The relevance of science to the debate on abortion

VJ Torley has linked to a National Review article criticising a You-tube video by Bill Nye. I don’t think Nye is right but he raises a good point which the article evades. Nye argues that “many, many more hundreds of eggs are fertilized than become humans” – the biggest failure rate is right at the beginning, a high percentage fail to be embedded in the uterine wall – so if you accord fertilized eggs the same rights as humans, then who should be sued/sent  to jail for this failure?

The NR review article is quite right to point out that there is a moral difference between an intentional intervention like abortion and natural unavoidable wastage. But it is  nevertheless relevant that many more fertilised eggs fail to embed than succeed.If you really think that a fertilised egg is morally equivalent to a human being then this process represents a loss of life far larger than abortion, malaria, war or pretty much anything else you can mention. It means many more “individuals” die from this process than are ever born. A truly staggering disaster. Sure It is no one’s fault, but why does no one seem to care very much?  Where are the appeals for research into avoiding this tragedy? Where is the mourning for all these dead individuals? Surely we should be diverting research from relatively minor natural killers like malaria to this worst of all natural tragedies?

This doesn’t happen because only crackpots really believe that a fertilised egg has the moral rights of a new born baby. But it only becomes obvious when the consequences are made clear. The abortion debate turns on whether a fertilised egg is morally equivalent to a new born baby. If someone believes they are morally equivalent then I can’t prove them wrong (I am a subjectivist after all) but they have to face up to the consequences of their belief and the science tells them they should be appalled by the tragedy of failure to embed in the uterus.

There is another twist to this.  Like many articles, the NR article argues that the fertilised egg is morally equivalent to a baby on the grounds that is a genetically distinct individual. This is a materialist argument. There is no mention of the soul. Surely most Christians think that the individual is not a bunch of chemicals, however special the bunch, but something spiritual? There are many theories about when the soul gets attached to the body but there doesn’t seem to be any reason to suppose it is attached when the process of creating the body gets started, especially as that process can lead to more than one body at that stage – each of which would presumably have its own soul.

Some things are not so simple

I have been distracted for months but I thought I would look in on UD to see if anything had changed.  All is much the same but I was struck by this OP from Barry. The thrust of the post is that Barry is a plain-speaking chap stating obvious ethical truths and anyone denying it is using sophistry and is evil.  The particular “obvious truth” that Barry is discussing is:

Anyone who cannot unambiguously condemn the practice of chopping little boys and girls up and selling the pieces like so much meat shares in the evil of those who do so.

I would argue that this gives the appearance of simplicity but hides considerable complexity and subtlety. It also illustrates how Barry, like everyone else, is actually a subjectivist in practice, whatever he might say in theory.

There is one obvious way in which this is statement is too simple.  It leaves out whether the little boys and girls are alive or dead. Most people find it morally acceptable to reuse organs from people (including babies and infants) who have recently died.

But also the statement is packed with emotional use of language. (Throughout this I assume Barry is referring to the practice of using parts of aborted foetuses for research and/or treatment and charging for providing those parts).

1) “Meat” suggests flesh that is to be eaten. I don’t think anyone is selling foetuses to go into meat pies.

2) “Chopping up”. Body parts from foetuses presumably have to be extracted very carefully under controlled conditions to be useful. To describe this as chopping up is technically accurate but again has connotations of a butcher.

3) “Little boys and girls”. By describing a foetus as a little boy or girl,  Barry appeals to our emotional response to little boys and girls that we meet, embrace and talk to.

4) “selling” suggests a product which is being produced, stocked and sold with the objective of creating a profit. It would indeed be shocking if organisations were deliberately getting mothers to abort so they could make a profit from selling the body parts. If you describe the same activity as covering the cost of extracting and preserving body parts of reuse it sounds quite different (the cost has to be recovered somehow or it would never happen).

What interests me is how Barry has chosen words for their emotional impact to make an ethical argument. If it had been described as:

Reusing parts of aborted foetuses for research and/or treatment and charging for providing those parts.

then it sounds a lot more morally acceptable than

chopping little boys and girls up and selling the pieces like so much meat

If morality were objective then it shouldn’t matter how you describe it.  It is just a matter of observation and/or deduction – like working out the temperature on the surface of Mars. But ethics is actually a matter of our emotional responses so Barry has to use emotional language to make his point.

