Friday, July 28, 2006

Ah, Slashdot, The Modern Mars Hill

I recently started a rather interesting, totally off-topic, subthread in the comments of a Slashdot story. It's still developing, and there's more, but here is one branch of the discussion. Please feel welcome to check out the whole thing.

burndive: Sorry, but I feel the compulsion to pick apart your sig.

Human being (n.): A genetically human, genetically distinct, functioning organism.

So since clones aren't genetically distinct, they only constitute a single being? What about identical twins? What about conjoined twins?

"Functioning" could be interpreted to mean absolutely anything. Does it exclude a fetus who is dependent on its mother? What if it's still breast feeding? What if it still lives in its parents' basement? What about humans that aren't "functioning" properly, are they no longer beings?

If I spliced a pig gene into someone's DNA, they're not a "human being"?

Honestly, it's pointless to try to "define" personhood in any way that does not directly involve God.

Shadowin: Honestly, it's pointless to try to "define" personhood in any way that does not directly involve God.

Care to back up that assertion?

burndive: Certainly, though I thought it was obvious.

I interpreted the sig to which I was responding to be an argument against abortion as follows:
(1) A human being can be defined as "A genetically human, genetically distinct, functioning organism."
(2) A fetus is human (assuming we're concerned with the abortion of human offspring)
(3) A fetus is genetically distinct from its mother
(4) A fetus, if it is alive, is a functioning organism
(5) From 1, 2, 3 & 4: A fetus, as a human being, is in the same class as every other human being, i.e., "person".

The problem with this argument is that it is totally useless, and will not modify our treatment of fetuses unless we also believe that:
(0) Humans are distinct from all other forms of life.

Notice that for this argument to work the value of human life must be intrinsic, that is, it must not rest on a set of criteria based on intelligence, capability, complexity or beauty, since a fetus has none of these things above other animals. Also, "potential" is meaninless without reference to God. If humans evolved from other creatures without God's input, then there is no real difference between Albert Einstien's fetus and a microbe, because they have the same potential, it's just that one of them happens to be closer at the moment. Besides, potential for what? For those other things that we "happen" to value.

The only thing that can possibly make human beings of an *intrinsically* (not emergently) different quality is that if simply by being human they posess something that all other forms of life do not, and never can posess without it being added to them externally. Enter God.

Please be reminded: this discussion is not at all about his existence or character. It is about the usefulness of the classification of "human beings" as an intrinsically higher order than the rest of the animals. God is the only entity that could make this so. If he does not exist, or if he did not do this, then there is no difference between aborting a fetus and swatting a fly. If he did do this, then the former is murder because it is doing damage to the image of God.

Does that serve to calrify?


  1. Interesting.

    You might enjoy reading parts 3 (Is The Unborn Human Less Than Human?) and 4 (When Does a Human Become a Person) of an article, "Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights" by Francis J. Beckwith. Actually, all four parts are really good.

    It was interesting the mention of pig mixed with human. I recently read an op-ed article in the L.A. Times by a UW professor who advocates breeding humans with apes. Ah, but no, not for actual scientific purposes (not that that would make it right anyway), but no, to piss off the religious people.

    This may seem perverse, because even the most liberal ethicists shy away from advocating the breeding or genetic engineering of half-person/half-animal. Why, then, am I rooting for their creation?

    Because in these dark days of know-nothing anti-evolutionism, with religious fundamentalists occupying the White House, controlling Congress and attempting to distort the teaching of science in our schools, a powerful dose of biological reality would be healthy indeed. And this is precisely the message that chimeras, hybrids or mixed-species clones would drive home.

    The latest tactic of creationists in the United States has been to accept "microevolutionary" events, such as drug resistance in bacteria, but to draw the line at the emergence of human beings from other, "lower" life forms, cloaking their religious agenda in a miasma of pseudoscience. It is a line that exists only in the minds of those who proclaim that the human species, unlike all others, possesses a spark of the divine and that we therefore stand outside nature.

    He continues:

    Moreover, the benefits of such a physical demonstration of human-nonhuman unity would go beyond simply discomfiting the naysayers, beyond merely bolstering a "reality based" as opposed to a bogus "faith based" worldview. I am thinking of the powerful payoff that would come from puncturing the most hurtful myth of all time, that of discontinuity between human beings and other life forms. This myth is at the root of our environmental destruction — and our possible self-destruction.

    And then goes on to use SpongeBob SquarePants to make some sort of ridiculous "point".

    Sorry for the rambling, but I thought that the few things might interest you.

  2. Did it get much going in the way of discussion?