pattern, etc. After the rise of brain function, whether to kick or perform tumbling maneuvers, very well could be a sentient decision.

Some might say we would never know the difference between a fetus (or a severely disabled adult?) acting on his own vs. reacting to poorly understood inputs. That uncertainty is precisely the reason that we should err on the side of preserving life once the decision making, and therefore life, may have begun.

Before and after brain function, until the existence of a soul is confirmed, I am not sure the "pro-life" camp has arguments - just beliefs.

vitalcenter.us said...

Dennis - I don't agree with you, but I appreciate your point of view.

I do have several questions. If you believe that a single fertilized egg is human life, should we ban in vetro fertilization clinics that produce these eggs and then discard the extras? Should the parents and doctors be prosecuted for terminating human life?

Further, did you support Bush's compromise in 2001? Didn't that compromise rewards the termination of human life? Given your position can any destruction of a fertilized egg be justified?

Dave said...

So your category of “human” includes adult humans, and zygotes, but excludes an adult chimp.



I could make a category “things with a brain”, that would include the chimp and the adult, but excludes the zygote.



Why is one category better than the other? They both have predictive value, but different sorts of predictive value.

Both are our internal mental categories that we have imposed on external reality.



A chimp zygote has a different sequence of DNA than a human zygote, by several million nucleotides. With modern technology we could alter them one at a time. Would there suddenly be a categorical line that would be crossed when the zygote ceased being human, and started being a chimp? Or would there be a continual change by degree?



DB: It is an argument based on reason.



Dave: Yes it is. It is a rationalist argument. It is based in deductive reason, with axioms, and categorical differences. But there is an issue with deductive logic. You need axioms. For any deductive proof, if you fully specify your axioms and definitions the proof reduces to tautology. Using deductive logic you can only ever prove to be true what you have implicitly assumed to be true.



In your case you prove a zygote has value, because it is a member of a category that you have defined as the relevant category for assigning value. You prove what you implicitly assume. Of course you could claim your category is given by Divine revelation…



I would classify myself as an empiricist. I would advocate the use of inductive logic in general. It does not yield “proof”, but rather yields degrees of probability. However, on the plus side we don’t need axioms. (Well, we have to at least tentatively, but not absolutely, assume some version of the inductive principle. That is if we want to ever learn anything from experience, we have to at least consider the possibility that A can tell us something about B.)



To the empiricist there are no absolute categories, because there is no way to establish something as more than at best extremely probable. Absolute certainty is not possible.



Let me use an analogy. Exegesis is the process of approaching the bible with the goal of reading meaning out of it. Eisegesis, is approaching the bible with a preconceived idea, and looking for support. The meaning of the text is molded to fit the prior axioms. I advocate doing exegesis on the universe, not eisegesis.



Then for the question of “value” I would argue we have to consider what the thing in question *is*, not what it could become. $10 in the bank could become an astronomical sum, given time, but today it is 10$. So aside from what it can *become*, what is a zygote? Empirically is it more similar to the chimp zygote, or to the adult human?



DB: No one has suggested an alternative, other than its incremental.



Dave: Exactly.



DB: I suppose death is incremental also, so, why not define it as whatever's convenient so we can off people with Alzheimer's?



Dave: Death usually involves some fairly extensive reduction in complexity, certainly in the complexity of the *processes*. (And in fact I would argue, meaning is found in events, not in things, but that’s a digression). In any case we *do* make the categories. Given my argument has the life of the Alzheimer patient become less valuable than it was? Yes, it has. Should we dispose of them? No, because there is a continuum of value, but the line of “no relevant value” that I would support is far below this.



Let’s change the situation. Rather than our wealthy society, let’s think of a small group of humans, struggling for their very survival. The long term survival of humanity is far from certain for this group. Every resource is critical. Does supporting members of the group that can no longer support themselves still seem like such a categorical imperative? That society would be forced to draw the line much higher than our society has any cogent argument for drawing it.

Dave



--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

From: Dennis Byrne
[Subject: Re: Human life


But there is a categorical difference. Before fertilization there are things we call sperm and eggs. After fertilization there is neither sperm nor eggs. This is not just a matter of linguistics. Unlike differences between species (which I was not discussing), there is something new here that does not have the characteristics, behavior, physical structure or future of what was there before. If human life does not begin then, when? No one has suggested an alternative, other than its incremental. I suppose death is incremental also, so, why not define it as whatever's convenient so we can off people with Alzheimer's?



Again, this is not an argument from theology, religion, the Bible, revelation or whatever. It is an argument based on reason, and I'm glad you have decided to participate in discussing what so many of us consider to be the heart of the matter.



Your post would be welcome on my blog: http://dennisbyrne.blogspot.com



Thanks for your note.



Dennis Byrne



=======================



What defines human life?

What is the fundamental unit of value?

What separates humans from lower life forms or rocks?

Do we differ from those other things by degree, or by kind?



Clearly since you want to define 8 cells as a human life, you believe there are differences of kind. This could be founded in a specific religious belief, of course.

But outside of religion, based on empirical evidence alone, humans are made of the same atoms as rocks, and of cells that are virtually identical to that of other animals. We differ from those other things because of our complexity. In particular the adult human brain is the most complex natural structure known. From that point of view the difference in value between an adult human and other things is a difference of *degree* of complexity, not a difference of kind or a difference of absolute category.



