William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 394 of 693

Why There’s No Point To Arguing About Abortion

I lifted that title, word for word, from (atheist, self-admitted man-of-the-left, City College emeritus Professor of Sociology) Steven Goldberg’s article of the same name from his must-read Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences” (chapter 11). From his opening:

What neither the pro-choice nor pro-life advocates wish to face is the fact that the abortion question is inherently and eternally unanswerable, though it can be settled by force, or its modern equivalent, democratic vote.

The abortion question is unanswerable because the question of whether the fetus is or isn’t a person is a matter of the definition of “person.” There is no avoiding this or the fact that this definition determines all that follows.

Goldberg’s implicit argument is this: murder is the unlawful premeditated killing of a human being by another human being. If the fetus is a human being, then killing it is murder. If the fetus is not a human being then killing it is not murder. The only possibility Goldberg missed is the distinction that at some point during a pregnancy, but before birth, the fetus switches (by some unnamed mechanism) from non-human to human.

Goldberg, incidentally, defines a fetus as non-human.

Well, this is the entire argument if you accept the premise that to kill an innocent human being is murder. This premise cannot be modified to say that the killing of a fetus is a lesser kind of homicide, say manslaughter, because to choose to have an abortion is to premeditate (a state which the mother and probably the person performing the abortion share).

The unsolvability of the abortion question is inherent in the fact that (at least on macroatomic level) nature is continuous and words, like all categories, are discrete. Nature does not refrain from making a euglina because we do not know whether to call it a “plant” or an “animal,” or a virus because we will not know whether to call it “living” or “nonliving.”

Let’s not take up the argument about viruses, and instead focus on the question of real importance: is a fetus a human being, or is it not a human being but becomes one at some point before birth? We will not argue that the fetus at any time after birth is less than human, as it appears academic philosopher Pete Singer says.

We are asking here very narrow questions. The reason for asking is this article on HotAir, “The Left’s outrageous outrage at a proposal to require ultrasounds before abortion.” Virginia will require that women, before undergoing an abortion, must first have an ultrasound. A reporter in that state covering this law called this mandated ultrasound “rape.” Let’s not take up her claim. We can, however, talk about the use and ulterior purpose of the ultrasound.

Now in attempting to rebut the argument that a fetus is a human being, some have argued that the fetus is just a “mass of tissue” inside a woman, no different than, say, a cancer that can and should be excised. The point of this argument is to show that removing unwanted tissue is not murder. This is true, but it is beside the point. To say a cancer is not a human being, but only an unwanted growth, does not prove (how could it?) that a fetus is not a human being, individual and separate from its mother. All the argument does is to restate what we all already believed: that some bodily tissue is not an independent, separate human being.

Similarly, others have argued that a skin scraping can, at least in theory, be cultivated into a clone, at which point the clone will be recognized as an individual, separate human being. Thus, as Sam Harris “jokes” to scratch your nose is to commit mass murder. For Harris, but to nobody else, skin scrapings are human beings. But whether skin scrapings are human beings or not, this knowledge does not answer whether the fetus is or isn’t a human being.

Still another argument is to say that a fetus becomes human at that point where it can, by mechanical means, be removed from its mother and kept alive through some technological apparatus, if not kept alive on its own accord. This is an intelligible definition of human being, but it is a highly contingent one. Presumably, if medical technology continues to improve at the same pace, the fetus will become “viable”, which is to say a human being, from the moment of conception. The “test tube”, as happens even now, not only starts as the womb but it would remain so.

This definition also appears location and time dependent. Mothers living in, say, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan will not have access to the same technological facilities as mothers living in, for instance, New York City. So we have to decide if “viability” applies to extant in any place technology, or local technology. What’s local? What happens if the “machine” which extracts and coddles the fetus/now human being breaks, or there is a line such that the wait to use the equipment is too long? And on and on. Viability, then, if it doesn’t almost immediately imply that a fetus becomes a human-being at conception, becomes a morass.

But then “becomes a human being at some point before birth” is not that different than viability. Famously, some (but not all, and the number and names of who did so argue are irrelevant) have argued that “the quickening”, the point at which the mother first feels movement is that moment when the fetus “switches” to human being. This allows a pregnant woman to fib, if she likes, for who will know if she is lying? And then we have heard of those odd cases of women, typically morbidly fat, who give birth who did not even know they were pregnant. This is important because, for example, if somebody were to kill a woman’s fetus (perhaps in a mugging), we need to know whether that fetus was a human being or still just a mass of tissue.

