To be or not to be?

Today, the citizens of Mississippi are voting to decide whether a fertilized egg should legally be considered a person. The polls are apparently pretty evenly balanced.

I’ve heard all sorts of discussion on this topic, and on the rare occasions it manages to rise above the level of shouting and name calling, it seems to come to rest instead on the usual cop-out argument of any US political debate: the question of whether such a law is “constitutional” or not.

Huh? I’m sorry? What about the question of whether it makes any fucking sense or not?

I don’t think I’ve heard a single person discuss the biology of the issue. Not one. It’s like it doesn’t matter. I suppose I can understand that (in the sort of way that one might “understand” why a drunk falls into puddles) from the perspective of the Religious Right, for whom the question is presumably theological, not biological. I suppose they have some vague and unsubstantiated feeling that conception is the moment at which God inserts a soul into the cell, and hence from that moment on it’s as much a person as you and I.

But come on! Fertilization is just the moment at which a haploid sperm injects another 23 molecules of deoxyribonucleic acid into an egg cell, returning its complement to the normal 46 molecules so that it can resume dividing. The mechanism for this is really amazing, but it’s not magic. No souls are involved, just chemistry. Where is the “person” in 23 strands of polymer? Or indeed 46?

The sperm cells have half the normal DNA, but they developed from cells that had a full complement, just as a fertilized egg does. So does that mean the billions of spermatogonia in my testes are people too? Those born with Down Syndrome have an extra chromosome 21, does this make them superhuman? Or is it the truth of the matter that this is all just based on some ignorant, ancient belief that men “bestow life” on an egg, which women simply carry in their bellies while it grows up?

It’s not even reasonable to say that fertilization is the “moment at which a cell becomes committed to growing into a human.” Every point before that is equally precipitate: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? You can’t fertilize an egg until you have one, and the switch inside a stem cell that commits it to produce an egg cell rather than any other kind of cell is just as defining a moment. The vast majority of unfertilized egg cells never go on to produce babies, but then neither do the majority of fertilized ones. There’s really no defining point of being; it’s all just a gradual process of becoming.

Clearly an unfertilized egg is not a person, which is quite a relief, given that every woman of child-bearing age would thus be guilty of murder once a month. A sperm had better not be a person either, or I’m guilty of wiping out more people per day than all the wars in history put together. At the same time, an eighteen year-old clearly IS a person. Killing teenagers often seems pretty desirable but despite the temptation I imagine most of us would consider it wrong. So we have a process, at one end of which something is not a person while at the other end it is. If letting a sperm cell die is not murder but bumping off a teenager is, then how do we decide when and under what conditions we handle the legal, ethical and moral transition from the one state to the other?

This is an incredibly difficult question and we REALLY ought to be having a proper grown-up, thoughtful debate about it. But instead we’re treated to simplistic, hysterical dogma from both sides. It won’t be long before we know how to grow one of my cheek cells into another human being. Does that make my body a hundred trillion people? We already know that identical twins are two people borne from a single egg cell, so when is a fertilized egg cell one person and when is it two? How is Mississippi law proposing to untangle that one?

Only the ignorant would think that the moment of fertilization is the “point” at which a cell becomes a person, or even a sensible place to draw an otherwise arbitrary line. The quality of debate is shocking. Meanwhile, every day, EITHER people really are getting murdered in their thousands because women are having abortions at some specified stage of pregnancy OR women (not to mention their partners and perhaps the children themselves) are having their lives needlessly ruined by being prevented from having one. The problem isn’t going away and it isn’t going to get any simpler. We urgently need to find the right answers, but are we even asking the right questions?

What does it MEAN to murder someone? What does it mean to have the right to live? Did the skin cells I rubbed off my foot this morning when I put my socks on deserve a right to live? Perhaps “life” is the wrong question. Perhaps a group of living cells’ collective rights depend on whether they KNOW they’re alive? Perhaps they collectively have to be able to suffer, to have plans and hopes that get thwarted, before killing them becomes wrong. But what does it mean to know? What does it mean to suffer? What is consciousness? What is it like to be an embryo? A baby? A three year-old? An octogenarian with Alzheimers? What is it that murder takes away and from whom or what can it be taken? Is “killing” a three month-old embryo worse than killing a three year-old cow in order to make hamburgers? How do we know?

We really should have answers for this stuff by now. We call ourselves Homo sapiens, for heaven’s sake. But not only do we not know the answers, we barely even understand or take the trouble to think clearly about the questions. Meanwhile, people are walking into voting booths in Mississippi today (and doubtless in many other states in the near future, regardless of what happens in MS today), to make a judgement call that will or will not outlaw all forms of abortion, the morning after pill and many forms of contraception. On the basis of what? Religious dogma that can’t even call on scripture for meaningful comment? Gut feeling? Personal bias? Sympathy for babies? Sympathy for women? Misogyny? Guesswork?

Seriously, ON THE BASIS OF WHAT?

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About stevegrand
I'm an independent AI and artificial life researcher, interested in oodles and oodles of things but especially the brain. And chocolate. I like chocolate too.

72 Responses to To be or not to be?

  1. PhysBrain says:

    On the basis of knee-jerk emotional reaction, of course.

    I’m on my way to the polls now. I’ll try to write a more detailed reply later.

  2. In time, reason will triumph.

    In the meantime, we’re going to have to get used to stupidity.

  3. Alon says:

    Great post. Very witty, yet deeply thought-provoking at the same time, as usual.

    I do feel sympathy for those crazies, since, like you said, they honestly think that the fertilized egg has a soul or whatever (and purposely killing it would be like murder). However… superstition has no place in our laws.

    From a metaphoric perspective, the fertilized egg is 50% her, but it’s also 50% not her. So if it is her, then the cells belong to her, and she can do what she wants with them. If it’s not her, then it’s not a part of her body, and she has the right to remove the “parasite” if she doesn’t want it there. Even as a hybrid, it still falls under both, so the choice is hers either way.

    If a zygote is truly a separate person, then the woman is being treated like a hotel; she should at least be able to decide who gets to lodge inside of her. It’s not like she manually put it there. A man’s pseudo-intelligent sperm decided to wriggle its way into one of her precious ova. Are we really going to allow a single sperm decide the fate of the next 9 months of her life, or even her potential death? Does one zygote’s disputed right to life honestly eclipse a citizen’s UNdisputed right to life? It just makes no sense.

    Humans can be really stupid when they feel obliged to make hard distinctions, where all we see is one smooth gradient. It’s like tracing Homo sapiens back to erectus, habilis, Australopithecus, past the other Hominids, past the other primates, and then deciding that killing a treeshrew is like murdering an actual person.

    Those Mississippians are acting like treeshrews.

    • stevegrand says:

      Those are some interesting lines of reasoning! I agree, it makes no sense. At the other end of the scale, though, people might generally agree that destroying a baby the day after it is born is wrong. Therefore it seems almost as wrong to destroy one the day before it’s born. As we go back in time it gradually gets more justifiable, until by the time we’re dealing with a handful of cells it seems to me like a non-issue. So perhaps we need a multi-phase approach, in which different levels of justification are required? Taking the morning after pill for whatever reason seems to me like perfectly reasonable behavior, while you’d probably need some very good arguments to justify aborting at 7 months. I’m sure we must be able to define some sensible cut-off points for different justifications. Of course, policing that would be both difficult and fraught – should a woman have to go to court and plead a case for an abortion after a certain stage? It’s hard to say. For the most part I think her body is her own property, but assuming we decide that a newborn has a right to life, there is also justification for society having some say in what happens on behalf of the future child, since it can’t speak for itself.

