Metaphysics Matters

Chattering classes here in the U.S. have recently been absorbed in discussions that dance around, but never quite address, a question that cuts to the heart of how we think about the basic architecture of reality: are human beings purely material, or something more?

The first skirmish broke out when a major breast-cancer charity, Susan Komen for the Cure (the folks responsible for the ubiquitous pink ribbons), decided to cut their grants to Planned Parenthood, a decision they quickly reversed after facing an enormous public backlash. Planned Parenthood provides a wide variety of women’s health services, including birth control and screening for breast cancer, but is widely associated with abortion services. The Komen leaders offered numerous (mutually contradictory) reasons for their original action, but there is no doubt that their true motive was to end support to a major abortion provider, even if their grants weren’t being used to fund abortions.

Abortion, of course, is a perennial political hot potato, but the other recent kerfuffle focuses on a seemingly less contentious issue: birth control. Catholics, who officially are opposed to birth control of any sort, objected to rules promulgated by the Obama administration, under which birth control would have to be covered by employer-sponsored insurance plans. The original objection seemed to be that Catholic hospitals and other Church-sponsored institutions would essentially be paying for something they though was immoral, in response to which a work-around compromise was quickly adopted. This didn’t satisfy everyone (anyone?), however, and now the ground has shifted to an argument that no individual Catholic employer should be forced to pay for birth-control insurance, whether or not the organization is sponsored by the Church. This position has been staked out by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and underlies a new bill proposed by Florida Senator Mark Rubio.

Topics like this are never simple, but they can be especially challenging for a secular democracy. On the one hand, our society is based on religious pluralism. We have freedom of conscience, and try to formulate our laws in such a way that everyone’s rights are protected. But on the other hand, people have incompatible beliefs about fundamental issues. Such beliefs are often of central importance, and the duct tape of political liberalism isn’t always sufficient to hold things together.

When it comes to abortion and birth control, there’s no question that down-and-dirty political and social aspects are front and center. Different political parties want to score points with their constituencies by standing firm in the current culture wars. And there’s also no question that restricting access to contraception and abortion is driven in part (we can argue about how big that part is) by a desire to control women’s sexuality.

But there is also a serious question about human life and the nature of reality. What actually happens when that sperm and ovum get together to make a zygote? Is it just one step of many in an enormously complex chemical reaction that ultimately gives rise to a new person, who is at heart just a complex chemical reaction him-or-herself? Or is it the moment when an immaterial soul, distinct from the material body, first comes into being? Question like this matter — but as a society we hardly ever discuss them, at least not in any serious and open way. As a result, different sides talk past each other, trying to squeeze metaphysical stances into political boxes.

If it were really true that “a human life” was defined by the association of an immaterial soul with a physical body, and that association began at the moment of conception, then making abortion illegal would be perfectly sensible. It would be murder, pure and simple. (Very few people are actually consistent here, believing that mothers who have abortions should be treated like someone who has committed murder; but there are some.) But this view of reality is not true.

Naturalism, which describes human beings in the same physical terms as other objects in the universe, doesn’t actually provide a cut-and-dried answer to the abortion question, because it doesn’t draw a bright line between “a separate living person” and “a collection of cells.” But it provides an utterly different context for addressing the question. Naturalists are generally against murder, but it’s because they recognize certain collections of atoms as “people,” and endow those people with rights and privileges as part of the structure of society. It all comes from distinctions that we human beings ultimately invent, not ones that are handed down from a higher authority. Consequently, the appropriate rules are less clear. A naturalist wants to know whether the purported person can think, feel, react, and so on. They also will balance the interests of the fetus, whatever they may be, against the interests of the mother, who is unquestionably a living and functioning person. It’s perfectly natural that those interests will seem more important than those of a fetus that isn’t even viable outside the womb.

