A Clump of Cells

I am made of lots of these
Hi, my name is Laurence and I'm a clump of cells.

Could Dawkins disagree?

The only difference between me and a week old fetus is that this clump of cells, me, is more developed than a clump of cells in the womb.

But I'm still just a clump of cells. So when do we decide that a clump of cells becomes human or worthy of protection under law?

I expect Dawkins probably has the answer. He's a biologist, you know. I am certain Hitchens has the answer because he has now met God. May the Lord grant him a merciful judgment and may his soul rest in peace.

Comments

John said…
No, the difference between your particular clump of cells and that clump of cells itself is that 'you' are a socially engaged being with relationships, desires, hopes, a past, a future, thought, consciousness, and dreams. If you took those properties away from the clump of cells, then you wouldn't be you would you now? So, if I may paraphrase, the only difference between you and a clump of cells is that you are a person and a clump of cells is not. Therefore the theological position which attributes personhood to a clump of cells is deeply ignorant and cannot be justified
The Bones said…
Am I objectively a person, or just because you say I am a person.

I just wonder because I received a comment today which I did not publish which asserted that drunk homeless people are 'not human'.

Remember, black people, in times of slavery were not deemed to be 'fully human'.

It sounds arbitrary to me, but its nice of you to call me human. I know that because you say I am human, that means I must be, because, after all, you are the final arbiter of what is human and what is not.
The Bones said…
Remember, the unborn child isn't just a clump of cells, in biological terms. Its a clump of HUMAN cells.
John said…
"Am I objectively a person, or just because you say I am a person." Your question makes no sense. What do you mean by objective? The second part of the sentence suggests that by 'objective' you mean 'independent of my saying so'. If this is the case I will go for a yes. Yes, your consciousness and ability to form relationships has nothing to do with my presence in the world. If by 'objective' you mean 'independent of the properties I listed' then the answer is obviously 'no, independently of consciousness, relationships with others, a past and future etc, in short a world, you are not a person, even if the form of the human being is still present'. My reason for believing this is as follows: suppose some mad scientist made a brainless clone of you (so an exact replica then!) in a laboratory. Would this be a person? No, it would be a clump of cells arranged into human form.

Drunk homeless people are all too human, and it is a great shame that they are left out in the cold. How do we help them? I don't know, it's a horrible thing and a tough question. Do I do anything to help them? No. I wish there were a God just so I could be guilty before some arbiter of values for my inaction in the face of that problem, but unfortunately I have to hold my hands up and say that my doing nothing is a personal moral failing and in no way indicates there is a god. But I digress, yes, humanity is present in the homeless, and if we pretend it is not then it is either (presumably) a joke or a way to deal with an almost impossible social fact: that there are people like you and me who are denied even basic dignity. But then again, I hardly see this as a reason to believe in God, for if HE determines what a human is, and if he is omnipotent and omnipresent, then he decides to de-humanise the homeless.

But back tot he matter at hand: "after all, you are the final arbiter of what is human and what is not." Agreed, humans are. I know I am a human, and as part of my humanity requires that I be able to interact with humans, I know you are. A cell is not a human. The error you're making is equating the value (humanity) with the form (the cells). It's like asking if your hair is human, you just don't understand what is meant by human if you say this. To ask if a cell is 'human', or even whether a ball of cells is human when in its final adult form, is to fail to understand what grown ups mean by 'human' in the first place
John said…
"Its a clump of HUMAN cells." What are HUMAN cells then? Why is this special? I repeat (and can you please give me a good, non-issue dodging answer on this - I may be wrong, in which case please correct me, but if you can't, admit it): if a scientist produces a brainless, nerveless form of human flesh, possibly by adding sperm to egg in a lab and modifying its growth to create the shell of a human with a beating heart but no brain, would this be a person, and would we be obliged to treat this person like a human? Would you say that this being is a human person? In my opinion if you say that yes, a brainless, nerveless form of cells is in this instance a person because it is a ball of human cells, then you just don't understand the definition of the word 'person'
John said…
"Remember, the unborn child isn't just a clump of cells, in biological terms. Its a clump of HUMAN cells"

But both 'cells' and 'human cells' are, strictly speaking, purely biological terms, so the unborn child IS just a clump of cells, in biological terms, surely
Ben Trovato said…
John, so when I'm asleep, I'm not human? Or when I'm lost on a desert island and asleep I'm not human? Or when I'm senile, alone, and lying unconscious on the floor, having slipped on a patch of water in my kitchen, and likely to die soon if nobody finds me, I'm not human? Or what, precisely?

I would argue that I am a human being not because of my relationship with others, my cognitive processes, etc, but because I am a being, of the variety 'human.' And so is an unborn child. That's the science: the dna, the inherited life from human parentage - cut it which way you like...
John said…
Can I also point out (sorry to go on), that that little picture of a cell you've put up, that's not 'you'. You are different to a cell, that's because 'you' are a collection of billions of highly specialised cells, falling into clusters of organs, and allowing you to a) have a brain which creates memories, take information and process it into new ideas, form original ideas, accept dogma, and imagine things you've never seen (like a red dog, or heaven). This also allows you to b) inhabit a world, to move around and speak to people, to relate to them, have lovers, spend the night in the arms of a person you care about, go to the pub with your friends, visit your gran, listen to music, understand the significance of that music in your life. None of this personal stuff can be reduced to simple propositions (like 'all that, that's a cell that is'), it's far too messy, complex and, for want of a better word, 'worldly', it is just rooted in your physical presence in a particular society. You implied earlier that I am somehow not being 'objective', or refusing to take a stance on personhood that transcends my own particular experience, but it is in fact you who is doing this by trying to tie personhood to a single fact (like 'being a single human cell') - it's just too vague to capture what makes you special, and ultimately ends up disregarding the uniqueness of human persons
The Bones said…
John

I am a clump of cells. Who said that a clump could not involve shitloads of cells?

