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Monday, February 3, 2014

The Spectrum Argument, Round Two

So it seems that blogger Bob Seidensticker has decided to respond to my critique of his Spectrum Argument. You can find his original article here, and my rebuttal to it here, as well as Seidensticker's most recent response here.

At the end of his article, he asserts that I have mischaracterized and sidestepped the argument (Seidensticker seems to accuse anyone who disagrees with him of sidestepping his arguments; it couldn't possibly be that Seidensticker is simply mistaken), but I find this claim extremely hard to accept especially considering the fact that I summarized his argument in my article and he took no issue with the argument as I summarized and framed it. However, I find Seidensticker's response to my critique to be fallacious and to miss the point of my critique entirely, as I will explain below.

In short, the Spectrum says that as there is a spectrum between blue and green, there is a spectrum of human personhood. We don't know where blue ends and green begins, but we do know that blue is not green. Whereas pro-choice philosophers like Peter Singer and Michael Tooley try to argue that what makes you a person is your ability to perceive of yourself existing through time, Seidensticker seems to think that you're not a person until you have distinctly human features. To quote his article, "The newborn is a person. And it's far more than just 1,000,000,000,000 undifferentiated cells. These cells are organized and connected to make a person -- it has arms and legs, eyes and ears, a brain and a nervous system, a stomach and digestive system, a heart and circulatory system, skin, liver, and so on." Now it's difficult to see the relevance of this. If you need all of these things to be considered a person, then, for example, someone who has lost the use of their eyes is less of a person than someone who can see. Someone who has had their gall bladder removed due to cancer is less of a person than someone who hasn't. Captain Picard is less of a person than I am because of his artificial heart. All of this is irrelevant to one's status as a person, and I don't know a single pro-choice philosopher who argues that human features make one a person, especially since they all agree that there are probably non-human persons.

So right off the bat, Seidensticker's view of personhood is deeply flawed. And his view of differences between humans is also deeply flawed. He seems to assume that there is not much difference between a newborn and me but this is simply absurd. A newborn will not be publishing articles on this blog. I can drive, vote, exhibit a higher level of thought, express myself, have sex, create new life, etc., and newborns can't. There is a world of difference between newborns and me, just like there is a world of difference between a human embryo and a newborn. Both are just stages of development of a human being, a human person.

Seidensticker begins by misrepresenting my words already. I wasn't praising the article for its "substance," I was thanking Seidensticker for making an argument rather than simply demonizing pro-life people. I don't think there's much substance to the argument at all.

Next, Seidensticker throws a red herring our way. He seems to want to tell us that personhood does not begin at fertilization but makes no attempt (again, even after I pointed this out) to tell us when it actually does begin. If he has no interest in deciding for himself when it begins, then he probably shouldn't be trying to tell us that it doesn't begin at fertilization, because that's clearly ad hoc reasoning. And his argument about deciding what penalty is appropriate for the law is just a false analogy; we're not talking about what punishments fit what crimes, we're talking about when human personhood begins. Talking about crimes and punishments presupposes that there is a human person at issue, and I don't think Seidensticker wants to go that route. The science of embryology has shown that the unborn are one of us, and there are medical experts and policy makers who argue that personhood begins at fertilization. If Seidensticker is not prepared to tell us why they're wrong and at what point human personhood begins, then he can't tell us that it doesn't begin at fertilization. And if he points back to this spectrum, that's clearly a question-begging response because the topic at hand is whether or not this spectrum proves that the unborn are not persons.

Seidensticker still refuses to accept that an acorn is an oak tree. This is a simple fact of biology. An acorn belongs to the oak family. It is a potential oak tree in the sense that if left unperturbed it will develop into an oak tree, remaining the same entity that it was before, just a more mature version of itself. In the same way, once a caterpillar goes through chrysalis and becomes a butterfly, it is still the same entity it was before, just matured. Seidensticker offers no argument against this claim, except for the fact that it will "become" an oak tree in 20 years or so, but I don't deny this. An acorn will become an oak tree in the same way that a newborn will become an adult. A newborn doesn't become a human, it becomes an adult. Just like an acorn doesn't become an oak, but it does become a tree. Newborn is to adult as acorn is to oak tree, stages of development in the same entity. Seidensticker has also conceded my point regarding the silkworm and the dress.

Seidensticker goes on to respond to my rebuttal of his brain analogy. He asserts that a brain must think and permit consciousness or it is not a brain at all, but there is no reason to think this. For example, if a person is dead and the coroner cuts his head open, he/she will be able to recognize the brain, even if it isn't currently functioning the way that it was meant to. So even if thinking is an emergent property, that doesn't prove that a brain that doesn't think isn't a brain.