Most everyone, religious believers and naturalists alike, agrees that killing innocent one-year-old children is morally wrong. Consequently, we can happily live together in a society where that kind of action is illegal. But our beliefs about aborting one-month-old embryos are understandably very different. The disagreements about these issues aren’t simply political, they run much deeper than that.

It matters how people think about the world. Political liberalism is a good system, but it only works insofar as the citizens can agree on a core set of values and push cultural/religious differences to the periphery. Naturalism doesn’t answer all the value-oriented questions we might have; it simply provides a sensible framework in which they can be profitably discussed. But between naturalists and non-naturalists, profitable discussion is much more difficult. Which is why we naturalists have to keep pressing, making the best case we can, trying to convince as many people as we can reach that there is only one realm of existence, governed by unbreakable laws, and that we are part of it.

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63 Responses to Metaphysics Matters

  1. Lonely Flower says:

    But what about 4 old months embryo is it still moral to abort him/her?

  2. psmith says:

    You say “But our beliefs about aborting one-month-old embryos are understandably very different.”
    That is because you look at it narrowly in terms of now, strangely, when one thinks of your writings on time.

    My mother, a naive 17 year old girl, fell pregnant to a serviceman going off to war. She decided to keep the child despite her family’s fierce opposition, abandonment and her own desperate circumstances. Somehow she clung to hope despite her humiliation and abandonment.

    I am that child. If she had aborted that foetus she would have murdered me, she would have killed that life with all its rewards, fulfillment and happiness. Trapped in her own despair she had no way of foreseeing the gift of happiness and fulfillment that she would be giving to me, and to my children. Because she clung to hope she made the unforeseeable possible.

    Abortion would have murdered me.

  3. MPS17 says:

    It has intrigued me that the only people with a self-consistent moral standing to argue against abortion are vegetarians, and yet the overlap between vegetarians and pro-lifers is surely an extremely tiny set. (This, I think, speaks to the importance of status rivalries and group identification / allegiance vs actual logical reasoning, in deciding and rationalizing political preferences.)

  4. Drew says:

    @psmith – Speaking in counterfactuals (“would have”) assumes a metaphysical position-possible worlds- that need not be true. I believe Sean here is not demarcating a line where humanity begins insofar as he is shouting a call to arms to think about this issue outside of political boundaries in order to arrive at a metaphysics acceptable to all members of a secular democracy.

  5. MPS17 says:

    psmith: if your mother had aborted you, you wouldn’t exist now. But you also would never have really known existence, and so it’s hard to see how exactly you would have been wronged, or how anyone else would have been wronged.

    Look at it this way: various combinations of my sperm and [pick any woman]’s ova could produce all kinds of people. By men not going around impregnating every woman every possible moment, we are denying life, with all its rewards, fulfillment, and happiness, to countless people. Yet surely this is not a moral evil. So I don’t think it’s reasonable to argue about the value of life and personhood by looking at the potential.

  6. Drew says:

    @MPS17 – I think the reason group identification/allegiance trumps logical reasoning is evolutionary – in that the cost/benefit of accepting the group’s decision outweighs that of obtaining the knowledge individually; if I see I long line of people waiting to get in a bar I have to assume the bar is good, even though it may suck; I save time and energy by assuming the group knows something that I do not.

  7. psmith says:

    @Drew – barring some strange multiverse we can take it is a given, that had she aborted that foetus you would not be reading my words. My life, my existence, would never have taken place.

  8. psmith says:

    @MPS17 – “So I don’t think it’s reasonable to argue about the value of life and personhood by looking at the potential.”

    Once life has started it is no longer just some potential. It is actual life, accurately defined by DNA, and its continuance would have been ended. The potential was the future possibilities of that life.

  9. Jeff says:

    @Drew — There is no metaphysics that is acceptable to all members of our democracy. As long as there exist “ignorant folk” such as myself who are unabashed dualists, alongside physical naturalists like Sean, then we will disagree on issues like abortion.

    As a matter of political strategy, each side only has one option, as Sean states in his last sentence. It must win over hearts and minds. Until then, it will be a continual battle.