So, now we're defining human on how many cells are in the clump?
The Bones said…
Come one John

How many human cells have to be present in the human clump of cells for something to be human being?
The Bones said…
Apologies for my filthy language
John said…
OK, I'll try to be concise 'cos I waffled before.

Ben Trovato: You ask if temporary lack of consciousness, or solitude, can be held as challenges to my argument. They cannot. This is basically a version of 'the private language argument', namely the mistaken belief that language is not a social entity because, once we've got it, we can use it asocially. The point is that the reference of language is inherently social, even if we can think of its reference individually. But to be more specific to the challenges you raise, I would say that they don't seriously engage with the question. Temporary suspension of consciousness in sleep is no argument at all, because we all know the 'person' will be there tomorrow. If you woke up as a completely different person each day then you might have a point. Or if you never woke up at all I might indulge the suggestion. As it is, it constitutes no sort of refutation at all (unless you happen to believe you somehow disappear when you sleep, an extreme form of empiricist idealism if ever I saw one). The same goes for all your other arguments. In fact, the points you raise support my claim. If I die and my kids grieve, it is because I am not physically present but the 'person' remains. The social relations that constituted my external being are still there even if I, as a clump of cells, am not.

"I would argue that I am a human being not because of my relationship with others, my cognitive processes, etc, but because I am a being, of the variety 'human.'" But notice how you've utterly destroyed anything meaningful about the term 'human being' in this poor definition. You've just explained the composite terms, human (genetics) and being (existence). The only way to add meat to the formula is to explain what is significant about the human being, which is what I did. You definition is inhumane, it's too cold and abstract

Laurence: Potty mouth! I'm not sure what you found objectionable about what I pointed out. The single cell is a cell from a human being, though clearly it is not itself a human being. I am not saying quantity determines humanity, but that even the cellular structure of humanity requires some sort of complexity and organisation. At the very least, you must grant me, you need a brain, nervous system etc etc. To put it in a mildly daft way, if I lose my arm I don't become 'two persons', I remain the same person without an arm. The cells in the arm are human cells, they just are not persons! It's not rocket science.

N.B. you still haven't answered my question. If I deviously steal some sperm and fabricate a zygote using an egg, genetically engineered (or modified through some technique) so that no brain or central nervous system is formed, is the brainless shell a human person? I repeat, if you say it is, and that it is on the basis of its formal resemblance to a human, or its DNA, you have simply failed to understand what the word person means
Ben said…
John said: "In my opinion if you say that yes, a brainless, nerveless form of cells is in this instance a person because it is a ball of human cells, then you just don't understand the definition of the word 'person'."

Au contraire, my friend, we understand perfectly your definition of 'person' - we just think it's too narrow. Maybe you would make a more convincing case if you didn't assume that we were 'deeply ignorant' and attribute a lack of understanding to people who are just as intelligent as you and have thought about these things at least as hard as you have.
John said…
N.B. your caption is revealing. 'I am made of lots of these'. If your argument is true then you ought to say 'I AM lots of these'. I am made of protein, but I am not protein - I am not present where ever protein is present. Similarly a human is made of cells, but those cells are not synonymous with our humanity. Therefore when we find cells, we do not necessarily find humans made of cells, unless of course we have other reasons to believe we have found humans. Again, a basic error of understanding
The Bones said…
John

It's a good question.

If you are saying that something is only human because of its composite parts, the fact that he or she has no brain would not necessarily mean that he or she was not human.

For instance, one reason why the Church is against IVF is because 'defective' human embryos are destroyed in the process.

My point (and you know the point I making, however clumsily) is that the argument 'it is just a clump of cells' regarding the fetus is not watertight, since you and I are a clump of human cells as well.

You can say you are a more 'sophisticated' 'complex' bunch of cells, but then again, even a 'clump of cells' after conception, under the microscope is going to be pretty sophisticated.

Few scientists doubt that 'life' starts at conception, even if that life is a small clump of cells, not with modern technology to help us see it in its wonderous glory.

There can be no doubt that you and I started as a small clump of human cells. My assertion is that we are still clumps of human cells now, just larger, more sophisticated, complex etc.

Mind you, even that assertion, that we are more 'sophisticated' now we are 'fully grown' is tenuous, since surely the wonder of that initial 'small clump of cells' is that the blueprint for human development is already there, written into our being.

It really is a marvel. It is the marvel of new life and the marvel of new human life, whether it be incredibly small (remember David and Goliath) or incredibly large is never to be discarded by human hands and thrown into a bin, or flushed down a toilet.
The Bones said…
I wasn't suggesting for a moment that I am 'just a clump of cells', since I believe what the Church teachings concerning being made 'in the image and likeness of God'.

But without the concept of God, Dawkins would surely just see himself as 'just a clump of cells'.

It is on this basis, of his own biological definitions that his own beliefs on abortion reveal an disparity.

Since Dawkins sees himself as a sophisticated clump of cells, not made by God, why should anyone insist that an unborn child can be discarded because it is 'just a clump of cells'. My point is that it is a little hypocritical.

What makes him a more 'worthy' clump of cells than an unborn child. Who is he, or we, to judge that the clump of cells in the womb is 'inadequate' or 'unfit' for life.