Some people would think that brings humans down to the level of rocks, with no Divine spark at all. My personal view would be that the Divine spark is in everything, but to different degrees.



You’ve argued that we need categorical lines, to avoid devaluing adult human life. But if there are only differences of degree, then this is a flawed “slippery-slope” argument. If we have something that differs by degrees, we can draw categorical lines at many different points. It is wrong to argue against moving a line from -1 to 0, by arguing it brings us closer to +1000.



The only way your argument against stem-cells even begins to makes sense is if there are categorical differences, rather than only differences of degree, and that seems impossible to defend empirically, rather it can only be defended as a religious view.



Dave

Anonymous said...

If you really think Jewish people who once had lives, and were then rounded up and enslaved by the Nazis, sent to death camps, and occasionally used in horrific experiments are of as little consequence as the millions (billions) of what you claim to be human lives that you are consigning to the incinerator, then I pity you, Mr. Byrne. I have no idea what twisted path brings you to equating proponents of ESC research to Dr. Mengele, and I haven't any interest in following you down that dark, disturbed road.

Dennis Byrne said...

Sorry for the confusion, but the three items in Dave's comment should be read in reverse order: 1. His e-mail to me, my response, and his response to me.

Dennis Byrne said...

Personally, I would be sympathetic with the "awakening and connectedness of brain cells" argument posed by "Second Opinion" above. It would fit in nicely with the definition of death as the shutting down of brain activity. Years ago, I suggested this as a way to compromise in the abortion debate--extending rights to the fetus when brain activity starts--but was roundly condemned by pro-choicers.

Stephen Schade said...

Mr. Byrne:

It is with good reason that we do not give children the same rights as adults. Giving equal rights to a fetus would also be problematic. If it threatened a woman's health or life, it could be charged with reckless endangerment.

As for embryos, my skin cells could be cloned to also become potential human beings, all without conception. What's the difference?

Dave said...

Sorry about the reverse order posts.

Also maybe a clarification - when talking about "value" I should be clear that this is "intrinsic value". Individual people may also place additional subjective value on things.

DB writes: Personally, I would be sympathetic with the "awakening and connectedness of brain cells" argument posed by "Second Opinion" above.

Dave: First I would disagree with "Second opinion" that there is such a thing as a hard distinction between a "sentient decision", say a "choice" and on the other hand say a "random event". Both are non-deterministic, and that is about as much as science can say. Any distinction we could make (without invoking Theology, and for example Cartesian mind/matter dualism), is drawing a line where there are again only differences of degree. (Say in the degree of complexity of the events that add up to and/or leading up to the manifested non-deterministic event).

But for the question at hand, I *would* agree brain activity is an important line, but I would say that is because of the increased complexity of the processes. There are other key points we can focus on as well. I would include (at least) -

1) Conception
2) First brain activity
3) Viability
4) Birth

For me, it is not hard to say that between 3 and 4, the only abortions should be to save the mother's life, or for some *serious* threat to the mother's long-term health. Dick Durbin actually proposed this once, in a partial-birth debate, and it would probably survive review by SCOTUS.

I would also say that all abortions (and stem cell research, etc.) should be legal between #1 and #2 with no hesitation.

Between #2 and #3 is the hardest question. Without going into details of why, I would argue that in most cases it is probably wrong/immoral/unethical for a woman to have an abortion during this time. It is also probably wrong/unethical/immoral for us to force her to continue the pregnancy.

Now how do you legislate that moral situation?

Dennis Byrne said...

I don't know how you legislate that, but at least this discussion shows that there might be a common ground. I don't recall that the proposal was Durbin's, but I do remember that debate and my disappointment that it was so quickly rejected.

Dave said...

DB: at least this discussion shows that there might be a common ground.

Dave: But then I'm not a radical pro-choicer either. Closer to center or center-left on the issue. Maybe even a "radical-centrist" (along the same lines of a "militant agnostic" "I don't know, and neither do you!")

The left and the right on this issue are both locked in their own "incommensurate paradigms" and both control their own political party.

Does this mean it would be better if RvW were overturned? I'm not so sure. We'd have political battles in every state, and a patchwork of laws from one extreme to the other.

If SCOTUS could find a way to turn over more power but not total power to state-legislators on this issue, by perhaps protecting abortion completely for only the first 2 months, I would be pleased.

Second Opinion said...

Ahhh, sticklers after my own heart.

It seems as though we may both be guilty of being a tad sloppy with the definitions of sentience and autonomy.

sentient: Having sense perception; conscious.
autonomous: Not controlled by others or by outside forces; independent.

I could certainly see an argument for a continuum of autonomy in reaching an outcome.

But sentience is something else entirely. Once achieved, at even the lowest levels on a scale, autonomous decisions (as opposed to mere non-deterministic random events) can be made. What else happens with the advent of sentience is anyone's guess.

Sure, 100% adult sentience is different than "partial" sentience in utero. But even the continuum of real numbers takes a break from its cold ideology to recognize a distinction between zero and non-zero numbers.

Stephen Schade said...

