Thursday, April 02, 2020

Does abortion take a human life?

Does abortion take a human life? Well, it results in a death, and that death is the death of a member of the species homo sapiens, not canis familiaris or felis domesticus.

But does taking the life of a species member have the same moral gravity as taking the life of a two-year-old, as the hard pro-life line implies? Given that to get an abortion a mother stops providing a life support system for another life, with the potential for harm to herself in so doing, this is a relevant factor in decreasing the moral gravity of abortion. Another is the fact that the fetus, at least until very late in the pregnancy after most abortions have already taken place, this is another factor that, to my mind seriously mitigates the gravity of abortion. So I am disinclined to use murder rhetoric to talk about abortion. There is, I suppose a sense we could attach to the word "murder" which applies to any instance in which we take the life of a member of homo sapiens and there is not sufficient justification to support the action as at least morally equivalent to the alternative action. But I think the word has connotations that go beyond that definition, which I prefer to avoid.

At the same time, just because the biographical life of the fetus has not begun, and it only has its biological life, does that mean that nothing is lost in an abortion? I know the hard pro-choice position tries to defend this, but I cannot. I think there is a significant loss when something that develops through a natural process into a human person, and is a human entity, is destroyed. So, abortion is bad, though under conceivable circumstances it may not be wrong, in that the alternative action, carrying the pregnancy to term, may do more harm than abortion. But, I suspect, these cases are not in the majority. Most abortions, I think, are less moral than the alternative.

Nobody is going to be satisfied with this. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

How many abortion question are there? Actually five

I actually think there isn’t one question of abortion (are you pro-life or pro-choice. There’s five (!). 

Here are the theses at issue:
1) Is abortion bad? That is, to it cost something from a moral standpoint that should require serious moral considerations in order to justify it? (I think obviously yes, but not everyone on the pro-choice side agrees).

2) Are abortions wrong? Here we are looking at it from the standpoint of moral decision-making. Under what circumstances, if there are any, are abortions justified from a moral standpoint.

3) Is anti-abortion legislation morally appropriate? In particular, should we be putting people in jail to prevent abortions? This issue determines whether the pro-life or pro-choice label can be applied, as I understand it.

4) Is anti-abortion legislation constitutionally feasible? You can give pro-life answers to 1-3, but then say that since Roe was rightly decided as a matter of Constitutional law, we would need an amendment to overturn it. Of course, pro-lifers typically think that Roe was the product of a departure from the One True Jurisprudential Theory, which is Scalia-style originalism. So if we get enough Scalia-style originalists on the Court, we should be able to get Roe overturned and then abortion legislation will be determined by democratic choice on a state-by-state basis.

5) Should we prioritize abortion as a reason for voting? I have heard the argument that even if I agree with the Democrats on all other policy questions, even if I think that the Democratic candidate is a decent guy (or gal), and I think the Republican candidate is the biggest jerk that ever walked this earth, I ought to vote for the Republican candidate in order to save those babies.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Just the facts, ma'am

At a time when we need facts the most, we have a President who has yet to affirm three indisputable facts: 1)  that he did not get the turnout for his inauguration that his predecessor Obama did when he was elected, 2) that Hillary beat him fair and square in the Popular Vote (even if you think the Electoral College is just great, claiming that Hillary only won the popular vote because of illegals voting is a refusal to come to terms with indisputable facts), and 3) am that illegal Russian interference in the US election took place, and was aimed at enhancing his election prospects against Hillary in hopes of either putting him in office or undermining the legitimacy of a Hillary Clinton presidency. Facts matter, and they matter now more than ever. And having a President who is not on speaking terms with facts is one of the most devastating features of the present crisis.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Daniel Dennett and the Skyhook ban