Are not those who judge those in the womb of being 'unfit' for life, really, playing God?
John said…
Hi Ben. Sorry if I caused offence with my tone. However, as I didn't use the term ignorant once, let alone 'deeply ignorant', the quotation marks are a little misleading. Nonetheless, I am still confused as to why a rich and multi-faceted definition of personhood is deemed 'too narrow' when I am proposing that it serves better than a definition which accords personhood to something reductive and vague, like 'DNA' or 'a cell'.

To (try to) clear up any confusion, I am not claiming to be more intelligent than you, or Laurence, when I say that defining a human form devoid of a brain as a person shows a lack of understanding. I am merely reporting a fact. If you call a pot a kettle you are not introducing a new understanding of a pot, you are just failing to understand what is meant by a kettle. It's not a claim related to intelligence, it's just that certain words mean certain things, and the word 'person' doesn't mean 'a cell'.

If you have thought about these things long and hard then by all means enlighten me, religion has been a force for truth and understanding in the past, it can be again. It's just I've yet to hear a decent challenge to my point, and therefore I can only assume you don't have one, and that you not using language correctly when you call a cell a person.
The Bones said…
I would ask you to pinpoint the moment in human development, from conception to birth, at which a 'clump of cells' becomes a human being.

I would assert that if you suggest anything other than 'at the moment of conception' then you would be playing God.

And this is what science is doing a lot - all in the name of progress of course, like Dr Josef Mengele did what he did, all in the name of science and progress.
John said…
Laurence: OK, so I see your point now. And yes, you're right, the Church's rejection of eugenics is based on its (in my view quite correct) stance that 'defective' humans are no less human than you or me. However, there are 2 slight issues here.

1) I think the Church's IVF prohibition is more general than this- IVF necessarily involves the destruction of zygotes, whether they are defective or not, so the prohibition is not based on the idea that defective cells are destroyed, but on the base-line assumption that a cell is a person (or 2 cells, since in IVF the cell is implanted after first division and others are destroyed). As this is an ethical stance (2 cells=a person) and not in itself an argument, it can't help us settle the matter.

2) It still doesn't tell us what the Church would say if, through some freak of nature, a baby was born with no sensation, brain, or central nervous system, but was nonetheless able to breathe and maintain a pulse (let's gloss over how that could happen without a CNS). Would THIS baby be deemed a person? I'm not sure it would, and if it would then I'd say the label 'person' is being used incorrectly anyway.

I acknowledge your point, if a foetus is 'only' a cell, then we are 'only' a clump of cells. When does a heap of stones become a mountain and all that. But you know there are challenges to this point too. Firstly, you know a mountain when you see one, and a few stones when you see them. The fact that there is no absolute demarcation between the two doesn't change the truth of the matter. Secondly, I'm not saying (to repeat) it is a matter of quantity - I am saying we are not synonymous with our cells, or anything biological. DNA is a recent discovery, we didn't have to wait for DNA to discover what makes us human. Making the argument hinge on science is deliberately misleading, the study of cells can tell us a lot about nature, but not about what it means to be human.
John said…
"You can say you are a more 'sophisticated' 'complex' bunch of cells, but then again, even a 'clump of cells' after conception, under the microscope is going to be pretty sophisticated."

OK, my error - loose terminology. Yes, a cell is a very intricate and sophisticated piece of evolution. But in terms of sophistication a human cell is no more elaborate than the cell of a fish, or a rose. The cell itself is not inherently special, nor is its DNA (again, appealing to science is misleading and missing the point). A human being, as opposed to a human cell, is, as far as we know, unique in our world. It can do a lot of things WE (humans) deem valuable. That is, we ascribe values to these collections of cells and not to others. That CAN be given some basis in biology: a human brain is far more elaborate than a fish's brain, and it is this organisation of cells into a brain that allows us to function socially as humans. But even without this understanding of neuro-anatomy, we would still know a human being is fundamentally different to a fish. Now, I repeat, the things that would cause us to say a human is different to a fish have nothing to do with DNA, the salient differences would be to do with the capacities of the human and his or her relations with others. Since this is not true of a cell, it is mistaken to ascribe these properties to a cell.

And, to wrap up, when you say:
"surely the wonder of that initial 'small clump of cells' is that the blueprint for human development is already there, written into our being", surely you will agree that this is a wonder for all species, not only humans. It is a wonder that an oak grows from an acorn, but it doesn't tell us that either acorns or oaks are ethically significant, it just tells us that nature is elaborate and amazing. It is a wonder that a human grows from the fusion of sperm and egg (as do dogs, cats, mice, squid etc etc), but it doesn't tell us anything about the ethical significance of any of this. The question of ethics is on a different level to science, and marvelling at a cell, whether it be of an oak, a mouse, or a human, isn't going to answer the ethical question of personhood.
John said…
"without the concept of God, Dawkins would surely just see himself as 'just a clump of cells'."

Possibly, I can't speak for him. But I do think this is the heart of the issue, and it is a confusion that an awful lot of believers of any stamp have concerning those who do not subscribe to the same doctrines. You say 'a human is only special because of God'. I disagree and therefore you assume I am saying 'a human is not special'. No, I am saying 'humans are special, and we don't NEED to postulate a God to make humans special'. If it helps you come to terms with the world, or adds meaning and light to darkness, then of course it's a sensible assumption to make. But to refuse to accept it is possible to consider humans as special if I don't believe there is a God to make them special is to take an unfortunately dim view of humans.

"What makes him a more 'worthy' clump of cells than an unborn child. Who is he, or we, to judge that the clump of cells in the womb is 'inadequate' or 'unfit' for life."

