Monthly Archives: April 2014
Bodily Autonomy and Abortion: A Strong Argument that Falls Short
There has been a subject that has been heavy on my heart for a long time. It was something that I’ve always wanted to talk to people about, and one of my vague goals for this blog was that it could be an outlet for that. Yet somehow, after almost two years of blogging, I’ve never devoted a post to it. I’m not sure why this is the case; it just never felt like the right time. I know what I want to say, but I never got around to saying it.
Part of the problem is that the subject in question is highly controversial, and not easily settled. But another part of it is that this subject causes me some grief to talk about. I rarely feel less powerful or less capable then when it comes to this issue. The current state of affairs is so troubling and my own inability to change it is so undeniable that I prefer not to think about it. Naturally this adds a sense of guilt to the whole subject whenever something does remind me of it.
However yesterday I saw a random post by a stranger (on a funny pictures website of all places) that got me thinking about it again. And the more I thought about it the more I wish I could talk to the person who wrote it. And the more I thought about what I would say to them the more I realized that I should share it here, on the only platform I have.
The subject is abortion. Part of the reason I feel so incapable of talking about it is the simple fact that I’m a man. I think about abortion in philosophical and ethical terms, but I will never be faced with having to bear a child that I do not want. Not to say that abortion does not affect men, because it does: but how many women would be willing to listen to what a man has to say about the rightness or wrongness of abortion? And honestly, how much right do I have to ask something of women that I’ll never have to deal with myself? Yet I feel that I can’t keep my thoughts inside for much longer. If you are a woman, please understand that I am aware of my privilege as a man in this area. I’m just going to say what I believe is true, but I understand my position.
I also understand my strengths and my fields of interest, which are logic, rhetoric, and ethics. An argument prompted me to write this, one that I hadn’t heard fully articulated before, and it is this argument that I want to discuss today. The post I saw began by giving a hypothetical scenario: your brother has a certain medical condition that requires a blood transfusion in order to save his life. As it turns out, your blood is the only blood that will work (for the sake of this scenario lets ignore whether or not this could actually happen but take it at face value). Now in this situation, even though your brother will die if he doesn’t get that transfusion, the fact is that nobody can force you to donate the blood needed to save him. That’s because you have the right of bodily autonomy: you get to choose how your body is used. Nobody can make you give your blood to another person.
The poster went on to point out that the same is true of organs. Nobody can force you to donate an organ: even after you are dead nobody can take your organs without your prior permission. Bodily autonomy is that powerful.
The argument ended by pointing out that if this is the case then nobody should be able to force someone to carry a child to term. They pointed out that this is especially the case since the ethical status of human fetuses are debatable.
The reason this argument caught my attention is because it is both a very strong argument, and at the same time an argument that seems to miss the point. What this comes down to is an argument about what is legal. As far as that goes the argument is fairly solid: it is true that nobody can legally force you to give blood to your dying brother or to carry your child to term. However I think just about everyone can agree that someone in the hypothetical situation as outlined would be wrong to not save his brother. In this case we have a situation where someone’s brother is dying, they have the power to save them through a very simple operation that will cause no permanent damage to themselves, and they refuse to do so. It’s true that I can’t force you to, but I will tell you that to refrain from giving blood in this case is unambiguously evil. To let your own brother die when it is easily in your power to save them is wrong. Imagine if the brother was not sick but instead was dangling from the edge of a cliff. Wouldn’t it be wrong to just stand there and let your brother fall to his death? I can’t make you take his hand and pull him to safety, any more than I can make you do any number of good things. That doesn’t change a fact that refusing to act in this case is wrong.
Now in this case the hypothetical person doesn’t do anything to cause his brother’s death. Letting his brother die is an evil act, but it is an act of omission and not commission. It would be another thing entirely if he was actively trying to kill his brother. If he came at his brother with a knife and tried to stab him to death, or attempted to inject him with a highly toxic substance, we wouldn’t say that we can’t force him not to. In actual fact we would be encouraged and often legally required to stop him if we were capable of doing so. Yet isn’t this the case with abortion? A hypothetical mother who does not want their child cannot simply stop providing sustenance to him or her. In order to stop sharing her body with her child she must take actions to kill that child. The child must be cut out, dismembered, injected with toxic solutions, or forced out of the body to die of exposure. Isn’t this sufficiently different than simply refusing to donate blood or organs?
