Microscopic Americans?

|

Occasional Reason contributor Todd Seavey's response to National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru on stem cells strikes me as pretty much dead on. I've debated Ramesh on this very issue before, and the conclusion I've come to is that he manages to construct (as he always insists) an entirely secular argument against stem cell research precisely by removing from the religious argument the reference to God that would render it, if not convincing to nonbelievers, then at least intelligible. As a result, he ends up with an argument that is, in a sense, too materialist, in that it makes "personhood" consist, not in having a particular sort of mind, but on having the right sequence of proteins in your DNA.

NEXT: Smokin' in the Boys Room

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. It’s kinda like the abortion debate. I’ve never heard an argument for the “pro-life” position that didn’t incorporate religion, explicit or implicit.

  2. Note to Julian: please leave science matters to Ron. Really. He does a much better job. You don’t want to make an impression of Reason being run by people who think that DNA is composed of proteins, do you?

  3. It’s kinda like the abortion debate.

    It IS the abortion debate. Seavey’s quite sensible on this; people who attempt to state a non-religious basis for prohibiting abortion or stem-cell research always end up making a slippery-slope argument. That’s defensible, but he’s correct that it’s not persuasive.

  4. Oh fer chrissakes, “sequence of proteins ENCODED BY your DNA,” then. Did anyone not know what I meant?

  5. Yeah, it’s like saying “the right ideas are in the book,” and being rejoined by “books aren’t composed of ideas, they’re composed of words.”

  6. Off topic:

    Some jackass wrote this commentary for my school newspaper (soul-sucking registration required to read).

    http://www.dailycampus.com/news/2004/09/29/Commentary/Osama.On.The.Election-735355.shtml+%26hl%3Den

    I wrote a letter to the editor already…let’s swamp them!

    Brian

  7. I don’t think there is a problem with defining the personhood in materialist ways. “Mind” is the name we give to arrangements of molecules that have certain macroscopic features, so is “Table”.

    What I don’t follow is Ponnuru’s concept (as outlined by Seavey) that absent those features, we are still dealing with minds. Life vs. non life can’t be the argument that matters, because we kill weeds in the garden every weekend. If we restrict ourselves to mind vs. no mind, we are probably on the right path to at least making sensible arguments.

    I’m still chewing on the whole ‘potential mind’ argument, though. I keep thinking by analogy of a situation in which Fred was put into a coma as a result of an accident, and I set in motion a series of events that would predictably result in Fred never waking up, though he had a high probability of doing so absent my interference. Is there significant difference between my interference in Attaining a mind (as in harvesting a blastocyst) and the interference in Regaining a mind (as in harvesting an organ from a coma patient) if each had similar probabilities of occuring absent the interference?

  8. Why is an “entirely secular” argument necessary?

    Where did this weird idea come from, that prohibition of a state church somehow means that the individuals that participate in politics (be they voters or politicians) cannot be allowed to have moral convictions that are based on anything but their own whims?

  9. To joe – PRECISELY the wrong analogy. Trouble is, DNA is not composed of proteins, neither does it encode a *sequence* of proteins (*aminoacid sequences* of a defined *set* of proteins – subtle but important – to us, molecular biologists – distinction). Proper way to say it would be “*set* of proteins encoded” or “protein *sequences* encoded”.

    To Julian – yeah, I might have been a tad overly anal. But, being a huge fan of Mr. Bailey’s writings, I kinda expect slightly higher standards from Reason, compared to other outlets.

  10. ‘”Mind” is the name we give to arrangements of molecules that have certain macroscopic features’

    Hmmmm… Would you consider something to have a mind if it had no consciousness? I’d say no. It seems to me that the key property of mind is consciousness, which is not “scopic” at all, except to itself.

    I don’t get the Daniel Dennett school of thought that says given a particular problem solving ability (or whatever) that consciousness just “arises.” What is that argument based on, other than faith?

  11. Yeah, I think there’s an important difference between interrupting an existing set of life plans and desires and preventing a new set from coming into existence.

  12. ‘”Mind” is the name we give to arrangements of molecules that have certain macroscopic features’

    Actually, that’s “brain.” “Mind” is the name we give to the psychological qualities and events that are produced by those arrangements of moleculdes.

  13. “Actually, that’s “brain.” “Mind” is the name we give to the psychological qualities and events that are produced by those arrangements of moleculdes.”

    Isn’t that like saying that that books are made of words and not ideas?

    Anyway, I’d say that what is important to me about whether or not it’s ok to end a life, future-life, suspended-life, or whatever would be the test of consciousness, which I’ve never actually seen linked by anything but faith to the concept of brain or mind.

    If there were some objective truth which could be arrived at regarding what consciousness actually is, it could cut either way in the debate over who can, cannot, should, or should not, be killed.

  14. Jim Walsh,

    Funny, I’ve yet to hear a “pro-choice” definition of when an individual becomes autonomous that doesn’t incorporate some element of faith.

  15. “Isn’t that like saying that that books are made of words and not ideas?”

    The trouble is, “book” means both the physical object, the arrangement of symbols, and the ideas contained therein.

    Howzis?

    paperback:story::brain:mind

  16. “Why is an “entirely secular” argument necessary?”

    If it’s not then why do guys like Ponnuru insist on couching their arguments in “secular” terminology ?