      It really would help if we worked out what we mean by “wrong”, although that’s a minefield right from the word go! 🙂

      • Mel says:

        I totally agree with you on the mult-phase thing, both potential child and woman has rights – but if we’re at the stage where the fetus is not considered a human being yet, then there’s obviously nothing competing with the woman’s rights. However, if the fetus is at the stage where it’s considered a human being – then you have their rights competing with the woman’s. What makes this wrong then, to abort at this stage is that the child’s right to life outweighs the woman’s desire to not have the child. Sure its her body, but unless she was raped, its not like she was not responsible for the outcome of her own actions.

  4. mmmmbacon says:

    It’s pretty clear to me that this issue isn’t about what it says it’s about. Rather, it’s a battleground for cultural warfare. It’s like when a husband and wife get into a screaming match about the toilet seat… the supposed content of the argument is a proxy for a much deeper unarticulated conflict. In this instance the actual conflict is the fight over which narrative of morality rules the day: secular or religious. That’s why the specifics of whether a cell is a person don’t matter, because arguing about that is as productive as arguing about whether it is wrong for the husband to leave the toilet seat up.

    Terren

    • stevegrand says:

      That’s a really good point. Although of course it DOES matter, because, unlike toilet seats, real pregnant women and/or unborn children are getting hurt or about to get hurt, depending on what happens and what ought to happen.

      Which is kind of odd, given that morality is supposed to be about this sort of thing. No, wait, I forgot – for some, morality has nothing whatsoever to do with minimizing suffering. Stupid of me.

      • mmmmbacon says:

        I agree, actually, that it does matter. I guess I should say that arguing about whether a fertilized egg is a person is not likely to be productive in the current context, because it is beside the larger point of whose culture is stronger. I.e. a compelling rational argument that decided the issue in favor of one side or the other would immediately be rejected by the losing side. Well, I’d like to think secularists would be less inclined to do that, but there’s some pretty religious secularists, if you know what I mean. We’re wired for us vs. them thinking.

      • stevegrand says:

        Yeah, I took your point. And we sure are wired for us and them thinking! Well, WE’RE not but THEY are…

  5. Quinn O'Neill says:

    Great questions. Carl Sagan and Anne Druyan did a nice job tackling some of them: http://www.2think.org/abortion.shtml

    • stevegrand says:

      Beautifully written, as we might expect. Thanks for the link!

      • mmmmbacon says:

        That was the best treatment I’ve seen of abortion, thanks!

        Summary: make abortion illegal starting with the 3rd trimester, on the basis of evidence that that is the earliest point where “adult-like” brain waves can be detected in fetuses. As our capacity for advanced thought is what separates us from the animals (so it is argued), and murder is not murder unless the victim is human, this crude evidence of “thought” is a rational basis on which to distinguish between a human person and a fetus that cannot be distinguished from an animal.

        It’s not a perfect argument but it proceeds rationally from justifiable premises, and it doesn’t rely on any authoritarian dogma.

      • stevegrand says:

        Murder may not be murder when it’s applied to a different species but that doesn’t make it okay. Nevertheless, that’s a good starting point. Next we need to move on to the question of which (other) animals deserve the same rights as we give to other humans!

      • Chani says:

        @mmmmbacon: I’d add an exception for cases where it’s medically necessary. no sense in having both the mother and baby die because of some unexpected complication when you could save the mother by taking out the baby. I don’t think it’d be fair to save the baby at the cost of the mother’s life, either.

      • Colin Wright says:

        As far as animal rights are concerned all living things exploit each other, eat each other, live in or on each other, thrive on the by products of each others metabolisms, etc. But as I say since all life could be seen as the direct biological continuation of the first life, life is only really exploiting itself and that includes us. Have you any idea how many organisms live in or on you or will feed on you when you’re dead? Or would eat you given the chance? I don’t begrudge them that it’s part of how life adapts and evolves. Plenty of animals exploit us.

      • stevegrand says:

        Colin,

        Are you arguing that because some animals would eat us if they got the chance it’s ok for us to eat them? I’ve heard a similar argument before (that animals have no moral sense and therefore we don’t have any moral responsibility toward them) but I don’t think I buy it. It would be a pretty heartless world if we all took a tit-for-tat attitude towards each other. And it’s not clear that animals have no such sense either – chimpanzees will help humans or other animals in trouble and even rats will help other distressed rats. But the fact that we DO have a moral sense surely adds to our responsibilities, rather than being something we can simply ignore because those we might be moral towards have no capacity for moral reasoning themselves?

      • Colin Wright says:

        Actually Steve I’m not really saying it’s a tit for tat thing. I’m saying that eating each other is a part of the normal exchanges of energy between organisms in the biosphere and part of what has driven evolution as well. Both symbiosis and competition between organisms are part of evolution. Eating each other is only one type of interaction many relationships have evolved to be mutually beneficial including eating each other on a species level believe it or not. It could be argued for instance that if we didn’t eat pork the number of pigs in the world would be greatly diminished as we would not farm them. So while the pigs being eaten aren’t grateful as individuals I’m sure as a species they benefit from being eaten by humans strange though that sounds. What I’m saying I guess is the morality of nature is not as clear cut, as black and white as the morality we humans have developed to allow civilized interaction with each other relationships between organisms including us are never as clear cut as we think.

      • stevegrand says:

        > It could be argued for instance that if we didn’t eat pork the number of pigs in the world would be greatly diminished as we would not farm them. So while the pigs being eaten aren’t grateful as individuals I’m sure as a species they benefit

        True, which raises an interesting point about the target of morals. Species aren’t conscious and can’t suffer, but it’s strange the way people worry about “saving the whale” and often justify it in a way that confuses the conservation of species with the saving of individuals. I used to have a home-made bumper sticker on my car that said “Save the krill”, with a picture of a harpooned whale. For every whale that lives, hundreds of thousands of krill die, so saving “the whale” isn’t self-evidently a moral act. Of course saving the earth’s biological diversity has ample justification of its own (even though in that, too, people seem to confuse what’s good for us humans with what’s “right”). But a lot of people really seem to have difficulty separating the misfortunes of individuals from that of the species they belong to.

  6. PhysBrain says:

    Well, fortunately, the amendment was voted down. We can all breathe a little sigh of relief, and for the moment, we can continue to enjoy the illusion of free will.

    This has been a very contentious issue around here for the past couple of months. There has been precious little intelligent debate about the topic. Both sides have tended to fall back on FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) soon after their initial, well-reasoned arguments were rejected out of hand by the opposition. Though I have to give some credit to the opponents of the measure for mostly keeping with arguments related to the likely unintended consequences of the passage of the amendment, as opposed to the much more emotionally charged arguments of those in favor.

    In the end, I think what did it in was the fact that it was just so poorly worded. Perhaps they thought that if they just made it a simple matter of bestowing the status of personhood on a viable fetus, that they could easily mobilize a considerable amount of support among the population of this largely conservative state. However, the reality is that there are thousands of existing pieces of legislation that mention the word person in them, and each and every one would have had to be reviewed and possibly altered to accommodate this revised definition. And that’s not including all of the potential legislation that would likely need to be considered to further clarify the murky gray areas that would be introduced depending on how broadly this new status was interpreted. If it had passed, it would have almost certainly have been tied up in the courts, at taxpayer expense, for months or years to come.

