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February 09, 2007

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Who wrote down the rules that distinguish organisms? - where did they come from?

A being is genetically one thing or another. It's easily testable. Scientists can tell if they have frog DNA, or rabbit, or human. The DNA doesn't change regardless of the stage of development of the organism. Therefore, the organisms can be categorized at any stage after fertilization.

The scientists didn't write the rules, they just categorized what they found into species wherein the members conformed to the same pattern of DNA. Wouldn't you agree?

>> The scientists didn't write the rules, they just categorized what they found into species wherein the members conformed to the same pattern of DNA.

right - who told them to catagorize by DNA?

and are you saying a chimera is actually two organisms then?

No, tony, a chimera is a single organism. (When you say Chimera you either mean an organism created by merging the DNA from two distinct species, or an organism that results from the death of one twin and its reabsorbtion into the other twin during early fetal development. I'll argue in a way that does not distinguish the two types.)

But its DNA is from two organisms (which merely means that it's a unique instance of a new type of organism; it doesn't imply that it's not a single organism). (The second type of chimera does not have a consistent genetic code, but since it's always from the same species that doesn't give any strength to your argument against our ability to tell what sort of thing something is biologically -- that type of chimera is always the same type of thing that its parents were.)

william

>> its DNA is from two organisms (which merely means that it's a unique instance of a new type of organism; it doesn't imply that it's not a single organism).

but how do you KNOW this to be true. if someone argued "A chimera is two organisms" why would they be wrong?

What foundational laws of the universe are you citing such that you may confidently make your claim. Do you hold the master list of what constitutes systems in the cosmos?

Tony, the problem is that you're debating about the meaning of a word, "organism", but you don't seem to have a definition of your own in mind. I'll accept Wikipedia's definition, but feel free to choose a dictionary (the one I looked at was similar but more general). At any rate, by any of them, a chimera is clearly fits the definition of an organism.

But let's suppose for the sake of argument that it doesn't fit the definition, and a chimera is defined as TWO organisms. So what? That seems to imply that when you kill a chimera you're killing two organisms -- hardly a useful point in any argument I've ever seen you make.

"Steve: And isn’t it really a question of whether we should hold an inclusive view of humanity and protect all human beings from violence or hold an exclusive view and allow some to be killed because they’re in the way? Those who hold the exclusive view have a case to make, don’t they?"

The language here is so loaded as to make it meaningless (a classic "have you stopped beating your wife" thing) but do we also have a typo?

alan, please be specific. The error in the wife-beating question is that it assumes wife-beating; what is the error in deciding that pro-choicers hold an "exclusive" view, that some humans (the "excluded" ones) need not be protected from killing? I do see some loaded language in his use of "because they're in the way", but that's hardly central to his argument, is it?

william,

actually im arguing that there is no platonic definition of an organism just as their is no platonic definition of, say, a "planet" versus a "rock".

its just a convention to name atoms.

I also object to the use of the "in the way" comment. Clearly, in ESCR, humans aren't being killed because they are in the way (that's what happens in abortion and euthanasia), instead they're being killed so that other humans can benefit from their destruction.

Frankly, I don't care if the language is loaded. It accurately describes what is happening, so I have no desire to soften the language so some people can feel good about doing those things.

If it's not central, why phrase it that way? ESCR has nothing to do with embryos being "in the way", yet it seems that Steve assumes that it does. A strong case wouldn't depend on language designed to stir the emotions.

Besides we are still dealing with a theological concept, narrowly drawn. Explicit in the "discussion" is the notion that having 46 chromosomes should mean something on its own. This begs a question or so.

Why should we employ the full force of the state to protect doomed clusters of cells and yet respond to the plight of a child or adult with a curable illness that could be resolved with a few bucks and far less coercion with pious injunctions about the virtues of private charity and old chestnuts about the inherent efficiency of government?

"Explicit in the "discussion" is the notion that having 46 chromosomes should mean something on its own. This begs a question or so."
Ok, Alan, if by having 46 chromosomes, you mean being human,and that has no meaning in and of itself, then why should we care if a child or adult with a curable illness gets one, let alone we should pay for it?

tony, why would we need a "platonic definition" (I think you mean a "platonic universal form", q.v.) in order to decide how to behave? I know Plato thought so, but that was a long time and many philosophers ago; why would you insist on a metaphysical system that you don't even believe exists?

