Arguing

It’s a difficult business to argue as a Christian, not least because, when one argues with non-Christians, one is sometimes the only person attempting to fulfill a standard.

There are a few dozen ways I might already be misunderstood.  Most obviously, for those in general society, which is largely not interested in being rational, arguing usually means “shouting angrily at each other.”  Or at least in involves angry opposition.  By “arguing” I mean “rationally explaining, supporting, and discussing a conclusion.”  An “argument,” in this sense, is just an explanation of why one believes a thing.

Which brings me to the second possible misunderstanding. I’m not saying that it’s difficult to argue as a Christian because perhaps Christianity is irrational, or because perhaps we don’t have reasons for believing what we believe.  Christianity is actually rational, and Christians have reasons for believing what we believe. In fact it bothers me whenever people suggest that their religion is somehow separate from reason.  (e.g. “I don’t need reasons, I just believe it.”)

Nor is it the case that Christianity depends upon either particularly few arguments or particularly weak arguments.  In fact, the arguments for Christianity are significantly more numerous than those against it, and are at least as strong.

So what in the world do I mean?  I mean that arguing with a person has to be an expression of love for that person.  That is how one argues as a Christian.  We reason with people in such a way that our words and our bearing and our motives are Christ-like.  (Or, as necessary, when we are wrong we admit it so that we may become more Christ-like through correction.)  That’s a difficult business.

It isn’t made easier by people who seem intent on being obnoxious.  I should probably find that particularly “convicting,” to use the cliché Christian language, because I am precisely the sort of person who has spent most of my life trying to be obnoxious.  Or at least I was obnoxious, whether or not I tried.

There’s a certain failure made evident by expressing my frustration in a public forum.  I would delete it, but, you know, the rules.  (What a terrible and silly attempt at a sentence.  One should not try to type using colloquial spoken syntax.)

Either way, this is something with which I struggle: how do I best love those with whom I argue?  (Or debate, if that word is clearer.)

Also, let me say again in praise of William (if he is reading this), that he is a charming interlocutor.  I thanked him for his patience before, and have sadly given him significant chances to continue displaying it, but he has been nothing but gracious and thoughtful.

I am nearly out of time.  This seems an entirely trivial reflection, and I’m not sure why anyone is interested in it, but if you have made it this far and are thinking of leaving comments on my blog or writing to me or whatever, here is a bit of advice or a few requests:

1.) Being angry and inflammatory is most likely not going to help you make your point.  Also, it’s going to hurt my feelings and confuse me.  I won’t know how to respond to you and will worry about it.

2.) My wife will notice that I’m worried and she’ll tell me to delete your comment.  I’ll realize that she has a good point, because she’s awesome, and then your comment won’t be posted.  (Admittedly, this isn’t really a second item on the list.  Now I just have numbered paragraphs.)

3.) Be patient.  I will respond, but it will take a long time.  Partially this is because I’m busy.  The rest is that I’m taking your comment probably more seriously than you are, and am trying to treat you with respect.

4.)  In the background, my son is crying.  This means my time is cut short.

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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.

Or:

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?

Choose Wisely (Part 2)

Abortion is a fundamental failure to uphold Human Rights.  If an embryo/fetus doesn’t have the right to life merely by virtue of being human, it’s difficult to say that anyone does.  Being human wouldn’t be enough.  There are some who would want to argue precisely that, but I’m not criticizing them specifically here because they don’t believe in Human Rights either.  If you do believe in Human Rights, abortion ought to trouble you.

An increasingly common way to try to get around the problem is to defend, by one means or another, the claim that the embryo/fetus is somehow less than human, and thus has less of a right to life than other humans would.  There are systemic problems with the approach in general, as well as specific problems with each of the standards raised to define the cutoff of full humanity.

Let me start with the systemic problem, and begin by making some distinctions.  There are two broad categories of qualities that a thing might have; for convenience I’m going to call them indubitable qualities and disputable qualities.

Indubitable qualities are those that are either self-evident in some respect, or factually evident, but at least not contested.  They’re what most everyone grants or agrees upon, independent of how they subsequently interpret them.  (They’re the facts that are interpreted, rather than the interpretation.)  They also tend to have clear Boolean values; they’re either true or false.  (Off or On, like a light switch.)

Disputable qualities are, as their name suggests, those subject to debate, interpretation, or mystery.  Some might grant them while others might not, and whether one grants them largely depends upon secondary concerns.  These also tend to function across a continuum; rather than being either true or false–On or Off, like a light switch–they have gradations of value.

Thus, pregnancy is an indubitable quality–one either is or one isn’t, and one’s view of the subject is not likely open to rigorous debate–while something like maturity is a disputable quality:  different people might be different levels of maturity, and might disagree about how those levels are measured.

All of this is relevant because we have to ask ourselves whether humanity is an indubitable quality or a disputable one.  If humanity is defined in terms of indubitable qualities, it is itself indubitable.  It we define it in terms of disputable qualities, it is itself disputable.

