Tuesday, February 14, 2006

 

It's Still Not Murder

Suppose, for the sake of argument, we say an immortal soul enters the human egg along with the sperm's DNA whenever gametes unite. What follows? Does it automatically follow that the deliberate destruction of the fertilized cell is murder?

Well, you may say a soul is a soul is a soul, and that is that. But remember, the Bible itself gives us conflicting guidance and little insight into the precise nature of souls.

My belief: no, it's not murder, even if you grant, for the sake of argument, that the soul enters the body at conception.

To understand why, we must consider two things: the nature of what it is to be a human being and our ignorance regarding the precise nature of the soul.

Consider the ball of cells that very quickly results from the fertilization of the egg: call it a "blastocyst." This ball of cells has no nerve cells, no brain, no eyes, etc, etc. We can safely say if has no ability to experience physical pain or suffering, no capacity to fear, hate or love.

It is human, of course, but is it a human being?

The hallmarks of being human consists of at least the following attributes, singly or in combination: self-awareness; intelligence; ability to use tools; ability to use language; and sociability. Human being are essentially moral creatures; that is, they alone may truly be said to worthy of praise or blame. Only human beings have a conscience; only human beings can learn the difference between right and wrong. Only human beings experience shame and guilt (as far as we know.) I'm sure the average person could think of more attributes of being human. Now, I don't want to say that the absence of any one of these traits is the total absence of humanity. But the absence of all these traits in any form other than potentiality must mean the absence of true humanity.

Because the Bible is contradictory on the precise nature of the soul, any guesses about the capacities of the soul are mere speculations. But let me guess anyway. It does not appear likely that the soul, incarnated in a physical human, would be able to experience anything not experienced by that body. For example, it would not make sense to say of a two month old child's soul, "He's in a real moral dilemma; he's made poor choices." Or speaking of a sixteen cell blastocyst, "Her soul sorrows for all the poor people in the world." Or of a one-month old fetus still in the womb, "His soul was uplifted by the sermon."

The soul, at the blastocyst stage of development, does not make moral choices. It does not have opinions; it has no self-awareness. It feels no love, not even for its mother. Neither does it experience pain. It cannot make moral decision because it has no capacity to act. It cannot sensibly be said to face choices: it has no nerves, bones, muscles or sinews. It cannot speak. It cannot think.

Thus, the destruction of a blastocyst cannot rise to the level of murder, even if an immortal soul enters the egg cell at the moment of conception. This is because the cluster of cells at that stage is only potentially a human being. It lacks any of the attributes or properties essential to being human, other than its origin as human cells.

As an aside: if we restrict the definition of "human being" to mean, "cells from a human body" then the whole argument is moot. That definition excludes the "soul" or any non-material aspect of being human. We would not want to argue that the soul resides in each and every cell. To do so is to invite madness: for example, we could never treat cancer if we thought the malignant cells were, each one, human beings.

We can posit, of course, that the soul does undergo human experiences even before the body can. No Christian that I know of has advanced this idea. But if it were true, it leads to some very interesting questions. Is the soul awake when we sleep? Is the soul conscious when we are in a coma? What purpose would be served by having a soul that is fully aware, awake, and experiencing life when the human body it is attached to is not aware, awake, or having any experiences at all? What's the point of that? Is this a Hindu concept? If the soul has experiences prior to the development of a body, then how does it do that? Where does it come from? Does it exist before conception? And is that to claim re-incarnation? Are we Christians or Hindus?

I wish Jesus had spent more time on Earth after the resurrection. Perhaps he would have given us some clear, specific information that would answer these questions. In the meantime, we are left to ponder events we cannot experience and mysteries we cannot solve.

In the face of our overwhelming ignorance, it seems unwise to declare ourselves in sole possession of the truth and to try to force others to bow to our arrogance.

If we believe that God created us, then He must have hidden the answers to these questions for His own inscrutable reasons. Do we want to claim for ourselves the knowledge of the mechanics of the soul? How can we know these things, when the Bible itself speaks with many mixed messages and conflicting views? On what evidence do we base our beliefs about souls?

Of course, there are many people with "proof" of the precise nature of the soul; "proof" of the existence of God; "proof" that the world is flat; "proof" that souls reincarnate like so many aluminum cans; "proof" that un-baptized souls go to hell; "proof" that animals have souls; "proof" that the soul weighs exactly 6.3 ounces; "proof" that the earth is only 8,000 years old; etc., etc.

What's wanted is a little healthy skepticism and a little critical thinking. What's needed is a careful reading of the Bible, a reading of what it actually says as opposed to what we need it to say to support our theories. God gave us brains. Let's use them.

Next: How We Actually Value Human Life

Comments:
You said
"The hallmarks of being human consists of at least the following attributes, singly or in combination: self-awareness; intelligence; ability to use tools; ability to use language; and sociability. Human being are essentially moral creatures; that is, they alone may truly be said to worthy of praise or blame. Only human beings have a conscience; only human beings can learn the difference between right and wrong. Only human beings experience shame and guilt (as far as we know.) I'm sure the average person could think of more attributes of being human. Now, I don't want to say that the absence of any one of these traits is the total absence of humanity. But the absence of all these traits in any form other than potentiality must mean the absence of true humanity."

I think I know what you mean but I do have qualms about using minimal standards to define what is human and what is not.
I am the father of a 19 year old son who functions at about the level of a one year old.
When function become the yardstick of who is human my son, and people like him, becomes a potential casuality.
There is a moral(?) philospoher from Australia (whose name eludes me) who teaches that, since babies cannot survive on their own, parents should have the right to end that child's life for several months after birth. Abortion outside the womb if you will. I prefer to err on the side the sancticty of all humanity regardless of ability and advocate for protection in the womb, while promoting the need to value and care for life outside the womb.
 
I agree that my "working definition" of what it is to be human is inadequate. Definitions are mere words, not things. These are written in pulses of electricity, bits and bytes. I think of my writing as working in clay, not stone. My thoughts change as my understanding deepens.

"When I was a child, I thought as a child, ..."

Infanticide is morally repugnant, as would be the murder of your son. This accurately reflects our values as a society and a culture.

And, if we err, we should indeed err on the conservative side. We agree, I think, on those two points.

But the consensus we enjoy on those issues does not extend very far. Certainly not to issues of abortion.

This post was not written in an attempt to fully define what it is to be human. I am not sure that is even possible. Certainly, it would take volumes of writing if it were possible.

I am attempting to show that it does not make sense to speak of a blastocyst having a soul. Thus it would follow that it does not make sense to accord a tiny ball of cells value equal to the value of your son's life, or the life of any other person.

Our cultural prejudice against infanticide is by no means universal. Hawiian and Eskimo leap to mind as two cultures where it was practiced when white men first met those peoples.

So, while I admit to the inadequacies of purely functional definitions of what it is to be human, I maintain the thrust of my argument is still correct.
 
Afterthought: your son, functioning at a one year old level, would posses capacities very important to humans, capacities we value in all living creatures. He would be able to experience love. He can love and be loved, and know it. And, he can know joy.

Thank you for commenting and making me think more on this matter.
 
Thanks for the clarification. I had assumed that you were inclined to deeply value life but not everyone is as fully formed in their moral and spiritual outlook as you, so I do worry a little about the issue of right to life in societies drifting from their spiritual underpinnings.
 
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