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Metaphysics and Abortion

August 30, 2011

“The pro-life position has nothing to do with metaphysics.”

That’s Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry responding to this post by Matthew Yglesias in which Yglesias says that he doesn’t accept “the erroneous metaphysics of the anti-abortion movement.” I’m not sure what Yglesias means by the word “metaphysics,” but Gobry clearly takes him to mean religious beliefs, and sets out to frame the anti-abortion argument in non-religious terms:

Whether life begins at conception isn’t a matter of religious faith, it’s a scientific question, and the answer isn’t very hard. Of course, you can choose to disbelieve it, just like you can choose to not to believe that CO2 molecules redirect infrared variations.

Now, science isn’t a moral guide. The fact that a fetus is a living human being doesn’t necessarily entail that it should receive legal protection. But again, resolving this issue requires no recourse to metaphysics.

It requires asking what are the criteria for qualifying as a person endowed with rights.

At first blush, it seems to me and many others that the entire project of the Enlightenment and modern Western civilization is premised on the idea that every single human being has certain inalienable rights. That these rights are not earned through accomplishment or inherited from forebears but that they are, well, universal, received simply by virtue of being human, and that it is incumbent on any just, or at least liberal, government to protect the rights of all human beings under its writ, not just the most visible.

Thing is, what Gobry’s describing here is metaphysics (and ethics, of course). Asking from a philosophical standpoint what it means to be a human person is asking a metaphysical question.  Because metaphysics studies being, philosophical inquiry into what it means to be human falls under metaphysics.  Now it may be that Yglesias doesn’t accept certain religious beliefs about the nascent human life, and that’s why he rejects the arguments of pro-lifers; but it may also (or instead) be the case that Yglesias disagrees with the philosophical arguments that attribute personhood to the unborn human life.

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72 Comments
  1. Rodak permalink
    August 30, 2011 10:45 am

    If “personhood” begins at conception, what does one say about the large percentage of conceptions that fail to thrive?

    • August 30, 2011 12:01 pm

      Persons die?

      • August 30, 2011 12:23 pm

        Is there any way that you guys could implement some sort of feature that would enable us to “like” certain comments?

      • hazemyth permalink
        August 30, 2011 3:52 pm

        Now I wonder how many people here would ‘like’ the statement that persons die. ;)

    • August 30, 2011 1:23 pm

      Hard to prove, actually, though oft-conjectured.

      Nevertheless, the traditional point for that was pegged at 40-days of course, not conception. Yet they never made a distinction as regards abortion, which is homicide either way, even if virtual. The ensoulment/personhood question is a metaphysical one, but the condemnation of abortion, even as a sort of homicide, does not depend on personhood necessarily.

    • Mark Gordon permalink
      August 30, 2011 1:45 pm

      If “personhood” begins at birth, what does one say about the 100% of born people who eventually die?

  2. Thales permalink
    August 30, 2011 11:02 am

    Kyle,

    I think that you might be talking past Gobry here, or there is some inexact language in Gobry’s post, or there is some lack of clarity in the the specific definitions and terms used. I find it is important to be very clear.

    Gobry is making the point that the first question in this debate is not one grounded in metaphysics, it’s a purely scientific one. This first question is “what is the fetus?”. The answer is a scientific one: an independently maturing human entity. Gobry calls it a “human being”. And “resolving this issue requires no recourse to metaphysics.”

    The second question – which is the more difficult one – is what rights this human being should be granted. Gobry is saying that this is a different question from the first question and that it is “a wholly debatable argument.” Throughout human history, there are examples of human beings who are bereft of human rights. And the rights of one human being are often subordinated to the rights of another human being or subordinated to the state (eg, the right to life of a deadly attacker against me can be subordinated to my right to life; the right to freedom of a convict is taken away when he is in prison). In the context of the abortion debate, Gobry recognizes that a person can talk about the fact that “maybe a fetus has a right to life, but a woman’s right to not be pregnant is stronger.” But Gobry’s point is that this second question is different from, and subsequent to, the first question, and that the first question is a not a metaphysical one.

    Now is the second question a metaphysical one? I’m not sure. From Gobry’s view, no: it’s certainly an ethical one, but it’s not a question asking about the being of the fetus, and therefore, not metaphysical. I think the source of the lack of clarity in the abortion debate is that there is often a conflation of the first and second questions into one question: namely, “is the fetus a person?” or “does the fetus have human rights?” Here, the term “person” is often shorthand for the legal and ethical concept of “having certain legal and human rights”. Gobry wants to separate this into two parts. The first part asks “what is a fetus?”, and the scientific, non-metaphysical answer is “human being.” Then the second part asks “what rights does this human being have?”

    • August 30, 2011 12:13 pm

      Yes, clarity is important. When Gobry observes “…that these rights are not earned through accomplishment or inherited from forebears but that they are, well, universal, received simply by virtue of being human,” he’s speaking of the being of being human, what being human entails about receiving unalienable rights, and therefore, to my mind, making a metaphysical point, or, to be more precise, an ethical point based on a metaphysical one. He’s saying that human beings have rights because of the kind of being they are. That’s not just a statement about the physical nature of human beings. It’s metaphysical.

      • Thales permalink
        August 30, 2011 12:55 pm

        Yes, I agree with you. That’s why I wonder whether Gobry is being inexact in his language. Or maybe you and Gobry have slightly different definitions of metaphysics.

