Choosing Wisely (Part 3)

I was reading one neurobiologist’s discussion of the ethics of abortion, and he made the claim that the facts of developing consciousness are clear.  He suggested that such clarity ought to change the debate, since we know that embryos/fetuses aren’t “one of us” until after the 23rd gestational week.

(It might be helpful to distinguish my use of terms.  By “conscious” I don’t mean “awake,” so “consciousness” isn’t mere “wakefulness.”  I mean that rather more nebulous anthropological conglomeration of thinking, feeling, knowing, and willing.)

It all sounds clear and wonderful, except that it’s all entirely fiction.  Or, to be more generous, it’s all a constructed interpretation based upon a limited understanding of what’s involved, an interpretation which is questionable at best, and certainly not universal.

Most notably, he has to assume that consciousness is what makes the embryo/fetus “one of us,” as opposed to the far more obvious claims of genetics and biology. I talked about that particular style of valuation yesterday, and won’t repeat myself here.

It’s perhaps more interesting (although perhaps only to me) to discuss how his interpretation is based upon other assumptions which are not only hasty, but unlikely to be true.

The basic chronology goes like this.  Within hours of conception the embryo begins developing the material that will eventually become its brain.  Within days the final divisions in that material–hemispheres and lobes and such–begin to be recognizable.  Within weeks we can detect activity in that material, electrical impulses surging awkwardly through brain cells, albeit without much in the way of consistency.  The sort of consistency we see in adults isn’t achieved until around the 23rd week.

His argument goes like this.  The electrical impulses we see in the brains of conscious adults are regular and sustained, so consciousness seems to require regular and sustained electrical impulses in the brain.  An embryo/fetus has no such regular and sustained impulses before the 23rd week (in general), so the embryo/fetus doesn’t have consciousness before that point.

It seems like modus tollens, which is a valid form of argument:

1. If A then B.
2. Not B.
3. Therefore not A.


1. If it has consciousness then it has regular and sustained electrical impulses in its brain.
2. It does not have regular and sustained electrical impulses in its brain.
3. Therefore it does not have consciousness.

Unfortunately we have to equivocate to reach that form, that is to say that we have to use two subtly different terms, and pretend that they aren’t different.  Specifically, he determines qualities of “adult consciousness” then applies them to “consciousness.”  But this would be like replacing a specific term like “German Shepherds” with a broader term like “Dogs.”

(And it would not help to argue something like this:  “But infants show those same sorts of signs, so it isn’t only adult consciousness.”  However broad you make the adjective in front of the word consciousness, you can’t use that broadness as evidence that the resulting term isn’t exclusive.  Thus, talking about “Shepherding Dogs in General” may be broader than “German Shepherds,” but that broadness is not evidence that “Shepherding Dogs in General” doesn’t still exclude other types of things that can be appropriately called “Dogs.”)

Really all he’s shown is that the embryo/fetus doesn’t have signs of fully developed consciousness before the 23rd gestational week.  This shouldn’t surprise him.  Embryos, like babies, like children, like teenagers, like adults, develop slowly, not all at once.

When my infant son takes his first halting steps, I will tell everyone that he has started walking.  I will not wait until he walks like an adult.  If that were the case, I could still not tell people that my daughter is walking, even though she has been doing so for years, because she still walks like a child rather than how I walk.

When my son begins associating recognizable sound patterns with things, and makes those sounds to refer to those things, I will say that he has started talking, even if his “recognizable sounds” are very different from the words I eventually hope they will become.  For whatever reason, my daughter calls our “refrigerator” a “tackifator.”  She is not talking like an adult, but she is still talking.

Frankly, every other experience of human development ought to suggest to us that, if we were to find physical signs of consciousness, we should expect those physical signs to show the kind of fitful and awkward development we see in the physical signs of every other form of human development.

So questions emerge.  Why should we require this one area of development to reach a certain point of mastery before it counts, when we don’t treat other areas like that?  Who gets to determine how much consciousness is required to count as human?  What if we change our minds later?  Who else can we exclude?

That is to say, what seemed like the sort of indubitable quality I described yesterday, is actually a disputable quality.  And it’s one that’s fairly commonly disputed.  Peter Singer, for example, argues that consciousness doesn’t develop for years after birth, and an increasing number of people agree with him.  Consciousness, it seems, is not such a clear matter of fact as some assume.

(It’s also pretty clear upon investigation that we make these distinctions for questionable reasons.  We find reasons for delaying membership in humanity so that we don’t have to change how we treat those we exclude.  We resist including them because then we would have to change our behavior in inconvenient ways, not because we don’t have reason to include them.)

I’m out of time, but before I end again, I want to point out that the subject is about fifty times more complicated than I can effectively explore in so short a time.  For example, the relationship between consciousness and the electrical impulses in the brain is far from certain.  In fact, if it were certain it would probably render all human existence gibberish.  Consciousness is precisely the sort of thing about which almost every thinker agrees, regardless of how much they disagree about other things; they all agree that consciousness is a mystery.  If so many divergent voices agree that we don’t understand something, why would make important decisions as though we did understand it?


One thought on “Choosing Wisely (Part 3)

  1. Some parts genuinely made me smile. Especially the one where you argue that consciousness might not develop a few years after birth. This is the Achilles heel of Marry Anne Warrens work (infanticide counter). Though she somewhat deals with it. To be honest though, i think the personhood debate is off topic. When and if a life achieves personhood is not really at the core of the issue. When i did my research on abortion, i quickly found that the moment of conception is the beginning of human life. Two haploid cells forming a new, genetically unique, diploid cell. And this cell has the potential to achieve personhood. Potential has value. We spent loads of money on potential (for example athletes). We even subsidize branches of research that have potential potential. Ergo potential personhood has value. One does not need to have achieved personhood to be worth more then the sum of parts. Does potential personhood have enough value to be granted rights? I think the answer is yes. First and foremost the right to life. Is it overshadowed by the rights of actual persons? In Marry Anne Warrens words: “the rights of any actual person invariably outweigh those of any potential person”. I think this statement is ludicrous. The right to live is the most basic, most fundamental right one has. It is therefore the hardest to revoke. While the right to control your own body (or reproduction) is very important, it does not compare here. Said right can be infringed by forced blood tests and the like. In comparison that is a rather empty justification.
    This has gotten somewhat longer then intended sorry (I just got home and i’m quite drunk). In conclusion: In my opinion the pro-choice movement has been dealt major blows by science and as of today stands on a crumbling moral foundation. Personhood does not encompass the entirety of the argument unless it favors in potential personhood.

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