Again, can't speak for Dawkins, but this is another common error. No one is saying a clump of cells is unfit for life, they are saying a clump of cells is not a person. These two concepts get confused regularly, and it leads to much gnashing of teeth. You don't have to accept the position that a cell is not a person (the pope doesn't and he's no fool), but you should at least stick to the same terminology as your opponents so the point being contested remains clear. To reiterate, I make no pronouncements on the worthiness or unworthiness of unborn life, I claim that it makes little sense to call a cell a person, because it relies on having some special double definition of person capable of covering both what I mean when I call you a person and when I call a cell a person. Since the two are so distinct, and the cell lacks all of the interesting things that go toward your personhood, I must say that there is no sense in doing this.
John said…
"like Dr Josef Mengele did what he did, all in the name of science and progress." Actually the Nazi position on abortion wasn't so clear cut. Hitler was dead against abortion in a lot of cases (like if the woman wanted it - bad woman, daring to challenge the state's ability to determine what she should do). He even (and the details are so disgusting it's not worth dwelling on) dismissed the suggestion that the 'inferior' ought to be sterilised on the grounds that it was inefficient and it would be quicker just to kill them. I doubt he or Mengele used the word 'progress' much either, since the progressives got a pretty bad rap in Nazi Germany ('progressive' was a synonym for 'Jewish' in late C19/early C20th European literature, see Dostoevsky for instance, whenever 'progressive ideas' are discussed, always in the pejorative, the next point is about Jewish influence destroying Europe). Anyway, it's getting science and ethics confused again! Did the Nazis have 'good science'? Well, the V2 rocket led to man's exploration of space. Did they use it ethically? Nope
James said…
If I may interject at this point in an interesting discussion.

"Human being" and "person" are obviously two different concepts, the former being primarily biological, the latter primarily philosophical.

Is a one cell zygote of the species homo sapiens a human being? I would suggest that science clearly answers "yes". Is the same biological material a person? Here there is more debate. One's answer will depend I suppose on one's definition of the term "person".

If, however, one posits that not all "human beings" are "persons", prudence would suggest that the onus should be on those who hold that position to justify it.

As I see it, two main problems arise for those who hold this position (that not all human beings are persons).

Firstly, there is not unanimity of opinion on exactly what criteria need to be achieved/exhibited to enable a developing human being to achieve the status of "personhood". So someone like Peter Singer can argue that new born babies fail to satisfy (what he considers to be) such criteria and therefore should be able to be legally killed, if the parents so choose.

Secondly, is that which enables a human being to satisfy the "hurdle" of personhood extrinsic or intrinsic to that human being's biological material? If it is extrinsic, I can't see how a consistent materialist can hold such a position, which appears to me to be dualistic in nature.

I would suggest that, as we are "human beings" rather than "human doings", the safest approach is attribute the status of "person" to all members of the species homo sapiens regardless of their stage of development. As the scholastics would put it: agere seguitur esse.
The Bones said…
I thank you for being a courteous and charitable commenter. Among the sceptical community, they are rare. That's part of the reason I banned comments against the Magisterium, most commenters in the sceptical community (I mean atheist really or even liberal) cannot maintain a discussion without resorting to insult.

You do not feel confident enough to posit at what point the 'clump of cells' becomes a human being. Very well, who could, except the medical community like the Royal College, or perhaps even David Cameron, who voted for abortion up to birth for babies with 'defects'.
The Bones said…
Precisely James, does that Latin phrase mean 'better safe than sorry'?
The Bones said…
Your argument btw, John, that we have no need of God to realise human beings are special is not very realistic.

The reality is that in an atheist age, in which God is dismissed from public square, it appears to be very difficult for society to protect the unborn child.

If we are special without God, then why has society degenerated into the abortive mentality, in which 90% of downs syndrome babies are apparently aborted in the UK.

That kind of sounds like a genocide to me.
Ben said…
John. A point of fact: you used the phrase 'deeply ignorant' in your first comment; and I was not concerned so much about your offensiveness as about your approach to discussion. If your starting point is that we are ignorant and you are not, the implication is that you know something we don't. So tell us what you know; all we've had so far are your opinions.

Your definition of a person is a narrow, exclusive one - and this, presumably is why you object to Laurence's post - because it would exclude several categories of human being, e.g. the unborn (they have no hopes or thought) and the terminally ill (they have no future). You speak of a person's never waking up as if it were some whimsical thought experiment; but cases such as that of Terri Schiavo would seem to me to be a very good test of your definition. That's also a case that shows why the question matters in the real world: when we define human beings as non-persons, it affects the way we behave towards them.

Anyway, answer Laurence's question - at what point does the clump of cells become a person? - and we can see whether you really do have some knowledge, or at least some solid arguments, to back up your assumption of superiority.
Ben said…
[Eight comments appeared while I was writing my last, so it may seem that I am failing to keep up ... I must say, though, that James's first comment has hit the nail very firmly on the head.]
John said…
James, a very good challenge. You put the matter far more succinctly than I managed, thank you! As it's late I probably can't address your challenge properly (and Laurence has been more than generous with me as it is). However, as a brief answer I will say the following. Firstly, you say that if one refuses to equate personhood with human biology "the onus should be on those who hold that position to justify it". I believe I have justified it. That is, I have justified my stance that these two are not synonymous. And you yourself have agreed that this is the case! By justify you must therefore mean 'give a positive definition of personhood', but this is not necessary. I can know the logic of claiming human cells are persons is flawed without having to say what a person is, just as I can know the logic of claiming a cat to be a dodo is flawed without being able to precisely define a dodo.

As to your two main problems to be addressed:

1) As far as I can see, if there are good logical reasons to deny a cell is a person (and you admit there may be), and these reasons can be sustained in the face of rebuttals directed at that specific point, then the lack of unanimity on a different point (when a person comes into being) is immaterial to the point at hand. That is to say, I am not a consequentialist in this matter. If it is not true that all Xs are Ys then X not being necessarily synonymous with Y is a fact whether or not I can tell you what constitutes Y.

