Thursday, July 29, 2010

Abortion and the Soul -- Or, why Descartes has made us pro-choice

There are many times when I wonder: Does Christian thought, which has shaped the way our culture thinks, help or hurt the pro-life movement? Most conservative Christians would be absolutely baffled by this question. Religious thought, it is presumed, should naturally lead toward a respect for life and human dignity, and therefore an opposition to abortion.

But the arguments I've encountered in defense of abortion suggest that we face a great difficulty in convincing people that the fetus is a person, precisely because they are borrowing the religious concept of a "soul" in order to draw a distinction between "person" and "human." Thus, while any educated person has to acknowledge that a fetus is biologically human, they can deny that the fetus is a person. They do this, I believe, precisely because Christianity has taught them to think that way.

Not all Christianity, of course. But at least the basic framework that identifies a person as a soul, quite independent of a body, is very common in modern, Western, Christian thought. We should do a survey asking pastors what it means to be made "in the image of God." I will bet you $20 that nine times out of ten they say something about consciousness, or the will, or, most pertinently, the soul. This is the way we identify ourselves as people. This is what, it is supposed, sets humans apart from animals and from other creatures.

Where does that leave us in the abortion debate? Well, if one is determined to stick to Catholic dogma or something like that, then one could insist that a fetus gets a soul at conception. And from perusing blogs on the Internet, one can see very quickly that many people either make or complain about this very argument. If and when this argument is made, the pro-choice side simply shouts, "Separation between Church and State!" and the argument is lost. And personally, I think this is very fair. It is highly presumptuous for Christians to claim to know when the soul enters the body, and that we should base common laws on this claim, when a good portion of our country may not be sure souls exist.

The most common intellectual defense of abortion is that a fetus is not a person, because it has none of the faculties of a person--i.e. consciousness: thoughts, feelings, self-awareness. It is natural for us in the Western intellectual tradition to buy this. What did Descartes say? "I think, therefore I am." Apparently he was not quite convinced he existed until he had time to sit in his cabin in solitude and think. He found his identity in the very experience of contemplation. Other things he could not be so sure about, but the interior life of the mind convinced him that something was real.

We've come a long way since Descartes, but somehow we still tend to define ourselves in the same way he did. The interior life of the mind seems to be the defining thing. In the era of neuroscience and Darwinian evolutionary theory, we have become just sophisticated enough in our understanding of the brain to conclude that consciousness, contrary to Descartes, comes from something physical. It's all in the brain, you see. But this shift to materialism hasn't fundamentally altered the way we view ourselves. We still think, right along with Descartes, "I think, therefore I am," that is, my identity is found in my interior mental life.

That's why it has become so easy in our culture to say that if there's nothing going on "up there," then you're not really a person. People in vegetative states are not people, fetuses are not people--pretty much anyone whose brains don't have the same functions that ours do, aren't really people. You think, therefore you are; and if you don't think, then you aren't.

To me, this is strange. Why should thinking be the primary thing that gives me identity? Indeed, for many cultures in many different times and places, probably the single most important factor in determining your identity has been ancestry. Where did you come from? Whose son or daughter are you? The key identifying factor was not internal, but external.

I would say the most important clue that a fetus is a person is not whether or not she has a brain but rather, "Where did she come from?" If that is indeed the right question, then the answer is clear. She is a human, descended from humans. She doesn't need to earn the title "person." She is a person by inheritance. Perhaps as we lose our sense of inherited identity, we also lose our sense of the dignity of human life. To which all I can say is that hyper-individualism is not conducive to a thriving society.

Why should we pro-lifers have to prove that a fetus is a person according to a sense that is not only unnatural but also quite slippery? For if my personhood is wrapped up in my ability to think, can my personhood increase or decrease as I think more or less clearly? When I go to sleep at night, am I still a person? If I am knocked unconscious by a vicious blow to the head, am I still a person? If I black out while drinking too much, am I still a person? Trying to work out scientifically when the brain is "conscious" or not is as futile as trying to work out metaphysically when the "soul" has entered or left the body.

No, there is no way to prove that an unborn child has a soul, and of course it is simply a fact that a zygote does not have a brain. My only contention is that this is irrelevant. The key point is that an unborn human belongs to the human family. This may not be enough to satisfy Cartesian skepticism, but I think it's absurd that I should have to.

The irony is that modern people uncritically accept both Descartes' assumption that identity is found in the interior life of the mind, and the materialist view of the mind that defeats that assumption--for Descartes, the true life of the soul was strictly non-physical. Our modern view of what it means to be human is, it appears to me, the bastard child of two contradictory ideas.

But there is a far better way to identify ourselves. It lies not in identifying any particular feature of our existence to find commonality. Rather, it lies in discovering our relation to one another. It lies in discovering that we are all of one family. Humanity doesn't come from something abstract that you conjure up as you sit in contemplation; it comes from the concrete fact that you are descended from other humans.

Someone will say to me, "But Jameson, if it is all about ancestry, then shouldn't we really respect all life? If Darwin was right, then doesn't that mean we're all related?" Well, no doubt. I think we should respect all life. And if you think that means you should be a vegetarian, that's great. I would rather us all stop eating meat than keep killing our own children.

For many people, this abortion debate gets so stale because no one ever brings any new arguments to the table. A big part of this is that we reinforce each other's presuppositions. Pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike tend to presuppose that there is something abstract which characterizes us as human. Pro-life Christians choose the abstract religious concept of soul, while pro-choicers choose the equally abstract but more secular notion of consciousness. I think it's time we get to the root of this presupposition, pull it up, and toss it aside.

1 comment:

  1. I really appreciated this article. I am writing a paper for my philosophy class about how philosophers would respond to abortion. I liked your view of how "person-hood" is an inherited thing. Keep writing!

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