Tron, Takeshi Kovacs, Ontology, and Abortion

This morning, err, afternoon I linked to a person who thought, perhaps disengenuously, that the question ongoing in abortion is that life does or does not begin at conception. However, there is actually no question that life does indeed begin at conception. The argument is not of life, but ontology. When is humanity gained that is when is personhood gained. What constitutes personhood? Below the fold I attempt to unpack the arguments use by some pro-abortion/pro-euthanasia proponents to highlight where we differ and to try to understand the other’s point of view.

In the Takeshi Kovacs novels one of the features of this modern world is that each person has a “stack” embeded in their spinal column which keeps an updated record of the “state” of one’s neural/mental configuration. One’s “self” on being killed, if the cortical stack is intact can be “re-sleeved” and implanted in a new body (a body either grown or provided by one vacated by someone else. One’s consciousness can be copied (which is highly illegal) and uploaded and downloaded to run on artificial/computer hardware, after which it can be restored, memories of that which was experienced being transfered back as well. Self in this world is a psychological construct, a thing of mind and memory. In the 1980s movie Tron one of the protagonists is transported (magically basically) into the world of the computer programs. There he is combating an AI intelligence which has in mind world domination (a common comic/mythic theme).

Both of these fictional works “make sense” to the modern reader because it ties into a common ontological viewpoint. “Self” is equated with the psychological self, and not one’s corpus. Tied together with the quite reasonable idea that brain is required to seat that psyche, many are of the opinion that abortion before some (poorly defined) stage of neural development takes place would insure that no psyche exists yet to be harmed, thus there is no “foul” if a fetus is killed before psyche exists (or baby for that matter depending on what one defines as psyche). Those argue that mid and early term abortions are obviously reasonable as there is some doubt (in their minds) how much psyche exists at birth.

However, there is something unusual going on here. In the psyche model of Kovacs and Tron, body and psyche are distinct. In the fetal/abortion argument, body is tied intrinsically to body and organism. Body is a pre-condition for the existence of psyche. In some sense, body is required, but it is not. Psyche an intangible thing is required for one’s ontological status, yet psyche is not measured in determining ontological state. Instead indirect assumptions and hypothesis regarding requirements for psyche are used to determine if psyche exists or can exist. Lacking that then, allows one in this view to morally extinguish the possibility of psyche.

Consider the following gedankenexperiment: Currently there some notion that memory is located in chemical and physical (RNA?) elements, and not in dynamic electrical patterns. A “flat” EEG is considered to identify brain death, the cessation of psyche. However, if it was shown that those electrical processes might not be required to sustain the chemical and physical elements then it may be possible to at some point restart halted electrical nets. In the Kovacs “stack” world this might be a cortical stack “saving brain-state” and being put on a shelf. In this case EEG/brain death is not death, but more akin to sleep.

Now it might be argued that we don’t have the technology to re-start the electrical neural patterns. But … on what basis does on make that claim? When EEG patterns are “flat”, it is known that life sustaining technology (heart/lung etc) machines are required. But … on what basis does one the claim that this is non-restartable. Further if one is, in this way, “restarted” … how can you tell that you have the same “person” afterwards? If memory loss is entailed, how much memory might be lost before losing “person”. How about corruption or inaccuracies in memory? How does on in fact determine and maintain continuity of psyche (and therefore person) in the wake of memory loss, corruption, coma, and perhaps mere sleep? The technology and explorations of this in Tron and the Kovacs novels can make for an interesting unfolding of problematic issues involved in a psyche based ontology.

Another model of ontological personhood is defined by the properties of being unique and integral. The meaning of unique is more clear that than of integral. By integral, I mean distinguishable and separable. This is definition does work in the Kovacs and Tron situation as a way of identifying person and identity. It is perhaps a simpler definition, but one that does not require locating and verifying the existence of psyche. This definition sidesteps some of the difficulties with the above situations. It might be noted that this way of defining person outside of the corporal and psychological elements is derived in part from my reading of John Zizioulas descriptions of how the Capaddocian Fathers described Trinity and their Christology in their finally successful attempts to synthesize the three incompatible ontological descriptions of person from the Greek, Jewish, and early Christian traditions. In this view, the fetus when first formed as an independent living organism, albeit physically dependent on the mother and structurally quite simple is however, unique and identifiably integral. This has definite and positive impacts on one’s view of abortion. Abortion causes the ending of a person.