While I agree Singer is being a pratt (or just being contrary to get a rise from people), the fact that a person can make these arguments is not evidence that a human person is synonymous with a human being any more than the fact that a person who holds the two to be synonymous may also hold a noxious doctrine is evidence against it.

Now I'm not accusing you of this, but it can at times seem like the argument is 'Well if you can't tell me EXACTLY what something is then you may as well accept an exacting, though inaccurate, definition.' If there is no consensus as to what constitutes a human why is that somehow evidence for a cell being a human? It doesn't add up, the non-identity of human beings and human persons remains.

Come at it from the other angle: suppose the science of human beings were challenged. Suppose we found out that DNA was all just a myth, or scientists cooking the books to ignore outlying data. Would this challenge your concept of a person? No, because the human being and human person are not synonymous, so even if you were unable to define a human being (on a scientific level) then you would still be able to have a concept of a person.

2) it is extrinsic and this is consistent with materialism if you please! Think about it, if I said that human consciousness could be imported onto a computer programme, then yes, I would be saying something peculiarly at odds with materialism (because I would be claiming consciousness can be held independently of the material conditions of humanity). I am not. I am saying that the presence of a human brain, interacting in the embodied world of persons, is necessary for personhood. This is a thoroughly materialistic claim
The Bones said…
There appear to be various medical conditions which means the unborn are denied the status of humanity.

Yet, if I contract condition, such as motor neurone disease, or MS or something, I am not denied my humanity.

If a condition is detected in the womb then the unborn baby can be aborted up to birth.

If a condition is outside of the womb, then this is not the case.
The Bones said…
But, John, there is a definitive scientific consensus that 'life' starts at conception.

When is a life, not a life.

The answer, for modern society, surely, is 'when I say it is not'.

But who are we to say it is not?

Again, we make ourselves 'as God' in deciding arbitrarily.
John said…
I do not feel confident at all! You're right. But then I suppose my point is that, even if I can't, I don't take this inability to be evidence for a cell being a person. I can't force myself to believe what I know cannot be true just because I lack a counter explanation. I don't know how the heads on Easter Island got there, but I don't accept aliens did it for that reason. But I don't see how this differs from any other problem where there is no absolute point of transition. Can you tell me when a boy become a man? Or when a baby becomes a toddler? Or when a heap becomes a mountain? Or a copse a forest? I wouldn't insist on a forest being the same thing as a tree just because I can't tell you when one becomes the other, or on the identity of a boy and a man just because there is no absolute point of transition I can point to. But anyway, to insist that I give you such a definition is to simply ignore the whole substance of my argument: I am claiming that there is no single thing on the basis of which humans derive their personhood (such as having human DNA, having a soul, being aryan - all proposals made in the past), it is therefore impossible for me to play the game of naming the one point at which such a thing is acquired!

It is entirely reasonable to claim we don't need God to realise we are special. Did the Greeks or Romans know they were special? Did they know they were persons? Did they need a belief in God to tell them this?

And, as I'm sure you know, if a cell is not a person, aborting a cell during IVF cannot be termed 'genocide'. But even so, the consequentialism of the position is again beside the point: Pointing out that some people do things you don't agree with doesn't make it reasonable to say a cell is a person. We might quite legitimately lament that couples are no longer prepared to risk having a child of differing ability, and to experience the warmth and love of such a person, but the cell from which such a person grew is not itself that person, any more than the cell from which I grew was 'me'
The Bones said…
And then we get to the end of life issues and decide terminally sick elderly lives are 'not worth living' and we have euthanasia by the back door.

It is all about third parties decreeing when a life is worth living and who is 'worthy' or 'convenient'.
John said…
Actually, it's not! There is no universal scientific definition of what constitutes 'life', it's a simplification we are told in GCSEs. Are viruses to be deemed 'life'? What about those bacteria that lie dormant for a billion years on a rock? What about asexually reproducing life? They don't conceive, so unless they are not 'life', life can't begin at conception.

Or, if you prefer, the same argument from the other angle. OK, so life begins at conception. So what? This fish began at conception. Can I kill it for food? Yes? So 'life begins at conception' isn't helpful if we want to know about the ethical significance of one particular type of life, the singular and unique form of the human person which in no meaningful sense begins at conception
John said…
RE euthenasia, this is still beside the point. Arguing about imagined *consequences* has nothing to do with the matter at hand. I can say 'life begin at conception' and still maintain that 'the terminally ill should be entitled to euthanasia'. Or I can say (as I do) that 'personhood does not begin at conception' and that 'euthanasia should not be permitted'. the mistake here is assuming that, because YOU happen to hold a particular series of beliefs in tandem, anyone who doesn't hold one of them must also deny the rest. It's a very strange position to hold. If I deny there is a God you assume I think people are nothing special, if I deny a cell is a person you assume I say the elderly should be killed.
John said…
Ben: "So tell us what you know; all we've had so far are your opinions." You seem to be under the incredible misapprehension that 'knowledge' consists in giving a statement consistent with your beliefs. If I were to ask you how you know a cell is a person I suspect I would get your opinion on the matter, not an irrefutable fact. I said a theological position that argues that is deeply ignorant, not that you are. If you happen to hold that opinion....you can complete the syllogism.

My definition would not exclude the terminally ill. I listed 'a future' as one example of personhood, I did not make it a sufficient cause. I also listed 'having a past', which is clearly true of the terminally ill patient. One would also think his or her family might have an interest in the person, relationships being just another example of personhood I cited.