    Although I’m sure there will probably continue to be some heated discussions about the issue for some time; at least for now we can continue to go about our lives without this little bit of unnecessary government intrusion. We will be allowed to make these decisions for ourselves based on our own beliefs and moral convictions and in close consultation with our health care provider.

    And to my friends who do believe in a higher power, who created humans and endowed them with free will, I say rejoice. We still have the rights and responsibilities that free will bestows upon us. We must treasure them and continue to make choices for ourselves. We should not concede those rights and responsibilities lightly. For every choice there are consequences. We must be allowed to make the choice, accept the consequences, and be prepared to live with them for the rest of our lives.

    • stevegrand says:

      Thanks for the report from the front!

      > now we can continue to go about our lives without this little bit of unnecessary government intrusion. We will be allowed to make these decisions for ourselves

      Isn’t there an underlying assumption in that? Who is “ourselves”? One of the jobs of society (or “government”, which is at least SUPPOSED to represent society) is to look after the interests of those who have little say. In the case of abortion that would be the child. I still think it’s an open question when that child is actually a child and thus deserves representation on its behalf, and when it’s just a part of the mother and her own business alone. There’s a danger when “we” reserve the right to make our own judgments that “we” might end up being a self-selecting group, leaving “them” to fend for themselves. In-group/out-group thinking is still buried very deep in the human psyche.

      But having said that, I’m very glad the legislation was defeated – it was no starting point for a rational discussion. I’m kind of sad that the reason it failed was such a pragmatic one but at least rationality won the day for once.

  7. Marc Murison says:

    “So does that mean the billions of spermatogonia in my testes are people too?” No, just half people: Halfloids. 🙂

    • stevegrand says:

      Heh! I hate to be pedantic but it would be the spematozoa that (who?) were half people; the spermatoGONIA are diploid, so ought to be whole people. But heck, there are quite enough half-people around as it is! Half people, half chimpanzee…

  8. Marcus says:

    I like reading these posts, but I wish you’d post more about the development of Grandroids! Such a historic development should be properly chronicled!
    Best wishes,
    Marcus

    • stevegrand says:

      Hey Marcus. Grandroids IS being properly chronicled, but so far only for those who supported my Kickstarter project. I promised them the inside track as a reward for donating to the cause, so there’s a password-protected website with a forum and stuff. I’ll post an update here eventually too, though. I should do that from time to time. I keep waiting until I get to a point where I can stand still and look back over what I’ve done so far, but that point keeps receding into the distance!

      • Alon says:

        Would you at least consider chronicling here your experiences chronicling it… there? Maybe later this year make a post reflecting, again, on your experience with the entire Kickstarter process and dealing with that kind of crowd, now that you’re deeper in.
        Although I guess you can’t be too honest about them in case they see it… lol, I’m sure they’re treating you kindly. (And hopefully they’re not pressuring you too much… not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, with your track record and all! just kidding =)

  9. Vegard says:

    You should be careful about saying this: “Fertilization is just the moment at which a haploid sperm injects another 23 molecules of deoxyribonucleic acid into an egg cell, returning its complement to the normal 46 molecules so that it can resume dividing”

    Aren’t you explaining away the trick here? Have you forgotten your own words? You even used that word — “Fertilization is JUST […]”

    Of course, we people are “just” a self-replicating cloud of elementary particles, and there is nothing wrong in, for example, separating elementary particles from each other or dividing a cloud of particles in two…

    No, I believe the fertilised egg is more than just a collection of molecules.

    • stevegrand says:

      🙂 Oh, but I didn’t say the EGG is “just” anything; I said fertilization is “just” a step in a process. Which it is. The assumption I was countering is that fertilization is some kind of magic moment, when the “special ingredient” is added to the system that gives it it’s special properties. I’m being entirely consistent with my emergentist perspective. The system is more than the sum of its parts – there is no special part that adds the special properties. No vital essence that’s being added to the mixture.

      > No, I believe the fertilised egg is more than just a collection of molecules.

      So do I – it’s a SYSTEM of molecules. So is an unfertilized egg. A fertilized one has different properties, and a zygote has different properties still. Eventually we get a baby, which has still further properties, and an adult has further ones besides. I don’t see that a fertilized egg is profoundly different from any other single diploid cell, though. Would you like to argue that it is? I’m very happy to have that debate if you think I’m missing something.

      • Vegard says:

        I didn’t mean to put words in your mouth. I still think you tried to downplay a crucial moment, though, and this is what I reacted to.

        Like you said, the fertilised egg is what eventually divides until it in fact is a real, living person. Other single diploid cells tend not to turn into real, living persons.

        This is also what makes the fertilised egg different, in my opinion, from just the sperm cell or just the unfertilised egg. It is the first point at which we have the complete recipe for an individual. I don’t know, it’s hard to say exactly at which point something is a person, but I think fertilisation is one of the more rational possibilities.

        I agree that there is no vital essence being added to the mixture at the moment of fertilisation. I don’t believe in souls as something that inhibits matter, or something that exists regardless of what goes on in the physical world. But I do think that the soul can be an emergent property of a system of molecules, much like life itself is.

      • stevegrand says:

        I don’t want to labor the point but I disagree, even if I’m downplaying it just in order to be devil’s advocate!

        Yes, the fertilized egg is the moment at which we have the full recipe for a uniquely new person. I don’t dispute that this is a significant moment, amongst many. But I don’t see that this tells us anything at all about personhood.

        Before the egg cell became an egg and before the sperm became a sperm, both of them had the complete recipe for an individual, just not THAT individual.

        There’s definitely something odd about an UNfertilized egg, but a fertilized one is a pretty normal cell, or at least a pretty normal stem cell, since many of its genetic switches haven’t been triggered yet. ALL cells divide and become a person. The only difference here is that the person this cell line becomes is not the mother, whereas all her other dipolid cells make her and continue to remake her. The process of cell division and epigentic switching is happening in all her cells; it’s just that the descendents of this one only share half her genes and half someone else’s. These genes have been reset, so the result is a whole other body, rather than a whole other organ, say, but there’s nothing particularly special about the egg in itself.

        It’s true that for the first time there is a cell in that mother’s body with a never-before-seen mixture of alleles. In that trivial sense this cell is a different person (or at least an unusual form of cancer!) But I don’t see how it has anything to do with whether that cell has a right to life, so it’s JUST a step in the process of becoming a person. What happens over the next nine months is at least as important as this unique genotype in deciding WHAT person it becomes. It doesn’t suddenly become a person at this point, but I’ll concede that it suddenly becomes a genotype. I just don’t see that as a big deal.

        After all, every human being is 99+% genetically identical to every other. Come to that, even our own body cells aren’t genetically identical, so it’s possible a woman’s nose is as genetically distinct from the rest of her as her baby is. It’s all just noise. It’s not the tiny genetic differences between us that really make us into us. Fertilization is just the means by which the clock gets set ticking, and the means by which evolution mixes traits. I can’t give it any more importance than that, myself, but I understand that I’m in a minority – after all, many people consider their “own flesh and blood” to be qualitatively different from an adopted child.

      • Vegard says:

        (Let’s see, I hope this ends up as a reply to the right post…)

        When you write “But I don’t see that this tells us anything at all about personhood.”, I assume you mean personhood as in “whether this is a person or not”. Please correct me if I’m wrong, English is not my first language.

        I would certainly not call a fertilised egg a person. It doesn’t have feelings or thoughts, and as you wrote in your first post, it may not even live to become a person for entirely natural reasons. It is simply not a person. However, I would call it an individual.