    On the bright side, if Sean’s metaphysics is correct…none of this really matters in the long run, and it was all predetermined anyway by the initial conditions at the big bang. 😉

  10. Physicalist says:

    psmith : “If she had aborted that foetus she would have murdered me

    What if she and your biological father had used a condom? You still wouldn’t be here; the egg and sperm would have died. Would that be “murder”?

  11. psmith says:

    @Physicalist – there is a world of difference between a foetus with my exact DNA configuration and the two separate components, egg and sperm.

  12. Drew says:

    @Physicalist – perhaps you’re right in that there isn’t, but shouldn’t there be?

    I am not a lawyer and possess little knowledge on the subject, but I’m pretty sure “murder” is defined very specifically and to use that word in this context serves only as semantic rabble-rousing.

  13. psmith says:

    @Drew – I would call “semantic rabble-rousing” as obfuscated disapproval.

  14. Physicalist says:

    there is a world of difference between a foetus with my exact DNA configuration and the two separate components, egg and sperm

    A difference, yes, but not a world of difference. The real question is whether there’s a morally relevant difference.

    Personally, I find it obvious that I’m not the sort of thing that could exist without a complex functioning brain, and so I was never a single-celled organism. That blastocyst was alive, but it was never me.

    For these same reasons, it seems obvious to me that killing a blastocyst cannot count as “murder,” but I don’t expect to be able to convince you of this.

  15. psmith says:

    @Physicalist – ha, I never thought I would meet a dualist physicalist!

  16. Josh says:


    I believe the reason MPS17 (#3) noted that “the only people with a self-consistent moral standing to argue against abortion are vegetarians” is because the neural complexity of a fetus or embryo is on par with a much simpler animal (say, a chicken or a cat at best).

    Even you implicitly take this tack in your argument when you argue “Once life has started it is no longer just some potential. It is actual life.”

    So is abortion wrong because it ends a life? If so, I assume you are a vegetarian.

    And no arguing that animals and humans aren’t comparable because the potential of an animal is less than a human’s. As others have pointed out, preventing potential does not equal murder. Otherwise you would have to view contraception as murder.

  17. Physicalist says:

    @psmith (#15): I’m accustomed to encountering a wide variety of misunderstandings on this topic, but I’m still utterly baffled that you could think my position is in any way dualist.

  18. Jim Harrison says:

    Think of the hundreds of people who don’t exist today because Law and Order wasn’t a rerun that night. Will no one shed a tear for them?

    Treating possible people as actual people results in unnecessary puzzles. I’m reminded of the old German joke in which the pessimistic philosopher muses “Life is suffering. One is fortunate not to live too long, and it would be better still never to have been born at all though scarcely one in a million is that lucky.” What seems at first blush to be a debate about metaphysics may actually have more to do with modal logic.

  19. Dronewatch says:

    Well, the moral debate should continue. But the secular issue is really at what point the state is justified in taking control of a woman’s body.

    Imagine two brothers, one with kidney disease that can only be saved by a transplant from the other brother. Do we accept that the state has the right to force the healthy brother to provide the kidney? What about requiring person “B” to risk their life to save person “A”? We think it’s commendable, but not legally required.

    So what, exactly, are we doing when we start demanding that a woman MUST carry a fetus to term? Especially when it may risk her life. Simply put, the state is taking possession of her body for state purposes. She is no longer a free person — she is a life support system, a breeder, under state control. Some people are fine with this. The ones that want to control everyone and everything. But that’s not religion. It’s fascism.

    So I don’t think the real debate is about when a fetus becomes a person. It’s more about what it will mean to to be a free human in the 21st century in the United States.

    If it was really all about saving babies, think of the thousands that would be alive now (or never conceived) if education, assistance, and responsibility had been pursued with as much vigor and capital as has been invested in attempts to control. But there’s not much power to be gained in those directions, is there?