I do not agree that abortion should be completely protected for only the first two months. Sometimes it can take two months to confirm a pregnancy, leaving another month to make a decision and have the abortion. Certainly we do not want to pressure someone to make a hasty decision. In this regard, the first trimester ruling of Roe v. Wade seems very wise.

Frankly, though, I do not think anyone is wise enough to write a law that would cover all the possibilities and all the exceptions for each phase of fetal development. I do not agree with many decisions people make, whether they involve abortion or something else. For example, I opposed the Iraq war and tax cuts. However, like abortion these are complex issues, and a president should not have his options limited simply because Bush abused the privilege.

Dave said...

Second opinion writes:

Sentient: Having sense perception; conscious.
Autonomous: Not controlled by others or by outside forces; independent.

And then -

[Given sentience] Autonomous decisions (as opposed to mere non-deterministic random events) can be made.


Dave: It seems like you wanted to focus on something other than autonomy but then came back to it.

The problem with those two things (choice and random events) is that they are empirically identical, unless we draw some subjective line in the continuum to separate them. When we say one thing makes a decision and another thing is a random event, all we can mean empirically is that in case one we feel the analogy between the thing in question and ourselves is "close enough" that we infer that it shares something "close enough" to our internal experience.

Of course, if we invoke the idea of a non-material soul we can mean something categorical. But let's stick to the empirical, and let's also say with "autonomy" since you have indicated sentience is needed for autonomy.

Let me try to put in my own words what you might see as the difference between a "choice" and a "random" event. In a choice, you might say the result is "objectively uncertain" before the outcome. That is even given all the information that exists (in the past, in this universe), we could not know the outcome in advance because of the objective uncertainty involved in the choice. For a "random event" you might say that it is only a "subjective uncertainty" that is we don't know the result, only because we lack information, but if we had enough information, the exact inputs, we could know the outcome.

Am I close there?

In Cartesian dualism the “objectively uncertain” choice comes from the non-material soul/mind. Then there is a modern species of writer on the topic of “emergence” that wants to claim that at some level of complexity this “objective uncertainty” suddenly appears. And they would point out that we can not verify that the objective uncertainty does not exist because there is too much of there ordinary subjective uncertainty around for us to cope with experimentally. They want to claim that at some level reductionism fails. That is - not only is the whole too complex to explain in terms of the parts in practice, but even in principle, the whole could not be predicted even with perfect knowledge of the parts. As an empiricist, my response is that their hypothesis is of course possible, but highly improbable, because reductionism is a valid principle every time we can test it.

What other options are left? Complete material determinism, like in Newtonian physics? Well, no, because modern physics says that quantum events are objective uncertainties. That is, they are not uncertain just because we lack the information to know the result, rather they are uncertain because all information (in the past, in this universe) is not enough to know the outcome. (See the 2-slit experiment, for example) By my proposed definition above, they would be choices, objective uncertainties. Now it may seem a bit silly to talk about fundamental particles making choices, but I would argue that is because we can not expect language developed for a paradigm that describes our macroscopic world to fit well with the paradigm that describes this microscopic world. As a practical matter, we may want to draw a line where “complex objective uncertainties” are choices, and “simple objective uncertainties” are random. But that would just be a choice of paradigm, and a subjective dividing line. Empirically it is just as valid to view these quantum events as say “fundamental choices of the Divine” as it is to view them as random, because “choice” and “random” are empirically the same.

So (excluding the non-empirical view of the dualist and the advocates for emergence), we could –

A) Say that quantum events are random, and we are just randomness plus vast complexity.
B) Quantum events are fundamental units of choice, and we make complex choices
C) Draw a completely subjective line that divides the continuum into categories of our choosing.

One objection I hear is that quantum mechanics has nothing to do with brain function. True, in general. But given that there is objective uncertainty at the quantum level, some very small fraction of events at a higher level will be so closely balanced that a quantum uncertainty will determine their outcome. Now, in our brain we have huge complexity. Each event has as its cause thousands of prior events, tracing backwards the number of events in question becomes astronomically large. Eventually it becomes a near mathematical certainty that at least one of those events was determined by a quantum event, making our choices into objective uncertainties. Also “Awareness neurons” that fire without being triggered by another neuron and fire at irregular intervals might often be part of the uncertainty involved in choice.

dave said...

Stephen: Certainly we do not want to pressure someone to make a hasty decision.

Dave: The situation has inherent time pressure. We all agree 10 months later it is too late for an abortion. But a 3 month cut off also has some (perhapse less) merit.

In any case, I didn't say that after 2 months abortion should be illegal, only that we might want to give state law makers the ability to restrict it in some ways after 2 months. But just because they maybe should have the option, does not mean they should in fact restrict it. Maybe they could require information to be presented that tries to discourage it, and presents alternatives, for example. The end result would be that our laws would then look a lot like the patchwork of European laws.

Second Opinion said...

"But given that there is objective uncertainty at the quantum level, some very small fraction of events at a higher level will be so closely balanced that a quantum uncertainty will determine their outcome."

That, my friend, is some quantum leap in its own right, one of several assertions but the one that stands out most. I think rather than continue down that path, or diagram all sentences containing forms of the words sentience & autonomy, I'll close my end of this by asking you to circle back to your naturally observed "only differences of degree" theory, and your genetic manipulation of chimp zygotes, and the possibility that anything transformative and incredibly important can happen when an observer seems to only witness small changes in degree.

