Wednesday, June 27, 2012

They exist!

Today Secular Pro-Life is highlighting a recent Gallup poll showing that 1 out of every 5 non-religious persons (i.e. atheists, agnostics, or "no religion") self-identifies as "pro-life." The standard interpretation of this statistic is that the vast majority of secularists are pro-choice, hence the pro-life position is one primarily driven by religion. But SPL rightly points out that around 15% of American adults, around 34 million, self-identify as non-religious. One out of five means at least six million people, a substantial minority, even if you wouldn't necessarily meet one every day.

SPL's blog regularly receives comments from people trying to "uncover" their secret religious affiliation. Their presence at the Reason Rally was not exactly well-received by all. Why is this?

Part of it, I suspect, is that the secular movement, like any other movement, has to try to foster some degree of solidarity among its supporters; otherwise it may simply die out. Call it the Darwinian theory of social movements. As long as the secular movement remains relatively small in America--15% is still a pretty small minority--they will tend to make less of an impact if they cannot agree on a political agenda. After all, the secular religious agenda is almost exclusively negative. Without a positive political agenda, there is simply no point for the movement to exist.

Another part of it, which is perhaps related to the first part, is what I call the "secularism as religion" phenomenon. Many secularists abandon religion for what I perceive to be basically a good reason: they find that religious people defend their assertions on the basis of religious traditions rather than open themselves up to correction by reason. This is because the faithful often follow the line of reasoning which goes, "I want to believe whatever is true, and my religion is true, therefore I believe whatever I have learned from my religion." A common objection to this line of reasoning is that the second premise cannot be justified other than by a painfully circular argument: my religion is true because it says it is true. All secularists wish to avoid such nonsense, and so they abandon religion in favor of reason.

The problem is, secularists are not immune to making their own movement into a "religion" in the sense I have just stated above. They begin to reason the same way as the religious faithful: "I want my beliefs to be based on reason, secularism is based on reason, therefore I will believe whatever is consistent with the secular movement." When it comes to controversial issues like abortion, just fill in the blanks: pro-choice is secular belief, pro-life is a religious belief, hence if I want to be reasonable I must be pro-choice. This is nonsense, but you will find that solidarity breeds much nonsense.

I am certainly not suggesting there are no intelligent arguments for the pro-choice side of the abortion debate. I just think that the visceral hatred of SPL and its mission stems from irrational impulses. Accusing SPL of being "secretly religious" is the most ironic of accusations, since it seeks to discredit someone's view solely on the grounds that it breaks with secular orthodoxy. The irony would be amusing if not for the high stakes in this debate.

Perhaps part of the claim that SPL is "secretly religious" stems from SPL's own need for solidarity, which happens to come largely from religious organizations. It is true that they link to blogs like Jill Stanek's, whose views are hard-line conservative and religious, and that they work with sites like, which has a specifically religious and conservative affiliation. But keep in mind that SPL maintains a pro-contraception stance and remains willing to openly debate the rape exception, two positions which are out of sync with standard pro-life religious orthodoxy. Many of their members also openly support gay marriage, although the purpose of their organization is not to address such issues.

The point of SPL, as I see it, is not to advance secularism, but rather to advance the pro-life movement from a secular perspective. As they do so, it's natural for them to make friends among religious pro-lifers. In my opinion, the religious pro-lifers stand to gain quite a bit more from SPL than the other way around in terms of intellectual credibility; in terms of resources, however, quite the opposite is true. I don't think anyone needs to apologize for this.

(As an illustration of one of my points above, I've been impressed with SPL's ability to clearly and openly discuss the issue of bodily integrity with regards to the abortion debate, something which many religious conservatives seem unable to do. It is SPL's willingness to delve seriously into all the philosophical dimensions of the abortion debate that makes me believe they will grow to have a huge influence on the pro-life movement.)

I consider myself a religious man, but I very much believe in a secular society, by which I mean a society based on a few basic principles on which most great religious and intellectual traditions can agree, principles encapsulated in such great words as our own Declaration of Independence: "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." My own reason for believing in a secular society is religious: I believe "Blessed are the peacemakers" is a rule which we ought to follow in both our personal and political lives, and I would rather that important questions remain unresolved among us than that we fight each other over the answers. A society which uses violence to settle questions of doctrine is a society that believes in no higher authority than itself--not even reason.

