Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Friday, October 31, 2008

Hitchens On Sarah's War

Chris Hitchens is pretty bloody scary. Also, that mud mask looks hideous.

Christopher Hitchens is not someone that I'd want to have gazing dourly in my direction. In his latest article for Slate, he takes the Republicans behind the proverbial woodshed:
This is what the Republican Party has done to us this year: It has placed within reach of the Oval Office a woman who is a religious fanatic and a proud, boastful ignoramus. Those who despise science and learning are not anti-elitist. They are morally and intellectually slothful people who are secretly envious of the educated and the cultured. And those who prate of spiritual warfare and demons are not just "people of faith" but theocratic bullies.
And then he goes on to detail how Palin's egregiously ignorant remark about fruit fly research (in Paris!) belies an abhorrent anti-science mentality that everyone should be disgusted is within reach of America's highest office.

I don't know how Palin's fortunes will fall come Tuesday, but I predict that her political future will continue to be (at some level) a national travesty.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

When Apologists Go Boom

Your logic is impeccable, Captain. He is in grave danger.

I’m really starting to feel sorry for Paul Manata at this point; like the Rain Man, he has a single-minded fixation on revisiting the contrary paths his assertions have trodden. "Fetus is human. Definitely, definitely. Yeah. I'm an excellent apologist." Oh, but I should stop. Paul's not comfortable with humor, at least not at his expense. He'd like me to lighten up on the jokes, but he's all too quick to compare me with a stupid Star Trek robot. It's mildly clever, but I would have thought that a better comparison would be the robotic probe Nomad from "The Changeling," which was caught by Kirk in a logical contradiction and self-destructs; I can only guess that Paul in moments of perverse pleasure fantasizes about me experiencing a similar conclusion. Still, since the analogy was left unused, perhaps I can give it employ.

I must say I'm a bit surprised at Paul's lamentations about my light-heartedness, particularly because he has previously complained that "[he] just wish[ed] atheists had as good a sense of humor as Christians. Atheism is so boring and drab. Yawn." Hey, Paul, I'm just trying to "goose the antithesis" a bit here, but if you can't handle the sauce, I'll move on to the serious stuff.

First off, let's stop all this sillyness with Paul rewriting my arguments. I don't know whether he really thinks that he's doing me a favor by doing so, or whether he's actually devious enough to think that he can get away with tinkering with my arguments before he knocks them down. Where I come from, that's called a "strawman," but maybe they play by different rules in Grand Rapids. So if I may be indulged to take Paul's words out of my mouth: the conclusion "it is morally acceptable for women to have abortions at any time up to and until the unborn human fetus emerges from the woman's vagina" is not mine. I do so hate to be pedantic, but if Paul can't even get my argument’s conclusion right in the first 500 words of his post, what's the point in following along for the next 2500?

But I like Paul, and I have great hopes for him someday, so I'll try yet again to correct him. IF all human beings are sovereign over their bodies, and IF sovereignty entails the ability to remove anything one wants from one's body, THEN any human being may remove anything one wants from one's body. I do so hope that Paul can confine his further criticisms to these words alone.

Particularly astute readers (and hopefully Paul himself) may note that nowhere in the above argument do I make any mention of a fetus, or whether or not a fetus is equivalent to a human being. It's simply not relevant to my argument.

Now, what gets Paul chuckling hoarsely to himself and rubbing his hands back and forth is his certainty that I've caught myself in a logical contradiction, a la Kirk to Nomad. He thinks that all he needs to do is substitute "fetus" for "human being" in my argument, and suddenly my argument self-contradicts. But let's look at what happens to the conclusion of my actual argument if we play Paul's game: any fetus may remove anything it wants from its body.

I have no problem with the veracity of the statement, and it can stand as readily as my own conclusion above; however, we may wonder how the privilege of personal sovereignty claimed by a fetus overrides the personal sovereignty of the woman in whose uterus the fetus makes its residence. In fact, the very nature of human biology precludes the ability of a fetus (or anyone acting on its behalf) to act on any decision to exercise this ability until after parturation.

What's that, Paul? Oh, sorry. Sounded like steam whistling.