In an exchange on the Argument from Reason between myself atheist philosopher David Kyle Johnson, both in the volume C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics: Pro and Con, and in a subsequent exchange I had with him in Philosophia Christi; there emerges a significant issue as to exactly what the argument from reason targets. In Lewis’s book Miracles he calls the target position naturalism, and he contrasts that with supernaturalism. For Johnson, naturalism is the view that the natural world is whatever makes up the universe. Hence, he says, “if a person believes that the mental is a fundamental element or property of that which makes up the universe, and believes that the mental is causally operating at the basic level, then that person is a naturalist.”
But I think there is more to it than that.  There is a significant viewpoint in philosophy and science which is very insistent on denying that the mental operates at the basic level. As I have indicated earlier, this thrust is largely responsible for the increased popularity of atheism since the publication of Origin of Species. The problem is, as I pointed out with the example of the rocks falling down on my head, for most of nature the mental is not thought to be anything that operates at the physical level, and it is widely held that nothing other than the initial position of the basic particles, whatever they and the laws that govern those basic particles, constitute a closed system of causation, and nothing other than these can determine where, for example, the particles in my left arm will be on Sunday morning. Thus even if I could truly say “I went to church on Sunday because I believe the teachings of Christianity and wanted to worship God,” I cannot explain the presence of the atoms and molecules in my body in ways that do not, in the last analysis, reduce down to the mindless movements of fundamental particles in accordance with the laws of physics. In the last analysis, the laws of physics, not the rules of conduct by which I live my life, govern the actions of the basic particles of my body.
When I wrote my book defending the Argument from Reason, I entitled it C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea, obviously in response to Daniel Dennett’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Interestingly enough, Jim Slagle entitled his book about arguments of this sort The Epistemological Skyhook, which again makes reference to Dennett’s book. The reason for this is not hard to understand. For Dennett, Darwin’s dangerous idea is that in explaining the world, we must operate from the ground up, not from the top down, using cranes instead of skyhooks. As he explains:
Let us understand that a skyhook is a ‘mind-first’ force or power or process, an exception to the principle that all design and apparent design is ultimately the result of mindless, motiveless, mechanicity.
On the other hand,
A crane, in contrast, is a subprocess or special feature of a design process that can be demonstrated to permit the local speeding up of the basic, slow process of natural selection, and that can be demonstrated to be itself the predictable (or retrospectively explicable) product of the basic process, (p. 76, italics in original)
              Now, I was very surprised to see Johnson, in our most recent exchange, characterize Dennett’s resistance to skyhooks as an argument that divine minds are not causally operative. He writes:
For example, he takes naturalists’ arguments that divine minds are not causally operative to be arguments that human minds are not causally operative. This is especially clear when he quotes Dennett talking about Darwin. Reppert thinks that his skepticism about “meaning” entails that he is eliminating human mentality from the natural world; but Dennett makes I absolutely clear that he is talking about meaning “in the existentialist sense” (as in “the meaning of life,” or “the purpose of the world”). Darwin argues that the world was not designed for a purpose (like the creation of intelligent life) by an intelligent designer—not that it lacks mentality at the basic level.
            Dennett is an atheist, and of course a member of the “four horsemen,” of New Atheists: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens being the others, but Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is not primarily an atheist polemic. The Darwinian critique of divine design is for the most part presupposed throughout the book. Instead, Dennett spends most of the book criticizing people who aren’t religious believers, but somehow are shy about applying the Dangerous Idea; people like Searle, Gould, Penrose, and Chomsky. They may be philosophical naturalists, but they fall into viewpoints that involve skyhooks, and thus they are inconsistent naturalists whose nerve has failed.Most importantly, Dennett insists on applying the Skyhook Ban to every area, including our understanding of mind.
            Long before Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, explicates the Skyhook Ban in an essay entitled “Why the Law of Effect Will Not Go Away,” where is explicitly applies the Ban to our account of the mind.
Psychology of course must not be question-begging. It must not explain intelligence in terms of intelligence, for instance by assuming responsibility for the existence of intelligence to the munificence of an intelligent creator, or by putting clever homunculi at the control panels of the nervous system. If that were the best psychology could do, then psychology could not do the job assigned to it.
            Well, what “job” is Dennett assigning to psychology? He claims that the social sciences, which are intentional in nature, depend on the science of psychology. But the task of psychology is to explain intelligence, and it has to explain in terms of a universe which at its base lacks intelligence. Whether we explain intelligence in terms of intelligent design, or by putting homunculi in the nervous system, (that is, providing a ground-level intentional explanation that does not appeal to a transcendent being), we would be committing what Dennett would later deride as a skyhook.
            What I have called C. S. Lewis’s dangerous idea, by contrast, is the idea that a consistent application of the Skyhook Ban to the mind undermines the very explanations that thinkers need to apply to their own reasoning in order for it to provide a rational foundation for what they believe. If none of our beliefs can be traced back to skyhooks, then reason is explained away. Thus, if the watchmaker is really blind, then Dawkins wouldn’t know that it. But since we do have knowledge, (a claim you can’t abandon without undercutting science) and we do form beliefs based on reasons, the skyhook ban cannot be fully and completely implemented.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Against the blind watchmaker

