25 October 2008

We are all mind-body dualists now

At last, someone with some clarity of mind!

When does human life begin?

Cecil Adams can see the obvious: the life of a human being begins at conception. I have always been puzzled that anyone could suppose anything else. When else could my life have begun? Human life itself in the abstract is not what we are talking about. We are talking about John Jensen. And John Jensen came into existence sometime between the 7th of December, 1941, when Admiral Yamamoto's forces were launched in a surprise attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, on the island of O'ahu, and, I suppose, about Christmas of 1941.

The precision in dating my conception is based on a family story. My mother and father were married in August, 1934. In 1941 they still had no children - and so far as I know, this was by choice. As my mother tells the story, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and she said to my father, "You're going to go off to that war, and you might not return; I want a kid." On the 22nd of September, 1942, I was born (followed by my brother Peter, on the 20th of January, 1944, and my sister Robin, on 1st May, 1946 - so I suppose you may infer when my father was home on leave; and when he was discharged :-)).

But the individual who is me did not come into existence on 22 September, 1942. That individual came into existence in December, 1941.

And that is obvious to Cecil Adams - but it is evidently not obvious to him that I had a right to be protected until some later time - "roughly 25 weeks after conception," or sometime in June, 1942 - about three months before I was born.

And this seems perfectly natural, does it not?

Certainly a miscarriage can be very upsetting. But perhaps that is due to the confounding of the parents' hopes and expectations. There is something that you hoped for for yourself, and now it is not going to happen.

Whereas a child in the womb who can actually emote - or at least has 'brain activity,' as Cecil says - that becomes much more real to us.

Ah. 'Brain activity.' So that's the secret, is it?

When you get to the other end of life, again, I think it feels natural to concentrate on 'brain activity.' Certainly the medical profession - which, after all, wants to 'harvest' (personally I find that word revolting in this context, but it is what they say) human 'organs' for transplantation - the medical profession, as I say, has accepted - perhaps even created - the situation in which someone who can breathe, whose heart is beating, but who lacks 'brain activity' - that that someone is in fact dead, or at least, is a proper source for cutting into bits to provide for extension of life of one or more other persons.

Always provided, of course, that there is no longer any 'brain activity.'

I think we can blame - if that is the proper word - Descartes for all of this - though I suppose he is just the logical heir of the nominalists. Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" encapsulates the idea, but of course mind-body dualism is much broader than that. The idea that the mind is the real person, that the body is just stuff lived in by the mind - the "Ghost in the Machine" - is so much second nature to us that it is hard to shake it off. How much of modern objection to abortion is based on whether or not the child can feel what is happening? How much objection to euthanasia of persons in a 'vegetative' state is based on the question whether such persons may actually know what is going on, just be unable to do or say anything about it?

It is certainly a horror to us to imagine a person being cut into 'organs' who is aware of the process. That is true, and it should be so. It is a horror to imagine an almost-born baby being torn in pieces from its mother's womb. It should be so.

Nevertheless, that is not what should make us oppose not only the killing of living humans at any stage of life - from conception to natural death - but also be genuinely reverent even towards human remains, and not to think of human beings as something that is there for use (or - shudder! - 'harvesting').

Cecil sees very clearly when human individuation begins. He also knows that the Catholic Church has always opposed abortion, at every stage, even at a time when the best science thought a human soul began only at some time later than conception. Cecil says:

"...abortion was always prohibited [by the Catholic Church] for the same reason birth control was prohibited — it interfered with a natural process. But prior to ensoulment abortion wasn’t homicide."

I don't know if abortion was considered homicide prior to 'ensoulment,' but the reason that the Church - and all Christians until very, very recently - prohibited abortion was not, if I understand correctly, because of its interference with a natural process.

The reason is that human beings are created in the image of God. Human beings have inherent dignity because of what they are, now because of what they do. And although the image of God in man is certainly not simply the body itself - the Mormons to the contrary notwithstanding - it certainly does include the body.

That is why this individual, created by God at conception, taken by God (but not destroyed) at death, raised from death at the universal resurrection, is not something available for us to destroy at will, nor to use at our pleasure.

It is worth while thinking of this at this time when election issues can meld together for us different important matters of great importance - but not on the same level as this. Not only abortion and euthanasia, but embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, in vitro fertilisation (which involves the creation and destruction of human zygotes - tiny real human individuals) - all these issues are what this video from the group "Catholic Answers" calls, correctly, non-negotiable issues:

Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics

May God give us the governments we need, not the governments we deserve!


John from Canada said...

The confusion, to me, seems more between "being" and "doing" than between mind and body. One view is that human beings are of value only because of what we do, or at least are capable of doing. In this view, a person in the embryonic stage of development is not worthy of protection as a human being because (s)he has not yet developed the minimal set of abilities that defines a human person. Among those holding this view, varying defining sets of abilities are proposed.

Another view is that human beings are of value because of who we are, regardless of our abilities or lack of them. Hence a living embryo is as worthy of protection as a human person as a fully grown adult. Only this second viewpoint is, I believe, compatible with Christianity, in which human beings are created in God's image. And only this viewpoint is compatible with unconditional love: to truly love another first requires, as its foundational principle, that the other be allowed to be, without conditions. And while we as human beings are not all Christians, we all need and long to love and be loved, unconditionally.

John Thayer Jensen said...

John from Canada said:

"The confusion, to me, seems more between "being" and "doing" than between mind and body."

Understood, John, but I think it's both and I think the underlying problem is the Ghost in the machine. After all, a person temporarily in hospital can't do a lot of stuff right now - but you may hope he will get better.

A newly-conceived foetus has full potential. I just think the attitude expressed in Cecil Adams' post is that there really isn't any personal being there. To be sure, the foetus is a human being - but not a person. The six-month-old foetus is not able to do much, either.

The potential is there in both cases; the Ghost is not - at least that's what I think is going on and that is what I think we all naturally think like today.

That is also why today the idea of the relics of the Saints is a bit weird. Venerating the knucklebone of Saint Miscellaneous??!! Well, for a Catholic, yes, but only in the way you might venerate his memory. It is what he was that you are venerating.

I don't think the worldview that believes man is created in God's image is like that. I think that knucklebone is itself somehow venerable. No, it is not magic. No, I am not being superstitious. But I think that creation is something we really don't understand very well - and I think nominalism/dualism/Kantianism is at the heart of it.


John from canada said...

The common element between our views, John, is that we believe that the worth of a human being is intrinsic, not incidental. The difference is our take on the other view: you think that dualism is at fault and that those holding that view are defining personhood as the (dualist) mind, distinct and sometimes not present in the body. I imagine you are sometimes, perhaps often, right. But I wish to tar with a broader brush: any view that personhood is not intrinsic to living human beings, whether personhood is seated in the dualistic mind or some other notion is, I think, something to be concerned about.

John Thayer Jensen said...

We are certainly in complete agreement about the seriousness of it, and about what is right and wrong.