        Above, I talked about two “parts” to this issue. The “first part” is the question what is the fetus. Gobry says that is a living human being. Gobry then talks about what I call the “second part” when he says “The fact that a fetus is a living human being doesn’t necessarily entail that it should receive legal protection.” Gobry then says that this second part “requires no recourse to metaphysics. It requires asking what are the criteria for qualifying as a person endowed with rights.”

        Take a fetus, a criminal, and a deadly attacker. I think Gobry would say that what these three things are is not a metaphysical question but a scientific one: they are human beings. I think Gobry would then say that the next question is what rights these human beings are entitled to, and I think Gobry would say that this is not a metaphysical question either, but an ethical one (or maybe he’d described it another way).

        I don’t know if Gobry is correct in describing it this way — because I see that you make a valid point that this “second part” might be metaphysical in a sense. So it makes me wonder whether there are different definitions of “metaphysical” going on here.

      • August 30, 2011 3:15 pm

        I sense the difference of definition is what’s going on. Gobry seems to use it as a name for religious beliefs. I’m not sure how Yglesias typically uses it.

      • Thales permalink
        August 30, 2011 5:36 pm

        I agree.

  3. brettsalkeld permalink*
    August 30, 2011 11:58 am

    Denial of metaphysics is the worst metaphysical option available.

    • August 30, 2011 12:14 pm

      It makes for one hell of a party, though. Personally, I try to keep my metaphysics at a minimum.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
      August 30, 2011 4:03 pm

      Zizek believes that this is one of the worst faults of 20th century philosphy: its rejection of metaphysics.

      • brettsalkeld permalink*
        August 30, 2011 4:20 pm

        He’s right. Buggers up sacramental theology real good. Among other things.

  4. Rodak permalink
    August 30, 2011 3:00 pm

    Saying “persons die” in response to my opening question seems a bit too easy. If we are going to say that we have a person at the moment of conception, and that this person is a person in the eyes of God, known to God and loved by God as a person, we need to have some rational explanation for God creating and then condemning to physical death that person, all within a matter of a few hours.

    • August 30, 2011 3:16 pm

      We do? Why?

    • Mark Gordon permalink
      August 30, 2011 3:32 pm

      Rodak, it is a complete non sequitur. Persons die. All persons, whether born or unborn. Now, if you want a rational basis for persons, all persons, dying, we might identify “nature” and moral evil. Non-induced miscarriage – along with hurricanes, cancer, and a trip on the stairs – is an example of the former. Abortion – along with war, murder, and malignant neglect – is an example of the latter.

    • August 30, 2011 3:51 pm

      I think Kyle’s was the most reasonable response to the question. Put it this way. How does your new question here really differ in substance from:

      “If we are going to say that we have a person from birth and that this person is a person in the eyes of God, known to God and loved by God as a person, we need to have some rational explanation for God creating and then condemning to physical death that person, all within a matter of a few decades.”

      That is, what other question is relevant here beyond the question of why people die in the first place? The only discernible other difference here is timetable. But what substantive difference would the timetable really make that would be relevant to whether the fetus is a person? Or, in the other direction, what implications does personhood really have about how long someone should be expected to live, so that prior to that point we should expect some special and identifiable rational explanation for why they didn’t live longer? That is, what else is relevant here beyond death in general?

  5. Rodak permalink
    August 30, 2011 3:24 pm

    Because we don’t understand how, or why, this “slaughter” can be interpreted as either “loving” or “rational” on the part of God.

    • August 30, 2011 3:53 pm

      But isn’t the same thing true of death in general. After all, we all die; one could just as easily say, “we don’t understand how, or why, this ‘slaughter’ can be interpreted as either ‘loving’ or ‘rational’ on the part of God.” It seems very much that you are simply saying that we need an explanation for death — and that’s the whole of it, nothing in particular to do with the personhood of fetuses.

      • Mark Gordon permalink
        August 30, 2011 4:33 pm

        And that is why in this discussion, it is beside the point.

      • August 30, 2011 4:53 pm

        It seems very much that you are simply saying that we need an explanation for death — and that’s the whole of it, nothing in particular to do with the personhood of fetuses.

        But Christians have an explanation for death. It is the beginning of the next life—in heaven if you passed, in hell if you failed. Death is necessary, and once you have lived long enough, it may even be desired. The oldest living person I know at the moment looks forward to death. But death before a person has even lived makes absolutely no sense. And as I pointed out elsewhere, we don’t pretend to know the fate of embryos or fetuses that die.

        Of course, in the natural world, we can explain why in many species so many die young. The odds of living aren’t very good, so a species produces many young so enough will survive to perpetuate the species. But for humans, that is not a good answer.

      • Rodak permalink
        August 30, 2011 6:23 pm

        No, it’s not at all the same thing. If we are born, and if we live long enough to enjoy the Creation and come to know God, then we can say that we have an understanding of death–our own, as well as those of others. We can have an understanding of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and of His triumph over death. If death is the enemy; and if being is a Good, then the more being we are able to enjoy, and the more fully we are able to experience it, the greater is our opportunity to love.

      • August 30, 2011 6:53 pm

        I fail to see that this makes any difference of any significance. Everything you say is unaffected whether you are considering embryonic death, or fetal death, or infant death, or childhood death, or the worries of early Japanese Christians about the deaths of their ancestors prior to hearing the gospel; nothing you give here involves any cut-off point. Again, you seem to be taking a general problem and pretending it has only specific significance.