        I think you are probably technically right that the cell is not physically so different from other cells of the human body (I can’t really say I know enough about it). But we all know that our skin cells, liver cells, etc. DON’T grow into complete, new, separate individuals. I think this makes a huge difference. I guess, in my opinion, the state of the cell is also important (whether it is going to regenerate a part of the body of a person or in fact become a whole new person), not just what it could possibly do under the influence of different circumstances.

        You write that what happens over the next nine months are at least as important in determining what person the fertilised egg becomes. I completely agree. You also argue that differences in the genes are so small they are practically negligible. Mmh, you may be right. But both of these things are irrelevant, I think. Your car is not my car because they are the same model. Identical twins are not one individual. I still think that fertilised egg, as an individual, deserves the chance (and, if it is lucky, the right) to grow up.

      • stevegrand says:

        Yeah, I don’t think we disagree much at all, really.

        I’m just being pedantic to try to get people away from making the kinds of assumption they tend to make without noticing they’re doing it.

        For instance you say you think the egg cell deserves to grow up, but of course it doesn’t grow up – it only lasts a few seconds and then it divides in two. The original cell has gone and now there are two new ones. After a few hours there maybe aren’t even any molecules of the original cell left. It’s so easy for us to IMAGINE that there’s an individual object created at conception that “turns into” a baby, but such mistakes can mislead people.

        > But we all know that our skin cells, liver cells, etc. DON’T grow into complete, new, separate individuals. I think this makes a huge difference.

        Again it’s a fine distinction – a gray area. Cancer is a cell line that becomes something it’s not supposed to. The chances of all the right switches being flipped for a cancer cell to become a whole person are very remote, but it’s completely possible. Some strange things do happen – teeth growing in places other than the mouth, etc. An egg cell becomes a whole human being only because all the switches have been reset so that it begins running the program from the first line, but in principle I think we could do that to any cell. If you follow that analogy, all cells are pretty much identical computers running identical programs, but their program counters may contain different addresses!

        It’s not really clear to me what an individual is. I don’t have the same body I was born with. I don’t even have the same mind I was born with. There’s a continuity between me today and who I was yesterday, but for the most part it’s only because I’ve been handed down the memories of that former “me”. Your car analogy is interesting, because like you say, my car isn’t the same as your car, even if they’re the same model, yet it is still my car – the same car I had yesterday. That’s not true with people. People are spatiotemperal patterns of biochemical reactions, but the chemicals themselves are constantly replaced. In that sense I had the same MODEL of body yesterday as I have today, but it’s not the same body. It’s not even the same shape as it was thirty years ago. In what sense am I really an individual, and not a succession of clones who happen to share the same memories? This is all getting very deep, but the point I wanted to make in my post was that it’s our ASSUMPTIONS that are flawed. An egg cell isn’t a baby that hasn’t become baby-shaped yet.

        > I would certainly not call a fertilised egg a person.

        Good! I didn’t think you did. 🙂 But that’s exactly what the people of Mississippi were being asked to do – regard a single fertilized egg cell as a person in the fullest sense.

  10. Gryphon says:

    Hmm, I see where you’re coming from–except for the fact that your argument seems to be not quite internally consistent, Blogmaster. You seem to be saying “Well, everything is a seamless gradient, so everywhere is equally silly to draw the line from a strictly logical perspective! –Now, let’s draw it here, later on, somewhere I find more emotionally appealing and less socially problematic than the moment of conception, for these happy little reasons I will now suggest.”

    But…that’s not a good argument. Or, well, it doesn’t seem quite sound; I’m no logician (I’m REALLY not, so sorry about the incoherence) but it feels like a bait and switch. You can use the exact same argument about the seamless gradient equally well to discredit personhood at any stage of the baby-making process, and you could use it to support drawing the line equally well anywhere, for anything, including the moment of fertilization; but instead you trot it out to pit against the moment of conception meaning anything, and then you (seamlessly!) leap from the I-am-staring-into-the-infinity-of-the-universe,-and-nothing-is-staring-back,-and-I-find-it-enough profoundly abstracted view to making comfortable, human-scale social and moral arguments about brainwaves and late-term fetuses having more value to everybody, somehow. But those two ways of looking at the problem, and switching between them so facilely, doesn’t really seem to…mesh properly.

    Because you’re doing the EXACT same thing as the Personhood people, once you’ve glossed over the moment of conception, drawing a line where you think is best, and none of your arguments seem any more intrinsically sound than theirs (working from the assumption that all arguments about feeeeelings are equally nonsensical and unsound, especially when it comes to punishingly cute things like babies)…it’s like, you refute their central point about conception being a landmark moment by talking about seamless gradations and refusing to acknowledge sperm-meets-egg as anything special, and then drop that argument sometime around the second trimester and comfortably resume the same moral debate as them as if you’ve made it to some kind of intellectual high ground. Like…I don’t know, I just don’t think it’s fair to so selectively apply the seamless-gradiation argument when it’s convenient for you to discredit points made on an emotional or moral basis, and then turn right back around and return to making the same sort of moral and emotional points about later-stage fetuses! Like, what, no. Once you’ve decided it’s all a gradient you don’t GET to draw a line in the sand any more, anywhere, no matter how much you think it all points to putting one “well, at least here.”

    Of course, strict “everything is a gradation” isn’t perfect either, even if it is alluring, because I’m not sure how one reconciles problems like “Well then if I kill this infant, isn’t that a ton less heinous than killing that fully-realized mature human being over there?” while staying strictly internally consistent or making up a bunch of epicycles. Uh. I’m not good at this.

    I’m not making my point well. Personally, not that it matters, I think the moment of conception is indeed the point at which a human being has occurred, I just don’t see that human life as having accrued any particular value yet. I mean…who cares about a blastocyst? Seriously. The worth of a fetus or a baby or even an adult is a question, to me, of sunk costs. How much energy, both emotional and strictly physical, has a woman put into an accidental blastocyst, versus a three-month fetus, versus an eight-month fetus, versus her two-year-old? And, taking into account risks present at each stage, how sound a business venture is it, exactly, that she’s investing in at each point in development, to adjust her expectations to reality? The gradation argument, which I admit to finding truthy and likeable so long as you acknowledge a fertilized egg as being intrinsically more important than an unfertilized one, because I’m…still not really certain how you can’t, since it was 100% doomed before that discrete point and now has hope of turning into its very own ape–what was I talking about, oh. Right, the gradation argument does not support drawing of a line anywhere, brainwaves or scruples or the need for specific legislation or no.

    Not that it has any bearing on any kind of rational discourse at all, I believe that as the incipient being grows and develops, becoming more and more of a sure thing every moment, it gradually accrues more and more worth to the people around it, due to their own investments of physical and emotional energy. A fertilized egg is no less a person for being a chancy work in progress, there is no USE in toiling endlessly over what point it gets full legal rights; there isn’t any one moment. It’s a gradual accretion of…value. Thingy. It starts at conception; there’s a human there, at the union of egg and sperm, that wasn’t there before no matter how you slice it; it’s just not a very LIKELY human yet. Over the course of its development, as it consumes more and more energy and becomes a surer and surer bet, it gradually acquires status…not sure how to phrase it. Not sure how the legal system could gracefully reflect this model, either, with feeeeeelings involved and all.

    …But, I mean, rather than trying to make a good or moral or even scientifically-based kind of law about this sort of thing, shouldn’t we be trying to craft legislation that ends up benefiting society–mothers, fathers, children, and fetuses too–the most? Like, whatever kind of law is eventually passed, it should be passed on its ability to change the status quo for the “better,” whatever that means.