I want to work extra hard now to help Paul understand what I'm saying. Let's analogize from sovereignty over one's body to sovereignty over one's habitat. Paul and his wife just bought a lovely new house- they have sovereignty over it, and can decide who stays in the house, and who does not. Let's imagine that their friend Craig comes to stay with them, and they give him a room, over which he has sovereignty (ability to decide who comes in the room, and who does not). Although in real life, Paul and Craig are great friends, let's say that he and Craig have a falling-out, and Paul wants him to leave. Craig, although enjoying sovereignty over his room, does not have the right to force Paul to allow him to stay in the house against his will. Paul's sovereignty is complete throughout the house, including Craig's room, and therefore Craig must vacate. Whatever challenges and threats Craig may face outside of Paul's house may be something for Paul to consider, but they do not infringe Paul's sovereignty or remove his right to kick Craig out the door.

What's that I hear? - sounds like a tea kettle boiling. I guess that means it's time to take Paul's argument off the burner; it's done.

I should probably wrap this up before the poor guy's head bursts, but there are a few huckleberries that are too sweet to pass up before I go.

Desperate to shore up support for his sloppy reformulation of my arguments, he introduces the so-called "Preservation Principle." That is, "Generally, any living human that is not insane or suffering some other mental disorder would not want to end their life by means of saline solution and, if they could tell us, they would tell us that they do not want their life to end that way."

And yet in Paul’s own Good Book we find the character of Job, who, (presumably not insane) following a long string of torments commissioned by the omnibenevolent Yahweh, asks for just that:
Job 3: Why was I not still-born, or why did I not perish as I left the womb? ... or, put away like an abortive child, I should not have existed, like little ones that never see the light.
It would seem that even a "blameless" "God-fearer" like Job would rather have been snuffed out in the womb (by saline or otherwise) than have to experience profoundly adverse circumstances later in life.

And it should be pointed out that Yahweh is all too eager to put children to death after being born- for no other crime than being a member of the wrong ethnic group and religion. In Numbers 31, in fact, we find a particulary pernicious passage (on which I've commented previously) – Yahweh commands Moses to order the Israelites to kill all the baby boys belonging to the Midianite tribe… and leave their virgin sisters alive to be divided among the population and the priests as part of the “war booty.”
Numbers 31: ...kill all the male children and kill all the women who have ever slept with a man; but spare the lives of the young girls who have never slept with a man, and keep them for yourselves.
We also find blood-curdling exhortations to infanticide – where Yahweh through the Psalmist proclaims that killing tiny unbelieving babies is a blessed enterprise:
Psalm 137: Daughter of Babel, doomed to destruction, a blessing on anyone who treats you as you treated us, a blessing on anyone who seizes your babies and shatters them against a rock!
And while we’re perusing the Christian Scriptures for any information regarding abortion, it might be of interest to point out the passage where it is said that causing a woman to miscarry carries no more penalty than a few shekels:
Exodus 21: If people, while brawling, hurt a pregnant woman and she suffers a miscarriage but no further harm is done, the person responsible will pay compensation as fixed by the woman's master, paying as much as the judges decide.
While this is not abortion per se, nowhere else in the Bible gets closer to illustrating the true value of a fetus in Yahweh's law – a few coins, at most. Certainly not the death penalty, as advocated by good modern-day Christians like Craig Sowder. That horrific fate is quite explicitly spelled out elsewhere in Exodus, and clearly does not refer to anyone causing the termination of a pregnancy. So much for biblically-minded theology.

And I'll note that Triablogue commenter Marshall has pointed out what I've repeatedly argued is the gaping hole in Paul's argument - if we're to take his position seriously at all, he needs to deal with the science of reproduction and development. As Marshall observes:
[Paul is] stating that the personhood argument is irrelevant. I don't see how this is possible, since the claim is that the abortion destroys a human being. The question that is natural[sic] brought up is: is a baby fetus a human being?

Most people would argue that a human sperm is not a human being, nor is a human egg. If they did, they'd have to deal with the concept that ovulation, masturbation, nocturnal emissions, etc. are all murder. I think we can all agree that this is not the case.

Most people would also agree that a baby that comes out of the womb is a human being. It can breathe by itself, speak, think, and perform *most* of the functions that you and I can (enough that we call it human).