    • August 30, 2011 3:56 pm

      Why must this “how” or “why” be understood? I’m not sure it can be. I’ve thought about this a lot, having lost a child hours after birth and another while still in the womb. I’ve no answers. Not even the beginning of an answer. If anything, I ceased altogether imagining God as involved in the world in the manner of an engineer keeping the machine going as smoothly as possible. I don’t look for God’s controlling hand amidst life’s disasters. If God’s hand is present, it is the hand of one who weeps and suffers with me, who extends a hand in sympathy and understanding and reminds me that love has no time constraints.

      • Mark Gordon permalink
        August 30, 2011 4:32 pm

        Amen.

      • Rodak permalink
        August 30, 2011 6:27 pm

        We might conjecture that the tragic deaths you have experienced somehow redound to your benefit in God’s plan. This may be a stretch, but it is at least a rational approach to the question. It is an answer that is not wholly absurd.
        The deaths, however, of fertilized eggs are not even known about by either parent. They happen without having had any measurable affect on the world, or the people involved.

      • Darwin permalink
        August 31, 2011 8:21 am

        Well said, Kyle. (all the way up the line)

        Rodak,

        It seems to me that you’re trying out assumptions of human worth based either on experience (the idea that someone has lived enough and can now accept death) or on affect on others. However, if we’re serious about the idea that people have souls, and that those souls are created by God and capable of relating to Him in an afterlife, I’m not clear how the objection works. Indeed, it seems like it’s more an objection which holds if we don’t believe in an afterlife, but want to base worth in this life instead — either our own experiences or other people’s.

    • Thales permalink
      August 30, 2011 3:59 pm

      Rodak,
      This sounds like a version of the problem of evil. Why does God allow millions of babies to die at childbirth, or millions of infants to die due to starvation, or millions of people to die in their youth due to cancer, or car accidents, or tsunamis, or earthquakes? And even more fundamentally, why does God make every single person who ever existed have to die?

      • Rodak permalink
        August 30, 2011 6:30 pm

        See above. Also, man has a hand in most of the kinds of death you cite. But, finally, scripture gives us an understandable answer as to why death entered the picture. You can accept that answer, or reject it, but either way you can understand it.
        What I can’t understand is a God who seems to be the equivalent of a toddler who stacks up his blocks, only to immediately knock them down again; and who is greatly amused by doing this over and over again.

      • Thales permalink
        August 31, 2011 8:32 am

        Generally, man does not have a hand in the millions of miscarriages, of stillbirths, of infant deaths from defects, and of deaths from sickness and natural disasters.

  6. August 30, 2011 4:29 pm

    The issue about the extremely large percentage of early embryos that die (60% to 80%), coupled with the belief that a person is present from the moment of conception, raises the question, What are people for? Catholicism thought it had the answer. To go back to the Baltimore Catechism:

    6. Q. Why did God make you?
    A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.

    It used to be thought that that answer applied pretty much to everyone, with some exceptions. Now, the people who survive to live a life on earth are the exceptions. And what happens to the majority? We don’t know. The Church doesn’t pretend to know. If the 60% to 80% of early embryos who die before implantation are considered infants who die without baptism, the Church has no answer as to what their eternal fate is. The Church offers a hope that they will be saved, but there really is no explanation for how they can be.

    Take just about anything important about Christianity, and its importance is to physical beings who can learn and understand. The sacraments are outward signs. Why? Because we’re physical beings, and we need outward signs. Christians are supposed to preach the Gospel and convert all nations. Jesus said, “He who has ears, let him hear.” But 60% to 80% will never have ears to hear the Gospel. Jesus said, “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” But it is impossible to baptize the 60% to 80% of persons who die before implantation. Nor, in their case, does Baptism of Blood or Baptism of Desire make any sense. Some Protestants I have discussed this issue with have no problems at all answering the question about the fate of the unbaptized. They go to hell. Period. At least we can be grateful that the Catholic Church says, “We don’t know.” The idea that God designed human reproduction largely to populate hell is certainly one I can’t accept.

    So for me, the idea that personhood begins at conception and 60% to 80% of persons die within a few days strikes a devastating blow to the explanatory power of Catholicism. What does the Catholic Church have to do with the huge number of persons who never live on earth? What does the death of Jesus have to do with the huge number of people who will never hear about him or have a chance to accept him, because they will never have a brain?

    Almost everyone I say this to shrugs it off. Maybe part of my problem is that when I received my Catholic education, the Church had an answer for everything. Now, there is this huge area (if the vast majority of people never live more than a few days as a tiny clump of cells) about the Church can say almost nothing.

    Of course, if it is true that personhood begins at conception, and if it is true that 60% to 80% of persons die within a few days of being conceived, one can say, “So?” It doesn’t really prove anything. It’s kind of like finding out that the earth isn’t the center of the universe, or that human beings evolved rather than descending from Adam and Eve. But in the very least, it causes a change in perspective. And it raises the question, “Why?” We thought we knew what people were for, but now the existence of most of them is an insoluble mystery.

    And—here’s the part that makes people angry—if those who die before birth are definitely saved, are they perhaps not the fortunate ones? If you believe in hell, and all who die before birth are saved, then all who survive (to the age of reason) are at risk. There are no guarantees for anyone who lives a life on earth. Your fate may be eternal damnation. Is 70 or so years of life on earth so good that it’s worth risking damnation for? And if it really is that good, why is it denied to the vast majority?

    • Dan permalink
      August 30, 2011 5:58 pm

      Unless, of course, the issue isn’t with death, but rather what we mistakenly believe salvation to mean. Heaven and hell are likely meaningless to an embryo. Hell most certainly is.