The point of the real number continuum example, which I surmise you believe plays a role in all sorts of outcomces of many natural events, does not always behave as a strictly defined continuum. I've already alluded to the great singularity that is zero, but other bumps in the road of what is supposed to represent varying levels of degree exist: 1 and e to name the next most prominent.

Differentiating f(x) = e^x is a much different task than f(x) = (e-)^(x), forgive my limited ability to notate here. But while e and e- (a number approaching e from below) are very near differences of degree, there is most definitely a meaningful difference between the two numbers. One is special, the other is just a plain ol' number.

Therefore, along this natural, and life-guiding, continuum of numbers there exist points that very much are different from their nearest neighbors, depending on the lens that you apply.

I submit that at some point what seems to be an insignificant change in degree from may be a singularity of tremendous importance when viewed from another perspective. There are many mathematical and scientific precedents bearing this out. Thus, you should not be so certain that the perspective from which you ascertain two states to be a very small difference in degree are just adjacent stops along a slippery slope.

Maybe conception is such a singularity, though brain activity (and possible sentience) seems more defensible. In any case, I won't get excited arguing such an unknowable point, or cavalierly dismiss the possibility that such pivotal (and instant?) state changes exist.

bmmg39 said...

Those of you who insist that an embryo isn't a human being are consistently contradicted by actual scientific sources, such as secular embryology textbooks, dictionaries, and encyclopedia entries. The WORLD BOOK makes it clear that an embryo is "an animal or plant in an early stage of its development." Got that? There's no exception for embryos conceived in vitro or if we'd like to destroy them for research. They're already existing human beings. To argue that they're not because so many fail to implant is the same as arguing that born humans aren't really humans because so many of us will eventually die of natural causes, and that it's therefore okay to kill one another.

bmmg39 said...

"I have no idea what twisted path brings you to equating proponents of ESC research to Dr. Mengele..."

We're not equating the two groups of people; we're giving a warning. The Nazis destroyed human beings for research. ESC researchers are attempting to kill human beings for research. What problem are you having seeing this?

"As for embryos, my skin cells could be cloned to also become potential human beings, all without conception. What's the difference?"

To be cloned, those skin cells MUST BE COMBINED WITH A HUMAN OVUM. In that respect, they are NOT analogous to embryos, but rather (if anything) to sperm cells.

Dave said...

A short addition to the previous post - There is a situation that a pure empiricist would consider very close facsimile of "unknown". That would be if there are many many relevant hypotheses, and all of them have low probability of being true. That does not apply to the question at hand however. Human autonomy “emerges” or it does not. There are two hypotheses, with a total probability of 100%. (Assuming the terms used in our question are adequately defined)

Dave said...

bmmg39 wants to continue with this deductive "proof" -

Given: All human beings have high intrinsic value.

Given: A zygote is a human being.

Therefore: A zygote has high intrinsic value.

The proof is logically sound, and the result is certain if we accept the axioms and the definitions. But I don't accept them.

If I were to accept a scientific definition that zygotes are “human beings”, then I would not accept the given that all “human beings” have high intrinsic value. I would say only a subset consisting of the more complex members have high intrinsic value.

On the other hand, if I were to take a "common usage" definition of "human being", then I would indeed agree that all “human beings” have high intrinsic value, but I would no longer accept that "zygotes" are human being according to the common usage definition.

Both of your givens are only true, from my point of view, if you change definitions between them, so that in one case you mean the "scientific" definition, and in the other case you mean the "common usage” definition.

In any case, as I pointed out before, once you fully spell out the axioms and definitions in any deductive proof, it always reduces to tautology. You can never proof anything that was not implicitly assumed via deduction. Deduction transforms information, it never adds any. You “prove” zygotes have intrinsic value, only because you have implicitly assumed that to be the case, by equating the definition of “human being” used in both of your givens.

Dave said...

I seem to have lost a post. I don’t think it was blocked. My “short addition” post would have added to it. It was rather long, and I didn’t save it. I’ll try a shorter version.

Second opinion:

"But given that there is objective uncertainty at the quantum level, some very small fraction of events at a higher level will be so closely balanced that a quantum uncertainty will determine their outcome."

That, my friend, is some quantum leap in its own right, one of several assertions but the one that stands out most.

Dave: Awareness neurons fire at irregular intervals, not dictated by macroscopic conditions. They must be very sensitive to microscopic conditions. Let’s suppose for example that they are very sensitive to the concentration of some ion. If it took a lot of these ions to make a difference, then there would be no sensitivity, since ion concentrations would not vary that much at random. So, normally a small number of these ions would make the difference. However, given that firing is a discrete yes or no event, there much be a definite cut-off where one ion would make the difference. Why was this ion floating by just then? We’d have to trace its history, probably back into the blood stream, and turbulence in blood flow would come into play. There we have a chaotic system, and all chaotic systems are very sensitive to initial conditions. Just like the butterfly effect for the weather, it becomes a mathematical certainty that some quantum event is important somewhere back along the history. Again, the reason is that the number of causes multiplies exponentially as we go back.