What is Science?

Vincent has written an interesting OP about an essay that George Orwell wrote: what is science?

Orwell distinguishes between science as a method and science as a body of facts. I think most of us accept that. Both  Orwell and Vincent seem to be in favour of teaching the method but not the facts.

The demand for more science education, as Orwell astutely perceived, reflects an underlying political agenda, based on the naive belief – falsified by history –

Although what those facts are has changed. Vincent writes:

In Orwell’s day, it was seen as a Good Thing that students should learn about “radioactivity, or the stars, or the physiology or their own bodies”; nowadays, educating our young about Darwinian evolution, sexual health for kindergartners, and global warming is deemed to be the latest Good Thing. The focus has changed; but sadly, the paternalistic mindset of the “powers that be” hasn’t.

And the reason is we should avoid teaching scientific facts is because all science is political and the naive belief – falsified by history – that we’d all be better off if scientists ruled the world

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Atheism and Christian Culture

I just posted a comment on UD which I thought might be worth expanding on and sharing. The context was this OP from News (Denyse). In it she wrote:

Does any reader know of an atheist who plays Christmas carols every year in front of his family and lab staff, and who reads T. S. Eliot aloud to his wife and daughter on his deathbed? I certainly don’t. I’d be willing to bet Professor Coyne that John Franklin Enders, who has been called “The Father of Modern Vaccines,” believed in God and didn’t view religion as a cause of sickness.

I was very surprised by this. She seems to be assuming that all atheists are cut off from their religious heritage. We are not all Richard Dawkins (although he has always valued the contribution of religion and Christianity to our culture and knows the Bible better than many Christians). I like to go church from time to time and appreciate the role it places in our community. My wife, also an atheist, is a long-standing member of the choir. I absolutely accept the importance of Christianity in moulding who I am and the society I live in and I don’t think of this as a bad (or good) thing. We all live in some context. So why wouldn’t carols, TS Eliot and even the Bible be an important part of my life – just like Shakespeare and the Greek myths?

Atheism is not a religion. I suspect some theists don’t quite understand the implications of this. Atheists have no rituals,no festivals,no classic literature,no community identity,no common beliefs beyond a lack of belief in the supernatural.  If you are an atheist then typically your atheism is not an important part of your life. The new atheists seem to be trying to change that. I don’t see why. It seems artificial. There are plenty of other elements to our culture which are more deeply engrained and satisfying than not believing in something. (In fact I signed up as a Bright briefly but I found there was nothing in it for me).

It would be interesting to know how many other atheists here share this attitude.

Some thoughts on causality

I have been enjoying a lengthy debate with Stephenb on causality (Lizzie also contributing brilliantly). It has made me think about causality a bit more deeply. Here are a few loosely connected ideas for comment:

  • We should be wary of making causality into an unnecessary philosophical mystery. To say A causes B is just another way of saying that if A had not happened then B would not have happened. The way we investigate if A causes B experimentally is exactly this – we remove A and see if B still happens, we bring back A and see if B returns.The detail will vary immensely form one situation to another – A and B might be billiard balls moving, A might be a magnetic field coming on and B iron filings aligning, A might be the French revolution and B the rise of Napoleon – but whatever the detail that is the story. If I observe a white ball run into a red ball and the red ball moves then I can see that if the white ball had not run into the red ball would have not have moved.  There isn’t another metaphysical attribute of the event to be deduced – the causal relationship. This is an example of “language bewitching our intelligence” into thinking we need to find something which a word refers to.
  • The law of causality is a methodological tool not a law of logic. The assumption that every event has a cause is methodologically extremely useful. It drives us to investigate the circumstances under which things happen. But it is logically possible that we may find events that sometimes happen and sometimes do not and there are no circumstances that dictate when they happen. This is what appears to have happened in quantum mechanics.


  • The assumption that every contingent thing that comes into existence was brought into existence by something seems to be plucked out of the air.  Among other things “coming into being”, as Lizzie has pointed out, for most things is just a rearrangement of elementary particles and as such is just another event which may or may not have a cause. We are perhaps confused by dwelling on objects with very clear boundaries in time and space such as living creatures or manufactured objects such as balloons. It becomes clearer that there is nothing special from a causality point of view about coming into existence when we  think about fuzzier objects such as mountains and rivers.

