23 September 2009

Metaphysics: Personhood

The Objectivist
Problems with Persons
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
September 21, 2009

An interesting feature of the intellectual world is how little we understand about persons. This creates problems in deciding what policies to adopt in the context of life and death. The three dominant theories of a person assert that a person is an organism, a physical object, or a soul. All three are inadequate.

The notion that a person is an organism fits nicely into what we know about biology. Because we think that human beings are animals and that animals are organisms, it follows that human beings are organisms. An organism is just a living being. A fairly standard account of life is put forth by Paul Davison. On his account, a being is living or alive if it is composed of cells, metabolizes nutrients, grows, reproduces, responds to stimuli, regulates its internal environment, etc. This theory fits cleanly with the notion that human beings are merely animals whose distinctive features resulted from natural selection.

The problem with this theory is that it generates absurd results. For example, a proponent of the persons-are-organisms theory has to assert that at death an individual ceases to exist. On this theory, because a person is a living organism and because a corpse is not living, a person is distinct from his corpse. Philosopher Fred Feldman points out the ridiculous results that follow from this. For example, the individual we see sitting in an open coffin is not the one who was a great husband and father, stormed the beaches of Normandy, cheated on his taxes, etc. In addition, if a person died while wearing a tuxedo, then someone must have removed him and replaced him with the corpse, all without undoing the buttons. This theory claims that it is not just that the person changes when he dies, but rather that he ceases to exist and a new thing (the corpse) takes his place.

Worse, on this account, persons can survive brain replacement. Imagine that a surgeon replaces George W. Bush’s brain with that of Barack Obama and vice versa. Intuitively, it seems that Bush is now located in Obama’s body and vice versa. Bush would think himself located in Obama’s body and find himself waking up next to Michelle. Yet this is not true on the persons-are-organisms theory. On this theory, the same organism is located in Bush’s body and hence the brain transplant does not change where Bush is located. After all, a living organism can survive the replacement of an organ. For example, people survive kidney, heart, and liver replacements.

The notion that a person is a physical object, probably a brain, fares no better. We often think that persons begin to exist when they are conceived. In other words, we were once zygotes. A zygote is an organism that comes into being at conception and exists through implantation in the uterine wall. Because zygotes do not have brains, this theory entails that people were never zygotes. This is bizarre. We pretty clearly do think that we existed before we were born, in part as a zygote.

Both the organism and brain theory have a problem with identical twins. Identical (monozygotic) twins occur when a single fertilized egg splits to form two individuals. On the persons-are-physical-objects theory, the person has not yet come into existence between the zygote doesn’t yet have a brain. On the organism theory, other problems result. If we ask which of the two twins contains the life found in the fertilized egg, we are unable to give a satisfactory answer. The twins are distinct from each other and one and the same organism can’t be identical to two distinct ones. This is analogous to how a country that splits in two can’t be identical to both of the resulting countries. If, instead, a person is a body rather than a brain, then it is again mysterious as to which twin got the original body and which got a new one.

The soul theory is even worse off than the other two. A soul is an immaterial (non-physical) object that is conscious. There is no evidence that persons can exist when they are dead or lack a brain. First, there is not a single scientific study that has located such an otherworldly ghostlike object. Second, there are no confirmed instances of persons switching bodies or existing without a body. If persons were souls that merely resided in bodies, such things are possible and we might expect to observe them. Third, there are many well-documented correlations between the ways in which people think and what is going on in their brains. The simplest explanation of this is that thinking occurs in the brain, rather than in some ghostlike soul. For example, when people get drunk or take LSD, their thought patterns change. When particular parts of a person’s brain are damaged, they sometimes lose very specific abilities. For example, brain damage can make a person unable to recognize faces, speak, or form long-term memories. It is hard to see why this would be the case if thinking did not occur in the brain.

Soul theory becomes even less plausible when we consider what happens in the case of twins. The proponent of persons-are-souls theory must claim that the soul that the zygote had went to only one of the twins or went out of existence. It is absurd to think that one twin got the old soul and one a new one when they are identically placed with regard to the original fertilized egg. It is equally absurd to assert that both twins got new souls. After all, what happened to the old one?

