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.