This 9 month point is rather arbitrary, as development is a nonstop process until death (the 9 month period happens to be where the fetus is no longer in the womb, but it develops along all the same). The question is, if the beginning--the sperm and the egg--are not a human, and the 9-month baby is, then at what point does this organism become a human being? This question, in the context of the apologist's argument, seems unavoidable.
Indeed. And yet I'll venture a guess that we'll be long in wait before we hear from Paul on this matter. I've asked nicely once already, and Paul turned tail and fled from the science. I suppose that if I had to deal with his level of cognitive dissonance, I might want to get as far away as possible too, just like the crew of the Enterprise when Nomad realizes that it made a logical error at the beginning of the episode. Because if he were to just sit there and take it for much longer, who knows what might happen...

Look out everyone! This huckleberry's about to blow!

Texas Freethought Convention

For the record, the slogan on my T-shirt does NOT say: "Life is short; drink hard." But that's not a half-bad idea.

The first-ever Texas Freethought Convention took place this past Sunday, October 26th, at the Saengerrunde Hall in Austin, Texas. As far as I've been able to determine, this is the first time in modern American history that a convention has been held specifically for the freethinkers and atheists of a single state to come together. There are, of course, many national groups that hold conventions: the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists and Atheist Alliance International are the primary sponsors of these. There was, back in the 19th century, a regular annual meeting of freethinkers in New York State that lasted for six years. However, it does not surprise me in the least that the great state of Texas would lead the way in this respect. There are certainly enough active secular groups here to make the prospect plausible, and the pervasive religiosity throughout the state makes the possibility a necessity.

Congregating in the Texan-German Saengerrunde Hall is oddly appropriate, given the German Freethinkers who settled in this part of the state in the nineteenth century.

I was proud to represent the North Texas Church of Freethought, and there were many other groups in attendance who were active in organizing and promoting the convention, including the Freethinkers Association of Central Texas, American Atheists - Texas, the Atheist Community of Austin, the Corpus Christi Atheists, and the Center for Inquiry - Austin. I was especially happy to meet some of the people with whom I've been corresponding by email for quite some time; there were also plenty of new people that I had opportunities to speak with. I'm hopeful that, if nothing else, this convention has propped open the doors of communication among the secular groups in Texas, and there will be a lot of cross-pollination between us all as a result.

Contrary to popular belief, atheists can apparently have children. We just lack the ability to love them.

The demographics were much more balanced than I thought they would be. Families were the overwhelming majority as far as I could see from my table in the back, and there were more children running around than you could shake a Bible at. The large hall made for a kid-friendly atmosphere, as they tended to dance around whenever the music acts came on stage, or regroup to the back of the hall for coloring or face-painting. I'm glad to see this being established as the rule right off the bat- I'm encouraged to think that future conventions will also have large numbers of atheist and freethinking children, and I hope that the organizers will be able to develop more content specifically for them.

I predict that my "de-baptism" (walking under a hair-dryer) will have precisely the same effect as my actual baptism.

The overall atmosphere of the convention was jovial and social. There were regular speakers on the schedule (including myself) and they captured the assembled crowd's attention throughout the day (substandard PA system notwithstanding), but between presentations, attendees routinely gathered in groups eating barbecue from the restaurant next door, or wandered back to the tables set up by the various participating groups. My own high visit rate had nothing to do with all the free bottles of Shiner and Blue Moon I was handing out (free beer for freethought). There were also some organized light-hearted moments, such as the "de-baptism," facilitated by walking underneath a hair dryer. At first I wasn't going to bother, but then I figured, "what the hell" and went up to join in. It's worthwhile to submit to a few seconds of embarrassment for the sake of demonstrating how silly rituals can be.

Terry McDonald from the Metroplex Atheists proposed the radical idea that we shouldn't avoid making friends with Christians. For shame, Terry.

One of the real highlights of the convention was Terry McDonald's speech. He began by taking Sam Harris to task over his 2007 Atheist Alliance International speech where he called for an end to the use of the term, "atheist." Terry made the point that most of us feel comfortable calling ourselves atheists because that accurately describes us, and that whatever we call ourselves, everyone else is going to refer to us as atheists anyway. He made a comparison to the term "non-smoker." If smoking had never been invented, it would be a ridiculous term, but since there are smokers, the designation "non-smokers" carries semantic weight. So although Sam Harris' post-religious aspiration is still nice to keep in mind, we also have to be mindful of what we're considered by society at large. And Terry also made the point, drawing on his own experiences with people like Derward Richardson, that atheists should not shirk from friendships and communication with Christians and other theists. This drew some strong criticism from Miguel and others of FACT, who felt that seeking egalitarian relationships with Christians and other theists was a tacit approval of their position. More debate followed, and Michael from Corpus Christi Atheists pointed out that a hard-line approach is reasonable when atheists' rights are threatened, but otherwise it's more profitable to reach out to theists, especially moderates. This exchange was electric, and I'd like to see some planned debates at future conventions- if we're going to do it anyway, it might as well be planned.