Your Terri Schiavo point begs the question. If I don't accept a PVS patient fulfils the criteria of personhood then I don't see how the case of a PVS patient is meant to persuade me that my criteria of personhood are erroneous. You are also being 'whimsical' in citing this example with the implication that human beings will be carelessly tossed aside. As you know, the decision was made at great emotional cost to her husband and family, and followed a seven year legal battle involving dozens of witnesses who knew her well and were called to give their heartfelt opinions on what she would have wanted (note the subjunctive, there could be no question of what she actually wanted in her condition). It was presumably with great sadness that those involved went to these lengths. If they had wished to have done with her they could have done so quite easily, they were, after all, under no obligation to visit her in hospital. It was precisely because they felt she was worse off in such a condition that they acted as they did. Someone who knew her better than you did reached the painful conclusion, sustained in the courts and at her bedside over seven years, that she was not happy, or would not have wanted to continue like that. For you to imply they did so frivolously and out of a selfish desire to be freed the burden of responsibility is so disgustingly uncharitable that I wonder who the Catholic is here. You may dispute the truth of the poor man's conclusion, but to hold up such a valiant man as evidence of sliding standards is contemptible and I hope you can see that (and he WAS valiant: let's be honest here, he has probably wrecked his own life acting as he did and getting hate mail from the likes of you, he could just have visited her once a month as most of us would have done, but he loved his wife and wanted to do what what right for HER, not for him)
The Bones said…
We're not talking about viruses, we're talking about human life.

Do you not see the problem with holding the position that when human life becomes human, or 'personhood' happens to a person, that when that life can be disposed of in the womb becomes totally arbitrary?

How can a society that refuses the recognise the innate dignity of the unborn child remain civilised? It cannot!

Can you not see the devastation that that fingers in the ears, hands over eyes moral re-positioning depending on personal circumstances has wrought in terms of tragic human cost?

Human life is now 'in the eye of the beholder'. I have demonstrated that by bringing out stats on the percentage of downs children aborted.

You can say, 'Well, that's just the way it is.'

You can say that, but then that would just reaffirm to Christians that those who deny God, invariably, don't give a fig about human life in the womb.

"We don't know when a person becomes a person, so let's not worry if people get killed."

Moral relativism breeds indifference to evil. Only the Church stands up for the unborn child because She (despite the sins of her members) is waging a war against evil.
The Bones said…
I'm not quoting you above btw, but that is, in a nutshell, what you are saying.

All your moral values, for you do have them, concerning protecting a strata of human life fall down if the 'right to life' is not defended in the womb. It underpins everything, since it that right to be born does not exist, then there are no rights to life at all.

The destruction of that one fundamental right makes the rest a sham.
The Bones said…
The question is:

WHO decides who is worthy to live and who is not?

In the absence of faith in God, it is just you and I who decide, or, worse, the State in years to come. Already unborn babies are aborted because of cleft palate even though its treatable. Already downs syndrome babies are aborted because they're not wanted.

Who decides and who has the right to take life, to end life? Who could possibly have that right but God alone?

'But we don't believe in God.'

Quite right - that's why the unborn are being destroyed.
The Bones said…
Could it not be that those who deem the unborn not worthy of life based on their cellular sophistication are suffering acute inflation of their molecular egos? I think you are looking down through your nose on the unborn because 'they're not as sophisticated cells like me'. It really is very arrogant. Remember, you and I have committed personal sin in our life, I doubt any of us living would claim to be innocent. Yet these unborn children have committed no wrong and as another blogger says, 'Original sin is not a capital crime'.
Ben said…
John said: "For you to imply they did so frivolously and out of a selfish desire to be freed the burden of responsibility is so disgustingly uncharitable that I wonder who the Catholic is here." Where did I imply this? Please address arguments and not straw men if you want to have a proper discussion. The idea that Michael Schiavo was 'valiant' is not a view that is held by his late wife's family, but my point had nothing to do with the moral qualities of any individual. I mentioned the Schiavo case simply because it is so well known. My underlying point of principle is that the way you behave towards a human being is going to be affected by whether you regard him/her/it as a person. Clearly you accept this point, or you wouldn't have mentioned Aryanism; you presumably do so because we both recognise that denying the Jews personhood made the final solution possible. No one taking part in this discussion is thinking of defining personhood on racial grounds, but the underlying principle applies to the 'hard cases' as well: e.g. human beings at the earliest stages of prenatal development [you don't think they're persons]; and human beings who have lost many of what you regard as the constitutive elements of personhood, such as those in a permanent "vegetative" state [your comment implies that you regard these as persons and that you have some compassion for them, though you don't openly state this]. In other words, your theories do have real-world implications for ethical behaviour, and I would respectfully suggest that this requires you to work a bit harder on your criteria for recognising the personhood of a human entity in these hard-case situations. If you were faced with a real-world dilemma such as choosing whether an embryo could be destroyed in medical research or IVF, would you not require a slightly more robust criterion than 'Well, I know a person when I see one'? You have placed the development of CNS and brain at the centre of your definition, but when does that begin: with the appearance of the neuroectoderm? the formation of the neural tube? These are reasonable questions to ask, aren't they?
Ben said…
Btw, John, I don't know whether you will want to respond to what I've written, but I have a very busy few days ahead so I won't be able to follow the rest of this thread. If I fail to respond to any of your future comments, it doesn't mean you've carried your point - just that this particular person is too busy being human.
John said…
Hi Laurence. I won’t expect this to run and run as I see you’ve moved on (to Cameron’s idiotic comments!), but I will try to answer your final points.
You said (in a previous post): "But, John, there is a definitive scientific consensus that 'life' starts at conception”. You then said “We're not talking about viruses, we're talking about human life.” You see my point is once again, the ‘appeal to science is deliberately misleading’. There is NO SCIENTIFIC CONSENSUS that life begins at conception, but that every allogamously reproducing species forms a genetically distinct line after the first cell division. You are overstating the case to make it look more simple than it is, and I would ask why, if science is relevant to the issue, there is such an overwhelming consensus amongst doctors and scientists that your position is not nuanced enough.