The other solution is to just dictate: After N weeks comes the Switch, at which point the fetus becomes, by vote, a human being. There is still some fuzziness here, but much less so than for viability or quickening definitions. We still have to decide N. If you like this definition consider, as Goldberg does, that Jews were once classified by vote as being less-than-human. If voting can decide what is right, then it was not wrong to have made this classification. Our current laws are something like this: the N weeks, I mean, but the real question is never tackled.

Now, if you say that after N weeks (or whatever), the fetus does in fact switch to human being, you beg the question how this happens. What essential fact has changed that turned the non-human into a human? Something must have. It cannot be that nothing did. This is a necessary truth. It is a particular chemical measure? A requisite number of brain cells forming? What? To dodge this question is to commit a fallacy and say a fetus is a human being after N weeks because a fetus is a human being after N weeks. You have said nothing. More is needed. I haven’t any idea what this something is, but it has to be a contingent something: a physical and not a metaphysical change.

The metaphysical argument, as typically made, is to say that a fetus becomes a human being at the point of conception. This, even to those who do not agree with it, is at least an intelligible, unambiguous position. Further, there are a number of ways to reach this position, the most well known being to argue from theological principles. But this is not the only way: we could, say, use Aristotle’s argument from final causality. We needn’t go into these here.

The last position is to hold to another contingent event and say the fetus does not become a human being until birth. There are still a number of contingent facts to be decided. Does birth mean a complete exit from the mother, up and until the umbilical cord is cut? Is just, say, one toe out enough to define birth? And so on.

These are not questions which can be evaded because if, say, birth means a complete exit, then at any point during the birthing process, even after the full nine months, even as the woman is wheeled into the OR fully dilated, etc., the woman could say to the physician, “I decided to kill the fetus. I don’t want to be a mother.” And the physician could oblige and not be said to commit murder because, after all, we have decided that a full exit is birth, and that at any point earlier the fetus is not yet a human being.

So if not a full exit, perhaps the definition “anytime before labor begins” is our point of demarcation. That means a woman can have an abortion the full nine months minus one day and it would not be murder. If you don’t like “minus one day” then perhaps you prefer “minus two days” or whatever. As you can see, this is logically no different than the “N weeks” definition. You are still left with answering why the definition should hold.

Enter the ultrasound. It is clear that those who say the fetus is a human being from conception would like women who say it is not to look at the ultrasound and so become convinced that what they see is, in fact, a human being. This makes advocates of fetuses-as-not-human-beings nervous because they fear that some women will be convinced, hence their vehement opposition. But this is all this law means: it is an attempt from one side who hold to a metaphysically argued position (human from conception) to use a contingent fact (picture of a fetus in the shape of a baby, even shortly after infertilization) to change minds.

Regardless whether this works (it appears to), it is still only tangential to the main questions. Indeed, we have only two questions to answer: (1) at what point does a fetus become a human being? (2) Why?

Absolutely no shouting, name calling, nor ungentlemanly or non-ladylike behavior will be allowed in the comments. This subject, above all others, is too apt to degrade into babble the moment the first person slips.

Update I want to save all comments I can, but if we stray (it happens), I will make editorial changes in the comments put in bold and in brackets [like this].

Update I have to leave the computer for a while (6:40 pm Eastern). But my heart soars like a hawk to see so much intelligent discussion. Thanks to everybody for keeping their tempers.

American Atheist Association Modifies Lawsuit Against WTC 9/11 Museum

WTC crossThose of you living in or around New York City might remember that the American Atheists Association was displeased that two iron girders had formed themselves serendipitously into the shape of the cross, and that the vast majority of workers at the WTC site chose to view this cross as a symbol of hope. That cross and the words of the easily irritated AAA are pictured.

The cross was saved by the WTC workers who, along with many members of the New York community, requested that it be included in the WTC 9/11 museum, it’s historical significance being obvious.

Enter Father Brian Jordan (who is a friend of yours truly) who participated in a ceremony where the cross was transfered to the museum. Father Brian’s first words, which are relevant, were, “Give praise to our creator, God the Father, who created Heaven and Earth. God the Father is the Father of Abraham who is fully embraced by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We are sisters and brothers of the same God through shalom, salaam and peace. Bless all their respective members who died here on September 11, 2001.”

He continued in this vein, saying such an extraordinary thing like, “We commit ourselves to educating people to mutual respect and esteem, in order to help bring about a peaceful and fraternal coexistence between people of different ethnic groups, cultures and religions.” (This is from the Decalogue mentioned below.)