This description, unique and integral, when applied to beginning of life issues highlights the difference between the two ontological approaches. The conflict over abortion is not one of “rights” or “religious” viewpoints. It is a fundamental difference in definition of what it means to “be”, i.e., ontology. However rarely the discussion at hand identifies this as the (a) key issue(s) in the debate. If this is identified as a key point, then the relative merits outside of the hot button topic of abortion might be set aside and the more abstract ontological issue debated (and resolved?) before returning to the application of the ontology.

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30 comments

  1. The conflict over abortion is not one of “rights” or “religious” viewpoints. It is a fundamental difference in definition of what it means to “be”, i.e., ontology.

    You’re finally catching on! 😉

    In general, one is better served by assuming good faith and some degree of rationality by the other side in the debate. I can’t fathom how you could have concluded that the poster honestly meant that embryos were not alive in a literal sense.

  2. Mark says:

    JA,
    I thought you were the one claiming ontology was all just nonsense. Here you’re agreeing it’s the crux of the issue (or one of them).

    Actually, the author of the original link is being extremely imprecise to argue that “life doesn’t begin at conception”, and that further the point that life begins is a religious matter. The commenter for example, insisted on viability as a prerequisite for the defining point of life brings doubt to your conception that he thinks the fetus before it is viable is “alive” and that instead he might think that an organisms independence is crucial for defining life. So it seems while you and I agree that the blastocyst is alive, outside of the scientific community there is no longer agreement on that.

  3. You need to use sense disambiguation. I suspect he is using “life” to mean “life as a human being” while you are coyly (but unintentionally?) using it to mean both “life as a human being” and “cellular life.” If you asked him if the cells of an embryo reproduce, grow, absorb nutrients, etc., it’s pretty reasonable to assume he’d answer in the affirmative.

    It’s not that I think ontology is all nonsense; it’s that I think you’re cheating by transferring attributes from one object to another, distinct object by virtue of the fact that the two objects share a common label.

    Killing humans is wrong. Fetuses are humans. Therefore killing fetuses is wrong.

    It’s a word game. humans1 is not the same as humans2.

    Killing humans is wrong. Someone about to kill you is a human. Therefore killing someone about to kill you is wrong.

    It’s the same argument, and I assume you do not accept the conclusion. We keep talking about this, and then you start going off on constitutive this vs. attribute that, but that just shows that the very form of the argument is fallacious.

  4. If you look at WordNet, for example, you get the following senses for “life, n.:”

    # S: (n) life (a characteristic state or mode of living) “social life”; “city life”; “real life”
    # S: (n) life, living (the experience of being alive; the course of human events and activities) “he could no longer cope with the complexities of life”
    # S: (n) life (the course of existence of an individual; the actions and events that occur in living) “he hoped for a new life in Australia”; “he wanted to live his own life without interference from others”
    # S: (n) animation, life, living, aliveness (the condition of living or the state of being alive) “while there’s life there’s hope”; “life depends on many chemical and physical processes”
    # S: (n) life, lifetime, life-time, lifespan (the period during which something is functional (as between birth and death)) “the battery had a short life”; “he lived a long and happy life”
    # S: (n) life (the period between birth and the present time) “I have known him all his life”
    # S: (n) life (the period from the present until death) “he appointed himself emperor for life”
    # S: (n) life (a living person) “his heroism saved a life”
    # S: (n) liveliness, life, spirit, sprightliness (animation and energy in action or expression) “it was a heavy play and the actors tried in vain to give life to it”
    # S: (n) life (living things collectively) “the oceans are teeming with life”
    # S: (n) life (the organic phenomenon that distinguishes living organisms from nonliving ones) “there is no life on the moon”
    # S: (n) biography, life, life story, life history (an account of the series of events making up a person’s life)
    # S: (n) life (a motive for living) “pottery was his life”
    # S: (n) life sentence, life (a prison term lasting as long as the prisoner lives) “he got life for killing the guard”

    You’re assuming he meant “the organic phenomenon that distinguishes living organisms from nonliving ones” when it seems much more reasonable to assume he meant “a living person.”