Surely you believe there's some way to decide how to behave without invoking nonexistant "universal forms". We both agree that they don't exist.

William,

Recall greg’s original statement:

“Greg: By any objective, scientific standard, the embryo qualifies as a member of the human race.”

My argument is that this is necessarily and merely an appeal to convention. Dividing the universe of particles into humans and harbors, babies and breadbaskets, and rocks and planets, is just a categorization exercise.

Science cant reveal when a human starts nor ends. We simply note a form of mostly carbon nitrogen oxygen and hydrogen, and draw a circle around it. That’s it.

So when a Christian makes a claim such as:

“Science has told us when human life begins.”

This is a ridiculous statement. Science can do no such thing. Without an appeal to a platonic referent, they can only appeal to convention - and pretend they attained their conclusions scientifically.


"Ok, Alan, if by having 46 chromosomes, you mean being human,and that has no meaning in and of itself, then why should we care if a child or adult with a curable illness gets one, let alone we should pay for it?"

Wow, creatures with 46 chromosomes using a book written by other creatures with 46 chromosomes to support an assertion that creatures with 46 chromosomes are special; big surprise there.

Barring pathology, all humans will develop the capacity for empathy, which besides being the root of morality, allows us to connect with others in a manner that impels us to assist them. It allows us to put ourselves in others places.

"If he can get ill, so can I, and as it might be nice for others to help me so I should agree to institutions that I might eventually need myself and as long as the institutions exist they might as well help this poor fellow." And it gets cheaper on a per capita basis as the base gets larger. Only a fool or a Republican thinks it can't happen to him.

Altruism, rational self interest, empathy - different mixes in different folks, but our wiring not our reading is at the root of this.

Am I in Wonderland?

"'Science has told us when human life begins.' This is a ridiculous statement. Science can do no such thing."

We have a definition for "human" and a definition for "life", thus it seems reasonable to conclude that we could have a scientific way to determine when a thing has the characteristics of one or both. If it doesn't have both, it's either not human or not alive (and it should be simple to determine which).

If you want to haggle over terms and replace "definition" with "convention", be my guest (though I don't know that such a change makes a difference).

Alan asked: "Why should we employ the full force of the state to protect doomed clusters of cells..."

Because we are all just "doomed clusters of cells." If you want to remove the protection from one group of "doomed clusters of cells", then you need to give justification for that. You want to disqualify them from protection because they are small. I'm smaller than Shaquille O'Neal -- should he be allowed to kill me?

"If you want to remove the protection from one group of "doomed clusters of cells", then you need to give justification for that."

Couldn't agree more. At some point in everyones life it becomes clear that this life is over. That is why some folks wind up in hospice instead of intensive care. The cells in question were created so a small number of then could be implanted in their owners' bodies and hopefully produce a child. A small number will be adopted by others but it is clear that this will be a small fraction of those existing and those few will be the freshest ones. Most of those embryos will simply sit frozen until they are discarded. This is the reality. We are many years away from artificial wombs, both technally and legally, hence those embryos now existing will never have the opportunity to go beyond their present state. Size, per se, has nothing to do with it.

Still thinking about the "Shaq" option, re: you.

Its odd how those that think embryos have no value; think they are valuable enough to help save lives. It would seem this could be a pro-life / infanticide argument.

1. Adult lives are more valuable than embryos, fetuses, and babies
2. Embryo parts, fetus parts, and baby parts could help save born/wanted lives
3. Abortion eliminates embryos, fetuses, and babies that could otherwise help born/wanted lives
4. Therefore, abortion is morally wrong
5. The adult should be forced to harvest the parts for the greater good.

After all, if a premature 'wanted' baby is going to die in one hospital room, shouldn’t the lady in the next room having a 3rd trimester abortion be forced to save the WANTED child's life with her babies parts? I mean, her baby is dead meat anyway? The baby is “doomed” regardless. Have the baby, cut it open, save a life. Problem soved. Everyone is happy right?