  17. joe:

    The thought was to indicate that psychological qualities ARE macroscopic effects of structural causes and that an appeal to structure is essentially materialist. My wording could have been better, as usual. Stupid English!

    “Yeah, I think there’s an important difference between interrupting an existing set of life plans and desires and preventing a new set from coming into existence.”

    I agree. I’m trying to get at the idea that ‘interrupting’ may not always be the right word. I was looking for a case, maybe amnesia would be better, where there is a break in the continuity of a mind’s existence and trying to see if we still feel the same casual way about potential. There may be nothing to this line of thinking at all, but I am trying to put to words some oogie feelings about the subject.

  18. “Where did this weird idea come from, that prohibition of a state church somehow means that the individuals that participate in politics (be they voters or politicians) cannot be allowed to have moral convictions that are based on anything but their own whims?”

    It comes from the “weird” desire to keep that state church you mentioned from arising. The only way to do that is to the keep the bible-beaters(be they voters or politicians) from writting their backward, mythology-based “moral convictions” into law.

  19. edit: writing

  20. Oh fer chrissakes

    There you go, bringing religion into it again.

  21. “Howzis?

    paperback:story::brain:mind”

    Not so good really. Since the paperback’s story necessarily comes about from the progression of lines to letters to words to story. (Add in the part about interpreting the words into a story, if you like.) The story is a result of the paperback. Mind is not necessarily the result of the brain, unless to you consciousness and mind are completely divorced concepts. (In which case, I don’t see the relevance of mind to the moral question of which lives it is ok to end.)

    The point I’m trying to make is that there is no reason to think that consciousness arises from brain, other than faith. Consciousness, other than your own, is completely indetectable.

  22. How about this for a secular semi-pro-life argument:

    At some point during gestation, the brain reaches a point of development such that complex brain wave activity (CBWA) arises. Many people believe that CBWA is indicative of thought. A thinking (and innocent) human being is deserving of protection from those that would do it harm. How about we use technology to determine when CBWA exists, then use this information to determine when abortion is just a medical procedure and when it’s murder. I’ve seen some evidence that this occurs in the fifth month. Why not allow abortion without restrictions before this time, and prohibit abortion after (with the exception for “life of the mother”).

    By the way, I’m not religious.

  23. Bill:

    Your proposal is far too logical and sensible to ever gain much support.

    I’d add a snarky emoticon, but I’m afraid that I’m telling the truth.

    Kevin

  24. “Many people believe that CBWA is indicative of thought. A thinking (and innocent) human being is deserving of protection from those that would do it harm.”

    Many people believe that a fertilized egg is imbued with a soul. And that a being with a soul is deserving of protection. Your argument has no more or less claim to logic than theirs.

  25. Yeah right, JDM. That’s why there’s actual scientific evidence that CBWA is thought, whereas there is no scientific evidence for a soul. Of course you only argue against my agrument, because you are ignorant of the facts. Sorry, but I don’t have time to educate you in science.

  26. “That’s why there’s actual scientific evidence that CBWA is thought”

    No, there isn’t, and more importantly, I’d argue that there cannot be, unless you divorce the concepts of thought and consciousness.

    “Sorry, but I don’t have time to educate you in science.”

    That’s a real shame. By the way, calling something *complex* brain wave activity is arbitrary. Even if we could agree that such a thing was a good test for protecting those who display it, brain activity exists along a continuum. You’d still have draw an arbitrary line somewhere.

  27. Why not use the definition of death to help define life? In some places, death is considered to be the absence of brain activity (brain dead = legally dead). Then wouldn’t the presence of brain activity mean a “person” is alive?

    The standard question is “Why is a person charged with two homicides for killing a pregnant woman, but the woman not charged with one for having an abortion?”

  28. $.02:

    as someone who worked in healthcare before burning out, one working concept we used of a bioethical definition of “human life” that it contained a component of “metabolically independent” or “independently metabolizing” and other stuff (those were our shorthand terms at this particular place of care), and “brain dead” where even many metabolic or other functions (breathing etc) were done by machine – that was considered to be “non-technologically” dead.

    thoreau, please smack me with a sausage containing a picture of the fallen madonna with the big boobies if i use so many quote marks again… (jb=gg=jason bourne – you know that reference from living in france, right? awesome program! where’d you go? your comments are awesome! come back!!!)

    bill – that’s one of the ways we’d consider, with no “fatal” consequences to be sure, what is significant in such matters. it’s not just the brain frequencies, rather it’s the metabolic functioning, too. i don’t have an easy answer, but… oh hell. can i buy you a beer and we can cheer against notre dame, the white sux, and any team east of the applachians?

    in short, until the baby is breathing on its own and it is part of the absorbtion-metabolism-excretion mechanism as an independent entity, it’s not “human life”. (that’s just once with the quotes. sorry buddy, hr. thoreau, grin)

    final caveat: i had to endure a close family member go through an abortion. it was more terrible than you could imagine. the alternative was worse… so i’m glad it’s legal and don’t want it to be any other way. that and gay “marriage” don’t hurt fundies or anybody else *for abortion, see above lagrangian constraint… lacking a better term. but that’s how i’ve turned from this experience. oh gawd. that might be a flip flop. that’s wrong, according to our current chief. grin.

    cheers,
    drf

  29. Ramesh Ponnuru must get really pissed at evolutionary processes. 🙂

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.