Well, this was too much for the AAA who decided to sue Father Brian, the 9/11 Museum, the Port Authority, and, why not?, a church located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan which had nothing to do with the affair. The AAA were incensed that anybody should be allowed on public grounds to issue such horrifying “exclusionary” words. They wanted to be sure that this sort of ugliness would not be countenanced and would not go unpunished.

The obvious fallacy committed (but unrecognized) by the AAA is that to include some religions in a museum is necessarily to exclude all others, including non-religion. This would be like if the Metropolitan Museum of Art hung a picture by Caravaggio and somebody sued claiming that this should not be allowed unless all painters should be represented.

The lawsuit proceeded apace until, quite suddenly in a fit of rare logic, the AAA realized that suing a man for merely speaking his faith would not (yet) yield a successful outcome. The AAA dropped from the suit Father Brian and the random church, but is still continuing against the museum and the Port Authority. Below is Father Brian’s response, issued yesterday.



Father Brian Jordan, OFM

Dear American Atheists Association:

On July 25, 2011, your organization sued me, a Franciscan priest, personally in order to remove the World Trade Center Cross from the National 9/11 Memorial Museum—even though I have no control over the Cross. You also sued the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus—a church on the Upper West Side, which had absolutely nothing to do with the WTC Cross. Your decision to sue me and my church should be a stark warning to every U.S. citizen who believes in the First Amendment.

I have one question for you: Why would you sue a religious minister for performing his or her religious freedom? Your lawsuit against had no basis.

On September 11, 2001, the faith of the rescue workers became inextricably intertwined with the twisted wreckage and history of the World Trade Center. On the days following 9/11, I ministered to firefighters, police officers, sandhogs, EMTs, construction workers,volunteers and impromptu rescuers from all walks and faiths. Out of the wreckage came the WTC Cross—a portion of the steel beams found by construction workers and identified by them as a symbol of hope and faith. The WTC Cross has become a sign of comfort and consolation for many who lost loved ones on that fateful day. The WTC Cross is part of that history and always will be.

On July 23, 2011—two days before you sued me—I blessed the WTC Cross in Zuccotti Park. I did invoke Jesus Christ as my savior, but I also prayed in the name of the one God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I also recognized other faiths including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Shintoism. God help us indeed if a priest can be sued for conducting an interfaith prayer in a public park in the United States of America.

You contend that the First Amendment forbids inclusion in the museum of the WTC Cross—an integral part of history from the 9/11 attacks. However misguided your claim is, you must certainly know that the First Amendment protects my freedom of speech. Although you’ve just recently dropped your suit against me, it was frivolous from the outset. All I have done—according to your own complaint—is publicly bless the WTC Cross.

The First Amendment protects my right to speak in public, just as it does yours. The First Amendment also protects my right to bless any object inside or outside a house of worship. No religious leader—whether a priest, rabbi, imam, or any other minister—should have to fear litigation from your organization simply for the free exercise of one’s ministerial duties.

At the Cross’s blessing, I also distributed the Decalogue of Assisi for Peace—a powerful, interfaith statement by 250 world religious leaders of all different faiths. In January 2002, in response to the 9/11 attacks, Pope John Paul II convened the special summit of religious leaders in Assisi, Italy. These world religious leaders prayed and deliberated over religion and violence in the world. The Vatican published the results of the interfaith dialogue ten years ago, on Feb. 24, 2002, and distributed it to every head of state. The first point of the Decalogue inspires the faithful to reject violence and war:

We commit ourselves to proclaiming our firm conviction that violence and terrorism are incompatible with the authentic spirit of religion, and as we condemn every recourse to violence and war in the name of God or religion, we commit ourselves in doing everything possible to eliminate the root causes of terrorism.

Five months ago, we observed the 10th anniversary of the tragedy of 9/11. With the upcoming 10th anniversary of the Decalogue, I invite all, including your members, to read the Decalogue and consider all the good that God does for us on this blessed Earth. The Decalogue promotes conversation and peacemaking among all people and all faiths.

I sincerely hope that someday we can have a face-to-face dialogue in the spirit of Franciscan peacemaking. The founder of my religious order, St. Francis of Assisi, constantly emphasized peace and harmony among all nations and religions. We Franciscans much prefer reconciliation over litigation any day.