    Are the parties concerned best served by considering the moment of conception the point at which someone acquires full legal rights? Or would it be better to push the date back a week or so? A month? Six months? The moment it can survive outside the mother? The moment it pops out (what if it pops out too soon to survive on its own?) Or a gradual development of limited, specific rights over the course of human development, from the moment of conception? It doesn’t matter WHY the line is drawn wherever, it doesn’t matter how sound the reasoning is, only the effects matter: will such a law would make the world a better place, or not?

    Are we trying to make a world where nobody’s aborted, ever? A world where people’re aborted left and right, and only cherished and wanted children are kept (and those kids whose mothers were too lazy to bus down to the clinic, I guess)? Something in the middle, where abortions are only given for compassionate or medical reasons fitting certain ticky-boxes (enjoy fighting ENDLESSLY incremented moral battles instead of just the one big one!)? Are we trying to tie it all back to women’s rights, or reduce crime rates, or save the healthcare system money by removing babies from the picture that would otherwise suck up hospital resources?

    For all practical purposes, the point is not the personhood issue, it’s a utilitarian one. The first one is a question of philosophy, the second is a question of public policy. You cannot base public policy on philosophical issues! (Well, I mean, I don’t think you should, you obviously could if you wanted to.) It’s like the separation of church and state–laws are utilitarian things, and therefore the issues being legislated, no matter what they are, really need to be considered in a utilitarian context, with overarching moral motivation obviously but not an immediate moral agenda. Prohibition is what happens when you uncompromisingly legislate morality. Thinking about abortion in a strictly moral context–whether from the pro- or anti- standpoints–does not have a rosy future, I think.

    This comment is too long. Whatever!
    I really like your blog posts, anyway, they are very thought-provoking, especially how I find I can’t support my beliefs about conception being important except by staring blankly at you and repeating Well isn’t it OBVIOUS, it just IS. Oops! Time to think about that one some more.

    • stevegrand says:

      Wow! Well you’ve definitely given me something to get my teeth into there! 🙂 It almost deserves a post of its own.

      I don’t think I’m trying to make an argument for ANY particular policy, only claiming that forming policy on the basis of conception being a magical moment is biologically and philosophically unsupportable. I do accept that I have my own biases along the continuum I’ve painted – I think it is probably inherently wrong to kill a newborn child just because you have second thoughts, and I think it’s probably quite legitimate to take the morning after pill just because you made a mistake and don’t really feel like becoming pregnant. These are definitely biases – I can’t actually justify either of those feelings and I have some nagging issues with both of them (oddly, the issue I have the most doubts about is whether it’s intrinsically wrong to kill a baby!).

      But the point I wanted to make is that we need a *reason* for our choice, *if* we are going to draw a line. I can see no legitimate reason to draw that line at conception and I can see some logical tangles with doing so. Right now I don’t think the debate is anything like grown up enough. Nobody has given me a reason why conception should be a legitimate break point for philosophical OR utilitarian reasons. Like you say, “it just IS”. We really ought to be able to do better than stamp our foot and pout about these things, don’t you think?

      I *think* (with my best pouty expression on my face) that it *might* be wise to draw multiple lines, on the extremely utilitarian principle of cost and benefit. If we decide that the cost of a life is too high to accept at one end and the loss of a single microscopic bag of chemicals is too trivial to worry about at the other end, then we should take into account the inverse continuum of benefit, which ranges from inconvenience at one end to serious risk to a mother’s life at the other. It seems a good utilitarian principle to permit small losses for large gains and deny large losses for small gains. Between those poles there are many different combinations of profit and loss and perhaps they can usefully be weighed against each other (as Roe v. Wade sort of tried to do).

      But even my own opinion is just a gut feeling, I admit, and I think we ought to do better than that. As you say, laws need to be pragmatic, but even so, philosophy really counts when the impact is so serious as to involve death, injury and loss of freedom on both sides. Surely there’s a way to get at the *heart* of the problem instead of just drawing a line based on an unfounded consensus?

      If it looks like I’m trying to remove the “Mississippi Line” and replace it with the “Grand Line” then I’ve misrepresented myself. I don’t really have a clue how to deal with the problem; I only know that it’s a problem that deserves much deep thought and clarity. On the one side it’s unquestionably true that bans on abortion (or even “persuasion”) can seriously hurt or distress real people who have to live with the consequences for a very long time. On the other end, from the baby’s perspective, we really don’t seem to know what we’re talking about, but babies definitely *can* go on to become adults with their own opinions on whether they should have been allowed to live, and aborting a fetus irrevocably removes them from the picture, so it seems like rights and responsibilities and life-and-death matters apply from the unborn child’s end too. It’s not like these are simply pragmatic issues – they have an ethical and moral dimension.

      My aim in posting about this was really just to stir things up, because I don’t see any real evidence that people are thinking very deeply about this. How dare we not think deeply about things whose consequences are pain and distress and loss of liberty? Glibness isn’t really forgivable.

      You’re arguing from a utilitarian standpoint and I’m glad of that because I’m very much a Benthamite utilitarian myself (with some extensions – Bentham was a bit short-termist, I feel). To me, “a better world” means a world in which the most people are the most happy and the least distressed for the longest time. But in order to aim for such a world (and aim for it is all we can do – laws are just a convenience to try to make sure other people are aiming for it too) we surely have to decide what it REALLY means to be a person? If we just make something up or go on gut assumptions, we might be maximizing the happiness of something that can’t even be happy, or failing to maximize the distress of one person on behalf of something that isn’t actually a person. It doesn’t seem like a pragmatic question to me. “Sorry, you have to carry the child of your attacker because we’ve decided to draw the line here” doesn’t seem like a responsible argument. We shouldn’t just draw a line because it’s convenient but because it’s right, where “right” has a well-thought-through definition. Or we should find a way not to draw lines at all. I can’t help feeling that conception is just a nice easy place to draw a line to save people the heartache of actually thinking about it.

      Anyway, discussion is what I wanted and discussion is what I’m getting, so I’m delighted! And so far it’s been excellent discussion with no trolls. You asked a lot of questions, to which I have no answers!!! I’m sorry if I made it sound like my reasoning was slippery, though – I’m not trying to push an agenda, just disrupt a few! 🙂

      • Gryphon says:

        Hah, sorry, I got carried away I think anyway; if I’d only read what you actually said a few more times, I might have made a more moderate post. I don’t actually disagree with you, I just thought I did, etc.

        You raise a very interesting point about offing babies. Right now we’re having lots of problems with abortion and fetus rights and stuff, but if you look at the legal status of children and babies once they’ve popped out, they kind of already have going on what I and you (seem) to be suggesting–a fairly well-thought-out incremented accrual of personal rights over a period of many years and developmental milestones. An infant is not allowed to make decisions about its future, nor is a two-year-old, however vocal; up to around possibly the early teens, there’s not really even a pretense of children having intrinsic rights, the question is always the rights of the parents and caretakers, legally speaking. Well, beyond a kind of general social guarantee of basic welfare (i.e. the right not to be abused or neglected or killed, in this case). Because the adults make the rules and vote themselves the bonuses, haha.

        It’s a tough question! And it would be nice if, like you say, everybody did at least fifteen minutes of soul-searching and looking stuff up before pouncing on their favorite conclusion.