Let’s look at a less ambiguous case to get perspective, a situation where the mother doesn’t have to actively pursue their child’s death but instead can simply refuse to offer aid, just as the individual in the hypothetical situation that was offered. A mother of a newborn child is in just such a situation. If she, or another individual, does not care for that child then the child will die. The child is dependent on others and that point and for many years to come. If the mother did not want to raise the child she could simply abandon it under a bush, or in a trash can, and walk away. Time will do the rest. However what’s notable is that when a mother abandons a child it is not legal. Our society understands that a mother has a responsibility to their child, to either care for it herself or give it to others who will care for it in her place. If no-one else is willing or capable of raising the child (which would not be the case in reality, but this is a hypothetical) then the mother would be forced to raise her child. This would be both legal and ethical: who among us doesn’t recognize the wrongness of a mother who abandons her child to certain death?
Finally, the post did make the claim that the ethical status of the fetus is in doubt. I have many things to say about that doubt, but I’ll save that for a later post. Instead I’d like to point out that doubt should not encourage us to act but discourage us from acting rashly. In any other situation if there is doubt whether our actions might put a human in danger the proper thing to do is refrain from acting. If a hunter hears something rustling in the bushes and has reason to believe that it might, just might, be a human and not an animal then he must not shoot until he can confirm either way. If a junkyard worker believes that there is any chance that there might be a human in the trash compacter instead of scrap metal then he must check before starting the machine. If a logger believes that there might be a person standing where he is planning on felling a tree then he must check before he cuts the tree down. If we are unsure whether or not the fetus has the same rights or ethical status as other human beings then shouldn’t we refrain from killing them as long as that remains in doubt? And we’re not talking about a 1% doubt here: there is significant doubt as far as the rights of fetuses are concerned. The country is split on the issue.
All of this boils down to the following: yes, the right of bodily autonomy is powerful, but that does not excuse us from our ethical responsibilities to other humans, especially where our close relatives are concerned. You cannot force me to save my brother, or even my child, from falling off a cliff: but how does that make the fact that I let them fall to their deaths okay?
Dr. Ehrman’s Improbable Objection to the Empty Tomb
I was wandering about the internet, as is my custom, when I suddenly came across an article on the Daily Beast titled “Do We Know if There Was Really An Empty Tomb?” by Bart Ehrman. The article began by listing the many objections apologists have towards the idea that there was no empty tomb. Ehrman even concedes that they are excellent objections. However, despite admitting that all of the alternative explanations for the empty tomb are improbable; he rejects the idea of the empty tomb all the same. Why? Well for one simple reason, as he explains below:
“But simply looking at the matter from a historical point of view, any of these views is more plausible than the claim that God raised Jesus physically from the dead. A resurrection would be a miracle and as such would defy all ‘probability.’ Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a miracle. To say that an event that defies probability is more probable than something that is simply improbable is to fly in the face of anything that involves probability.”
This passage contained so much objective wrongness in its argument that I was driven to internally rant about it for about an hour. And thus this post was born.
To be sure, the idea that a dead body could spontaneously resurrect itself is massively improbable. I agree wholeheartedly that almost any other explanation for a resurrection should be preferred over the idea that a body just happened to bring itself back to life. What is often forgotten is that God resurrecting the body is one of those preferable explanations.
Really there is no point in judging whether or not a miracle is probable until we have settled the question of whether or not God exists. If God does not exist then miracles are the most singularly improbable things imaginable. If God does exist then miracles are just as probable as any other action we can imagine an individual taking. There is a pen lying on the desk next to me. There would be very little point in me asking you “What is the probability that I will pick up that pen in the next five minutes?” The answer is that it depends on whether or not I decide to. If I decide to pick up the pen then it is an almost 100% probability that I will do so (“almost” because I may suffer a freak heart attack, or an earthquake might strike, or some similar improbable event will prevent me from doing so). If I decide to leave it alone then the probability is almost 0% that I’ll pick up the pen (though again, freak incidents could cause me to do so, such as a madman bursting in and forcing me to pick it up at gunpoint). Thus it is with the resurrection of Jesus: if God exists and chose to raise Jesus from the dead then the probability of that resurrection is 100%. If God does not exist, or exists but chose not to resurrect Jesus, then the probability of God raising Jesus from the dead is 0%. The question, naturally, is whether or not God exists, and whether he is the Christian God if he does.