    Ontology without sense disambiguation is worse than worthless.

  5. Mark says:

    Jim,
    See what happens when you remember things from 30+ years ago and don’t keep up. 😉

    However, the point is on physical vs maintained (electrical) characteristics might define memory and preserve self.

    JA,
    Those cells are human and alive, in what sense is that not “life as a human being?”

    I guess we could ask Jim what he means by “human life”. He had written

    They just don’t agree with you and your definition of human life. They might think a nervous system is needed first. They might think viability is the point at which the full rights of a human being are conferred on a fetus. There is no solid scientific opinion on this question.

  6. Mark,

    Those cells are human and alive, in what sense is that not “life as a human being?”

    Some of the skin cells on your keyboard are human and alive, but they are not human beings. You may argue that embryos are potential human beings and therefore have more rights than sloughed off skin cells, but that’s a different argument than the one that confers rights to them based on their humanness.

    Your quote proves that Jim was using the sense of “life as a human being.”

  7. Mark says:

    JA,
    Those skin cells (which are likely actually dead), but if I did scrape some live skin cells off, they may be alive, but are not unique. The fetus is combinatorially a unique human.

  8. Mark says:

    JA,

    Killing humans is wrong. Someone about to kill you is a human. Therefore killing someone about to kill you is wrong.

    That is in fact the pacifist position.

  9. Mark says:

    JA,
    And, as noted by one of the articles I linked last night, all the change between that fertilized egg and the 18 y/o enfranchised adult are gradual. There are only, really, three (?) identifiable landmarks of development, fertilization, attachment, and birth (detachment).

  10. Those skin cells (which are likely actually dead), but if I did scrape some live skin cells off, they may be alive, but are not unique.

    We’re not talking about uniqueness; we’re talking about humanness. Uniqueness is a separate ad hoc argument.

    That is in fact the pacifist position.

    Yes, but is it yours?

    And, as noted by one of the articles I linked last night, all the change between that fertilized egg and the 18 y/o enfranchised adult are gradual. There are only, really, three (?) identifiable landmarks of development, fertilization, attachment, and birth (detachment).

    More ad hoc reasoning. Gradualness of change does not imply that we can’t be confident that a change has not yet happened, given a large enough margin for error.

    You keep jumping all over the place. First it’s humanness, then it’s uniqueness, then it’s the lack of clear lines. The combination of several bad arguments doesn’t add up to a good one.

  11. Mark says:

    JA,
    I think we’re both all over the place. Part of the reason is that there are things we’re “trying” to discuss but there’s the somewhat peripheral problem of the “life/human life” issue. Look on that one, you’re basically right I’m picking nits. But on the other hand, you’d do the same and feel no problem with it if it, for example, an ID person used incorrect terminology in talking about evolution. This seems similar. Life/Human life is not really the issue.

    What we’re dancing around it the process by which we assign moral weight to the life of the fetus during development.

    Gradualness does cause problems. For example, consider one criteria sometimes cited, of “viability”. The age of the fetus which can be successfully managed, i.e., brought to normal infant development outside of the womb, is a steadily shrinking number. It seems likely that in the next century if progress is allowed to continue this number might reach zero.

    The combination of several bad arguments doesn’t add up to a good one.

    Ah, but there’s the rub. The psyche argument is really bad and … you have no other, or do you?

  12. Ah, but there’s the rub. The psyche argument is really bad and … you have no other, or do you?

    I’m not sure I need an argument. Is the burden of proof on someone who is declaring something immoral or on the person who says it’s not?

    Killing an arbitrary cluster of cells is not immoral. To say that killing this cluster is immoral requires some justification, in my mind. You say, well this particular cluster of cells is “human.” I say, well, so are the skin cells you murder every time you rub your skin vigorously. You say, no, this cluster is a “human being.” I say, well, by some definitions of “human being” it is and by some it’s not.