  11. This is a very interesting debate, and a very thoughtful one as well. I can throw a few ideas out there for now.

    First off, I’ve personally felt that a fetus begins reaching a state of “personhood” around the third trimester since they begin developing a working brain at that point. Now this is debatable, but that has always seemed like the logical line since having a brain is when thoughts and feelings can really begin. Now I’ve always felt like exceptions should be made for legitimate medical reasons when it comes to third trimester abortions. But this just raises the question of what qualifies as a “legitimate medical reason.”

    This issue always seemed like something that medical research scientists should look into. Can we definitively know when a fetus is capable of thought and emotion? But even that raises questions about the ethics of fetal research and creates another debate. And this doesn’t even tap into the psychological and sociological aspects of the abortion debate.

    But these are just a few thoughts on the issue. I’ll have to organize my thoughts for later and get back to this debate.

    • stevegrand says:

      Emotion seems to be a critical factor, as you say. Unless you can FEEL pain or fear or some other kind of distress then it’s pretty much irrelevant what happens to you. To make it more complicated there seems to be FEELING and FEEEEEELING. A sea slug feels pain in the sense that it has a specific sensation of imminent harm and this drives it to action, but it seems likely that it can’t feeeeel pain, whatever that means. Feeeeling pain seems like it might require secondary emotions, like fear and terror and sadness – emotions that relate to the future rather than the present. There have been a few rare individuals who claim to “know” they are in pain but it simply doesn’t distress them. They presumably mind being in pain in the sense of knowing it will cause them inconvenient damage, but they don’t actually HURT, so they’re unlikely to be terrified or any of the other things that actually count as distress. It’s a really tricky subject, but I think it’s worth thinking about what a system has to have in order to feeeeeeel pain. Not that anyone has got very far with that yet…

      • Some quick thoughts. . .Don’t want to get off the subject here. Lol. But since my current research (film making) is geared towards the possibilities of consciousness within bio/ technological life forms. . . I can’t help but wonder in the future (maybe sooner than we think) can you or will you be able to kill a syntactic life form and at what point would it be judged as a alive? If it is half alive already (bio/synthetic) then what does that mean? Where is the point we say it’s alive. Does it have to be conscious. What the hell is consciousness? I mean really? “I think therefore I am” ? In Shintoism the artificial is considered alive and divine. This may explain in part why the Japanese are so far ahead with humanoid robotics.

        Steve do you remember when your Norms would die? The sound they would make? After all these years that sound still haunts the hell out of me. When my Elizabeth (she is 18 now) was playing Creatures one day, I seen that she was crying and I asked her why she was so sad. She said: “Daddy, my Norm just died. Why did he have to die? It was a very moving experience that caused a great deal of thinking to take place in my mind.

        David Hartley

      • stevegrand says:

        I hate sounding like a sadist, but I’m kinda glad I made Elizabeth cry! If it made either of you wonder about these things then my work is done!

        Those are excellent questions, which I fully expect to spend the rest of my life failing to answer! 🙂

        I think life is what you make it, in a way. There’s no such thing “out there in the world”. It’s just a useful label under which to collect certain kinds of object, but where we choose to draw the line depends on circumstances. I think it might help if we defined subcategories of life. Things that metabolize are strikingly different from things that don’t, and at least most of the things we generally agree to call alive have this property. Things that reproduce make up another set that almost exactly maps onto the metabolizing one. Things that adapt and learn in order to maintain their integrity from the threat of change are a smaller subset, and one that’s divided up still further according to their ability to predict the future, I’d say. Things that are conscious seem to make up several nested subsets of that one. We can include all of the above things in the category “alive”, but there are inevitably going to be awkward things that don’t fit very well, like viruses. It has to be a fuzzy line and it’s a pointless exercise trying to say whether something “is” or “isn’t” alive – things are just things.

        Whether software ought to be counted as alive is a more difficult and really profound question. I think under the right circumstances it should be, and under those same circumstances a piece of software and its data are literally a “thing” with the same degree of reality as a so-called physical object. But I had to write a whole book to even begin to discuss that!

        Then when it comes to consciousness I agree with you – I mean, really! What the hell is it? I think there are several kinds, and each requires different equipment. The mere fact that we lose consciousness if we’re injured in the right specific places confirms that. Again it’s an umbrella term that really needs breaking down into smaller categories, I think, otherwise regarding a tree as conscious (as some do) gets really problematic, because trees clearly don’t have the equipment to be conscious in the SAME way as you and I.

        You may well be right about Japanese robotics, but if so then I think it’s a bit sad, because they’re not really ahead – they’re just ahead at making things that LOOK like they’re living, thinking things. In fact the Japanese (and many of my colleagues on other continents too) don’t seem to differentiate between something that vaguely behaves as if it is alive, and something that actually deserves to be called alive. Perhaps the Shinto backdrop has something to do with that. This is kind of important, because you can only go so far with impersonating something. An actor playing the part of Napoleon is not Napoleon and never can be. The Japanese have some unique practical motivations for continuing this charade and focusing on verisimilitude over function, so I don’t blame them, but philosophically speaking they’re not nearly as ahead as it looks.

        All these are excellent topics for future blog posts and will doubtless become them! I’m glad you’re working on this from a film-making perspective – it’s a hard subject that’s not easy for people to get to grips with in any satisfying way and it’s going to take the full weight of both art and science to make sense of it!

      • Nice. Steve.

        You have given something important to think about. . .subcategories of life. Alive certainly seems to have far different properties than being conscious at least in terms of “higher” life vs “lower” life forms.

        The Hopi indigenous people have a beautiful and complex ideology that gears itself towards what they consider the properties of consciousness (tuuwaqatsi) present in all life forms. This is best observed in the manifestations of their various kachina cults. . . The kachina itself representing each conscious life form known and unknown. . the kachina can being anything from a basic tree to something far more complex like a fox or raven

        The mere fact that a plant can turns itself towards the sun says something about the complex nature of being alive. But as you say deeming a plant as actual being “conscious” is another far more complex issue. The whole process of organic evolution is fairly mind boggling and now with the biological and technological issues even more so. I am hopeful that minds such as your will take us to the next step of what maybe become a new life form.

        I have often thought about the weird state of viruses. . .the dynamic of their “survival” strategies. What a strange thing they are indeed. And now the prospects of engineering such a entity with artificial means who knows the direction life and “consciousness” will take.

        Your right. It had a good purpose. Elizabeth has never stopped thinking about A.I but those early days of Creatures were undoubtedly her root. Sam will be seven and he seems a bit darker than his sister catering to the Grendles. . .making them his friends and seeing if he can get them to talk and out smart the Norms. Ha! It’s a shame that this “game” and it’s possibilities has slowed down to a crawl. It meant so much to so many people. . . I guess it still does to some degree. In my thinking it was and is as much educational tool as entertaining game perhaps more so.

        Insightful about the Japanese humanoid robots. . .I agree they have a huge step to make in terms of A.I and making it actual alive. And why does it even have to look like a human? Lol. Well I confess the humanoid aspect makes it a bit more comfortable for me.

        Grateful,

        David

  12. Andrew Lovelock says:

    Perhaps there should be a total ban on conception until there is a really good answer to a really good question concerning conception, any thresholds or degrees of person-hood and all of the associated moral, legal and practical implications.

    Furthermore, bringing someone into life is a more significant act than killing them (I am not suggesting that conception itself immediately creates a person but it is a sine qua non). While it is fine for an animal to follow a biological imperative to procreate. We on the other hand have knowledge of what we do, so perhaps it is then ethically questionable to be party to the conception of a new individual without their express prior consent.