I'm not a neuroscientist, so I can't speak to whether or not thinking is actually an emergent property. So while Seidensticker can argue that thinking is an emergent property of the brain, he has not argued for why this emergent property must be present in order for a brain to be considered a brain. In fact, this still seems like a false analogy regarding human embryos because as embryologists have shown us, all the properties of living things exist in the human zygote: growth through cellular reproduction, metabolism of food for energy, and response to stimuli. And the human features that Seidensticker explained as necessary for personhood earlier are not emergent properties. So unless he tells us exactly why these emergent properties must be present (and which emergent properties are necessary for personhood), while an interesting discussion it has nothing to do with the prospect at hand: whether or not the unborn are persons.

Seidensticker seems to misunderstand the difference between active potential and passive potential. It's not an argument from potential, strictly speaking. The human embryo is a person now. It has the active potential to mature, but it is a human person now. Having the active potential to mature means that every change it undergoes is identity preserving; in other words, it remains the exact same entity through all of those changes. So arguing that the human embryo will be a baby in the future is not a mark against unborn personhood (even setting aside the fact that baby is not a term for a stage of human development; it's a term that can be ascribed to anything). Seidensticker continually confuses terms in an attempt to obscure the problems with his argument.

Seidensticker is simply being short-sighted in his treatment of the differences between the unborn and newborns, and between newborns and adults. There is a world of difference. Sure, I may have arms, legs, a head, etc., like I did as a newborn, but you know what? A fetus has distinctly human features, albeit not yet fully-formed, by the end of the second month. So does Seidensticker believe that human personhood is established around two months in utero? Or how developed do these limbs have to be before we can declare they are persons? I would imagine he doesn't want to go that route. He claims that we commonly think of "human features" when we think of personhood, but this would be news to philosophers like Tooley and Singer. We don't normally think of human features when we think of personhood, we think of things like consciousness, self-awareness, the capacity for higher thought, the ability to express yourself, etc. And while Singer and Tooley would argue you have to be able to do those now to be part of the moral community, I consider this clearly mistaken. What grounds your personhood is your inherent nature, not your ability to do the things I can do.

And Seidensticker's comment about sentimental poetry is also mistaken. People don't get teary-eyed when someone dies that they didn't have an emotional bond with. This tells us nothing of someone's value. If no one cries when a homeless person dies, that doesn't mean he/she wasn't a person. And besides, many poems and songs have, in fact, been written about the unborn and about miscarriages.

Seidensticker claims to be open to considering different terms than the ones I'm using, but I've been quite clear about my terms. The unborn are human beings, just as we are, biologically. They have human DNA, are the product of human parents, are clearly alive, are clearly organisms, etc. They are just like us in every relevant way. The unborn are also persons because they share our inherent nature as rational moral agents. See this article for a further explanation of this point. There is no spectrum of personhood; as pro-life philosopher Trent Horn has argued, you are either a person or you're not, so personhood cannot be tied to something that comes in degrees, like someone's ability to think.

So Seidensticker wants to assert that I'm sidestepping the issue when in fact I have directly responded to it and shown why human personhood does not exist on a spectrum, and how Seidensticker's argument fails. He attempts to say that I am pretending this spectrum doesn't exist, but now I have to wonder if Seidensticker even read my entire article -- in the last paragraph you'll find written: "Human development may exist on a spectrum, but human value clearly does not." I don't deny there is a spectrum of human development, what I deny is that this spectrum has any bearing on our worth as human beings.

Seidensticker finishes off by responding to a couple of miscellaneous points. He asserts that my response to his PETA analogy is misguided. However, what Seidensticker is calling a "spectrum" of animal life is more along the lines of a hierarchy of animal value. I understand that PETA believes that all animals are the same, and I disagree with this. But I don't need a "spectrum argument" to show that. This is still a false analogy because now we're not talking about a spectrum of animal value, but a hierarchy of the instrumental value that animals have to humans: vermin, livestock, and pet (I would not place humans on the same level as animals, because of our inherent nature as rational agents, and I think PETA is wrong to do so). So this has nothing to do with a spectrum, and is still a red herring from his actual argument as it really doesn't add anything to it.

Finally, he responds to my statement about the irrelevance of pointing to Christian evangelicals by asserting that it is not irrelevant to those who use Christian arguments. I do use Christian arguments when I'm trying to convince a Christian to become pro-life. When I'm talking to a non-Christian, I use secular arguments (many of which you can find on this blog by searching). This is an irrelevant argument no matter who you're talking to. The Catholic church has been pro-life all along, so pointing to certain Protestant sects that have been pro-choice adds nothing to your argument. What's important is that Protestants are pro-life now, and the arguments that they use now must be responded to (to say nothing of the fact that ignoring the ones that were pro-life is disingenuous).