This being the case I am greatly dismayed when I see individuals dismiss any and all historical evidence that seems to indicate that Jesus was resurrected out of hand because they believe that “Any explanation is more probable than a resurrection actually occurring.” This assumes that God does not exist: and how can we determine the probability of the existence of God? Probabilities are only useful for events that occur in patterns or with defined odds. There are no odds on whether God exists, and God is not an event that occurs in patterns. Better to be honest instead and say that “I believe that it is more probable that very improbable things (such as mass hallucinations, for instance) actually occurred then that God might exist and be active in our world.” At this point we can have a real conversation about why you believe God’s existence is so improbable, and why I believe otherwise. But no more of this nonsense of defining miracles as the most improbable thing imaginable and then crowing that you win the fight be default. I might as well define miracles as the most probable thing imaginable and leave it at that: it does as much good for the discussion.
But wait, you might say. Even Christians agree that miracles are something out of the ordinary and unusual. Surely if you asked most educated Christians about whether an event is likely to be a miracle (say, for instance, the image of Jesus appearing on some toast) they are likely to agree that a natural explanation is more likely. This is true, but it misses the point. I believe that it is extremely improbable that a piece of toast emblazoned with Jesus’s image is a miracle not because miracles are by definition improbable but because I think it’s highly improbable that God would decide to put his mark a random piece of burnt bread. Similarly, if I found a piece of toast that looked uncannily like my cousin Haley I would think it improbable that she deliberately messed with the wiring of my toaster and think it far more probable that it was a simple chance occurrence.
When an event occurs that has many possible natural explanations the probability that it was a miracle seems lower, such as my example with toast. Just the other day I was run off the road by a careless driver. I slammed on my brakes, steered out of the way as best I could, and ended by fishtailing out of control until I came to a stop. Somehow, though I had lost all control over the vehicle by the end, I had managed to weave between two signs and come to a stop inches from a steel fence pole. As I got back on the road and continued on my way (the car that caused the incident had sped away without a moment’s hesitation) I thanked God that I was unharmed. I began to wonder: could this have been a miracle? Could God’s hand or an angel’s wings have brought my car to a stop just in time? I considered the possibility. I have no doubt that God is capable of intervening in such a fashion, but I also know that good people get in bad car accidents every day, accidents that God could have prevented. I also know that it is very possible that I avoided danger by purely natural means: my own quick reflexes and pure luck. With that being the case I am very hesitant to ascribe my good fortune as a miracle. It seems possible, but not necessarily probable.
The resurrection is another story altogether. There are not many plausible natural explanations for a crucified man who was stabbed with a spear, proclaimed dead, embalmed, and left in a tomb for three days suddenly showing up and walking around again. If the thing happened at all then it is certainly a far more probable candidate for a miracle than my own traffic incident, and exponentially more probable than Jesus shaped toast. The question then becomes “Did this thing happen?” This is an important question to ask, and I’ll happily discuss it with anyone. Just remember not to dismiss the possibility of miraculous resurrection out of hand due to “probability.”
Why do I Want to Create?
One unfortunate problem with choosing writing as a preferred method of communication is that it is a slow process. If you have an idea that you’re really excited about and ready to share with the world right now you still have to sit down and write for an hour or two, or even for days, depending on the scope of the subject. By the time you actually arrive at the point you’ve been eager to get to it can be days or weeks later. By then your enthusiasm may have understandably waned.
I was very excited to go into a series on the argument from reason, but it’s taken me weeks to get as far through it as I have and I’m only halfway done. At this point it’s difficult for me to summon the motivation to continue further. It seems that I may require some time to rest from that subject so that I can build up intellectual steam for the second half.
To that end this blog post will have nothing to do with the argument from reason, and will instead focus on a topic that my mind is still engaged with.