Abortion is violence against human beings. If one accepts this proposition, then one must accept that even in a secular society, abortion cannot be tolerated.

It is the mission of the pro-life movement to offer convincing proofs of the two propositions just stated. Thus, contrary to popular belief, there is nothing in the world more natural than for pro-life arguments to be secular.  Whether or not Christianity or some other religion is true is extremely important to all of us as human beings, but it is irrelevant to the abortion debate. For that reason, I applaud the efforts of SPL, and I hope that more and more secularists will be swayed by our arguments.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Einstein on the quest for harmony in nature

Quoting from Subtle is the Lord, Chapter 2a, here's Einstein addressing Planck on the latter's sixtieth birthday (emphasis mine):
The longing to behold ... preestablished harmony is the source of the inexhaustible persistence and patience with which we see Planck devoting himself to the most general problems of our science without letting himself be deflected by goals which are more profitable and easier to achieve. I have often heard that colleagues would like to attribute this attitude to exceptional will-power and discipline; I believe entirely wrongly so. The emotional state which enables such achievements is similar to that of the religious person or the person in love; the daily pursuit does not originate from a design or program but from a direct need.
 You can't teach that in schools. (Or can you?)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

A market in fetal organs?

Here's a story that escaped me until just today:
Professor Richard Gardner of Oxford University, a renowned expert on human reproduction and an advisor to Britain's Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, recently raised the prospect of using organs from aborted fetuses for transplantation into adults. This possibility offers the potential to save or improve the lives of the hundreds of thousands of patients in desperate need of such organs throughout the world, especially the more than 70,000 in the United States waiting for kidneys.
The date of this story is 2009. I suspect this idea has been floating around for much longer than that.

(I was going to borrow Tyler Cowen's "markets in everything" for the title of this post, but I didn't want to infringe on his intellectual property rights. Of course, given a few of MR's patent-related posts recently, I take it he wouldn't mind!)

Pregnancy is, essentially, a way to produce an endless supply of organs to be given to those in need:
The first striking of fetal organs is that their supply, for all practical purposes, is unlimited. Unlike living kidney donors, who must then advance through life with only one functioning kidney, pregnant women who provide fetal kidneys could do so repeatedly without incurring the medical consequences of adult organ loss. When overseen by properly-trained physicians, abortion is an extremely safe procedure -- even safer than delivering an infant at term. Since far more women have legal abortions each year in the United States than would be required to clear organ wait-lists, if only a small percentage of those women could be persuaded to carry their fetuses to the necessary point of development for transplantation, society might realize significant public health benefits. The government could even step into the marketplace itself to purchase fetal organs for patients on Medicare and Medicaid, ensuring that low-income individuals had equal access to such organs while keeping the "asking price" elevated. [emphasis added]
It's for the greater good, after all. And really, if we didn't have to deal with those clumsy, traditional wombs, we could just have little human farms all of over the place, giving us literally infinite access to replacement body parts:
Someday, if we are fortunate, scientific research may make possible farms of artificial "wombs" breeding fetuses for their organs...
All of this technology promises us the gift of long life, of reduced pain and discomfort, of increased health and "well-being." The more we come to measure the value of life in terms of these things, the more we cheapen the inherent value of life. That is, we view human beings as means to an end, presumably our ends, but more likely ends which have been suggested to us by the amazing force of cultural cohesion and advertising.

Don't you want to live longer? Well do we have an offer for you!

Just make sure you understand what these guys are selling.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Why I will not be voting for "the" pro-life candidate

On occasion, it becomes painfully obvious that large segments of the pro-life movement have been completely co-opted by the Republican party.

Consider a the recent article from, entitled "You Can't be Pro-Life and Not Vote for Mitt Romney." It's exactly what it sounds like.

This extraordinarily poorly thought out diatribe against those of us who would rather not vote for a man has flip-flopped on just about every question imaginable, including abortion, actually makes no positive arguments for Mitt Romney. The presumptive Republican nominee is simply the negation of Barack Obama:
How can someone who believes in the sanctity of life belittle, deride and not support the only chance we have of removing him from office? It’s sheer life-endangering folly.
I admit, there can be little doubt that Barack Obama is the most pro-abortion president we've ever had. But does that make Mitt Romney pro-life? And does it really mean electing him will make any difference for the plight of the unborn?