  20. Brutus says:

    I don’t know as much about the topic as I would like, but I find it both logical and noble to accept ethical axioms grounding high standards for the inviolability of human life. I don’t want to live in a world in which crushing the skull of an infant in utero is basically a matter of moral indifference. Or where human embryos are created and destroyed as raw material for therapies and experiments. I don’t pretend to have a well-informed and thought out position here. Thought-provoking post…

  21. Avattoir says:

    @ 7: “My life, my existence, would never have taken place.”

    It depends completely on how you define “my life, my existence”. The stuff that makes up ‘you’ right now (as distinct from now, and now, and now, etc.) is stuff that made up other beings & things before ‘you’. The stuff that makes up ‘you’ right now doesn’t think of itself as ‘you’, because inexorably it’s in the process of leaving you to become someone (more likely some thing) else. The stuff that will make up ‘you’ in another second, minute, hour, day, week, month, or year isn’t part of ‘you’ now; it doesn’t have any intention of becoming part of ‘you’; once it joins in as part of ‘you’, it still won’t be conscious of having ceased to be part of this or that plant or rock or slime mould & become part of ‘you’; and having joined ‘you’, been ‘you’, & left ‘you’, it won’t retain any memory of any of that, nor will it ever have been conscious of becoming you, being you, or having been you.

    One might conceive of the possibility that your belief in there being a ‘you’ – your conceit of there being such a thing as “my life, my existence” – is simply a part of a larger strategy aimed at propagating your species, of which ‘you’, including ‘your life, your existence’, is simply a very tiny, and extremely probably, a not-at-all critical, part; and that under this understanding, you might wish to take comfort from the fact that currently there are ~7 billion others attending to that strategy, most of whom are unintentionally and wittingly working against the end goal of that strategy. If that’s the case, I would wonder how it is that you’re able to determine to be one of those working towards that end goal, and not one of those working against it.

  22. GM says:

    8. psmith Says:
    February 13th, 2012 at 9:28 am
    @MPS17 – “So I don’t think it’s reasonable to argue about the value of life and personhood by looking at the potential.”
    Once life has started it is no longer just some potential. It is actual life, accurately defined by DNA, and its continuance would have been ended. The potential was the future possibilities of that life.

    That life begins at conception is a horrible argument. What about the oocyte and the spermatozoa, aren’t they alive too? Life is a continuum, and has been since the first self-replicators appeared 4 billion years ago. There is no beginning. What matters is what a collection of cells is, not what it could become. We don’t murder each other because we recognize each other as persons even though we are all just collections of cells, which are in turn collections of molecules. So that’s where the line should be logically drawn – whether a collection of cells can be considered a person or not.

    Which BTW, has the curious and certain to be disturbing to many but inevitable implication that not only is abortion perfectly fine, infanticide is perfectly fine too because infants are not persons – ironically, when the lunatics talk about “killing babies”, they are onto something – there is no real reason to draw any lines at X weeks, months, or even birth; development is a continuous process. But when a baby is born, it is not yet a person – it has no developed self-awareness yet (humans fail the mirror test during their first year, and so on). The whole debate has erred enormously in the wrong direction. Now where you draw the line is difficult to establish but two things are certainly correct:

    1. The religious view on the subject is completely wrong because religion itself is completely wrong
    2. The naturalistic view indeed can not give you any clear cutoff at which is it OK to terminate a fetus/infant development.

    From which it follows that this has to happen safely within any reasonable boundaries, and since as I said above, newborns are not persons yet so it necessarily follows that infanticide is perfectly OK, then any abortion or morning-after-pill type of contraception method is perfectly OK too. And everyone would be OK with that if we were having the right kind of debate (i.e. when does a human being become a person after its birth) and if it was acceptable to come out and say “Religion is stupid” in a serious conversation on the subject. And we wouldn’t be wasting all that valuable time in such a silly manner.