However, let’s look at the alternative. We can construct computers that have very small circuits, and they all function deterministically enough that there is no uncertainty in the result. A quantum event is very unlikely to disrupt my typing of this note (Although, who knows, maybe one zapped my last post). If our brains are that deterministically constructed, then the result would be that we are 100% determined by our genetics and our environment. There would be no “objective uncertainty” in our “choices”. The only uncertainty would be of the subjective sort, where we don’t know the outcome, because of lack of information. But if we had the prior states of all neurons, we would, without error, be able to predict the result. We would be free of the determinism of Newtonian physics, only to find that we are completely deterministic at the level of neurons.

And just as an intuitive analogy, I would add that when we build AI systems that “learn” we have to give them a psudo-randomiser that plays a key role, much like “random” mutation plays in evolution. (And nature does at least give the appearance of “learning” as bacteria become drug-resistant…)

But, I think you want to have “emergence” rescue us from determinism. Maybe there is a singularity as you put it.

SO: In any case, I won't get excited arguing such an unknowable point, or cavalierly dismiss the possibility that such pivotal (and instant?) state changes exist.

Dave: As an empiricist I am always willing to grant any possibility. What I won’t grant is the probability based on evidence. If I have a sequence 1,2,3,4, ,6,7,8, it is probable that there is a 5 missing. (Via inductive logic). It is possible that any number could be there. But 5 is probable. Also, as I have said, absolute certainty is impossible with empiricism, although things could be shown highly probable. On the other hand, nothing is absolutely unknown. Everything is either a probable or improbable hypothesis. The closest thing to unknown, for a pure empiricist, would be that there are very many relevant possibilities, and all of them are very improbable. But here that is not relevant. We have two possibilities, human autonomy emerges, or it does not. They total 100% probability (assuming our terms are well defined). The probability of the two hypotheses can be assessed from available evidence. The “emergence” hypothesis says “reductionism” must fail at some point. But reductionism has never been observed to fail anywhere, it is so empirically certain that it seems to strike some as a logical principle. (Reductionism - Full knowledge of the parts gives full knowledge of the whole). So, via inductive logic, the emergence hypothesis is highly improbable. I will of course agree it is possible, but isn’t that just a positive spin on improbable?

But I don’t want to paint human existence as meaningless. The *meaning* (and value) is in the complexity of the processes and events. Also empiricism does have an important failing when it comes to Theology. It says nothing about the infinite limit. If you want to know about Ultimate Reality, you’ll need something other than empiricism (faith maybe?). Although here is an empirical argument for a “very large” (part of?) God, even if we can’t say anything about the Infinite.

http://www.davegentile.com/philosophy/God_argument.html

Dave said...

To bmmg39 -

Let's do the following experiment. Let a zygote divide a few times. Separate the cells into two clumps. These two groups could be implanted and produce identical twins. But instead put the two clumps back together. Implant it, and one individual is produced. Did we kill one of the twins? Without destroying anything?

This should help illustrate that empirically these objects do not share important features that we use to classify things as common usage definition "human beings". They don’t follow the same rules. We can’t stick two people together and make one, or cut one in half to make two. But I guess if you insist that we should be using a definition of “human being” that includes zygotes, then we can indeed shove two human beings together and make one human being, or divide one human being in half and make two. Doesn’t that sort of limit the intrinsic value of “human beings” if we can just make new copies that easily? It makes “human beings” sort of like a bit of software, no?

But (I hear you cry), if we can’t say that all human beings are valuable, then what prevents us from drawing the cutoff anywhere we want?!? (The slippery-slope fallacy)

Nothing, except our own good judgment based on our empirical reading of (or Exegesis on) the universe (or the “Book of Nature”). All categories are mental things of our own creation. (Unless of course you claim your categories are given by direct Divine revelation right into your head).

I would say let’s just agree that we should not casually destroy things of high intrinsic value, and then figure out what things belong in that category. I would propose that things with human DNA and any kind of even semi-functional brain belong in the “high intrinsic value” category. I think my category is empirically more defensible than yours that includes zygotes. You could claim that my categories don’t match God’s, but that would be your faith.

Second Opinion said...

This is really my last post.

"Awareness neurons fire at irregular intervals, not dictated by macroscopic conditions. They must be very sensitive to microscopic conditions."

No, they mustn't. They may be a part of a sentient network whose conditions and interaction mechanism we can't observe, and never will. They may have autonomy or true randomness instead of necessarily firing because of a unified theory of everything that understands macro- and micro-conditions. On the other hand, they may be sensitive to poorly understood chemical conditions, both within and without. They may be affected by the aggregate spin of their quarks, or the quarks of a butterfly millenia ago around the globe - but I certainly wouldn't say that any of these are "probable" by either process of elimination or by observation.

The entire point of my last post is that the existence of a singularity cannot be tested by reductionism, or vice versa. So your use of Occam's Razor to discard "unlikely" possibilities often goes too far, in that you are overly reliant on an incomplete set of observations.

Further, even if reductionism has been shown empirically to be the best method of cellular & neural network analysis discovered to date, taking a different view of things (such as the observable body of human accomplishment, human understanding, human dominion over the Earth, the lack of observed "intelligent" life forms, our progressive wants) there is a fairly compelling empirical case to make that humans are unique; vastly different from even those life forms that we closely resemble.