    • Rodak permalink
      August 30, 2011 6:33 pm

      You have given a much more detailed, and well thought out version of what I touched on briefly above. You raise issues for which I’m very much afraid there are no answers available to the orthodox Christian.

    • August 30, 2011 7:18 pm

      This whole argument strikes me as simply absurd through and through. For instance, you say, Now, the people who survive to live a life on earth are the exceptions. And on what conceivable basis do you make such a bold claim? Answers like that in the Baltimore Catechism were never based on an inductive survey, as if they looked at every single possible case they could think of and said, “Oh, yes, we have a clear account showing that they exist to to know God, love God, etc.” Rather, it was a conclusion from general principles assumed on the basis of Church teaching. Since we don’t, in fact, know that they are exceptions, and since the answer never depended on having a detailed explanation of how this purpose is fulfilled in all cases, the case is not relevant as a counterexample, and the original answer remains as strong, or weak, as it originally was, based on the principles it was. The attempt to make the one meet up with the other looks more like vague imaginative association than serious reasoning.

      Likewise, the explanation for how they could be saved is exactly the same as that for baptized infants. There has never been any problem with explaining such things: divine mercy extends as far as God wishes, and on the same basis. The problem with unbaptized infants is with what the Church can establish as known or highly probable on the basis of what it has in hand, as opposed to (say) what it can allow as a reasonable hope, not with a lack of explanation for such things. Of course, one could perhaps argue that any instance of death in which one does not have a complete and certain explanation of why God would allow it is somehow a general problem for the Catholic view of the afterlife; but a lot more work would be needed to make an argument of that sort seriously viable.

      Given the sheer number of issues through the millenia on which the Church has refused to make any definitive decision, I don’t think it makes any sense whatsoever to try to suggest that suddenly and for no reason the Church has suddenly moved from giving answers about everything to being able to say nothing about lots of things.

      I find the notion of people being enviously angry at the good fortune of people dying in the womb extremely funny, I’m afraid, so I’m not going to touch that one for fear of saying something I’ll really regret later.

      In short, I don’t see that this line of argument has any viability whatsoever; it goes vague in all the wrong places, definite in all the wrong places, and involves assumptions about theodicy that seem somewhat odd. But it could be that it just needs a better venue than a comments box.

  7. Thales permalink
    August 30, 2011 5:47 pm

    So for me, the idea that personhood begins at conception and 60% to 80% of persons die within a few days strikes a devastating blow to the explanatory power of Catholicism. What does the Catholic Church have to do with the huge number of persons who never live on earth? What does the death of Jesus have to do with the huge number of people who will never hear about him or have a chance to accept him, because they will never have a brain?

    David,

    Do you have the same thoughts when you think of the millions of people who died before Christ and couldn’t accept him, the millions who died after Christ with no chance of being evangelized (like tribes in the Amazon), the millions of several month-old fetuses with a brain who died in miscarriages, the millions of babies who were stillborn, and the millions of infants who died shortly after birth due to some defect?

    • Rodak permalink
      August 30, 2011 6:46 pm

      Thales–There are rational answers to all of those questions. The Church(es) have addressed those questions and answered them. Again–you can accept or reject the answers given; but you have to admit that the answers have been given and are not absurd, whether you agree with them, or not.
      I have yet to hear any answer directly addressing the question I initially asked; or any of the elaborations on that question posed by David Nickol.
      All that I’m hearing is: Don’t ask that.

      • August 30, 2011 7:20 pm

        This is not what is being said, though. What’s being said is, “How is this supposed to create some special problem on this point in particular rather than simply being an instance of a more general question that has already been addressed?” You still haven’t explained this, which is essentially for addressing the question in the first place; your responses to this question have all been very vague and have failed actually to answer it. Perhaps there is some speaking past each other on this.

      • Thales permalink
        August 31, 2011 8:45 am

        Rodak,
        See my reply below.

  8. Dan permalink
    August 30, 2011 5:52 pm

    To go back to the Baltimore Catechism:
    6. Q. Why did God make you?
    A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.

    That’s only one answer and doesn’t reflect the Church as a whole. The African church has a very different answer, and one that I personally find much more satisfying:

    Q. Why did God make you?
    A. Because he thought you would enjoy it

  9. Diamonds permalink
    August 30, 2011 6:38 pm

    David,

    Thank you for succinctly describing the questions I have often had.

    As the mother of six living children and four who died in early pregnancy, I can say that these questions can and do matter to people.

  10. Rodak permalink
    August 30, 2011 7:46 pm

    Brandon–If I’m understanding correctly what you’re saying, I disagree with your premise. The specific question has been asked–very succinctly by me; and in much greater detail by David Nickol. If you feel you need some clarification of the issue at hand, please identify those points which you are not understanding.

  11. Ronald King permalink
    August 31, 2011 8:08 am

    If we are here to seek God through a physical existence and to learn to love one another then it seems every human being’s existence has meaning for that period of time of existence. The soul that does not develop to the point of self awareness within the limitations of the human body would still seem to exist within the unknown and unseen realm of an infinite universe with infinite possibilities for experience and purpose. For those of us who “live” here it seems that experience and purpose must be understood within the chaos of human interaction and the resulting chaos of neurobiological reactions which lead us into either fear induced rigidity of belief and the emotional violence of control and domination or influence us into the search for love and the mystery of ambiguity underlying the dominant pervasive fear of being human.