A Question for those that doubt Common Descent

Recent posts by Sal remind me that there are some intelligent educated people who doubt Common Descent.  What I don’t understand what they think the alternative is. Put simply I take Common Descent as the position that :

* At one time there was only very simple unicellular life on earth (this is not a debate about how that unicellular life originated)

* Complex life forms (eukaryotes) are created by slight modifications from other life forms (which are their parents). We have never observed them being created any other way!

* All complex life forms are the descended from a very small number of simple life forms – quite possibly just one.

The alternatives I can imagine are:

* Complex life descended many different times from simple life forms – so e.g. mammals descended from a different simple life form from fish. This flies in the face of the fossil record and the hierarchical nature of complex life but I can sort of understand it.

* Complex life from time to time gives birth to wholly different species – massively implausible.

* Complex life is created anew by some process never imagined or observed – even more implausible but presumably what Young Earth creationists believe.

But maybe there is another option?

If Sal or someone could explain I would be interested.

VJ Torley on Order versus Complexity

VJ has written, by his standards, a short post distinguishing order from complexity (a mere 1400 words). To sum it up – a pattern has order if it can be generated from a few simple principles. It has complexity if it can’t.  There are some well known problems with this – one of which being that it is not possible to prove that a given pattern cannot be generated from a few simple principles.  However, I don’t dispute the distinction. The curious thing is that Dembski defines specification in terms of a pattern that can  generated from a few simple principles. So no pattern can be both complex in VJ’s sense and specified in Dembski’s sense.

At the heart of this the problem is that Dembski has written a paper that most IDers would find unacceptable if they took the trouble to understand it.  But they don’t quite have the courage to say they disagree. That is why this comment from  Eric Anderson made me chuckle:

Second, why is it so hard for some people to get it through their heads that the issue is not “order”? Is this really hard to understand, or just that so many people haven’t been properly educated about the issues?

I wonder which one it is in William Dembski’s case?


TJ has written a 4000 word appendix to this post. I haven’t time to read it all but it appears that he accepts that some of his original OP was wrong. It is rare for people to admit they are wrong in heated Internet debates so all credit to him. In particular he appears to accept that there is considerable confusion about order, complexity, and specification within the ID community (why else the need to propose his own definitions?).

What would be really nice would a similar admission from Eric Anderson that the ID community needs to sort out its own definitions before complaining that others are incapable of understanding them.

Gpuccio on compatibilism and moral responsibility

Gpuccio has written a couple of comments intended for the impressive RDFish.  RDF hasn’t responded – I suspect because he/she is concentrating on responding to StephenB on another thread.  I find it  disconcerting that GP, who is a nice chap, should get so emotional and dismissive of a respectable (and in my view correct) view of free will. So I am going to dive-in in RDF’s absence and hope GP sees this.It is over 1000 words and repeats some rather well known things about compatibilism. I wouldn’t waste your time reading it unless you think compatibilism is self-evident rubbish.

To see the strength of GP’s feelings on this here are a couple of quotes:

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Why be concise?

This is an obsession of mine, but I think it matters.  From to time we are all guilty of over-long sentences,  unnecessarily long, unusual, technical or abstract words, or just writing too much. But surely some of the citizens of UD are the worst offenders. I was moved to write this by the most recent post from KF which runs to  3000 words – quite short by his standards but rather longer than the word limit for most university essays. I don’t often have time to wade through posts of this length but for once I tried and I think it can be summarised as:

Materialism means there is no ultimate foundation for ethics and no human free will and this leads to all sorts of evil behaviour.

(I may have missed other important points amongst the deluge)

I am picking on KF because he just posted and he is a serial offender, but many of us do it on both sides of the debate. Does it matter if posts and comments are too long and difficult to read? After all isn’t it the content that matters not the presentation?  I don’t think so.

  • Your critics are unlikely to take the time to read it. So you have subtly cut off discussion and debate.
  • It often covers sloppy thinking. It is so easy to hide fallacies and lack of evidence under a blizzard of abstractions and quotes.

On a more personal level it is egocentric. It is saying that I and my idea are so important you should all be prepared to spend the next 30 minutes wading through my post. My time is too important to be spent extracting the essential points and anyway I want to show how clever I am.

Now I am must stop before I go on too long Smile