Anna De Luna, in her performance of "Chicana Atheist," reminded us all of the difficult cultural battles experienced by those who grow up in and reject religious traditions.

It was also a joy to see a performance by Anna De Luna, whose "Chicana Atheist" one-woman show is a celebration of the struggles faced by atheists who must emerge from stifling religious cultures; as an Hispanic, her stories about the slavish acquiescence to Roman Catholicism by her family were poignant, tragic, and instantly empathetic to the audience, who sat entranced during her performance. Even something as seemingly simple as finding friendship or falling in love can all-too-easily be complicated by contradictory views about one's spirituality and religious acceptance.

The capstone of the evening, a combined set with Safely Limitless and Riffsong, included this sing-a-long performance of John Lennon's "Imagine."

The penultimate event of the conference was a performance by some of the assembled musicians including Safely Limitless, Paul Mitchell's Riffsong, and Paul Martin's Aspiring Atheist. As promised, we were able to sing (more or less) along to John Lennon's "Imagine." It was a nice way to close out this history-making event, and only winning the autographed copy of Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell" in the final raffle could have made the day better. Which it did.

Note to Self: No matter how late the evening gets, don't throw away your raffle tickets. You might miss out on something really freaking cool.

My final thoughts are: 1) I'm glad this happened, 2) I'm glad that I was able to be a part of it, and 3) I'm especially glad that this is going to continue next year, and for years afterward. I hope that Texas can be a beacon to the other states as freethought and atheism continue to gain cultural ground in our great society.

Doubters Take Down Plantinga

Alvin is happy because he believes that El Tigre's punishing headlock is really an epiphenomenon of his willing defeat.

Don't let my tulip-loving associates fool you- Western Michigan has plenty of rationality to go around. The Center for Inquiry - Michigan not only brought you the infamous Hitchens vs. Hitchens debate, it also helps (in a roundabout way) to bring you the Reasonable Doubts Podcast, featuring the class-act trio of Jeremy Beahan, Luke Galen, and David Fletcher. It's no understatement to say that I'm nursing a wicked man-crush on these guys - not only is their in-show repartée amusing and engaging, they also know what the hell is going on.

Their latest outing has them grappling with Alvin Plantinga's "Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism," and slamming it down on the mat. Subscribe here to listen to Plantinga's epic fail.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Killing Babies With Science

This cell is a human being. Or maybe it isn't. Only Paul Manata and his invisible friend know for sure.

Oh, Paul... I wish I knew how to quit you.

Like his namesake, Paul Manata continues to see through a glass darkly, and thus fails to realize that the person he rails against is a reflection of his own ego. I am similarly under no illusion that Paul will be persuaded by rational argumentation, and don't think anything I write will have an effect on him, so I primarily write for the 500-or so regular readers of this blog, and the thousands of visitors it receives each month. I'm especially happy to be welcoming the 50 or so visitors from Triablogue that have come over... you might actually learn something here.

It's a bit sad to see Paul thrashing about, appealing to his readers to vouch for the validity of his attacks on me. Apparently he thinks that simply by virtue of quoting me verbatim at length, he somehow can't be blamed for ignoring my statements and trying to put arguments in my mouth. For example, his clumsy assumption that my reference to "one organ among others" was the fetus, rather than the uterus. Without an effort at reading comprehension on his part it's no wonder there are so many blunders; I would spare myself the tedium of correcting him point by point unless I thought it would achieve anything useful. It's a bit like watching a wrestler in the ring trying to grapple with an invisible opponent, and looking up desperately to the audience to verify his victory. While the actual opponent has started to walk away out of sheer boredom and pity... and yet...

Even though Paul has failed to grasp the point that personal sovereignty is independent of the 'humanity' of a fetus, he has nonetheless insisted on it for his own arguments. Yes, he has hidden behind claims of irrelevancy, but even though I know how Reformed apologists loathe to argue for their own positions, I can't help feeling that it's a burden of which he needs to relieve himself.