The title of one of Richard Dawkins’s books is entitled The Blind Watchmaker, but its subtitle is How the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a World without Design. The subtitle, it seems to me, makes a paradoxical claim. On the one hand, it maintains we ought to draw the conclusion that the world lacks design. On the other hand, the subtitle suggests that he has reached this conclusion through examining the evidence of evolution, but examining the evidence is a process designed to discover the truth. In fact, Dawkins is fond of contrasting his own methods for reaching conclusions with methods based on faith, which to his mind involve a lack of design. But if the world really is without design, how is this possible? Of course, it could turn out that the paradox is resolvable. But the attempt to ban teleology from the bioverse, but then to insist that one’s own convictions are justified because a kind of teleological explanation can be given for these convictions, is a fact that, at the very least stands in need of explanation.
The paradox is certainly not Dawkins’s alone. Bertrand Russell maintained that we were products of forces that had no prevision of the end they were achieving, and that we were accidental collocations of atoms, yet insisted that, if it were to turn out that God did exist, God was in fact remiss for providing us insufficient evidence for his existence, again implying that human beings are the sorts of beings who can choose one belief over another believe because the evidence for one is better than the evidence for the other.
One apparent resolution to this paradox is to make the point that the design Dawkins professes to be absent from the world is divine design, coming from a being transcendent to the universe. What he does not intend to deny, perhaps, is human design, functioning within the physical universe and having no transcendent source. 
However, this response is not sufficient. To understand why, we have to look at what causation looks like in a world without design. Consider what happens when I am at the bottom of a mountain and rocks are falling down the mountain in an avalanche. Will the rocks avoid my head because they want to spare me, or hit me because they think I deserve to get my head smashed in? No, they will blindly follow what the laws of physics require that they do, given their trajectory and velocity. If physical determinism is true, the laws and facts, which are blind to purposes of any kind, guarantee all future states. Any even that occurs other than those which the laws and facts require would be, in fact, in a significant sense, miraculous. But what if the physical level is not deterministic, on the basis of some quantum mechanical indeterminism? Even there, a cause which introduces design at the basic level of analysis still introduces a miracle to the blind universe.
One could reply that one pattern of movement on the part of basic particles is the acceptance of evidence, while another pattern of movement of basic particles is the rejection of evidence. But evidence is not a fundamental force in the universe, at least as understood by science. The basic causes of the universe operative in the universe, at least according to standard science, operate blindly, with to quote Russell, no prevision of the end they are achieving.
Indeed the impetus toward atheism in over the past 160 years has been powered by Darwin’s theory of evolution and the plausibility of replacing explanations in terms of design with design-free explanations, the idea that time, chance variation, and natural selection can produce results that might appear on the face of things to be the result of intelligent design. Indeed, Dawkins remarked, reportedly, remarked to A. J. Ayer that “although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” In the intellectually fulfilled atheist world, it is still possible to talk about “design” in the biosphere, but that design-talk is not literally true, since such design claims are merely placeholders for an account in terms of blind forces such as random variation and natural selection.
Darwinian biology replaces or promises to replace design explanations with non-design explanations in it diachronic explanations of how rational agents come into existence, going from no life at all, to one-celled living things, to animal life, and finally to the transition from animal life to humans with the mental capacities we possess. But this leaves us with a puzzle. It looks as if evolution has brought into being creatures who act for reasons. But does that mean that natural selection and random variation have brought into existence a kind of causation that is not blind? Prior to the arrival of humans, or whoever the first beings in the universe are who act for reasons, causation in the universe was blind, according to the standard model. But new kinds of causation do not just pop into existence. So, the materialist picture has to be that, in the final analysis, no one really acts, or thinks, or believes anything for a reason. Hence the process that produced the mind of Richard Dawkins, and the atoms and molecules in Dawkins’s brain when he concludes that everything is the work of a “blind watchmaker” are equally blind. On the face of things, this would tend to undercut the claims of people like Dawkins that their scientific beliefs, unlike the beliefs of, say, creationists, are formed by evidence and therefore are more justified than those of their opponents. If they are really consistent in their understanding of the world, they have to conclude that their own beliefs are caused in the same blind way as those of the creationists. Just as claims about the design of, say, the human eye are not literally true, claims that an agent has concluded anything based on evidence, should, if people like Dawkins and Russell are right, are also not literally true.
There is at least an apparent conflict between the claim that the world proceeds, at its base, in a non-purposive manner, and the claim that there are rational agents who form beliefs on the basis of rational evidence. Arguments that attempt to show that a) this conflict is real and not merely apparent, and b) it constitutes a reason for rejecting in which all causation is ultimately blind, can be regarded as versions of the argument from reason.