What I want to suggest is that talk of “human rights” is meaningful only if humanity is an indubitable quality.  I should grant rights to a person based upon what I cannot possibly contest, because what I cannot contest is sufficient to guarantee value.  Meanwhile, all claims that an embryo/fetus is somehow less than human largely depend upon humanity being a disputable quality.  We grant rights to a person only once a contestable threshold has been surmounted, and we might change that threshold.

It ought to be evident that the latter method tends toward abuse.  If contesting a quality appears advantageous to us, of course we will be inclined to contest it, to renegotiate it to our own benefit.  Human rights, contrariwise, are valuable only because they’re non-negotiable.  I don’t get to decide whether or not to abuse and harm my neighbor, because I don’t get to decide whether he counts as human.

Nor is suspicion of such abuse mere speculation, or grandstanding, or catastrophizing.  We have in recent history seen the disasters wrought by declaring some people less than human by a contestable standard, but perhaps we think we’re better than that nowadays.  Unfortunately, we are only more subtle.   The abuse is already in the newspapers and ethics journals.  Whereas before we began to think that it would be convenient to kill the unborn, and thus realized that we could declare the unborn un-human, now we’ve begun to think it might be advantageous to kill even the born babies when we discover that they have diseases, or conditions, or are merely unwanted.  Coincidentally, our disputable standard reveals to us that babies are not fully human until they’re a year or two old.

That is to say, we may not be Nazis, but we are only too willing to adjust our standards of humanity for our own convenience, once we believe that the standard is adjustable.  If we are willing to change who gets human rights to suit our own purposes though, it simply isn’t meaningful to say that we believe in human rights at all.  (In fact, at least one of the ethicists behind infanticide admits as much.)  We believe only in the rights of some.

I’m out of time again.  Let me end with the following for now.  One of the usual methods of those who would deny humanity to fetuses is to assert that their standard is not in fact disputable, that it’s obvious in an indubitable way.  They would thus argue that they are not subject to my critique above.  (In fact most are conscious of the weakness of disputable humanity, and thus take great pains to try to avoid being associated with it.)  What I will try to show next time is that the standards they deploy are not as indisputable as they think, that they are in fact both easily contestable and frequently contested.

Choose Wisely

I mentioned Human Rights the other day, and I wanted to talk about that again, to mention something that ought to be obvious but doesn’t appear to be.  Abortion is a fundamental failure to defend human rights.  If you want abortion, you don’t want human rights.  You can’t have both.  By all means choose, but choose carefully.

Abortion is predicated on the judgment that the embryo/fetus has no fundamental right to life.  On what grounds is that judgment made, though?  It’s human because it has human genetic material (and no other).  It’s alive because it can do things like grow.  So it’s a living human with no right to life, why?

There are various arguments made.  The first and most common is that it’s a contingent human life, and so it has only contingent rights.  Since it depends entirely upon another, its rights exist only so long as that other chooses to support it.  Unfortunately this standard is too broad; it could be applied in ways that even most abortion advocates would find repugnant.  Most obviously, newborn babies are still contingent beings–they can’t take care of themselves at all–but most people object to infanticide when it’s so obvious.  (Not everyone, unfortunately, but more on that another time.)

Actually, without a clear delineation of what qualifies as contingency, it’s not immediately apparent that anyone claimed as a dependent on taxes, anyone who receives government aid, most teenagers, and a sizable minority of senior citizens wouldn’t be subject to the same contingency clause.  If we support them because they aren’t currently able to support themselves, do we have the right to kill them if we no longer want to support them?

Obviously not, so perhaps we’re talking about a kind of radical physical dependency: embryos are radically physically dependent on their mother’s support for survival, so do mothers have the right to withdraw that support?  Unfortunately this still wouldn’t help us.  In fact in most cases any similar withdrawal of necessary support is considered abuse.  It’s the reality behind such horrors as neglect in nursing homes and hospitals, the neglect of children, even the neglect of pets.  (Why yes, we do have laws to protect pets but not babies.)

The contingency argument underlies the bulk of “pro-choice” material, including the rather misleading name “pro-choice.”  Since the baby’s life is dependent upon the woman’s body, and the woman ought to have the right to do with her body as she pleases, the baby’s life should be the choice of the mother.  Its life is contingent upon her, so its rights are contingent upon her.   The contingency argument doesn’t hold in any other case though, so it doesn’t appear to be very strong.

(It’s also largely self-defeating.  The smaller and weaker half of the species is simply never going to be best served by undermining protections on the small and weak.  I don’t say this to be horrifying, merely objective.  Objectively, the contingency argument for abortion is horrifying.)

There are other arguments, of course.  The next most popular, (although it’s gaining in popularity), is that unborn babies are less than human in one way or another, and therefore have less than human rights.

Sadly I’m out of time.  More on that tomorrow, perhaps.