As does his faithful reader, Craig Sowder, who posted this in the comments:

I would be interested in seeing how you would defend the personhood of the fetus scientifically. I had said in one of my comments to Zach that I always considered "personhood" to be a metaphysical category rather than a scientific one. I mean, you can see cells, organs, limbs, etc. under a microscope, but you don't see "personhood", right? Maybe I'm not understanding what you mean when you say it's easy to prove it scientifically.
That makes two of us, Craig. Paul responds to this by saying:
I can use all the evidence of embryology and show that the fetus has it's own unique human DNA, it is a unified organism, it directs itself towards next stages of life, it is living, etc., etc., etc. So it is a human being. The offspring of humans. If not, what species is it?
And Paul steps into and even bigger scientific mess by invoking the concept of 'species,' which I've pointed out many times is rife with conceptual problems of its own. The things Paul mentions here (human DNA, unified organism, etc) are all necessary qualities that a human being has, but they are not sufficient in themselves. Now, I'll gladly grant for the sake of this issue that having human DNA can give something the characteristic of "human" (leaving the XenoMouse to the side for now), but grants no more special status to any cell by the virtue of that distinction. An adipocyte may be 'human,' but that does not make it 'a human.' Neither does a 'human' leukocyte, a 'human' chondrocyte, nor a 'human' pericyte.

This clone of a human's hematocyte is a human being. Or not. Theologians are scouring the Bible for the words "somatic" "clone," and "ethics." They'll get back to you never.

Never one to let the subtleties of scientific evidence get past him, Paul assures Craig that he can easily appeal to authority in this matter:
I think, as virtually all embryologists agree, it is undeniable that it is a human. That part of the debate is fairly a closed case.
"THUS SAITH MANATA!" Unfortunately, in my embryology course we never were lectured about the humanity of a fetus. Oh, I have no doubt that embryologists will agree that a "human fetus" is 'human,' but whether or not it is a 'human being' is the burden on Paul's back, isn't it? It's one thing to mind-numbingly assert that fertilization is that sufficient cause from which human beings arise, but even this does little to answer the question I asked (and still unanswered) two posts ago:
At what moment did I become a human being? When my father's sperm came in contact with my mother's egg? But when, precisely? When the sperm passed the corona radiata? When it entered, or after it had passed, the zona pellucida? Before or after the cell membranes fused? Before or after the second meiotic division of the egg? Before or after the first mitotic division? At what stage of mitosis: prophase, metaphase, anaphase, telophase?
Human development, if it is anything, is a temporal process. At one end of the process, there exist cells that are human, but not a 'human being.' On this we can nearly all agree. At the other end of the process, there is a 'human being.' The question I'd like to see answered by the all-knowing Manata, is when? When in the process of human development are there sufficient characteristics to call something a 'human being?' Please see the above quote for the level of precision I'm looking for.

Anticipating failure at this task, Paul runs from the scientific evidence he once championed:
...if pro-choicers want to add to the limits of science and argue that the findings of science are not enough to show t's[sic] full humanity, that we need to run to the philosophers to determine these questions, so be it.
Ah, yes. Smelling the stink of his own defeat, Paul throws clods of dirt at the evil scientists, who thrive perversely at the limits of science, and retreats back to the realm of philosophy, where curious notions like 'evidence' matter so much less than 'QED.' I certainly hope he enjoys the respite, and I'll keep a frosty mug waiting in case he ventures back into the fray.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Post-Coital Abortion Talk

This atheist is opposed to abortion because he knows the exquisite joy of barbecued baby-flesh. Nice and tender.

I can really feel the love. As is typical, Paul parlayed a 500-word comment into a 1000-word post, to which I responded with a 2000-word counter-post, now complemented by a 4000-word counter-counter-post. At the end of this intercourse, we may just have the makings of a book. ;)

Or not. I've been impressed by the size of Paul's 'philosophy' for years now. It stands tall and erect, clearly a triumph to the grace of whatever trinitarian (or quaternarian) deity is necessary to account for it. I'm usually happy to just sit back and watch it plunge in and out of whatever adversary Paul has the temerity to engage with. In this case, it's me, and I'm nearly spent.

But maybe I'll just share a little pillow-talk before I leave.