    Interestingly, the Human Rights Act seems to dodge the whole issue as article 1 states “All human beings are born free and equal ….They are endowed with reason and conscience …”

    The degree to which we can reason does seem to always be there as the reason why we see ourselves as special and deserving of rights. E.g. if someone can no longer reason it is ok to switch off the life support. One could say that if a foetus has never yet reasoned to anything like our special degree then it has not become human. (I fancy the notion of the post conception emergence of the individual intelligence i.e. the individual is not there to start with and there may be many layers of emergence before a human intelligence emerges). The key issue for me however is that before we worry too much about a foetus’s right to life, shouldn’t it reach a stage of intellectual developmental that is at least ahead of other intelligences (animal or artificial) that we can legally kill or experiment on. Otherwise we are just being speciesist and we lose the moral high ground.

    • stevegrand says:

      > bringing someone into life is a more significant act than killing them

      That’s a very good point! I hadn’t thought about it that way. That would certainly give conception some special meaning, in the sense that it’s somewhat optional. Getting prior consent might be a bit tricky, I can see that. But this perspective at least makes a clear distinction between consensual sex and rape, which is something the hard-liners refuse to compromise on.

      I very much agree with what you say about the hypocrisy that results if “unreasoning” babies get to have a higher status than, say, an adult chimpanzee or even a walking hamburger. I’d hesitate to pick reasoning as quite the right term, but at the very least, to have one’s hopes dashed by being bumped off is only really meaningful if one had hopes in the first place. Actually being killed doesn’t seem to be all that distressing – if I die in a massive car accident I probably won’t even know it. That sort of pain seems only to be distressing in retrospect, and of course there’s no retrospect to be had (or if by some improbable chance there is, I doubt I’d be obsessed with reliving the past). Being in fear of dying is bad. Being hopeful of the future and suffering a cost for a later reward, only to have that reward taken away from you, is bad. Knowing the awful truth about what’s happening to you is bad. But to say that a fish-like foetus KNOWS that it is being killed or has any trepidation about it seems silly. This seems to be the clear issue, and yet I’m not at all sure we’re going to like the implications.

      When it comes down to it, circumcising a baby probably creates far more distress than euthanizing it, and yet many people are willing to do that on a whim. A baby’s hopes and dreams lie with its parents and we only project them onto the baby. Babies have a delightful time discovering their toes and I’d hate to deprive one of that prospect, but it’s not obvious that it’s actually cruel or wrong from the baby’s perspective, who has no idea what pleasures would otherwise await. Therein lies a slippery slope that we wouldn’t want to go too far down, but I think you’re absolutely right that the various levels of self-awareness are the critical factor, not aliveness.

  13. Well put Steve. I also love this line. . .”Clearly an unfertilized egg is not a person, which is quite a relief, given that every woman of child-bearing age would thus be guilty of murder once a month.”

  14. Colin Wright says:

    To quote the devils dictionary; “I think therefore, I think that I am…”, put another way if I cut of my hand and kept it alive with an articial blood supply, which part would you say was me? Which part has the “soul” if you a dualist. In theory if not yet in fact you could clone a duplicate of my entire body from that hand but while it might think it was someone it wouldn’t have my memories so wouldn’t think it was me.

    Also since all the matter that makes up my body is entirley replaced over an eight year cycle what am I the matter or the pattern it’s arranged in. It may seem simple to say the pattern but obviously that also changes over time, with aging, growth, virus infections, random gene mutations. Self is an illusion we could easily think of all life as a direct continuation of the first living cells and so could say there is only one living thing on earth.

    • stevegrand says:

      The eight year thing is a bit of a myth – we recycle our matter with an exponential decay rate, so different aspects have different half-lives and it doesn’t really make sense to speak of a replacement period. But that aside I completely agree that we’re the pattern, not the stuff, as I tried to point out in my first book. Splitting up the “soul” is even more problematic if you think about split-brain patients, who to some extent end up with two personalities and somewhat divided memories! It’s pretty clear that consciousness is the key issue, though, not life, just as you say. Of course it’s not at all clear what consciousness is, who or what has it, how it varies from creature to creature or moment to moment – we really ought to be trying harder to get to grips with these questions. But it does seem to me that we only have a strong moral duty towards conscious beings, not merely living ones (I say strong because it’s a bit unclear what we should do with people in comas, etc.), and it would be ludicrous to think that an egg cell is conscious and self-aware.

      • Colin Wright says:

        Yes I know it isn’t entirely as simple as the eight year cycle, but it’s a good if not entirely accurate way to illustrate that the actual matter you are comprised of is not really important. I also agree living and conscious is not the same thing, it appears consciousness has evolved from life so clearly some life is not conscious. I would agree that all higher animals Mammals and birds show a degree of consciousness I would agree for me that the ability to predict and plan is a key indicator of awareness and it probably is a matter of degrees of consciousness rather than a binary yes/no thing.

        I actually think the development of a sense of self is a key indicator of full consciousness and believe the emergency of self in an individual probably corresponds to their first “conscious memories” since these could be taken as a sign of an integrated awareness. I believe babies are born aware but don’t come into full sense of self for sometime as it is comprised of layers of memory of early events that need to integrate to form a sense of self which is needed for the sense of other conscious memories require. This is not an argument that babies don’t relate to the world with awareness before this time rather that they are aware once they have a reasonably developed CNS but not conscious as in self-aware until they have a developed enough sense of self to start having conscious memories of others. In fact I’d say a humans self-consciousness comes about through the integration of their preconscious memory and experience. I also believe they should be legally protected at the point they have a well enough developed CNS to start laying down memories, rather than at the point they are fully self-aware although the point at which the CNS is well developed enough for recording memories (awareness) is also scientifically debatable.

  15. Andrew Lovelock says:

    > it does seem to me that we only have a strong moral duty towards conscious beings, not merely living ones
    I agree, there is a fairly universally agreed particular moral duty not to do certain nasty things to people e.g. murder. Leaving aside the pragmatic use of such an idea to make societies stable, we like to feel that such ideas have a noble, higher value. On analysis, a lot of such value seems to stem from the fact that what makes us people ‘special’ is that we feel we are what we call conscious.

    If we are to be properly ‘moral’ then, such a duty should also apply to any conscious being. There should be a conscious beings rights act. Our definition of murder would need to be adjusted accordingly. We already have this concept for torture, it is illegal in many countries to cause animals to suffer.

    Such a duty would also naturally extend to any artificial beings, as both the creation and destruction of a new consciousness are significant moral acts. The creator would then have a duty of care for such a being.

    As you say though we are not clear at all about what it is we are talking about. You mentioned that an egg is obviously not self aware and some people seem to think a baby is not self-aware until quite a time after birth. But are any particular aspects such as self-awareness pre-requisites or are they just manifest in our particular evolutionary type of consciousness. Could you evolve consciousnesses in an environment where self-awareness was fatal, but the awareness of how others beings thought was crucial for survival?

    • stevegrand says:

      > Could you evolve consciousnesses in an environment where self-awareness was fatal, but the awareness of how others beings thought was crucial for survival?

      Crumbs! That’s a challenge! 🙂 We primates appear to need the “mirror neuron” system to help us translate from someone else’s perspective into our own. Without the awareness of self we’d have no capacity to understand others, because we do it by putting ourselves into their shoes (or more accurately by putting them into ours). But whether that’s the only way to do it I don’t know. Obviously we could learn to recognize how someone else feels by mere conditioning (if they frown we should wonder what we’re doing to upset them), but we couldn’t ground that understanding in anything unless we knew what it MEANS to feel those things ourselves.