When I blessed the World Trade Center Cross, I was following in St. Francis’s footsteps. I was also exercising my First Amendment right that our Constitution has long protected. I pray that you recognize this before you subject another religious leader to the anguish of unwarranted litigation over conducting a prayer in public.

Yours in Christ,

Father Brian Jordan, OFM

Heartlandgate Versus Climategate

HeartlandThere are some key differences between Climategate 1.0 and 2.0, where emails from scientists and their hangers on were leaked, and Heartlandgate (am I the first to use this appallingly over-used extension?).

First, the Climategate emails were real, all too real. Heartland’s wee cache of documents included one ham-handed, too goofy-for-words, fake. The Atlantic’s Megan McArdle, a self-admitted really big fan of climatology’s star figures and no lover of Heartland, analyzed the “2012 Heartland Climate Strategy” document and concluded that “Basically, it reads like it was written from the secret villain lair in a Batman comic. By an intern.”

She added, “It’s more like [whomever faked the document] sat down at the computer and said, ‘What would I write IF I WERE AS CRAZY AS AGW SKEPTICS?'” She characterized other sections of that work of creative fiction as “sheer lunacy.”

Earlier, I suggested that Heartland should keep mum about prosecuting whomever it was that stole their files since focusing on that subject would take them “off message”, to coin a phrase. But I was wrong. Instead, because of this ludicrous forgery they should trumpet the news and show how desperate environmentalists have become. They are not, and have not been, willing to settle for the truth.

In contrast, the Climategate emails did not reveal any wide-spread, or even any small-spread, conspiracy of scientists to fake results and fool the public and funding agencies. But it did show how easy it is for single-minded scientists to fool themselves. To people like the ever-emotional Ben Santer and Don Kevin Trenberth, confirmation bias is something that happens to the other guy, never them.

The most explosive genuine news—where I use “explosive” in the sense of the noise those human-male-gamete carrier-shaped poppers kids in Chinatown throw at each other—from the Heartland documents is that this feared “anti-science” boogeyman had a budget bordering on the non-existent. Last year, their actual budget for everything, including the lights, breakroom coffee, and secretaries’ salaries was only four-and-a-half million. And not a penny of this came from Big Oil.

This figure is so low it doesn’t even count as round-off error when considering the total budgets of the “other side”—Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, NSF, NIH, NOAA, USDA, and on and on and on and, yes, on some more. This isn’t David versus Goliath, it’s the pimple on David’s neck versus an army of Goliaths.

It should scare bejesus out of people like my pal Gav Schmidt that an organization as poorly funded as Heartland is making such a big noise. That they are so influential in the face of this lop-sided competition, can only be that Heartland’s message is finding a receptive audience.

In fact it does twist is knickers, Gav’s I mean. In Salon, he said:

“I don’t think Heartland is either powerful or particularly well-funded,” he said. “They do channel money to these small number of skeptics who make a living being skeptics. But those people would exist without them. The politicization of this topic has come about because people perceive there are political consequences to this problem. What is surprising is that scientists who are just doing their job get pulled up and investigated just because somebody doesn’t want to agree with their results. And that has been driven to a large part by groups like Heartland.”

That Heartland is not well-funded is now known to all, but if they were not “powerful” then we would not be having this discussion. And who makes their living being skeptics? As I pointed out repeatedly, I for example have never received even cent one for my work showing how people like Gav are too sure of themselves. Skepticism does not pay.

Whereas I’d be willing to bet (it would have to be a gentleman’s wager, since I’m not as wealthy as he) that Gav was remunerated over the past decade to the tune of around a million smackeroos; that’s if you factor in the money given to him for his global-warming research, his lavish trips, dinners, environmental soirees, talks, and so forth.

If you say money influences, then money influences, and since you and your fellow climate activists receive orders-plural of magnitude more money than we skeptics, you must be influenced all the more.

The one big trouble with climatologists is that the most vocal among them (the “little guys” haven’t this failing) have forgotten to ask the one big question scientists should always ask: what if I’m wrong?

Update Dennis Ambler, via Marc Morano, reminds us of this drop in the bucket:

Thursday, November 21, 2002 by the New York Times

Exxon-Led Group Is Giving a Climate Grant to Stanford

by Andrew Revkin

Four big international companies, including the oil giant Exxon Mobil, said yesterday that they would give Stanford University $225 million over 10 years for research on ways to meet growing energy needs without worsening global warming.