I'm sure that Paul would rather me forego the compliments; he's a humble man and would prefer me to stick to the arguments. His harranguing over the so-called "Utopian Principle" is getting tired, so I'll leave that alone; I'm as surprised as anyone that Paul is a hamster psychologist. His main thrust has been to assert the full humanity of the fetus. He claims that since my position is that personal sovereignty is without exception, if I were to grant that the fetus is human, my argument fails.

As I have already pointed out, I'm happy to do so. As I said, "Even if I were to follow Paul down his rabbit hole and grant that a fetus has the same sovereignty enjoyed by its mother, that only extends to within the fetus' own body. Once removed from its uterine environ, the fetus is free to exercise that sovereignty in whichever direction it likes."

Paul doesn't like my definition of sovereignty. But he also appears to not understand it. For whatever reason, he thinks that I'm talking about a 'right' to 'not have bad things happen to my body.' This is not the case. I'll repeat it again: it is the right to decide what things stay in one's body and what things stay out. I'd appreciate it if Paul actually used my premises, rather than just claim to use them. Thus, all his counterexamples fall apart like an unimplanted blastocyst.

I don't know if anyone else thinks it's a shame that Paul didn't provide us with the "scientific" argument for the full humanity of the fetus, especially since it's apparently one of the easiest arguments to make. I do. And even more especially since his entire argument rests on the humanity of the fetus, while mine does not. Seems like he has some more work to do. ;)

Until then, I'm happy to suggest Caffrey's as a viable libation alternative - it goes down a lot smoother than Reformed theology, and makes you feel less badly about yourself on Sunday morning!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Fun Times With Abortion

This little boy likes baseball and jellybeans, but God decided to abort him, just like the other thirty percent of pregnancies that end in miscarriage.

Huzzah! I count myself fortunate to receive the privilege of a rebuke from a man as wise and temperate as Paul Manata; a man who walks and talks with the bearing and authority of someone who speaks regularly with an omnipotent, omniscient, invisible friend.

In this instance (among many in which I've been graced with Paul's kind correction), we find that my flippant response to Craig Sowder's reposting of a post on Paul's own Triablogue (yes, it IS that convoluted) was sufficient to rouse Paul's desire to lend me some friendly advice. The response of mine in question:
I tend to think that in a perfect world, abortions would be rare, safe, and legal.
After writing this, I realized that the phrase "perfect world" would probably be taken all too literally. After all, in a "perfect world," birth control would never fail, right? I came back to clarify my use of that phrase to mean "the most optimal world that I can conceive." At this point, I was asked by Craig why rarity would be something I would hope for, if there was nothing immoral about abortion. Paul jumped on my answer to this question, which he neglected to quote in its entirety, but which I will do here:
The rarity I would like to see for these procedures isn't inspired by any intrinsic immorality, but because it's such a difficult choice for women, who have to choose between their procreative and self-preservative instincts. [emphasis added]
Paul claims that I have merely pointed out the existence of angst, and suggests that education is the solution:
...perhaps women should be educated. Why is there angst? They don't have the same angst when "departing" with unsightly moles. Indeed, one could argue that the angst is a holdover from theistic beliefs about the womb and conception. We need to educate the masses. And of course Moore's perfect world would have educated people, people with no holdovers from the ancient, dark times of man's history.
I don't think that any amount of education can alleviate the emotional strain of choosing between two contradictory instincts. This is not an intellectual matter we're dealing with- it's a subconscious, primordial battle between the basic neurological impulses nearly all animals share: SURVIVE. REPRODUCE. This conflict is only subject to philosophical gerrymandering by those who don't have to answer these calls. And these are truly effectual calls, mind you- not subject to reason, evidence, exegesis, or any such intellectual strategy. Thus, the "angst" Paul correctly identifies is not so easily assuaged, and thus I am not as confident as Paul that this could be ameliorated with simple education (would that it were so).

This little girl has been preordained to burn in Hell. Just look at her... what a slut! She totally deserves it.