  23. aew9 says:

    I agree with @Josh (#16), and @Physicalist (#14), but by extension I’d argue that humanity at large ( and you can go beyond if you wish ) is implicitly agnostic on psmith’s (#2) argument.

    His/her sense of self came to be because the initial step was not terminated, and thus he/she gives a lot of importance to it. Our collective scientific knowledge is conditioned upon the well being of a lot of scientists and to protect that we try to not kill each other ( or sometimes even other species ). And you can go higher up. Or to break it down, “I” or “self” or whatever you think is being selected for can be divided up into components :-

    self = … + a1 * atoms + … + a2* genes + … + a3 * phenotype + … + a4 * memes + …

    @Drew (#4) says that psmith is talking in counterfactuals, but so are we; the only difference is the in distribution of the components of “self”; some are very local to “phenotype” while the others slightly broader.

    Epistemologically, mental inertia some people have against abortion is not very different from scientists not taking Many Worlds Interpretation seriously.

  24. GM says:

    20. Brutus Says:
    February 13th, 2012 at 10:38 am
    I don’t know as much about the topic as I would like, but I find it both logical and noble to accept ethical axioms grounding high standards for the inviolability of human life. I don’t want to live in a world in which crushing the skull of an infant in utero is basically a matter of moral indifference. Or where human embryos are created and destroyed as raw material for therapies and experiments. I don’t pretend to have a well-informed and thought out position here. Thought-provoking post…

    This relates to the issue of the world as it is versus the world as we wish it would have been. Sure, it would have been nice if the world was created with us in mind and we were created in God’s image and basically everything revolved around us. But that’s not the case and the world turns out to be an enormous cold indifferent colorless place that does not at all care about our utterly insignificant existence in a tiny corner somewhere in it. And we can’t do anything about it.

    Similar thing with abortion and infanticide. We can decide that those things are bad and try to eliminate them but the reality is that they are inescapable and necessary part of our existence. Cannibalism, especially towards young individuals is widespread and perfectly normal practice in many species. Ugly, but that’s how it is, there are reasons for that behavior having to do with the cold brutal logic of evolution. Then, what is more important, all species are products of that process of evolution the only dictate of which is that you should be a very successful self-replicator, and as a result all organisms are very potent self-replicators.

    This has two very important consequences for us humans living in a sedentary modern culture:

    1. Women can get pregnant even when they do not want to get pregnant and more importantly, when they are not ready to give birth to and raise a child.
    2. On a more global level, because we have become the dominant species on the planet and there are no external checks on our numbers anymore, we have the potential to overpopulate the planet, with disastrous consequences for both us and the planet as a whole. In fact, we’ve already done that.

    So it is inevitable and necessary, not matter whether some of us may find the thought repugnant and horrifying, that:

    1. Women are allowed to not have babies they do not want / can not raise
    2. As a whole, we need to drastically reduce our numbers and keep them in check forever after that, which clashes head on with our fundamental biological urge to procreate so any successful program to achieve that would involve either a lot of voluntary abortion and crushing of baby heads in utero (in the best case scenario in which everyone is on board) or a lot of forced abortions and infanticide (in the more likely scenario in which people resist such measures).

    The alternative is certain end of civilization as we know it, likely extinction of humans and possible extinction of all life on the planet.

    Again, it’s not pretty, it’s unpleasant, but nobody owes us a pleasant carefree and meaningful existence – the universe is a cold and indifferent place that doesn’t care about us, its laws are what they are and we either face reality and adapt our behavior accordingly or we ignore them at our own peril

  25. Charles Ames says:

    If my moral code prevents me from aborting a pregnancy, why do I need a law saying I am forbidden to do so?

    My country promises religious freedom by establishing that you may not abridge my rights because of your religious beliefs. In other words, your religious freedom does not give you the right to force your beliefs on me, or anyone else. What you do in your church is your business. Stay out of my house, stay out of my bedroom, and stay away from my body.