Let's consider the following argument:
The next president of the United States will also fill between two and four seats on the Supreme Court. As a people who believe abortion is wrong, who do we think will fill those seats with strict-constructionist jurors who will interpret the Constitution and not reinvent and rewrite it?
A curious argument, completely devoid of any basis in historical fact. Consider Ronald Reagan, one of the cherished heroes of pro-life conservatives. His Supreme Court nominees were

Two out of the three justices added to the Supreme Court by Reagan sided with Planned Parenthood in the 1992 decision Planned Parenthood v Casey. How's that for a pro-life record!

And take a look at George H. W. Bush's nominees:
I'll give you a hint: one of these justices is not a "strict constitutionalist."

One could argue, I suppose, that George W. Bush had more success in that area. One could object that Ronald Reagan got "Borked." One could say a lot of things. None of these objections change the fact that voting a conservative into the White House won't ultimately change the fate of unborn children.

Besides, who says being pro-life somehow goes hand in hand with being a "strict constitutionalist"? In most states, abortion was legal up to the moment of quickening, up until the late 1800s. I guess the Founding Fathers weren't strict constitutionalists. (Then again, they didn't outlaw slavery, either.)

"Strict constitutionalism" is nothing more than conservative-speak. This means, in particular, that it has very little meaning beyond, "Whatever the left is doing is probably wrong." There's nothing wrong with being skeptical of the left. But let's not borrow meaningless terminology in order to express our reasons why.

Bottom line: if pro-lifers really believe that faithful adherence to the Republican party has any long-term benefits for our cause, just look at the facts: it hasn't worked so far.

There is a deeper why it hasn't worked, and why I won't be voting for Mitt Romney. The more our pro-life position on abortion is coupled with other positions that people find deeply troubling, the less likely it is that we will gain more support from the general public. When people look at Mitt Romney, it should not surprise us if they see a friend of corporate greed, a man distanced from the plight of ordinary Americans.

And for us pro-lifers, why should we not be deeply troubled by the Republican party's platform on foreign policy? If our core issue is protecting innocent human life from unjustified killing, should we not oppose the idea of preemptive war? Should we not oppose the use of drone strikes over countries with whom we are not even at war? Especially when they kill innocent people, including children!

As if Obama's support of fetal abortion were not enough, it also appears he has no problem aborting his enemies overseas. All the more reason why I oppose Obama. But is Romney any better on this issue? In all of the Republican debates, Romney has constantly tried to make Obama out to be weak on foreign policy. It sounds to me that Romney, if he changes anything about Obama's tactics of drone strikes and military occupation, will only make it more aggressive, more reminiscent of the George W. Bush era, and ultimately more dangerous for innocent human life and for our moral reputation abroad.

Let me be clear: I do not want Obama to be president, and therefore I will not vote for Obama. That is all anyone has any right to ask of me, since I do profess to be pro-life and against any politician who will not defend those most vulnerable in society. Insisting that I vote for "the other guy" solely in order to oust Obama from power is incredibly short-sighted, and for that reason I find it morally repugnant.

One has to think for a moment to understand why it is so short-sighted. Elections are winner-take-all. This means our government will tend to merely oscillate back and forth between two more or less arbitrary but evolving political poles. If both sides have become odious to me because of my conscience on crucial matters involving the dignity of human life, then what gain is there in me participating in this tug of war? Should I not rather vote my conscience? In a free society, liberty of conscience is all we have to stem the rising tide of tyranny.

The author of the aforementioned article would like to play (somewhat hypocritically) the moral superiority card. He seems to suggest that because he has been the recipient of persecution in the name of the pro-life cause, he is entitled to proclaim that "it is a requirement for any pro-life American" that we vote for Mitt Romney. Let's call this the moralist's fatal conceit. Dedication to a cause by no means makes one rational. Sometimes one's dedication can cause a person to do things which are, in the long run, quite counter-productive to the cause.

Ultimately, it is not the presidential election of this year or any year which decides the issue of abortion in the long run. What decides the issue is our ability to persuade thoughtful people to come to our side. How will we ever be successful in persuading thoughtful people if we ourselves throw our blind adherence to a political party with countless other agendas than our own? The world is watching, and it will not judge kindly.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Why you are not your brain

That's part of the subtitle of a book by Alva Noë, who argues against the conventional belief that our consciousness can be located inside of us. Here's the short version:
For further information, here is his web site.