My primary argument in favor of allowing abortion is that all human beings are sovereign over their own bodies. Thus, anything growing inside my body stays there only by my own approval (assuming that I have the available medical technology to remove it at my discretion). As Paul points out, with my argument the "personhood" of the fetus is immaterial. At first, he's comfortable dealing with my argument and offers a counterexample:
First, it's not true that all humans have sovereignty over their body and can do what they will with it making what they do ethically okay. They can't (well, shouldn't) strap bombs to it and run into occupied office buildings.
Perhaps Paul has not understood what I mean by "sovereignty" over one's body. He seems to think that I'm mounting a variation of Homer Simpson's "Pie Eating" argument: "All right pie, I'm just going to do this [opens and closes mouth] and if you get eaten it's your own fault!" I am not talking about things people do to each other with their bodies; I am talking specifically about the right to decide what things stay in one's body and what things stay out. That is, one has the right to decide what kind of food one wants to eat, what kind of aesthetic modifications can be made to one's body, and what kinds of medical procedures should be undertaken. Of the latter, these include the decision to undergo a cardiac bypass, the decision to undergo a gastric bypass, and the decision to bypass pain and suffering through euthanasia. Either Paul agrees that we have sovereignty over our bodies or he does not. If we do not, then we cannot decide for ourselves what kind of food to eat. It's possible that Paul's invisible friend tells him whether to choose Cheerios or Wheaties for breakfast. But if Paul does agree that we have sovereignty over our bodies, that only he has the right to decide if his malignant testicle should be removed, then he seems to be special pleading for women not to have the right to remove anything they want from their bodies as well.

This little boy enjoys molesting the neighbor girl and killing cats. He will murder his grandmother and since he is one of the Elect, he will go to Heaven.

Paul does me the favor of mounting a defensive argument for me:
Of course, Moore may say that their sovereignty stops just at that point where they are hindering another human's sovereignty over his or her body not to be blown to bits. But of course, as should be obvious, this response rather removes the teeth from his entire position. Indeed, Moore's (radical) libertarianism is undercut since he is now forced to add that some humans (the fetuses) do not have sovereignty over their bodies! It looks like special pleading to dismiss, out of hand, the fetus's sovereignty. Moore just can't think far enough to consider the logic of the case.
Although I appreciate the effort he has made on my behalf, he's running with the wrong assumption. I've already made it clear that I consider sovereignty to extend only to within one's own body for the sake of this argument. Paul's counterexample of a suicide bomber is simply the product of a categorical error. He's also assuming that I'm granting "human" or "person" status to a fetus, which I frankly have not; but again, it's immaterial to my argument. Even if I were to follow Paul down his rabbit hole and grant that a fetus has the same sovereignty enjoyed by its mother, that only extends to within the fetus' own body. Once removed from its uterine environ, the fetus is free to exercise that sovereignty in whichever direction it likes.

This little boy is loved and cared for by Christian parents, but will become an atheist and be damned to Hell.

It should be obvious by now why this next claim is erroneous:
Second, Moore basis[sic] rights on accidental features of the world, i.e., a person's location. Of course it's completely arbitrary to simply announce that one's location determines whether he has any right to life. Moore's placing the location in the womb is no more arbitrary than Hitler placing the location somewhere in the Middle East. In fact, as almost all ethicists will tell you, morally irrelevant facts shouldn't factor into moral principles. That's one reason why racism is ethically backwoods. It take a non-moral fact, skin color, and tries to make it a basis for moral facts. Skin color, location, size, level of development, etc., are morally irrelevant to questions of morality.
Nowhere in my argument have I talked about a "right to life." I've talked about the concept of sovereignty over one's own body. I suppose it wouldn't be a completely productive discussion about abortion without being compared to Hitler, but I'm not trying to remove privileges at all. In fact, the opposite is true- Paul, by special pleading against the complete sovereignty of women, would have us believe that one organ among all others is arbitrarily off-limits.

Paul wants to push the argument further, this time mounting an attack on behalf of Craig:
Third, another thing Craig might want to ask, it seems that not only do we have exceptions to murder, but sometimes parents don't have obligations toward their young children. Since we're dealing with a mother taking the life of her child, we have another moral consideration in play. Do we have exceptions here, too?
As has been shown previously, my argument is not one that advances a mother's right to take the life of her child. I've only argued that a woman's sovereignty is without exception, not that I am seeking exceptions as Paul does. Once born, of course, a baby is not necessarily dependent on its mother, and can be cared for by any number of people; this instance dramatically changes the moral situation. Further speculation along these lines is not germane to the question of a woman's sovereignty and abortion.

This little girl has every egg in her ovaries already fully-formed, and will exercise her sovereignty over them from her birth until their birth.