  12. Thales permalink
    August 31, 2011 8:40 am

    Rodak,

    In my opinion, the situation of embryos dying a few days after conception is the same situation as several-month-old fetuses dying in miscarriage, unborn babies dying in stillbirth, and infants dying without baptism shortly after birth due to some defect. It is my understanding that the Church views all of these situations the same way, since they all involve human beings dying before the opportunity for baptism. You apparently think the first situation is very distinct and different from the latter situations. But you have not explained why the first situation is different from the latter situations.

    • Thales permalink
      August 31, 2011 8:54 am

      Another thought: the fact that the Church views unimplanted embryos as having humanity and that the Church views their deaths/destruction with sadness, is clear when considering the Church’s opposition to in vitro fertilization and embryo-stem-cell-research.

  13. Darwin permalink
    August 31, 2011 8:43 am

    So for me, the idea that personhood begins at conception and 60% to 80% of persons die within a few days strikes a devastating blow to the explanatory power of Catholicism. What does the Catholic Church have to do with the huge number of persons who never live on earth?

    What I’m finding myself very confused by is how this is any different from what the Church has to do with the huge number of people who have lived on earth but have not had the chance the encounter the Church. Say that we’ve been “human” in the sense of having souls for anywhere from 40,000 to 1,000,000,000 years — how many generations is that before Christ? Remote tribes, miscarriages, children born at birth, etc. Rodak said:

    There are rational answers to all of those questions. The Church(es) have addressed those questions and answered them. Again–you can accept or reject the answers given; but you have to admit that the answers have been given and are not absurd, whether you agree with them, or not.

    I guess what several of us seem unclear on is: How is the question of embryos dying in the first few days of life different from these other questions? All of these are people who die without having known Christ. All of them are people whose temporal lives are an infinitesimal span compared to eternal Now which God inhabits. And yet all of them would, from a Catholic point of view, be known and treasured by God in their uniqueness and dealt with as appropriate to their relation with Him — something we’re simply not in a position to know about since it’s “not our story” (if we’re using the Baltimore Catechism here I assume I can fall back on Aslan as well.)

    What does the death of Jesus have to do with the huge number of people who will never hear about him or have a chance to accept him, because they will never have a brain?

    Perhaps this is part of the issue here. It seems to me that implicit in all this is the idea the soul/being/person would necessarily be limited in some sense permanently by the state of development of the body to which it was knit while in this world. Thus, an embryo that died at three days would in some sense be at a disadvantage compared to the baby my wife and I lost at eight weeks gestation, who would in turn be at a disadvantage compared to my brother who died at six months who would in turn be at a disadvantage compared to my father who died at 57.

    One can imagine this to be the case, but I’m not necessarily clear why we must necessarily do so. We really have no idea how souls “work”, and I don’t see why we have to imagine that the soul of a person who died without ever having had a brain would be less able to encounter Christ and react to Him than the soul of someone who had lived out some eighty odd years on this soil.

    If we assume that the soul is some sort of copy or ghost of the body which lives on in the state of development and awareness that the body was in at death, all of this becomes a problem, but I see no reason for saying that it is (or that it isn’t) — we simply don’t have the ability to know. And in a sense, I’m not sure to what degree it’s any of our business.

    • Rodak permalink
      August 31, 2011 10:21 am

      “And in a sense, I’m not sure to what degree it’s any of our business.”

      Right. As I said above, what I hear in the end is always: “Don’t ask that.”

      • Thales permalink
        August 31, 2011 10:58 am

        I don’t think it’s a “Don’t ask that” situation. It’s more a situation of “we don’t really know because God’s ways are sometimes mysterious.”

    • Rodak permalink
      August 31, 2011 11:03 am

      Somebody, early on, said that what this really is is a tangental take on the philosophical problem of evil. I agree with that. The fundamental question here is: why would an omniscient and omnibenevolent God create a person only to destroy that person without the person having had the opportunity to ever develop into a full person?
      I used the image above of a toddler piling up blocks only to immediately knock them down. That is what this seems like. If an older child piles up blocks to build a fort and then knocks it down playing war, there is a reason for the piling. In the former instance, there is none; at least none that is attributable to a God who is omniscient and omnibenevolent (as well as omnipotent.) I don’t make any real distinction between a zygote and a full-term still birth in this regard. Although, as I said above, at least the parents of a still birth are involved in the death, which is usually not the case in the death of an embryo is the very early stages of development.
      I’m certain that the Church has addressed the issue of the billions of human beings who have been conceived and died without any opportunity to know Christ. Rational explanations can be made for that.
      Science has only recently discovered the large numbers of conceptions that don’t “take.” I don’t know that this has been fully addressed. Certainly it works against the rationale of the pro-life movement. Why should embryonic life be more precious to man than is apparently is to God?

    • Darwin permalink
      August 31, 2011 2:37 pm

      Right. As I said above, what I hear in the end is always: “Don’t ask that.”

      I suppose it depends what you mean by “don’t ask that”. You seem to be taking it in some sort of authoritarian way, “Don’t look at the man behind the curtain!”

      I guess my question is why: Why think that we’re owed an explanation on such a point? Especially just that one in particular? We all die. Many people live fairly painful, unsatisfying or meaningless lives. I don’t really see why this is the One Big Sticking Point.

      The fundamental question here is: why would an omniscient and omnibenevolent God create a person only to destroy that person without the person having had the opportunity to ever develop into a full person?

      How do we know that a two day old embryo is necessarily less of a full person than your and I are?

      Most certainly, a two day old embryo has a body which is capable of doing and perceiving virtually nothing. It doesn’t look much like you or me. No question there. It doesn’t have the experiences in this world that you or I have.