    That last sentence is really the crux of the debate, but you’re just assuming your conclusion when you insist that the label “human being” which includes fetuses automatically takes the rights we confer to the label “human being” which includes only post-birth people.

    Let’s take a less morally charged example. In Orthodox Judaism, eating meat is forbidden for a certain amount of time after eating dairy. Suppose you come along and declare that fish is a kind of meat, and therefore Orthodox Jews cannot eat it after eating dairy. The Jews protest, but our definition of meat does not include fish. And you argue that “meat” clearly includes the flesh of fish, as the very first definition in WordNet indicates. And the Jews say, but your “meat” and our “meat” are different labels that describe two different (albeit overlapping) sets of things. And you say, no. The rule says no meat after dairy, and fish is meat.

    And then we argue about it for months without getting anywhere. 🙂

  13. Mark says:

    JA,
    “Not sure you need an argument?” Of course you do. I think both sides need to be able to support their decision, for a decision is being made. And the stronger argument is required in your case, because you’re the side actively changing the status quo, i.e., doing something by killing the fetus.

    Clearly the “declaring something immoral” doesn’t place the “burden of proof” merely on the one declaring a thing immoral. To hopefully not poison the argument by citing the whole Hitler/Holocaust thing (or prove some rule valid by noting every discussion eventually brings that in), the burden of proof is not on the person objecting the slaughter of Jews and the Romany because he’s “declaring something immoral.” (and please note that the comparison that abortion=holocaust is not being made here(!)). I’m just using it as an extreme case of “burden of proof” and “declaring immoral” is not connected.

    An arbitrary cluster of skin cells, under the natural course of events has no chance or possibility of developing into a unique new human individual, while the cluster you remove from the womb is the only thing in the universe that will develop into that particular human. Nothing else has that potential, i.e., to become human. That fact is not semantics.

    To take your O.J. example, I think the next question to ask, is “why”. What are your reasons for separation and making your definitions as you do. For example, if you make the point, that one of the important reasons that O.J. distinguish fish and meat (or fish as non-meat) is tradition and it is traditional to make that distinction, it is unclear what kind of answer the WordNet objector might propose.

    BTW: Eastern Orthodox fasting rules differentiate meat and fish as well, but the fasting rubrics it seems for us always group them together (when meat is forbidden so is fish), but in practice they are often separated, that is in “lesser fasts” even though meat and fish restricted non-monastic individuals often will follow a partial fast and only abstain from meat.)

    Above I noted three stages of development that are strictly locatable, conception, implantation, and birth. Do you want to locate another to demarcate moral and immoral termination? That demarcation point should at least resist the argument Abraham used with God in his talking God down from 50 to 10 righteous residents of Sodom.

  14. If we’re going by tradition, using conception as the line is a relatively new innovation.

  15. Mark says:

    JA,
    You’re advocating a return to the earlier understanding of procreation, conception, and pregnancy?

    You’ve stated that gradualism is a weak argument because you can identify stages (or a stage) which is definable and can serve as a marker. What is it?

  16. I was just pointing out that “tradition” is not a good reason for drawing the line at conception.

  17. Mark says:

    JA,
    Well, if “tradition” is to be used, conception was not, so far as I know used in the argument for or against abortion. The few texts from the first few centuries post a blanket prohibition against abortion and don’t split hairs defining conception.

    I’d take that as a prohibition (for Christians) against actively terminating pregnancy, i.e., abortion. I have not seen any mention of contraception in those writings at all however, although I don’t know what contraceptive techniques were available or discussed from a historical perspective in that period.

  18. I meant w/r/t when the fetus gets the status of a human being. In my understanding, and I’m certainly no expert on the early church, the fetus was not considered a person (i.e. having a soul) until “quickening.” In early Judaism, killing even a newborn less than 30 days old was not considered murder, although it was clearly not allowed.

    Obviously, there are tons of reasons for Christians, Jews, or any other religious people to not have abortions and possible to forbid others. That’s not what we’re talking about, though. We’re talking about humanness, and neither tradition as far as I know believed that conception marked that point until quite recently.

  19. Mark says:

    JA,
    Well, I can check. Offhand I don’t know of any discussions of this in early Christian writing.