Fourth, as Moore should know, we can achieve conception in a Petri dish, soon we will be able to bring a child forth that spent all three trimesters in an artificial womb. Assume that Moore doesn't hold to "Petri dish sovereignty," would he then say (remembering that we assuming the humanity of the fetus since it supposedly "doesn't matter either way" for Moore's argument) that no one can kill these babies? What will happen to Moore's support for stem cell research, then?
At long last Paul has given us something to chew on. It's a great question, not least of which because there's no clear answer. However, I should make it clear that we're no longer dealing with my argument for sovereignty, since stem cells do not need to be cultured inside a woman's body. In engaging with the stem cell question, we finally have no choice but to grapple with the concept of "humanity" or "personhood." And my answer to this question is, though Paul may be disappointed by it, "I don't know." I don't hold to a neo-Platonic worldview, and therefore I don't feel epistemological pressure to categorize reality using Universal concepts. "Humanity," like "species" or "life" does not neatly intersect with the reality our senses and reason present to us. At what moment did I become a human being? When my father's sperm came in contact with my mother's egg? But when, precisely? When the sperm passed the corona radiata? When it entered, or after it had passed, the zona pellucida? Before or after the cell membranes fused? Before or after the second meiotic division of the egg? Before or after the first mitotic division? At what stage of mitosis: prophase, metaphase, anaphase, telophase? The interim points, like Zeno's paradox, are infinite; yet a human is the result.

Thus, the question of personhood is not so simple. Although I can't speak with certainty on the matter, my moral instincts would be to ascribe a kind of provisional sovereignty to those who provide the initial cells for a stem cell colony. This would extend up to the point of their destruction or full-term development, in parallel with a uterine incubation. In this, however, sovereignty would be shared by both man and woman, since the woman's body is not required for the process described here.

For God so loved these stem cells, He sent His only begotten Son that they would not cure human disease, but sit in a Petri dish in Heaven.

I'm always glad to know that I've merited the attention of God's chosen, especially when there are so many more enjoyable things to do in Michigan's own Tulip Country. Between keeping one's wife pregnant, instilling a fear of The Lord in one's children, and drinking deeply of the Boddington's, I consider myself lucky to register on the radar. Cheers, sir!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Religulous Review

Religulous is funny to me, without a doubt. The question is, is it funny to mainstream people who take their own faith and beliefs as seriously as the wackos Bill Maher interviews in his documentary?

I'd be interested to know.

The movie exists in three layers: 1) a personal journey for Maher himself, raised in a religiously-mixed home, who spends time unpacking his early experiences of religion with his (largely agnostic) mother and sister; 2) a rogues' gallery survey of the absolute weirdest, clueless, and hypocritical religious individuals (confined to the Abrahamic faiths) he could find in America and Europe; 3) a potent argument against religious fervor in the face of increased global reach and military might that threatens to actually acheive the theological wet-dream apocalypse conceived of by the prophets of ages past.

Maher fancies himself as something of a Doubt Fairy; popping into truck-stop trailer-churches to ask difficult questions (and anger large men), or appearing on Speakers' Corner to lay bare the core tenets of the Church of Scientology. Many times he's just a wry observer, as when he visited the Creation Museum with Ken Ham, or speaks with a man who believes himself to be the second-coming of Jesus Christ. But between these visits we also get to peek into Maher's own thought process, to gain some understanding of the agnosticism he feels to be a virtue, and appreciate the method of his fascination with madness.

The pacing and editing is extraordinarily clever, although I suspect the few background sound effects will become significantly less funny on repeat viewings. It's particularly good towards the end of the movie, where scenes cut immediately from one religious person making a dogmatic pronouncement of some kind, directly to another religious person making the exact opposite pronouncement with the exact same conviction as his counterpart.

Bill Maher's message strains at the proverbial gnat when he delves into the same Historical Jesus material already covered by The God Who Wasn't There. He throws out some of the parallels without much context, which looks great to the unfamiliar but is hopelessly unsufficient to its subject. Even without Richard Carrier's recent discoveries, this line of argumentation is far too complex for a throwaway portion of a larger work.

Without a doubt, atheists and freethinkers will find this movie utterly hilarious, at least worth one viewing. My guess is that Christians, Jews, and Muslims will laugh as well, most loudly at the faiths they don't personally hold, and more softly and nervously when their own belief system is held up for inspection. Whether they laugh or not, I'd like to hope that the message at the end of the movie is taken to heart: One's personal beliefs should not be grounds for genocide.