It has occurred to me lately that most of the things I would really like to do for a living are not very feasible. I would love to write for a living, but very few people make enough money writing to live off of or to support a family with. Of course I’ve understood that for a very long time: one of the first pieces of advice an aspiring writer typically receives is that you should never quit your day job. Still, I did hold some hope for perhaps becoming a columnist or freelance writer and that I could potentially make a living at that. Since then I’ve realized that, with the advent of the internet and the ability for anyone with a connection to become their own self publisher, the amount of amateur and freelance writers has exploded while at the same time the demand for such writers has decreased. Trying to make living as a writer in the internet age is like trying to make a living at picking fruit in Dust Bowl era California: it’s just not going to work out very well. Unless I manage to write a book that becomes the next Game of Thrones or Harry Potter (at which point I can celebrate by building a mansion in the woods and an early retirement) I’m going to have to hang on to my day job.
With writing out my next preferred profession was filmmaking. And though I’m still terribly interested in filmmaking (and would like to make a documentary or two someday) I’ve come to realize that it is not a viable day job either. Once again I have the internet to blame (along with the march of technological progress that has made high quality video recording equipment available to the public). There are now more people attempting to make a living off filmmaking and video production than ever before, at a time when the amount of money people are willing to pay for such entertainment has remained generally constant. There are aspiring directors, editors, screenwriters, and the like all over the world, and there are less jobs working for the big studies then there used to be. Hollywood is doubling down on a small number of huge blockbuster movies and there are less opportunities for an up and coming director to make a name for themselves. Steven Speilberg has bemoaned that even he can’t get funding for more personal and artistic projects. If Speilberg doesn’t think there’s a future in movies then what chance do I have? At this point I’d have better luck dedicating myself to becoming fabulously wealthy and then funding my own film projects than trying to work my way into and then up the ladder of the studio system.
I considered creating a webcomic that could grow into something that could provide a stable, or even lucrative, income. It’s happened for many other people, and I’ve always been fascinated by comics as a storytelling medium. I’m still considering it: but it is just as pointless to put your hopes in a webcomic becoming massively successful as it is to put your hopes into writing. Perhaps it will take off, perhaps it won’t, but in the meantime you’ve got bills to pay and a family to support. In other words: don’t quit your day job.
All this negative, yet purely practical and realistic, thinking has led me to ask myself: why do I want to write? Why do I want to make movies? Why do I want to make webcomics? And the answers I find are complicated. I love telling stories. I love sharing ideas. I love books. I love movies. I love comics. I would find great enjoyment in making my own. Still, why does it matter whether or not I can make a living at it? Essentially it doesn’t: it would just be really, really awesome if I could just create all day and be paid for it. But then the question is, who am I creating this for? Why am I creating it? For the money? For myself? For others?
Probably a little bit of all of those and a few other things besides, if we’re being honest. Things like my desire to be someone important, my desire to create something that the world will embrace and say “Here is a great creator!” So we have pride in there, and ambition. And then there is the irreplaceability of the creative professions: any competent person with the right education can be an accountant; but only Gary Paulson could write Hatchet. There are millions (billions, really, if I’m being honest) of people who could do my current job just as well as I do, if not better. But only C.S. Lewis could write The Chronicles of Narnia. Deep down I do not want to be replaceable. So that desire comes into it as well.
But lately I’ve been wondering…do I need the approval of the world to do so? Do I need to be a professional to create something unique?
Well no. But just because something is unique doesn’t mean it’s good. I made a lot of unique things out of popsicles and macaroni when I was in kindergarten but that doesn’t mean that any of them were important, or useful, or beautiful, or interesting. It’s all well and good to say that you should write for yourself: but the fact is that if I was writing this blog post for myself instead of for public viewing then it certainly wouldn’t be this long or this detailed and it would be riddled with grammar and spelling mistakes.
It’s a vexing problem. One I haven’t found the solution to yet.
At least I feel that I’m closer to an answer then I have been.
The Argument From Reason: Something Has to Go
So far we’ve seen that materialism necessitates determinism, and that determinism necessitates that reason is an illusion. Thus, if reason exists as something more than an illusion then determinism is not true: and if determinism is not true then materialism must be false as well. This brings us to the next part of the argument from reason:
3. Reasoning is not an illusion.
I don’t think this is a terribly controversial stance to hold. The evidence for the existence of reason is everywhere. We reason about things, and those reasoning processes seem to match up with external reality. When Einstein reasoned that, against all common sense and the prevailing scientific theories of the time, time was relative he did so through a long process of reasoning. In the years since we’ve made observations that prove that his theory was accurate. If reasoning is an illusion then how does it give us such accurate and often non-intuitive knowledge about reality? C.S. Lewis once remarked that believing that our scientific knowledge is the result of a chain reaction of atoms instead of reasoning is like expecting a jug of milk that is thrown against the floor to produce a spill that creates a working map of London. If reason was merely an illusion then we would expect it to have similar odds of being correct as a flipped coin; yet, in our actual experience we find that people who reason through problems have a far greater ability to predict actual reality than a coin. If you disagree, then I would simply ask you why we would need to waste so much time educating and training scientists when we could have done just as well by asking random questions and flipping a coin to decide the result.