And then there’s this pittance:

Auto.com/Bloomberg News
October 26, 2000
Internet: [1]http://www.auto.com/industry/iwirc26_20001026.htm

LONDON — BP Amoco Plc, the world’s No. 3 publicly traded oil company, and Ford Motor Co. said they will give Princeton University $20 million over 10 years to study ways to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. BP said it will give $15 million. Ford, the world’s second-biggest automaker, is donating $5 million. The gift is part of a partnership between the companies aimed at addressing concerns about climate change. Carbon dioxide is the most common of the greenhouse gases believed to contribute to global warming.

London-based BP said it plans to give $85 million in the next decade to universities in the U.S. and U.K. to study environmental and energy issues. In the past two years, the company has pledged $40 million to Cambridge University, $20 million to the University of California at Berkeley and $10 million to the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The old jokes comes to mind: $225 million here, $85 million there and pretty soon, etc.

Morality Can’t Be Decided By Vote

These are all old arguments, but since Mr Obama has put us in the mood over the birth control controversy, it is best to revisit them.

The dominant thinking is that morality should be decided by vote. This follows from the premise that there is no universal moral truth or authority. If there is no universal moral truth, then everybody gets to decide for himself what is moral and what is not. Conflicts will arise between individuals who decide oppositely or differently. Groups of individuals who think similarly must then band together: the group that is the largest is the one that dictates what is moral and what is immoral. It seems group membership will ever be in flux, thus what is moral and immoral will ever change. Morality is therefore not universal.workmakesfree.jpg

This fails immediately for at least two reasons. The first is obvious: in order for everybody to agree that a vote should decide what is moral, since the principle “everybody gets vote” is a moral principle, it is then a universal moral truth, which violates the first premise. If you say that everybody does not have to agree with the principle, then you have decided another universal truth: that morality should be decided by vote even if not all agree that morality should be decided by vote. Since the premise which began the argument thus false, it is not true that moral truth can be decided by a vote.

The second is related. Not everybody can vote so no morality can ever be decided upon. For instance, the very young and those that are senile or otherwise mentally incapacitated will not know how to vote. The principle states that all morality must be put to a vote: since not all can vote, no vote can ever take place. And even if all could, at this moment in time, actually vote, after some small amount of time (seconds) some will have died and others born. This changes the constituency and therefore implies a new vote should be taken every few seconds. If you say that voting should only take place at fixed intervals (say, a year) then this is another moral principle which is universal. Or if you say that representatives will vote for those unable, then this is another new moral principle; further, it is one that is universal, which also violates the first premise. Or you could say that those unable to vote do not get to decide what is best for them. This becomes yet another universal truth, etc. Again, moral truth cannot be decided by a vote.

It also fails because even if we accept that the universal moral principle that voting decided morality doesn’t count as violating the first premise, we have that after a vote has been taken on a particular moral question, the losers do not accept that the question just adopted is, in fact, moral. They may abide by the rules resulting from the moral vote, but that is different. Because a vote just decided that a thing is moral, and because we have decided that votes decide morality, that thing is moral period, so that nobody can change his mind about it. If they change their mind, they are saying that the vote did not in fact decide what was moral. Thus, morality by vote must remain static once every question has been put to the vote. This is so even if, as they certainly will, circumstances change. If a new vote is taken it is admitting the old vote did not decide what was moral.

If instead of a vote “might” is substituted then nothing changes. For instance, instead of a vote deciding what is moral and immoral, the strongest decide what is moral or immoral. Those against the strongest will be defeated by the strength of the strongest: the sword rules. Thus it was not morally wrong that the Nazis killed millions of Jews, Gypsies, and Poles because the Nazis were the strongest. It was not morally wrong that Stalin and Mao deliberately starved to death millions because these men (and their allies) were the strongest.

In any case, if we decide that might makes right, then we have decided a moral principle, one that is universally true to boot. Thus the first premise again fails because there exists at least one universal moral truth. It fails yet again when we consider that to decide that might makes right implies a vote, which brings us right back to the beginning. If you say that nobody has a choice and that might makes right is imposed upon us by the strong, then you have deduced yet another universal moral principle, namely that nobody has a choice. And so, etc.

These are the same arguments that show that Democracy, taken at its strict definition (everybody gets a vote), fails to be moral, incidentally. In order to work, Democracy must be modified to incorporate universal moral truths. Since we know, given the arguments above, that there are universal moral truths, it is up to us to discover what they are or suffer the consequences. This argument does not say that voting is not useful: but from it we infer that votes should be limited to subjects which are not universal moral truths, which we must accept as true period.

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