      Aside from that, I’m not clear what it is that we’re claiming to know here. You’re suggesting that God would somehow be very destructive and cruel to create humans who only live in this world for a few days. But do we really know what the experience of a such a soul, in relation to God, is? Do we know what happens to such a soul?

      Is it even more unfair for God to create angels — who never have physical bodies at all?

      I guess I don’t see how we can get angry an our ignorance in this regard. It’s not like we’ve created other universes that we think are better administered.

      Certainly it works against the rationale of the pro-life movement. Why should embryonic life be more precious to man than is apparently is to God?

      Among other things, let’s be clear: This whole pre-implantation death question has absolutely zero to do with abortion. Abortions mostly occur from 8-12 weeks after conception. So if someone wanted to be facile with you they could simply say, “Oh, well, maybe the embryo doesn’t have a soul at 2-4 days, but it has one by four weeks.”

      But the main issue here is that it still runs afoul of the basic insight that Kyle pointed out at the beginning of all this: Your complaint is simply that people die.

      I don’t think we’d say that it’s a problem for the rationale against murder that I might have a heart attack and die tomorrow. Despite the fact that God allows us to die at pretty much any time, the definition of murder is one human taking another human’s life.

  14. Rodak permalink
    August 31, 2011 10:18 am

    “In my opinion, the situation of embryos dying a few days after conception is the same situation as several-month-old fetuses dying in miscarriage, unborn babies dying in stillbirth, and infants dying without baptism shortly after birth due to some defect.”

    Thales–
    I thought that I had already made the distinction above, in a response to a comment by Kyle. I would be happy to elaborate, if you can tell me what, in my previous response, needs to be elaborated upon.

    • Thales permalink
      August 31, 2011 10:56 am

      Rodak,
      I’ve missed the distinction. The elaboration I’m looking for is why you think (a: embryos dying a few days after conception), is different from (b: several-month-old fetuses dying in miscarriage, unborn babies dying in stillbirth, and infants dying without baptism shortly after birth due to some defect).

      • Thales permalink
        August 31, 2011 11:11 am

        Rodak,

        Oh, looking back over the comments, I wonder whether your distinction is that somebody knows about the death in (b), but nobody knows about the death in (a).

        That’s a curious distinction that I haven’t really thought much about. Here is my first reaction to this distinction. Deaths in (b) can also occur without anyone knowing about it and so the distinction falls apart because some (b) deaths are not different from (a). In fact, plenty of people die without anyone else knowing about it. The death of someone with no one else being aware of it doesn’t lessen the significance of that death for the person who died or lessen the significance for God and His plan. And if someone IS aware that a death occurred, it often doesn’t make the death any more explainable to us who are still living, especially if the death is untimely.

  15. Rodak permalink
    August 31, 2011 12:11 pm

    Thales–
    We understand why death entered the world. We have known the reason for that or millennia.

    Let’s go back to the toddler playing with blocks analogy. Where is that analogy wrong?

  16. Rodak permalink
    August 31, 2011 12:50 pm

    Here, I’ll start: in the case of the toddler, we know why he stacks the blocks only to knock them down again–he is learning. He is developing his hand-eye coordination. He is learning about solid objects and their relationship to an outside force, etc. And he is enjoying his own sense of power in being able to thus affect objects in the world by his own will.
    But are any of these motivations of the toddler things that we would want to attribute to our omniscient God (who has nothing to learn); our omnibenevolent God (who loves and sustains his creatures and his creation); or an omnipotent God (who has the power to create everything to be perfect–with the exception that man can deviate from perfection by exercise of his free will)? But, free will does not enter into this issue.
    Why does God create this person at midnight, only to flush it down the toilet in the morning?

    • Thales permalink
      August 31, 2011 1:34 pm

      Rodak,
      Again, I’m not sure where you are coming from. All of your questions about God’s purposes and motivations….. are you thinking only about embryos that die after 3 days, or about every death that is incomprehensible to us (ie, the 4-month miscarried fetus, the baby dead in the tsunami, etc.)? Are you asking about the mysterious nature of God’s ways that He allows the creation of billions of people over the history of the world, but has them live and die without the chance of evangelization? Is your question just a variation of the question someone asked Jesus once: why did those 18 people die when the tower of Siloam fell? (Luke 13:4).

      I don’t know that there is any other answer besides “we don’t really know because God’s ways are sometimes mysterious.”

  17. August 31, 2011 1:37 pm

    I guess what several of us seem unclear on is: How is the question of embryos dying in the first few days of life different from these other questions? All of these are people who die without having known Christ.

    Darwin,

    The Catholic Church recognized a very serious problem with all of the cases you mentioned of people who lived earthly lives and had no chance of hearing the Gospel, and it came up with a solution—baptism of desire.

    1260 “Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.” Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity. [Emphasis in the original]

    That is a major difference. There is a clear path to salvation for those who would have desired baptism, had they only known about it.

    As for the early embryos (and others who never reach the age of reason) who die without baptism, people of my generation were taught that they could not enter heaven. Clearly, baptism of desire is no help here, because it’s meaningless to say that “people” who are incapable of making moral decisions would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity. So for well over a thousand years, we had the concept of Limbo. Maybe it was never an “official” teaching of the Church, but I would like to hear what my grade school nuns would have had to say if I had tried to deny its existence!

    Now, of course, Limbo has pretty much been abandoned:

    1261 As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,”64 allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.