Staying on point, even if your arguments were sound and it were shown to be a near-certainty that our world is 100% deterministic once initial conditions and causality were better understood; doubt in the analysis and the mystery of life drive me to protect human life, old and young, when human sentience may exist. I don't know what drives those who believe that viability (SCOTUS) or birth (NOW, etc.) are important moments.

Viability because sheep have been cloned; humans aren't far behind which would make even an embryo theoretically "viable." Birth because it's more of a change of address and rolling-start of a few major organs than anything else, biologically speaking.

Best wishes to all, may everyone find out we aren't as smart as we used to be.

bmmg39 said...

"If I were to accept a scientific definition that zygotes are 'human beings,' then I would not accept the given that all 'human beings' have high intrinsic value. I would say only a subset consisting of the more complex members have high intrinsic value."

Yeah, there were a few other times in the last hundred years in which one group decided another wasn't "complex" enough to have "intrinsic value" and therefore the right to live. Are you sure you want to be lumped in with them?

"Both of your givens are only true, from my point of view, if you change definitions between them, so that in one case you mean the 'scientific' definition, and in the other case you mean the 'common usage' definition."

Riiiiiiight. So those on my side of the debate have been told for years that we're just religious fundies foisting our theological views upon the rest of the populace, until we present the scientific sources that agree with us, at which point you quickly retreat from "science" as the barometer in favor of a touchy-feely "common usage definition" that involves having pigtails and braces and life ambitions.

Yup. Yup.

"Did we kill one of the twins? Without destroying anything?"

Cut certain worms in half and each half will become a new worm. Does that mean you're killing a worm if you leave the original worm alone?

And, in your oft-repeated "twinning" argument, I must remind you that nothing is "added" for either one embryo to develop or for one to become two. All that is necessary is a hospitable environment and nutrition -- two things that, you see, we STILL need for survival.

Dave said...

SO: No, they mustn't. They may be a part of a sentient network whose conditions and interaction mechanism we can't observe, and never will. They may have autonomy or true randomness instead of necessarily firing because of a unified theory of everything that understands macro- and micro-conditions. On the other hand, they may be sensitive to poorly understood chemical conditions, both within and without. They may be affected by the aggregate spin of their quarks, or the quarks of a butterfly millennia ago around the globe - but I certainly wouldn't say that any of these are "probable" by either process of elimination or by observation.

Dave: I'm amazed and how much people want to insist on our complete ignorance in these matters. I think you raised Cartesian dualism there. One swipe of Occam's razor and that one is completely gone for the empiricist. Emergence I'll cover again below. The only other logical possibilities are we are deterministic which I find to be the more unlikely alternative, or we have objectively uncertain choices that can be traced back to one or more quantum events (See Robert Kane's book "Freewill" for a larger discussion.), which I favor.

SO: The entire point of my last post is that the existence of a singularity cannot be tested by reductionism, or vice versa.

Dave: No, it can not be tested, just like the missing "5". If it could be tested then it would be a verifiable fact, and we wouldn't need science, or inductive logic. The whole point of inductive logic is to take verified facts, and infer from them what is probable. Maybe you want to deny the possibility of inference via inductive logic? That really seems to be where you are going with your insistences on "unknowability" here.

SO: there is a fairly compelling empirical case to make that humans are unique; vastly different from even those life forms that we closely resemble.

Dave: O.K. I'm with you there.

SO: Staying on point, even if your arguments were sound and it were shown to be a near-certainty that our world is 100% deterministic once initial conditions and causality were better understood;

Dave: Mmmm...no, I've argued we do have objectively uncertain choices, and the future clearly is an objective uncertainty. What cosmic ray will hit what water molecule to cause what weather? Or will it hit a bit of DNA? The exact position and momentum of that particle is objectively uncertain given quantum mechanics.

SO: I don't know what drives those who believe that viability (SCOTUS) or birth (NOW, etc.) are important moments.

Dave: Well, I would say we then get into a conflict of ethical principles. The rights of the mother vs. the unborn, etc. but after two months, I would agree with you the unborn is not without moral standing.

Dave said...

To bmmg39 - I'm not insisting on any definition. If you want to use a "scientific definition" that includes zygotes as "human beings" I'm perfectly fine with that. But again, in that case, I don't agree that all "human beings" have high intrinsic value. I say that the line is first brain activity and claim that is more empirically defensible than your line. But then if you put yourself in that "fundamentalist" category this discussion can't go anywhere, because you take your categories to be absolute, regardless of anything that may be empirically probable.

As for lumping me in with Hitler, I think the "proof" goes this way:

Assume: Scientific definition of "human being" that includes zygotes.

Given: Hitler was evil because he said we can kill "human beings".

Given: Dave says we can kill "human beings"

Therefore: Dave is evil.

Here I simply dispute your first given. Hitler was not evil because he wanted to kill human beings.
He was evil because he wanted to kill things of high intrinsic value, which does not include zygotes.

The accusation has some rhetorical merit, but that's it. As logical/empirical approach to the probable truth of the matter, the argument is completely worthless.