The result is better; instead of two dead babies; we have one 'wanted' baby alive, and one dead 'unwanted' baby. Life is beautiful ain't it?

Contradictions anyone?

"Barring pathology, all humans will develop the capacity for empathy, which besides being the root of morality, allows us to connect with others in a manner that impels us to assist them. It allows us to put ourselves in others places."
Really? I guess for those places and times where some thought it was ok to own other "creatures with 46 chromosomes" because of the color of their skin, was pathology writ large? Are you really qualified to diagnose the majority of the population of Germany in the 1930's and '40's as "pathological" for the holocaust? And which "creatures with 46 chromosomes" gets to decide what "morality" is defined by whose sense of "empathy"?
You can dismiss the "book written by other creatures with 46 chromosomes" as an objective standard of morality if you want, but do you REALLY think you are better off in a society that gets to make it up as they go along? Is it not preferable to at least have an objective standard accessible to all by which we can judge the actions of those in authority? You have posted many times on this blog comments about the current administration doing things you think are immoral. If that morality is completely subjective, then, so what?
Disagreements as to the actions of the president and the justifications of that aside for a moment, I think your views on what you think he is doing are based on fairly accurate moral intuitions. If he is doing what you say, and without justification, then you are correct. (Please don't let my comments here change the subject. I mentioned this to make a point about you, and how we are in agreement about something.) If these intuitions are nothing more than the product of "empathy," then they are meaningless without the power to coerce others to fall in line. What happens, then, when someone with power, out of their sense of "empathy" decides that "doomed clusters of cells" that we no call the elderly, the sick, and the disabled can be killed out of "compassion" for those who could benefit? Who are you to say, based on your view, that your "empathy" is superior to theirs? This is the logical conclusion of the view you expressed. I would argue that the correct moral intuitions you hold are evidence of the "image of God" in you, which is why such intuitions are in agreement with that "book written by other creatures with 46 chromosomes."

Paul,

No you’re not in wonderland. It’s easy. The rub here comes from the confusion people have about the role of biology. They may make statements such as:

“Well of course we know what is alive and what is not. I mean nowadays scientist have devices for measuring all sorts of stuff. So all we have to do is ask them.”

But they forget that scientifically speaking, a set of atoms that is “alive” is just a set of atoms in a particular arrangement. But who decides which arrangements to call alive and which arrangements to call dead?

The answer: Convention.

Note this is not a discoverable property of the universe like E=mc2. To call something alive is just a useful categorization exercise of matter.

>> If you want to haggle over terms and replace "definition" with "convention", be my guest (though I don't know that such a change makes a difference).

They’re not gonna like that Paul. Consider Melinda’s October 20, 2006 post:

“It's a mistake to deny for ideological reasons what science can actually tell us. And it's a mistake to confuse the categories of science and morality. Life begins at conception and it's a scientific fact. Let's not deny the obvious.”

It’s not obvious nor scientific in the least. It’s actually not a question for science – it’s a question for the Philosophy of Biology.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_biology


"Convention: A practice or procedure widely observed in a group, especially to facilitate social interaction; a custom"
"Definition: the formal statement of the meaning or significance of a word, phrase, etc."
"Language: communication by voice in the distinctively human manner, using arbitrary sounds in conventional ways with conventional meanings; speech."
Since definitions are a function of language, and language is based on "conventional meanings," then to talk about definition vs convention seems to be a distinction without a difference.
You can quibble over the definition of "life" if you want, but of course you must be alive to do so. If we are only talking about one set of atoms over against another, well when I drive to work today, I can either go through that mud puddle, or I can take a shortcut through your kids' school playground while they are out there playing. Do you have a preference? If calling your kids "alive" is just a useful categorization exercise of matter", what difference does it make?

BTW, the definitions above are from dictionary.com

Daniel

Not all definitions are simply matters of human language. When we do geometry and discover the value for Pi, we are unlocking a property of the universe. Same with physics and logic etc.

When we categorize matter into life and non-life – yes that is just an exercise in circling parts of the universe.

>> You can quibble over the definition of "life" if you want, but of course you must be alive to do so.