There's one last point to mention. Calvin Freiburger wrote a great rebuttal to Seidensticker's argument and one point in particular bears mentioning. Seidensticker asserts that pro-life advocates are vague with their terms (a claim which I responded to), but if you ask Seidensticker to define what he means by "personhood," he can't tell you. Feel free to peruse the comments on Freiburger's article, and you'll see that. In fact, Freiburger pointed out that Seidensticker actually expects you (not him) to pick a property that a newborn possesses that a human zygote doesn't, and that can suffice for a morally relevant difference. But as Freiburger said in his article, "You know we're in the shallow end of the intellectual pool when somebody challenges you to support his own argument. It's completely illogical and incoherent to demand that pro-lifers 'tell me what a newborn is that a single cell isn't' because we're not the ones arguing that a single-celled human being and a newborn are two different things! He is! We're the ones against the idea that any of the differences between the two matter to their shared personhood" (emphasis in original).

It still remains clear that Seidensticker's Spectrum Argument is fallacious. Human development many exist as a spectrum, but this is irrelevant to one's value as a human being. If Seidensticker wishes to respond, rather than accuse me of sidestepping his argument, perhaps he'd care to engage with mine.


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    1. You've missed the whole point of the discussion between active and passive potential. This is a crucial difference. The unborn have the active potential to develop certain capacities, because they have it within themselves to do so, and because of this these changes are identity-preserving. The ingredients of a cake are only a potential cake in the passive sense; left alone, no ingredient will form into a cake, and once the cake is finished each ingredient loses its identity and becomes part of the cake. A cake is a property-thing; it finds its identity in its parts. Living things are substances and exist prior to their parts.

    2. I like cake. When I make a cake I start with raw ingredients and make a batter. Then I pour batter this into a pan and I turn on the oven. When the oven is ready I put the pan in and wait for 40 minutes, after which I have what we call an un-frosted cake. If I drop the pan on the way to oven I might say I dropped my cake, but in truth I dropped a pan of batter. A pan of batter is always only a "potential" cake. It needs the right conditions to develop even though what it is made of never changes in the process, just the form it takes. You may not like that fact, the fact that time and form matter to the point that they change how something is thought of and treated, but that is the reality.

      As I said, I like cake, but batter is never cake, it's always only a potential cake. They are not the same and it would be a mistake to treat them as such. If you don't believe me, go frost some batter...

    3.'re responding to me by repeating your same comment? You don't become right by repeating yourself enough times.

    4. I did a bit of editing. Try thinking next time.

    5. I did try thinking. You deleted your previous comment (so I didn't have it to compare to), then commented again with a similar comment. If all you have are insults are your disposal, then I won't be continuing this dialogue with you.

  2. If I set an embryo on the kitchen counter in a pan, does it now still have its "active" potential? Where did its potential go if it existed within itself? It should still have it if it truly existed within itself but suddenly, without a host, it has no potential at all. What happened to this "active" potential?

    1. You're not making any sense with this comment. It still has the active potential within itself, it just needs the proper environment to grow and develop, as we all do. At that stage in its development it needs the womb.

    2. Good, at least you recognize that without a host it has no potential at all, and cannot grow without one. It is not a separate being. A carrot in the ground has as much "active" potential. And unlike a baby, that I could leave on the counter for an extended period of time and it would continue to grow and sustain itself, there is no way that this thing you call a person is like that baby.

      You have equated a carrot with a puppy in essence, since they both require sustenance and the right environment to grow, and that's true but they are not the same things, not at all. What is smaller than the point of a pencil is not a person, even if with luck and nine months it might become one. To you the design on paper for a car is what you want a key to so you can get into it, start it up, and drive it around the block to show off to the neighbors.

    3. You're still not understanding the argument. A carrot seedling has an active potential to become a mature carrot, something we can eat, which means it is the same entity throughout all points in its existence. But human beings are different from carrots because of the kind of thing they are, rational agents. This is what grounds their value. This active potential is present from fertilization because they have the inherent capacity to develop it. Just as a carrot is a carrot at all points in its existence, a human person is a human person at all points in its existence. Saying that without a host (the mother) it has no potential is like saying that without air, food, and water, toddlers have no potential. That is false, it just means they won't be able to actualize their potential. Human beings cannot survive on the Moon, but that doesn't mean it would be morally permissible for an alien to take a human off of earth, then drop them on the Moon without protective gear.

  3. Clinton, you might want to catch my new blog Pro-Life Unlimited. I take the outlawing of induced abortion to its logical conclusions -

    1. You haven't even demonstrated that you understand the pro-life position. I fail to see how you believe you have taken it to its logical conclusion. I have a busy week ahead. I will try to get to it if I can.

    2. There's not much point if you do that I can see? Your posts are highly irrational. But then again you think that what we need a microscope to see is the same as the man next door washing his car.

    3. All right, I'm done trying to reason with you. Have a good one.

    4. Don't bother commenting again, as I'm sure they're just going to be insultory and I will delete them. If you'd like to try again at having an actual conversation, I may be willing to do so. As it stands, I have no desire to continue a dialogue with you.