    We can hope that unbaptized infants are saved. But where does that leave the necessity of baptism? If people who don’t know about baptism get the benefit of baptism by being the kind of people who would want to be baptized if they only knew about baptism, and people (unbaptized infants) get the benefit of baptism because they can’t be baptized, baptism is necessary only for those who know about baptism and can get baptized. Correct me if I am wrong, but baptism of desire applies not just to those who never have had the opportunity to hear about Christ, but also to those who have heard and for some reason sincerely don’t believe, but would believe, if only circumstances did not prevent them from doing so.

    So actual baptism isn’t really necessary for the vast majority of persons.

    It seem to me that the Catholic idea is that life on earth is a kind of “test.” If you make the right choices, you pass and go to heaven. If you make the wrong choices, you fail and go to hell. By inventing baptism of desire, the Church found a fair-minded solution to those who didn’t realize life was a test. It gave them credit for acting in such a way that they would pass the test if only they knew they were taking it. That seems quite fair. But infants who die before baptism (and counting early embryos, that may be the vast majority of humanity) don’t have to take the test. The Catholic belief seems to be that at the moment of death, something is fixed in place that can’t be undone. Past the moment of death, the choice you made in life is one you will have to live with for all eternity. But those who die as infants have never made a choice.

    It seems to me the idea of life as some kind of test is central to Catholicism, and if the vast majority of humanity gets an A on the test without ever taking the test, what one needs to explain is what the test is for. Why do so many get out of taking it and earn an eternal “reward” for having done nothing whatsoever? And why do people who live an earthly life and fail the test deserve eternal punishment? They would have been better off to have died as embryos or to have been aborted.

    Dare we hope that all men be saved? If they are, all of this is not a problem. But although the idea has been put forth by respected Catholic theologians, I don’t believe the Catholic Church teaches that all men will be saved. And of course, if all men are saved, in what way does it make any sense to say that baptism is necessary for salvation? Clearly it wouldn’t be.

    • Thales permalink
      August 31, 2011 2:09 pm

      David,

      The debate we were having was “embryos are different from other deaths/no, they aren’t”, and I think that’s what Darwin responded to you about. But now it looks like you’ve dropped or conceded the issue, because you’ve moved on to a different point — you’re now wondering about the millions of deaths of those who had no opportunity to use reason and obtain baptism by desire: ie, all those who died from conception to, say, about 7 years old (the approximate age of reason).

      As for your current point, you say It seem to me that the Catholic idea is that life on earth is a kind of “test.” If you make the right choices, you pass and go to heaven. If you make the wrong choices, you fail and go to hell.

      I would disagree strenuously. That’s not the way to think about it. I think the Catholic idea is that no one deserves to get to Heaven. We all need God’s grace — that’s the only way to attain salvation, and no man can do it on his own. It’s a free and undeserved gift from God. Now the Church happens to know of one way that God gives this free gift of grace to people sufficient for their salvation, because Jesus told us about it: namely by baptism. But that doesn’t mean that God can’t give the grace necessary for salvation by some other way that He hasn’t revealed to us. And we can have hope that God, in His infinite love and mercy, has another way by which He gives grace to the millions of people who died before the age of reason.

    • Darwin permalink
      August 31, 2011 3:10 pm

      David,

      I have the feeling that I’ve already shot my mouth off on this threat a bit much and may be repeating myself, but let me see if I can address this concisely and helpfully:

      With your discussion of baptism of desire and of limbo — I’m sure this depends on when and where one was growing up, but my impression is that baptism of desire was a concept used very sparingly by those who took the theory of limbo seriously. Dante, for instance, puts a couple of pagans in purgatory via baptism of desire, but mostly he puts “virtuous pagans” in limbo. He doesn’t discuss infants, but one assumes they would be in the same place.

      I think part of the problem here is a tendency of Catholics to want to hammer out all the answers rather than simply having enough of the answers. In this sense, the modern approach of “the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God” is perhaps more appropriate. Elementary school catechesis tends to miss these kinds of distinctions, but then so does elementary level teaching on virtually any subject. (Don’t get me started on elementary school explanations of the scientific method.)

      On the test analogy — I think it’s just that: an analogy, and perhaps not the most helpful one. I would not agree with your summary: “It seems to me the idea of life as some kind of test is central to Catholicism”. I think I’d say, rather, that during our lives we try to learn to love and obey God so that we will be able to join him for eternity in heaven, rather than turning away into damnation.

      How that encounter and choice works for those who have had very little time to seek the good or interact with others in an aware sense during this life, I have no idea. I could come up with all sorts of theological fantasies, but they would be just that. Are those who die as children the workers who come late to the vineyard but are paid the same as the rest? Perhaps. Or maybe there is some whole other way that such souls interact with God and make their choices.

      Regardless, it seems to me that the Church exists for those of us who are here, capable of hearing it’s message, and the deposit of faith that has been entrusted to it is aimed at us — not at others that we’re not really able to communicate with effectively.

      Why do so many get out of taking it and earn an eternal “reward” for having done nothing whatsoever? And why do people who live an earthly life and fail the test deserve eternal punishment? They would have been better off to have died as embryos or to have been aborted.

      Hmm, well, I suppose that would give you something to do with the “It would be better for him if he had never been born,” line.

      As Brandon said above, I’m just not clear how to give a straight answer to this kind of question — though I think it’s to an extent removed as a question by my disagreement with the test explanation for life above and my insistence that there is some sort of choice/judgment that all souls face. It seems to me that by the act of going on living all of us seem to think that it’s not actually better not to live — we see living as at least a proximate good. So I’m not seeing the validity of arguing that we would be better off not living and not taking the “risk” of using our lives badly.

