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!

19 October 2008


It is spring at last!

Apologies to you who live in the northern hemisphere. Your turn will come, when old Earth drags itself 'round to your side of the sun, around next April, you may think of us beginning to think about fires in the evening - and lights, too, when Daylight Savings ends.

But it is spring in New Zealand. To me, who am colour-blind - I suffer from deuteranomaly, the colour of new leaves on English oaks is one of the most dazzlingly beautiful shades of green (because in fact it has a lot of yellow in it - and green is where my trouble lies) in nature.

I started yesterday evening to write a bit about the probably electoral victory of Senator Barack Obama in the U.S. presidential election next month. It got a bit bogged down. I left it for today. But today we went up to Helensville, to see Eddie, Eveline, Robyn, Jonnie, and Julian - and I have not the heart for it.

There is, indeed, something dismal about the likelihood of an Obama victory. I find it deplorable that a majority of American voters appear likely to ignore, or even to approve, the Senator's outrageous views on abortion - although this sort of thing might make you wonder how many are connected with policies at all. Senator Obama himself strikes me as a deeply misguided, very ignorant, young (for a politician) man who has mistaken sincere empathetic emotion for thought. Perhaps in this he reflects a great part of his electoral base.

Never mind. It is spring. I have my doubts as to just exactly how important the American President is in fact - though if the next President finds himself in a position to appoint any judges to the U.S. Supreme Court, the consequences may be significant.

Still, it is spring. I will rejoice in the spring experience of resurrection, of new life, of growth, even though it is certain that as, after spring comes summer, after summer autumn, so winter comes again, when all causes appear lost. It is not forever. A Resurrection has already come that is not a part of a natural cycle. A Spring will come, one day, that will be followed by no winter. A rising to new life may even now be in the ground, underneath the 'bitter snows' - waiting for the "Sun's love." No worldly event will be able to prevent it.

12 October 2008


The third piece we played today was "Taheke for Solo Flute and Harp." Uwe, our conductor, played the flute and Yi Jin our harpist played the harp - an absolutely lovely little piece of music deceptive in its simplicity. Simple, minimal - and beautiful.

It would be saying too much to say that I had an 'intellectual vision' during the playing of it, but I did see, as it were, that the essence of what man is is temporal. Man is time.

I feel handicapped - I cannot express what I saw here - but it was very moving.

I thought of the minimum requirement for music to be music. I think that minimum is rhythm. I can imagine 'music' that is just a lot of harmonies on top of each other - but even then, there would be change - and thus the time dimension. Man does not merely live in time - he is defined by it.

Well, I knew when I started this that I could not make any sense out of it and I have not.

My cat exists from moment to moment. Is she able in any way to rise above those moments, to see them as part of a history, of a sequence that has a beginning and an end?

I am. I am not merely a cork floating on the surface of the stream. To some extent I am able also to stand outside myself, to see my self going down the stream - and to influence my direction in the stream - not to float, merely, but to steer.

And for me, there is a goal. My cat has an end. I have an end. And it matters how I seek that end - and what end I seek.

As is obvious, I have had only a few moments to write the above. It has been a busy week, culminating in today's concert.

A piece of music satisfies us when it does what musicians call 'resolving.' It comes to an end that does not seem accidental, that fits in with the timing of the piece, its rhythm, its harmonies. We can all feel this, even when we cannot really explain how it is happening. There is no shortage of modernist music which deliberately fails to resolve, comes to an abrupt end, perhaps does not finish with a chord based on the key, perhaps does not even have a key. There is, I am certain, an intended philosophical statement about the essential meaninglessness of life in this sort of music.

The music of our life should not end that way. Our history should - God grant it will! - come to a suitable end - one that fits the rhythm of our lives, its harmony, its melody even. This ending will not, perhaps, be what we expected all through, but if we keep our eye on the Conductor - I think it is possible. I pray it may be so for each of us.

05 October 2008


The University concert is over, and I am alone.

Susan attends a course each year with Opus Dei. The subject is said to be theology, although this year the course is on church history. She went up to Auckland yesterday morning, Saturday the 4th of October, and won't be home until Thursday evening. In the meantime, there is her complicated and demanding paper delivery to be done on Tuesday and Thursday morning and I am going to do it. I will be on leave all this week as the Manukau Symphony has a concert to play next week-end and I need to practise as well as do Susan's work.

I think it was Cicero who said numquam minus solus quam com solus - 'never less alone than when alone.' It is not so for me. It should be a time of deepened prayer, it seems to me. If Cicero could say that - referring, I have always supposed, to some form of prayer or meditation - and he was a heathen! - should it not be so for me?

Prayer is never easy for me. I have to struggle at it. It does not come naturally - I suppose the proper quip there is that it needs to come super-naturally :-) I think one reason I find being alone so difficult is that I feel then more strongly the sense that I should be directly involved in prayer.

But of course it is in greatest part simply that I miss Susan. If I am away from her, that is all right - I will be going back. Now I simply have a total of six days and five nights (but two days and one night have already finished! Yay!!) to wait and can do nothing about it. She and I have been together since we met in September or October, 1969 - and married since the 20th of May, 1972.

I have a lot of horn practice to keep me busy, and a those newspapers to deliver - 737 of them on each of Tuesday and Thursday (she does it in about four and a half hours each time; I expect it will take me all day. It's a complicated job). I will do a certain amount of University work via the computer at home. And I will spend some time in turning my mind and heart to God - prayer, in other words.

But I look forward with such an aching longing to Thursday evening when Susan will be home again.