Here’s another deductive “proof” for some mental exercise.

Given: Man is the only rational animal.

Given: Sally is not a man.

Therefore: Sally is not rational.

See the problem?

How about trying to make a non-deductive argument? How about we try categorization?
What features are relevant for helping define the category “high intrinsic worth” and why?

Stephen Schade said...

Skin cells can be cloned by inserting them into an empty egg shell, not an ovum. They therefore become potential human life WITHOUT CONCEPTION (no sperm/egg analogy), since they are already in the diploid state (i.e., they have all 26 chromosomes). Yet most people would find it inconceivable (pardon the pun) to call the skin cell a potential human being.

Most in the medical profession believe that life begins at implantation. That is why Sen. Bill Frist, a doctor, supports a bill to federally fund embryonic stem cell research.

All this debate without resolution shows why it will be difficult to draft a law on abortion. Nor should pro-lifers count on political help. Republicans dating back to Ronald Reagan have paid lip service to the issue, yet they have never done anything. Nor will they, since, because the majority is pro-choice, they would lose a ton of votes.

Democrats, on the other hand, have been willing to stand up for their beliefs even when it cost them votes. They lost the South over civil rights, they lost the House over gun control, and they lost Big Labor's support when Bobby Kennedy went after Jimmy Hoffa. If is far easier to admire a party that is willing to sacrifice for its principles.

Stephen Schade said...

Correction to my previous post: the diploid state is 46 chromosomes, not 26.

bmmg39 said...

"But then if you put yourself in that 'fundamentalist' category this discussion can't go anywhere, because you take your categories to be absolute, regardless of anything that may be empirically probable."

I don't put people into that category. Do you? I'm also not lumping anyone in with Hitler; I'm simply warning that you're treading dangerous ground when you begin taking it upon yourself to judge exactly who does and who does not have "high intrinsic value."

"...Sen. Bill Frist, a doctor, supports a bill to federally fund embryonic stem cell research."

...and Sen. Tom Coburn, also a doctor, opposes such a bill.

Dave said...

bmmg39: you're treading dangerous ground when you begin taking it upon yourself to judge exactly who does and who does not have "high intrinsic value."

Dave: "Who" presumes your preferred category (and even more really). I'd say a zygote is a "what". The same with “treading dangerous ground”. You imply an important line has been crossed, and I dispute such an important line exists. I might just as well say “who are you do decide we can kill that cow for food?” Are we not on the slippery-slope towards ethnic cleansing? But killing a cow does not cross an important line, you say? Who are you to say what line is important?

Judging things to be of "high intrinsic value" is inherently a social activity, not a personal one. I can offer my opinions, and support them, but if I'm the only one who agrees, it won't get me too far. Who are we to make this sort of judgment? We are the only ones who can make this judgment, based on our best reading of all the information available to us. And if you want to put God in the picture here fine, it’s still up to all of us to figure out what God’s will is, in that case. Whether what we are “really” doing is interpreting God’s will or making it up ourselves, it amounts to the same thing. We have to use our best judgment.

As for the two Senators/doctors, if this were only a matter of medical facts, their opinion would be very relevant, but the facts are not much at issue here. The question is more one of values, and in that regard, I can't see that the opinion of a doctor counts more than anyone else's.

So again what might define "high intrinsic value"?

I’ll make a proposal. Degree of irreplacability (with something identical or comparable) has a lot to do with high value. Uniqueness has a degree of importance. But our DNA does not define us as unique individuals. In the example with the zygote that has divided a couple of times, where we can create and destroy “twins” we can see this demonstrated. At that point those two twins are for all practical purposes the same thing. Let them mature and they will become unique individuals with their own brains, and their own thoughts, and their own sense of identity, but at the moment they have none of those things. They do no have the same uniqueness or irreplacability that a developed human has.

Ability to function as a valuable part of something larger is relevant as well. A dog can not be a functional member of society. Normal humans from early childhood on have this ability. Now here you probably want to say that this criterion would allow killing of infants and the disabled. But I am not proposing this as a sole criterion for defining our category, I am listing it as one of many contributing factors.

On your side of the argument, the potential something has to develop into something more valuable can not be deemed completely irrelevant. But of course, every egg and sperm have the potential to produce a human. This egg and sperm example just shows that this criterion by itself is not sufficient to define “high intrinsic value”, but it does not mean this can not contribute to the definition.

The very fact that something is alive might be listed as a basic fact, and a contributing factor, although that is shared by many things.

Based on all these factors, I propose that living things, with human DNA, and a functional brain of any sort, be placed in the “high intrinsic value” category. They are alive, they have the potential to become functioning members of a society, and they have a uniqueness and irreplacability that did not exist before that point in time. Do you have a better category definition based on better evidence-based criteria?

Stephen Schade said...

Using values can be very subjective. As a result, it may be difficult to reach consensus, as this long discussion suggests.

Bringing religion into the mix is also problematic. My denomination, the Lutheran Church, claimed a century ago that gambling and life insurance were wrong. They have since recanted those views. When making pronouncements about things that are not in the Bible, you are always on thin ice. The same goes for embryonic stem cell research.