On a more fundamental level reason is something that we directly experience. We reason through things every day, whether it’s trying to figure out the best way get around road construction or simply trying to figure out the culprit was while watching a crime procedural on TV. Reasoning is such an immediate and undeniable observation that it would require some pretty striking evidence for us to believe that it is actually an illusion. It seems presumptive to abandon reason, which we have direct evidence of, in favor of keeping a belief in materialism, whose truth cannot be directly observed.
Finally, we must remember that the only reason we might come to doubt that our reasoning is real is because we have reasoned that if materialism is true then it must be so. The only way to get to the statement “reason is an illusion” is by using reason. But if reasoning is an illusion then it is ridiculous to imagine that our reasoning about materialism is accurate. Arguing that reason isn’t real is to argue against trusting arguments. By destroying reason materialism cuts off the branch that it is sitting on. It is an attempt to make a proof that there are no proofs, which is self-contradictory madness.
Surely any line of reasoning that would lead us to disbelieve in reasoning itself must be abandoned as futile. If reasoning is not real then the materialist has no advantage over the theist. He cannot say “Look, it’s irrational to believe in a god,” as the theist would merely reply “If materialism is true than it’s just as irrational to believe there isn’t one.” Of course the theist needn’t merely say that; for the theist has no trouble believing that reasoning actually exists. The theist believes that the foundation of all reality is not non-rational matter and energy, but rather a supreme rationality, a great mind that has produced all other minds. The theist thus has no trouble believing that abstract reasoning can discover truth; the materialist, on the other hand, must hold that reasoning is merely a convincing illusion.
Thus we come to the end of the first section of the argument from reason. If materialism is true then determinism must be true as well. If determinism is true then reason must be an illusion. Since reason is not an illusion, we know that determinism is not true. If determinism is not true then materialism is false as well. There is at least one thing that exists apart from combinations of matter and energy: the mind.
As for why we should believe that God is the best explanation for the mind, I’ll get to that in my next post.
The Argument From Reason: Inductive Reasoning, Determinism, and You
Let’s begin with a quick lesson on the two primary types of reasoning: deductive and inductive.
Deductive reasoning is about starting with premises and following those premises to a conclusion. As long as the premises are true, and the logic is sound, then the conclusion must be true as well. Perhaps the most well-known example of a deductive proof is as follows:
- All men are mortal.
- Socrates is a man.
- Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
As long as premises 1 and 2 are true then 3 is logically true as well. You might have noticed that I started this series with what amounts to a long deductive proof. What sets deductive reasoning apart from inductive reasoning is that the deductive reasoning gives us conclusions which must necessarily be true, while inductive proofs give us conclusions that are only probably true.
Inductive reasoning works by taking certain facts, which we will here call grounds, and from them reasoning to probable conclusions. To better understand this let’s look at a hypothetical process of inductive reasoning. Let’s say I come home expecting to eat some leftover pad Thai that I put in the fridge last night. When I get to the fridge I find that the pad Thai is gone, and that the little blue Tupperware container it was in is now in the dishwasher. These are my grounds: the pad Thai is gone, the container it was in is in the dishwasher. From those grounds I can reason that something disposed of my pad Thai There are other grounds too: I know that animals don’t put containers away, so it must have been a human. I know that the apartment has been locked all day, so it was probably my wife who got rid of the pad Thai. I know that my wife does not typically throw away food that isn’t spoiled, so I can reason that she probably ate the pad Thai. Different grounds will lead to different conclusions: for example, I know that my wife doesn’t like my pad Thai so it seems unlikely that she would have eaten it. From there I might reason that my wife may have had a friend over and she might have offered them the pad Thai, or perhaps it was another family member. Now it is certainly possible that someone else might have eaten the pad Thai, but reason tells me that that is unlikely. Why? Because I have other grounds as well to consider, such as the fact that burglars don’t typically break into houses for the purpose of stealing leftovers, and probably wouldn’t put the container away if they did. From all this I conclude that a friend or family member ate my pad Thai.