Assuming this is true you could offer a rule – “things that quibble about life are alive”. But embryos don’t quibble so that won’t do.

Hi Daniel, I don't believe we are making it up when it comes to the really important things - they flow from the nature of human society. Our ability to bond and empathize, like our ability to learn a language, is developmental, in part, and not equal with everyone.

All evolution requires is that a trait provides an adaptive advantage sufficient to allow the next generation to get to the point where they can reproduce. Our capacity for symbolic manipulation allows for both the horizontal and vertical transmission of a trait by non-biological means.

It's easy for folks at the top of the pile to think that its all about them. hence it may be useful to think of ourselves as chimps on a roll or East African Plains Apes or that hitting 46 on the chromosome scale is like winning the lottery.

In my view how we figured it out is usually less important then getting to the right place.

Hi again Daniel, this article may be of interest.

http://balkin.blogspot.com/2007/02/pragmatic-view-of-natural-law.html

“…hence it may be useful to think of ourselves as chimps on a roll or East African Plains Apes.”

This is a little much for my taste; you give us too much credit. I think that we should just think of ourselves as massive amounts of gook. I mean, it’s all relative anyway; we would be much better of thinking of the human race as a big massive pile of gook that got lucky. The human race is basically irrelevant when you think in terms of gook. This makes perfect sense.

>>“It's easy for folks at the top of the pile to think that its all about them.”

Exactly Alan, I think if we all considered ourselves gook; then we wouldn’t be so cocky about our role in the world. We need a good dose of reality don’t we?

"Exactly Alan, I think if we all considered ourselves gook; then we wouldn’t be so cocky about our role in the world. We need a good dose of reality don’t we?"

Indeed

Of course, if all we are is gook, what difference does it make if we are cocky?

This is not how Christians view humanity. We have value as we are created in the image of God. That is why human embryos have value.

The concepts of should and shouldn't don't mean anything to gook!

William,

You’re exactly right. I was being facetious with Alan. He knew it too.

>>”Indeed”

Alan should consider himself a big pile of gook with strong opinions about right and wrong; about how people should think and act; about how the world would be a better place to live without war; about how minimum wage should be much higher; about how we should take care of the poor and weak.

Pretty good for gook

>>”Indeed”

Laughable indeed

Hi guys, I'll stick with the East African Plains Ape as that is what a DNA comparison would show, lol.

But then, nothing changes, peace is still better than war and expanding the health care basis is better than shrinking it, and being governed by the Constitution of 1787 (as amended) is better than being ruled by a corrupt cabal.

Alan
"But then, nothing changes, peace is still better than war and expanding the health care basis is better than shrinking it, and being governed by the Constitution of 1787 (as amended) is better than being ruled by a corrupt cabal."
If you view is correct that we are just "chimps on a roll," etc, then you have no basis for saying that anything is BETTER than anything. If we are the products of time+chance+matter, then there is no basis for calling anything good, let alone better.
Peace is better than war? If we didn't have a war in the 1860's, there would still be chattel slavery in the US. If we didn't go to war in the 1940's, the Nazis would still run Europe, and there would be a lot fewer Jews, disabled, etc there. There are worse things than war.
BTW, on your view (or it's logical outworking,) on what basis do you define anything as corrupt? Who are you to judge? In a relativistic world, there is no corrupt or ethical. That's just YOUR interpretation of right and wrong. You can't force your morality on us.
Once again, without getting into who is or is not doing what, I assert that you are in agreement with me on many moral issues, but obviously in disagreement on the basis for these moral views.

"In my view how we figured it out is usually less important then getting to the right place."

If you don't know how you figured it out, you have no way of knowing IF you got to the right place, or for that matter if there IS a right place, and how you know what it is.

tony, your argument is hard for me to follow. I've seen you make it many times, and I still don't understand it.

You seem to assign some kind of mystical value to the concept of "life". You then go on to claim that no concept that mystical could possibly exist, or be detectable by us.

This appears to be a strawman fallacy; our arguments do not rely on a mystical life force or anything like that.

What have I missed? How did we use "life" in an overly mystical way?

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