“Do you not see the problem with holding the position that when human life becomes human, or 'personhood' happens to a person, that when that life can be disposed of in the womb becomes totally arbitrary?” No, I don’t. In a similar way to the Terri Schiavo point I made above: if I don’t see a cell as a person then why would I see the termination of a cell as ethically problematic? I am concerned with ethical misdeeds perpetrated against people, not cells. Furthermore, as I said before, arguing from consequences doesn’t address the matter at hand. Even if I was totally opposed to abortion in any and all circumstances, on what grounds would that make a cell a person? I can see why holding a cell is a person would cause you to be anti-abortion, but not why being anti-abortion would entail that a cell is a person. So as none of this is actually evidence that a cell is a person I don’t accept it as relevant to my belief that the word ‘person’ cannot be used to describe a cell

”How can a society that refuses the recognise the innate dignity of the unborn child remain civilised? It cannot!” Define civilised/uncivilised. If by uncivilised you mean ‘a society which allows abortion’ (which you almost certainly do) then it’s a circular argument. I would say we are ethically stronger than the Victorian period where abortion was illegal, but child labour, child prostitution, slavery, misery etc were endemic.






”[my views] reaffirm to Christians that those who deny God, invariably, don't give a fig about human life in the womb.” I don’t extend ethical duties to cells, that is all. You’re almost in league with Peter Singer yourself; his line of argument is wacky over-extension of ethical language (to animals). By extending ethics to a cell you are a more extreme form of Peter Singer.

"We don't know when a person becomes a person, so let's not worry if people get killed." – I didn’t say that now did I. I said saying a cell is a person is incorrect, and you can’t show it isn’t, all you can do is argue from consequences. I thought Catholics were supposed to be anti-consequentialist in their ethics? We should worry about a lot of ethical issues, but I question how helpful an entirely arbitrary (and, to repeat) false assumption such as ‘a cell is a person’ will be in helping us address serious, adult moral issues.
John said…
”Moral relativism breeds indifference to evil” – Who said anything about relativism? Does it even exist? Seriously, I have only every heard the Pope mention it, I’ve never actually encountered anyone who seriously defends moral relativism. No one is saying ‘any value is as true or as good as any other value’. That would be absurd. In this particular case, I am saying the evaluative judgement that a cell is a person is NOT as true as another belief, so I can hardly be accused of relativism. I think ‘relativism’ is a word you should take care to define because it is lazily thrown around by lots of different people to mean anything they like [FTR, a lot of Protestant sects think Catholics are the biggest relativists in the world, which is why the Pope has started denouncing it as a PR exercise. Their argument is your beliefs are simply relative to Papal pronouncement, and since you will ultimately defend them by saying ‘the Church says so’, you can’t claim to have any ethical legitimacy in what you say as it is utterly contingent and arbitrary. Now I don’t agree, but I am just warning you that, unless you define relativism, you end up looking like you’re stuck for an argument so wheel out ‘old faithful’]




”All your moral values, for you do have them, concerning protecting a strata of human life fall down if the 'right to life' is not defended in the womb. It underpins everything, since it that right to be born does not exist, then there are no rights to life at all.” I disagree entirely and I think you know how I would argue against it. Look, anti-abortion didn’t stop the holocaust, it didn’t stop slavery, it doesn’t stop civil wars, witch burnings, or any other outrages against human dignity. It stops cells being terminated, that is all. Whether or not that is bad depends on whether or not a cell is a person (note: not whether you ‘think’ it is, but whether it in fact is). Now, your argument here is yet again from consequence (abortion leads to ‘no rights to life at all’), you are simply not showing on what grounds a cell can meaningfully be called a person, but assuming that your beliefs about life must be true because, well, because they’re your beliefs!

Ok, now onto a cheap shot. You say the question is “WHO decides”, and that “In the absence of faith in God, it is just you and I who decide”. Sorry, but that is true whether or not you believe in God. When you seek to ban abortion it is you doing that, not God. I have never seen God at an anti-abortion rally, just three or four people with foetus placards saying the rosary. Again, the insanely irritating thing here is that you are SIMPLY ASSUMING that while my beliefs are arbitrary and the product of my own psychology, yours are piped into your head by God. They are not. Your beliefs are the product of your psychology, you can’t just say ‘oh well, I’m right because god agrees’. I could do that. Fine Laurence, a cell is not a person ‘cos God thinks so. End of, and you’re a relativist for not agreeing with me.