Here's my takeaway from what Noë is saying:

First, if consciousness is not located in our brain, then it is not intrinsic, but learned. From watching this video, I gathered that the basic gist of Noë's argument is that consciousness is a matter of learning to engage our surroundings, of "knowing what to look for," and of knowing how to respond appropriately. That is a strikingly counter-intuitive idea, but there are a number of possible explanations for this. Developing a consciousness presumably begins with being told that you have one, as when parents repeatedly refer to their children by their given names, using pronouns like "I" and "you" to signal boundaries of identity and shaping their children into individuals capable of distinguishing their own experiences from those of others. It's striking to me the way in which children often get the pronouns "I" and "you" wrong. When they're first learning to talk, they will sometimes say things like "you want to go to the park" when they mean they want to go to the park. Of course they would--they've always been called "you." To me this suggests that individual identity is not so clear at first. We didn't always understand what "I" means.

Second, what the brain actually does "at the ground level" is extraordinarily complex and vastly different from the sort of order that emerges from it. As Noë says, probably the only way to understand this is in an evolutionary way. Molecular biology, for instance, can tell us the micro-processes by which organisms develop, but in order to perceive that any sort of order has been developed in the process of evolution one simply must look at the whole. In the same way, the brain consists of a lot of different neurons accomplishing different things, but in order to perceive that anything like "consciousness" has actually been produced requires looking at the way in which that brain interacts with the world. If a person were completely shut off in some dark room for his entire life, his brain left to hum right along doing what it naturally does, there would (presumably) be no consciousness, in spite of the fact that the neural circuitry would be just as it is in any normal brain.

Following up on this second point, one might even be willing to eliminate the concept of "consciousness" if one were to stick to a strictly "scientistic" point of view. Because consciousness is not the direct result of any mechanical processes in the brain, consciousness may turn out to be not such a fundamental part of the human organism as an organism. It is only when the human is made to be aware of himself that he becomes "conscious," in the sense of having introspective thoughts, the ability to assess his own beliefs, and a sense of his own desires and purposes.

Rather than suggesting that we actually ignore consciousness as a reality, however, I would suggest that we learn to ignore scientism. If we viewed the world solely in terms of concrete mechanical processes that we could fully understand and predict, we would hardly be able to move.

Thinking rightly about ourselves seems to me a self-evidently important task, but I think there are also important "application" questions we could ask. For instance, what does one do about a loved one who has fallen into an "unconscious" coma? What about Terri Schiavo? What about the mentally disabled? How do we tell whether any of these have genuine consciousness, and what do we do about it? One could also ask about animal rights, based on the observation that many animals appear to be quite conscious of the world around them.

For my part, I want to suggest that if consciousness is indeed not intrinsic to human beings as organisms, then it is also not a line by which to divide those who have rights from those who don't. Of course, that just makes the problem more difficult in cases where a person is in a coma and unable to take care of herself. We will have to think carefully about spheres of responsibility in those cases, but one thing we can't do is assume that anyone who lacks a certain kind of brain activity is therefore dead. Similar considerations apply to the mentally disabled who, though they may be unable to say so much as a few words, are still human beings. In general, I am unwilling to relieve the human race from its responsibility to protect the lives of those who lack the abilities of the rest of us. Being human is more like being born into a family rather than being admitted into a program: we are not to be judged on our abilities, but rather on our shared ancestry.

I will mostly skip over animal rights, except to say that while I do not feel the same kind of responsibility to other animals as to humans, surely that doesn't relieve us of all responsibility. We may kill to eat, but that doesn't mean that there are not humane ways of doing so. This has been well-understood throughout human history.

There are some slightly more obscure application questions to be asked, such as the question about artificial intelligence: could a computer be conscious? Perhaps this question is becoming less obscure all the time, as we progress further toward genuine computer intelligence. One insight that Noë can give us is that artificial intelligence would require an artificial life, i.e. an environment in which to freely engage the world. Perhaps such an idea will one day lead to breakthroughs we have not foreseen except in science fiction. Or perhaps the way forward is far more difficult than we now realize.

Lots of interesting questions, so little time. Suffice it to say, I think this is an incredibly important topic for all of us.