      • August 31, 2011 4:09 pm

        It seems to me that by the act of going on living all of us seem to think that it’s not actually better not to live . . . .

        Darwin,

        I would make a distinction between going on living and not starting to live. Of course most people who are alive want to go on living. But what about bypassing earthly life altogether? It seems to me it’s kind of like Pascal’s wager. Suppose at the outset you could choose eternal bliss without an earthly life, or you could choose to have 100 years of earthly life with a chance either of eternal bliss or eternal punishment following. It seems like a no-brainer to me.

        One of the main arguments in favor of heaven is to make up for the pains and injustices of earthly life (“to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears”). But if earthly life is a good, then we have to ask why the majority is not permitted it.

        I do want to make it crystal clear that I do not think anything discussed here in any way gives permission to perform abortions or makes them any less moral than they are to perform, it does, in my opinion, rob the emotional argument against abortion of sympathy for the aborted of much of its potency. Those who claim to feel sympathy or empathy for babies who are aborted because they will miss out on earthly life have to contend with the fact that this is precisely the fate to which God consigns the vast majority of humanity. If abortion is wrong, it is because no human has a right to take another’s life, not that the aborted baby suffers a great deprivation.

      • Darwin permalink
        August 31, 2011 4:30 pm

        Just briefly:

        Suppose at the outset you could choose eternal bliss without an earthly life, or you could choose to have 100 years of earthly life with a chance either of eternal bliss or eternal punishment following. It seems like a no-brainer to me.

        I guess that might be tricky except:

        1) we don’t get to choose whether to spontaneously miscarry or not and
        2) we don’t know what the external fate of such souls is — maybe it’s an “easy a”, maybe it’s some lesser good (limbo), maybe it’s some process by which the soul has certain experiences allowing it to choose for or against God — we have no idea.

        So the question seems kind of moot.

        One of the main arguments in favor of heaven is to make up for the pains and injustices of earthly life (“to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears”). But if earthly life is a good, then we have to ask why the majority is not permitted it.

        I’m not clear that’s an “argument” for heaven, though it is something people say about heaven at times.

        As for why the majority aren’t “permitted” a full life on earthy — I don’t know. Most of the other proximate goods that you and I have most other people now, much less at other times in history have lacked. So it’s not really a new problem.

  18. Ronald King permalink
    August 31, 2011 3:00 pm

    Rodak, Is God a suffering victime of creation? In order to be true to her/his nature God had no choice but to create a universe of infinite possibilities. As a result the natural consequence of birth, death and re-birth would take place until such a time that a natural balance would occur through the interaction of all these seemingly opposing and contradictory forces. As we suffer, God suffers until balance occurs. Now it seems that our part in this is to help create balance through the creative energy of love which unites us to God as co-creators of a new world or universe. Whether the soul experiences the maturation of the body or not the soul would still be a part of this creative process. Now I say this without a filter as thoughts enter and then form on this page.

  19. Rodak permalink
    August 31, 2011 3:00 pm

    “I think the Catholic idea is that no one deserves to get to Heaven. We all need God’s grace — that’s the only way to attain salvation, and no man can do it on his own. It’s a free and undeserved gift from God.”

    That sounds like Protestant doctrine, to me.

    • Thales permalink
      August 31, 2011 3:39 pm

      Nope. See the heresy of Pelagianism.

      • Rodak permalink
        September 1, 2011 1:03 pm

        ??
        I believe that the heresy of Pelagius was that good works alone could bring salvation.

        Protestants believe that no amount of good works would overcome man’s sinful nature enough that he would deserve salvation.

        Neither of these things is consistent with Catholic doctrine as I understand it.

      • Thales permalink
        September 1, 2011 8:24 pm

        Rodak,
        I believe that the heresy of Pelagius was that good works alone could bring salvation.
        Exactly. David was describing attaining heaven as a test, a serious of right choices that man must make. That sounded Pelagian to me. I was proposing what I think is the approach Augustine suggested, the Catholic approach: no man can reach salvation on his own, no one deserves Heaven, and that it’s only attainable by God’s grace.

  20. Rodak permalink
    August 31, 2011 3:15 pm

    Ronald–That sounds quite a bit like the Jewish mystical doctrine of Tikkun. As with all other basically Gnostic systems, however, this presupposes a limited God, rather than the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God posited by orthodox Christian doctrines. Once you start messing with that concept of perfection, anything goes.

  21. Rodak permalink
    August 31, 2011 3:18 pm

    The Gnostics and the Kabalists also had plausible answers for the problem of evil. But we can’t work with those within the context of Catholicism.

  22. Anne permalink
    September 1, 2011 6:46 pm

    Interesting questions and observations. Is there any way to take this to a new
    discussion?

  23. Rodak permalink
    September 2, 2011 10:37 am

    What would you like to discuss further, Anne?

  24. Anne permalink
    September 5, 2011 2:56 am

    Rodak: Sorry to have made that comment and then split, as it were. Unfortunately, it seems this particular discussion is over. Your observation that Christians view life as a kind of “test” seemed fair to me. Regardless of how Pelagius may have mistated the situation, the fact is we believe that if we love God and our neighbhor and avoid evil, chances are we’ll be on the “narrow path” that leads to salvation. But if not, eternal torment awaits. Viewed this starkly, life seems about as fair as a fraternity hazing. And yet this is what we believe we “deserve.” I guess I’d like to hear the “good news” version.

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