These cells have committed no wrong. That is true. But neither have the bacterial cells that infect children. That is because a cell is not a moral agent, and to speak of guilt, wrong, shame, blame, duties, rights, pr responsibilities in relation to non-persons (monkeys, cells, foetuses, rocks) is, to repeat, not to understand what these words mean in the first place. Thanks for hosting, and for the record (this will really annoy you) I love your blog! You’re a funny guy and a great writer, and the blog seems to do incredibly well for one that is seldom advertised (you should get a techy friend to paste the links every where if you want to spread the word, I think a lot of non-Catholics would enjoy it)
John said…
Ben, there is no straw man here. You said: “You speak of a person's never waking up as if it were some whimsical thought experiment; but cases such as that of Terri Schiavo would seem to me to be a very good test of your definition. That's also a case that shows why the question matters in the real world: when we define human beings as non-persons, it affects the way we behave towards them.” You said this to corroborate the view that a ‘narrow’ concept of the person – though I would question whether one can get a narrower definition than ‘a cell’ – leads to a dismissal of human life and that to be whimsical about such a serious thing is shown up as the evil it is in light of Terri’s case. You must take my point here, Ms. Schiavo’s husband (and friends, and 4 justices of the peace, and any number of doctors, lawyers, and ethicists who spent SEVEN YEARS reviewing her case) did not act disrespectfully, or whimsically, or flippantly. He acted on the solid ground of conscience and his knowledge of his beloved wife’s wishes, subsequently confirmed by those who knew her best. The case is a terrible one to cite, and your belief that it shows up society in any negative light at all says more about your warped mind than anything else. I hope that, should I fall into a persistent vegetative state, I am fortunate enough to still live in a society prepared to devote seven years and a lot of hard thinking to the matter (though as she had told her husband and friends it was what she wanted I would, in that situation, rather there be no court case at all).
“The idea that Michael Schiavo was 'valiant' is not a view that is held by his late wife's family” – yet she had told him her wishes and he felt his duty was to her, not to them. Like I said before, if he wanted an easy ride he could have left her hooked up to those machines for the next 30 years, they could have visited her, he could have moved to a new town. He didn’t, he spend seven years and all he had fighting for her dignity and to have her wishes respected. If you can’t see the valour in that then it only serves to confirm how utterly morally bankrupt and dissociated from real human love your world view is

”My underlying point of principle is that the way you behave towards a human being is going to be affected by whether you regard him/her/it as a person.” Presumably Mr. Schiavo did regard his wife as a person, and it was out of respect for whom that person was that he decided she would not wish to have her time on earth tarnished by an ignoble preservation of her erstwhile form continuing after her person had departed. My point about the ‘hard cases’ is that a case like that of Schiavo should give us reason for cheer. The ethics of the matter were taken seriously, they were taken seriously for the right reasons (a desire to see an ethical outcome), and ultimately the woman’s wishes were respected. If we’re going to argue from consequence then I would point out that most people’s idea of a dystopia is to have the state or church determine what happens to you in a PVS condition whether you want them to or not. God forbid we should ever see that day, but I suspect we won’t as your views are in the minority.
John said…
“theories do have real-world implications for ethical behaviour, and I would respectfully suggest that this requires you to work a bit harder on your criteria for recognising the personhood of a human entity in these hard-case situations.” – That is exactly what the court did do. And they decided your concept of personhood doesn’t make any sense. Sorry if the fruits of seven year’s worth of legal, philosophical, and medical debate held at the supreme court of America are not to your liking, but to claim they were not the result of hard ethical work is absurd.


“If you were faced with a real-world dilemma such as choosing whether an embryo could be destroyed in medical research or IVF, would you not require a slightly more robust criterion than 'Well, I know a person when I see one'?” - Yes, I would come to the robust and true conclusion that a cell is not a person. Look, you can claim your view is simple, or consistent. But it is consistently wrong, and simplicity isn’t a virtue when we are discussing complex ethical issues. Had you been presiding over the case of Mrs Schiavo then no doubt the decision would have been, for you, a simple one and would not have taken seven years. Yet you would, for all that simplicity, have been simply wrong. Your attitude is utterly paradoxical: you talk about the need to “work a bit harder”, but then you fail to accept any complex (or non-reductive) definition of personhood. Surely the lazy man’s option is to settle on some simple, but wrong, answer like ‘a cell is a person’
The Bones said…
Have a happy Christmas.

You're a wriggler.
The Bones said…
And I do think you are making this issue a lot more 'complex' than it need be.

It is the shades of grey that are causing the unborn to be discarded.
The Bones said…
Btw

Nobody ever said a cell is a person.

My physical existence is composed of billions of human cells, right?

My initial physical existence was composed of some human cells, if not millions of cells, right?

In the stages of development, at what point does a tiny human being acquire the right to life?

You still can't tell me and you can't say, 'It's your problem, you're the Godbotherer.'

Surely, if there is no 'consensus', then it is a problem for society and we should stop killing the unborn until we find out. The Royal College, of course, knows full when when life starts, but I'll give your idea the benefit of the doubt.

If they truly did not know, in the scientific community, when a 'clump of cells' becomes a person, when it acquires humanity, then do you not think the sensible thing would be to ban abortion solely on the basis that 'we do not know'. Otherwise, you know, anything between 1-100% of abortions could be murders, right?
Ben said…
OK, I just have 5 minutes, so I'm going to try really quickly to summarise John's position. A human being starts out as a clump of cells (with no rights); but at some mysterious point (about which it is offensively reductionist even to speculate, but we know it's before birth because Peter Singer is a prat) it becomes a person (with rights). Then, just as mysteriously, this 'person' becomes independent of the body it's attached to, because (a) it can depart from someone in a persistent coma, and (b) it survives after the death of the individual. There is no objective definition of personhood, but for practical purposes it can be defined by John, or by the judiciary, but never by the 'state' (i.e. legislature?) or the Church. And although John's definition is confessedly man-made by someone who admits to lacking confidence in his own opinion, anyone who has come to a different conclusion is 'deeply ignorant', lacking in understanding, 'monstrously uncharitable' and 'morally bankrupt'.

Look, John, it's a small world, and maybe one day, when you're not hiding behind combox anonymity, we'll meet. Then you can call me all those names to my face and we'll pick it up from there OK? Been nice chatting with you.
Fortiter Pugnem said…
Wow. Where do cell phones fit in?

Merry Christmas from the US!