Science at least offers some gudiance on the subject. While a few doctors may oppose such research, most support it. Even using brain wave activity as the criterion involves science, though it does not have much support in the scientific community.

bmmg39 said...

"Dave: 'Who' presumes your preferred category (and even more really). I'd say a zygote is a 'what'."

Once you concede that a human zygote is a human being -- and you seem to be almost there -- then you understand that a zygote must be a "who" and not a "what."

"Are we not on the slippery-slope towards ethnic cleansing? But killing a cow does not cross an important line, you say?"

I've been an ethical vegetarian for thirteen years now, so you might be barking up the wrong tree right now.

"The question is more one of values, and in that regard, I can't see that the opinion of a doctor counts more than anyone else's."

Take it up with the person who introduced a doctor into the equation.

"And if you want to put God in the picture here fine..."

I don't. Let's not confuse the issue, now. My argument is scientific; yours relies on the religious superstition of "high intrinsic value."

"Bringing religion into the mix is also problematic."

Yes, Stephen, which is why I'm relying solely on the scientific sources (embryology textbooks, encyclopedia entries, dictionaries, et cetera) that make it clear that a human embryo is a human being.

Dave said...

bmmg39: I don't. Let's not confuse the issue, now. My argument is scientific; yours relies on the religious superstition of "high intrinsic value."

Dave: Your arguement is completely "scientific" you claim?

Science deals in things like emperical evidence, description, explination, prediction, and in general tries to provide knowledge. This is a moral/ethical question. Any "should" question is outside the boundries of science. In order to answer it we need to know the basis of our ethical judgement system.

In short there is a gap between "is" and "ought". Science can answer or attempt to answer the "is" questions, but it has nothing to say about the "oughts".

So even if we were to agree that a zygote is a human being, that does not tell us anything about what we ought to do about it without more assumptions.

Stephen Schade said...

An embryo is defined as such for the first eight weeks during the course of gestation. However, it passes through many phases during this time. Two of these are pre-implantation and post-implantation. While some texts may refer to the latter as a human being, few scientists define the former as such.

Dave said...

More to bmmg39:

Also, "intrinsic value" does not need to be a religious concept. It can be, but it need not be. It just means the value something has relative to itself and itself alone. Personally, I argue for the existence of intrinsic value in terms of complexity, etc. Some may argue for it on religious grounds.

Now, if you want to say there is no such thing, then the only value something could have is relative to something else. In other words, a zygote is only worth what we say it is. We are at complete relativism.

In that case we might as well be arguing about what flavor of ice cream tastes best. There is no path towards agreement, it is just preference.

bmmg39 said...

"So even if we were to agree that a zygote is a human being, that does not tell us anything about what we ought to do about it without more assumptions."

-- which means you'd have to concede that you believe that some human beings (please note the lack of quotation marks there) can be destroyed for medical research.

"While some texts may refer to the latter as a human being, few scientists define the former as such."

So if a scientists denies that water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, you'd be perfectly okay with that...

"Also, 'intrinsic value' does not need to be a religious concept. It can be, but it need not be."

It is "religious" (i.e. unscientific) in that it is completely arbitrary.

Stephen Schade said...

If one wants to argue from science, then one has to either accept scientific consensus or prove it wrong. A hypothetical proposition about a rogue scientist does not disprove anything.

bmmg39 said...

The onus is on those who contend that the embryo isn't a human being to demonstrate what mystery third component is added, thereby transforming a non-person into a person.

Stephen Schade said...

First of all, as mentioned previously, there is no difference between a preimplantation sperm/egg embryo and a diploid skin cell. Secondly, a preimplantation embryo is destined to die unless it implants in the uterus. Prior to day 14, the preimplantation embryo has no body cells of any kind, and, in fact, has no cells even committed to somatic cell lineages. Indeed, the embryo has not individualized. It is therefore proper to say that it is not yet an individual. Once an embryo attaches to a uterus (the third component, if you will), an individual can form from it.

bmmg39 said...

That might hold water if the uterus ceased to exist after the embryo entered it. This is, after all, what happens to the sperm and the ovum after fertilization: they cease to exist in and of themselves.

Stephen Schade said...

The sperm and ovum do not cease to exist. Their DNA is still present, as their chromosomes combine to form a single nucleus, just as in a cloned skin cell.

Last week a research firm found a way to remove stem cells without destroying an embryo. If this discovery pans out, it will make this whole debate moot. Then we can focus our energies on finding ways to eliminate human suffering and making the world a better place in which to live.

bmmg39 said...

After fertilization, the sperm and ovum, if you do not wish to say that they no longer exist, only exist as part of something/someone else. After a child is born, his/her mother still has her uterus.

And ACT only CLAIMED to have found a way to do what you described. All the embryos in their experiment were killed, but they glossed over that in their press release, which for the first few days was the only thing most media outlets looked at. (Then their stock price shot up about 400%. Hmmm...)

Stephen Schade said...

Implantation in a uterus represents a major transition, which is the point of the scientific argument. No logic dictates that the the uterus must become part of the embryo in order for a major transition to occur.

Time will tell if the new procedure has validity. It is premature to judge.

gasparutto said...

so life is sacred until the 75th trimester, when the "individual", disconnected, independent person can be killed in service to the other selfish putzes in their community.