    Personal and public positions on this issue of course can vary, as mine (and perhaps yours) do. My wife and I personally wouldn’t abort or use RU-486. However, my position on the public matter is that this is an ethical position which is important and should be backed by submission to court (?) appearance and where possible action be required to insure that the assurance that your action, whatever it is, is strongly held.

    Failing that, I’d hold that abortion and other contraceptive laws be dictated at the local level, and we can thereby vote by moving to that place which accords with our beliefs.

    Neither of those positions however puts in place where, in my view, personhood is attained. As I’ve noted, I think there are only three events which non-gradual, i.e., birth, conception, and implantation. At the first, there is life, distinct and unique. At the second (implantation), a first dependent relationship is established (mother and child). At the final (birth), marks the first glimpse of independence. You’ve hinted at other milestones. I think those others have “gradualism” issues. What are they?

  20. You might want to consider that not everybody can just pick up and move to the next jurisdiction. People have families, people are poor, etc.

    I don’t see gradualism as a problem. If we take viability as the standard, sure maybe starting at 5 months it gets a little dodgy, but drawing a line at 8 weeks would be pretty safe. Etc.

  21. Mark says:

    JA,
    Viability is a moving target. What happens when that becomes 0?

  22. I’d be comfortable calling a fetus nonviable if it couldn’t live outside the womb without heroic medical measures. Kind of like a DNR.

  23. Mark says:

    JA,
    And you take a step wave approach to personhood and the moral impact of killing? Before this time, there is no consequence or moral consideration involved in the abortion decision, after that it’s murder?

    And you call my position extreme? 🙂

  24. I don’t know what a step wave approach is.

    My position is not nearly as all-or-nothing as you make it sound. It’s a gradualist approach. Killing a zygote an hour after conception requires virtually zero moral consideration. Moral consideration then ramps upwards until birth. Somewhere around viability, it becomes too morally fraught for me to find it acceptable.

    I think that you have a discrete ontology and I have a continuous one. For me, even murders are not all identical w/r/t morality. There is murder for gain, murder for hire, murder for anger, murder for hatred, murder of innocent children, murder of assholes, etc. They’re all bad and immoral, but not necessarily identically so. Morality cannot be quantized.

    Which is worse, stealing a loaf of bread or stealing ten loaves? Stealing from a poor person or stealing from the wealthy? Stealing from your mom or stealing from your neighbor? Etc.

  25. Mark says:

    JA,
    You seem to know what a step wave meant, your all or nothing comment makes that clear.

    Regarding my “discrete ontology”, right now in the course of this discussion, I’m seeing, as noted, three distinct stages which you make somehow continuous.

    Conception for me is not zero, but it’s not murder either.

    The second step is implantation, which I see as the the marker of the start the new individual discovering and starting relationship.

    The third, you call viability which I’d identify with birth. As far as I’m aware there are no medical circumstances in which abortion after viability might not also entail delivery, but saving the mothers life would be the only reason to do so at that point and to do otherwise is in my view (perhaps state sanctioned today) but morally equivalent to murder.

  26. Mark says:

    JA,
    Oh, I’d missed replying to this.

    You might want to consider that not everybody can just pick up and move to the next jurisdiction. People have families, people are poor, etc.

    That’s an odd thing to say for an American, seeing as most of the people who came to this country were poor, picked up their things, and moved across an ocean to get here. Furthermore often it is easier for the poor to move, as they typically are renting (on short term leases as well) and have less “ties”.

  27. You seem to know what a step wave meant, your all or nothing comment makes that clear.

    Got it from context, I guess.

    That’s an odd thing to say for an American, seeing as most of the people who came to this country were poor, picked up their things, and moved across an ocean to get here. Furthermore often it is easier for the poor to move, as they typically are renting (on short term leases as well) and have less “ties”.

    I guess I just don’t see it as a good thing if people would have to leave their homes and families and strike out in search of distant lands where they might be allowed to get married or practice their religion.

  28. Mark says:

    JA,
    You have a really low opinion of your fellow Americans.

  29. Huh??? In your decentralized America, you don’t think there would be places where, e.g. gays or black-white couples couldn’t get married? Where Islam was forbidden?