To recap, deductive reasoning starts with base principles and comes to a sure conclusion. Inductive reasoning starts with grounds and ends with probable conclusions. Inductive reasoning cannot tell us what certainly is, but only what is probable (in the example above it is certainly possible that the family cat found a way to open the fridge, dispose of the pad Thai, and knock the container into the dishwasher, but it is very improbable that it did so). Most scientific theories come from acts of inductive reasoning, and we use inductive reasoning often in our everyday lives. This is because the premises of a deductive argument are usually up for debate, and can often only be reached by inductive means. Arguably the only deductive argument that begins with premises that aren’t reached through induction is “I think, therefore I am.” With all that in mind we must recognize the importance of inductive reasoning. Without inductive reasoning there is no science, very little philosophy, no industry, no agriculture, and no civilization as we know it.
This is where we run into a conflict with determinism. The conflict is a matter of questioning how inductive reasoning actually works. Take my example above: I would say that I came to the conclusion I did because it was the conclusion best supported by the grounds. However if determinism is true then that is not the reason I came to my conclusion; rather, I came to my conclusion because a series of cause and effect relationships in my brain were determined to result in the answer “a friend or family member ate my pad Thai.” I did not begin with a collection of evidence and reason my way to the conclusion, but was rather compelled to come to that conclusion by the laws of physics. And this undermines my conclusion. After all, one of the way’s we recognize bad reasoning from good is the extent to which we can explain someone’s conclusions with non-rational means. If a millionaire tells me that reducing taxes for the rich is the most rational thing to do, I will naturally be suspicious of his conclusion: after all, he might simply believe so because he’s rich and not because he reasoned it out properly. If a Senator makes a speech claiming that a certain oil pipeline is the most rational answer to our energy problems an opponent might try to invalidate that argument by pointing out that oil companies contributed large amounts of money towards his election. A commenter on this on blog made a similar argument against myself, essentially stating that my arguments couldn’t be trusted because I was a Christian. Now in all three of these examples the arguments made may still be valid: perhaps it is good fiscal policy to reduce taxes on the rich, or to build an oil pipeline. However if someone’s reasoning can be shown to be entirely based on non-rational causes then we can safely dismiss their conclusions.
Now if determinism is true then ultimately everything is based on non-rational cause and effect relationships. Atoms do not reason: they react, and they react in ways that are entirely predictable with sufficient knowledge. If, when I reason, the result is based not on grounds, conclusion, and logic but rather on the outcome of a complicated physical reaction then I have no reason to trust that my conclusions are accurate. If determinism is true then human reasoning has nothing to do with facts and logic and everything to do with the architecture of our brains.
Back in my series on the moral argument I mentioned a mad scientist who experimented with pills that changed people’s moral perceptions. Let’s return to this madman now. He’s just developed a new pill: this one changes the architecture of a subject’s brain so that a chemical reaction will occur that will cause the subject to believe that the moon is made of cheese. Those who take the pill soon come to believe with certainty that the moon is solid mozzarella. They know this to be true based, they believe, on solid reasoning. If you ask one of them they’ll even explain it to you: the moon is white, mozzarella is white, and if it was made of rocks then it would fall out of the sky. You might shake your head. You know that the moon isn’t made of cheese because cheese comes from milk that is tended to carefully by humans, and where in the world would you get enough milk to make the moon, and who would turn that milk into cheese? You feel certain that the moon is not made of cheese because of these grounds, and many others besides. However the mad scientist’s subjects feel just as certain as you about their own conclusion.
Now why do I bring up this crazy hypothesis? Simply to illustrate this point: if determinism is true then our own reasoning processes are exactly as valid as the test subject’s! Both (according to determinism) are the result of a series of cause and effect physical processes. Neither have anything to do with actual induction. The only difference is that the reasoning of the subject was caused primarily by the mad scientist’s pill, while your own reasoning is caused by your genetic makeup, the architecture of your brain, and ultimately the pattern that your atoms are currently in.