      Which does seem to me to suggest that self-awareness is necessary for other-awareness. But it’s pretty dismally clear the two don’t always go hand in hand. Levels of empathy seem to vary hugely across the human race and some people are acutely aware of themselves but have virtually no capacity to feel the emotions of others at all. I just made a new friend who works on mirror neurons and over coffee we were talking about what it means to be painfully over-empathic (as I find myself to be). His assumption was that I feel a need to make other people happy because that takes away my own pain, but I’m not sure I buy that. Trying to make people happy is what GIVES me the damn pain! But it’s fairly clear that empathy and sympathy are innate, largely unconscious drives that vary from person to person (presumably society needs a few psychopaths and narcissists in its midst as well as a few touchy-feely hippie types!). From the comments on this post I draw the conclusion that how we feel about other people’s feelings is the primary motivating factor in this abortion debate. It can come out in different ways – we can feel sorry for an egg cell because we over-anthropomorphize it, or we can find ourselves not giving a shit about women’s rights because we can’t somehow empathize with them, etc. Logic doesn’t seem to have much to do with it.

      But it should. We need to figure this stuff out. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to be hurt. An egg cell has none of those opinions – it simply can’t have. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” strikes me as the primary logical basis for morality (regardless of who promoted the idea), but we have to figure out who we mean by “others”. Do unto my car as I would wish it to do to me? It can’t choose to do anything unto me, so it seems like a moot point. But can a lion choose not to have me for lunch? And is that actually a meaningful distinction? It seems entirely possible that a lion doesn’t want to die or be hurt either. The maxim says I should do unto the lion what I would like the lion to do unto me, not do unto it what it WANTS to do to me – that’s just tit-for-tat, an eye for an eye. So since I don’t want to be eaten, I shouldn’t eat lions, no matter what it thinks about the subject. But for the maxim to apply to humans and not to cars, we’re back to having to draw a line somewhere in the sand. Where and why? Which side do lions fall?

      It seems to me that hopes have something to do with it. If I were to be killed now, it might hurt for a bit but I’d pretty soon forget it! But my hopes would be dashed. My expectations would be ruined. The pain I’ve put myself through in order to reap a later reward (or avoid later pain) will have been for naught. If I’m not even capable of knowing that I’m alive, that I might die prematurely, that this guy with a gun is likely to precipitate that, that it’s not going to be very nice and that I wish he wouldn’t pull the trigger, then it’s no skin off my nose. If stuff just happens to me then that’s just another of those things. So it seems to me that the capacity to see into the future, to hope and dream and want and especially to fear, are prerequisites for being seriously disadvantaged by someone taking away my liberty. Egg cells sure as hell can’t do that – it requires certain brain structures. Can rats? Can bats (which are neurologically more primitive)? Can birds? We ought to be able to attempt to answer those questions.

      • Gryphon says:

        Oooh, I like your conception of the worth of a human being as extending to encompass what they’ve got pending for the future. That’s a neat way of encapsulating the tragedy of a planning being’s death beyond the termination of its immediate emotional experience.

  16. Gryphon says:

    I was too late to make it into the Grandroids secret club (Sigh! Still no money), but I remember a while ago you grappling with the problem of machine vision and identification of in-game objects. I don’t want to nose around where I’m not allowed, but did you end up incorporating chemical gradients (smells) into object recognition? Or did I dream it?

    (I still dream about there being fabulous mods and upgrades to your games with depressing regularity. Sometimes I even remember the URLs when I wake up. So it really could have been a dream.)

    • stevegrand says:

      You dreamt it! 😉 There will be smells, though, definitely. I just haven’t gotten round to it yet. If you have other such premonitions about what I’m going to do, let me know! I’d quite like some dream insights into how best to handle consolidation of episodic yin memories into semantic ones, if you have an especially premonitive sleep!

  17. Nev says:

    Ugh. If this goes the wrong way, my pity goes out to all the girls in these backwards places who, like me, don’t want to have children (especially those whose parents think they can choose for them). I can’t bear the thought of all the terrible things that do or can happen to a woman’s body during pregnancy or birth. Vat babies all the way!

  18. justin says:

    On the basis of feeling that they are living in line with their values.

  19. Sam says:

    You’re the coolest scientific in the world.

  20. Darian Smith says:

    2 cents,

    I’m glad you mentioned the fact that NATURALLY plenty of fertilized eggs are destroyed in attempts at natural reproduction(sexual en devours). And if someone takes the stand that such are legally persons, then the full power of the law must be brought to bear and reproduction must be regulated using contraception or reversible sterilization for all sexual acts… and an artificial method of high success implantation developed to guarantee fertilized eggs have a good chance at developing.

    Ridiculous I know.

    If we continue further down that line, than chromosomal and genetic status of eggs and sperms should be evaluated, as nature does take the stand of doing spontaneous natural abortions when faced with defective constructs.

    In fact the cells from which sperm and egg are generated would likely have to be sequenced for this, to ensure nothing fatal lies in the genetic instructions.

    All this can only reduce the probability of failure down to acceptable levels as it cannot be entirely eliminated.

    We would also have to take into account the mechanisms behind spontaneous abortions, and how the mother’s body behaves as it ages. If high percent of spontaneous abortions are bound to occur even with healthy fertilized eggs, the law may have to intervene and sterilize(under the ridiculous assumption).

    There’s also the reality that implantation is not only a process that can fail sometimes, but if the mother has some serious defect in the proteins involved in implantation, it may fail 100% of the time irregardless of viability of the egg.

    There’s also the reality that the genetic instructions of the embryo may’ve mutation(s) causing nonviability*(say anencephaly), while rare such mutations can also spontaneously occur with the cellular divisions of the fertilized egg, such that while initially viable the egg becomes non-viable.

  21. Taelor says:

    Steve Grand you are a hero to rational thinkers everywhere.

  22. Dear Taelor,

    Could you explain why rational thinkers would need a hero? What is rational about needing heroes or villains?

    • stevegrand says:

      Oh phooey! Being rational doesn’t mean we all have to turn into Mr. Spock. There’s room for a little poetry in the souls of even the most rational, otherwise we’re just heartless automata. A truly rational person understands that humans are animals with emotional needs and sensibilities. The compliment was well meant and very much appreciated, and it’s little kindnesses like this that make the world go round!

  23. Dear Steve,

    Nice answer 🙂

    All tribes like to play Heroes & Villains, and it is indeed all part of the fun of being human. After all, we all need to belong somewhere, don’t we?

    However, it can get seriously out of hand. Just look at the French Revolution. Cliques of lawyers set about murdering each other, then murdering people such as the scientist Lavoisier (who made a living as a tax collector). The French managed to go from an absolutist monarchy to an absolutist emperor in a decade, supposedly in the cause of Rationality.

    • stevegrand says:

      I know what you’re getting at. Tribalism is one of those things we could do without, and mythical heroes have often been more trouble than they’re worth. But on the other hand, a little support and encouragment goes a long way at the moment, when I’m struggling to get to grips with the inner workings of the brain on a shoestring budget. So although I’m the least heroic person I know, it is really heartwarming to be complimented now and again! 🙂

      Perhaps Robespierre just needed a little human kindness too… 😉

  24. Dear Steve,

    Keep up the good work – we are with you all the way!

  25. Mel says:

    What is the world coming to?? I agree with every single thing you said! At least I know there’s still sensible people out there. But argh, why do such idiots be given the power to govern others??

  26. Aislinn Case says:

    My thoughts exactly!

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