The issue of the nature of persons is at the forefront of some of the most heated political issues of our time. Consider stem-cell research. Whether this research is wrong depends on whether scientists do something incorrect when they destroy zygotes. In deciding whether this is wrong, we need to know whether zygotes are persons. The same is true with regard to abortion.

A different but related issue arises with regard to the comatose. For example, consider Terri Schiavo. Terri Schiavo was a woman, or perhaps merely a body, who was in a coma probably as a result of bulimia. Her husband wanted to cut off nutrition and allow the body to die. Parts of Schiavo’s brain had disintegrated to the point where she would never regain consciousness. Whether there was a legitimate interest in keeping her body alive depended in part on whether Schiavo ceased to exist. It is difficult to answer such questions without an adequate understanding of persons, let alone a consensus on the issue. Yet this is precisely where we are.

09 September 2009

Christianity: Does the Jesus doctrine withstand scrutiny?

The Objectivist
The Oddity of Christianity
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
September 8, 2009

In the contest between religion and atheism and between religions, one reason to reject a particular religion is if it contains a doctrine that does not make sense or is not supported by evidence. Christianity contains just such a doctrine.

Consider the Christian view of Jesus. Christians view that Jesus as both divine and human. On the Christian view, Jesus was born to a virgin, Mary. Because of his death and resurrection, human beings can achieve salvation and enjoy eternal life in heaven. Jesus also performed a number of miracles including turning water into wine, feeding a crowd of five thousand using only fives loaves of bread and two fish, walking on water, resurrecting a man (Lazarus) who had been dead for four days, giving sight to a blind man, etc. Note these claims differ from the historical claims about him, for example, he was a Galilean Jew who preached to a small band of followers and was killed by Romans.

Some of these doctrines make no sense. The notion that God is both fully divine (god-like) and fully human (and hence not god-like) entails that he both has and lacks a property. This is impossible. By analogy, a shape cannot be both square and not square at the same time.

This problem gets compounded in those who believe in the Trinity. This doctrine holds that God the father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are three different persons who are unified in a single substance. A person cannot be composed of three component persons because there would be too many subjects of consciousness or lives. This is why, for example, a living cow cannot be composed of three smaller cows. Nor can the three persons be mere features of a greater person. Persons are objects; they are not features or attributes of other things. By analogy, a person might have certain parts (for example, a left arm and a right leg), but these are not features of him (as are, for example, his enjoyment of dirty jokes or skill at poker).

The notion that through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus atoned for the Mankind’s sin also makes no sense. This is because it does not satisfy the demands of justice for one person to suffer for what someone else did. Consider a case where a vicious thug, Al, batters and then kills a woman, Betty. When it comes time to incarcerate or execute him, Al’s mother volunteers to be incarcerated or killed on his behalf. Justice is not in any way satisfied if this is done to her. The same is true if you think that Al owes Betty or her family a debt of honor.

On a side note, the same problem arises with the idea of original sin. The idea is that particular human beings are somehow blameworthy or deserve bad things because of what Adam and, perhaps also, Eve did. This has similar problems to atonement via another’s sacrifice. The problems multiply if you combine the doctrines of atonement and original sin, as do some Christians.

There is little to no evidence for the claim that Jesus’s mother was a virgin when she conceived him. On a side note, many Christians hold that Jesus has siblings, so Mary did reproduce with her husband on other occasions. There is also little to no evidence of Jesus’s miracles. We lack the testimony of a number of independent and impartial observers of these events. Nor do we have any other sort of evidence for them. In the roughly 2,000 years since Jesus’s time, there have been no new messiahs for whom there is better evidence of their divinity.

One objection to the concerns about contradiction and evidentiary support is that people should be allowed to believe what they want. This is true and no one is suggesting that people who have false, contradictory, or unsupported beliefs should have a Louisville Slugger taken to their head. The issue is not whether people should be made to renounce their beliefs, it is whether their beliefs are rational.

A second objection is that religious beliefs make people happier. Specifically, they help people in times of great suffering (for example, consider the role of religion in soothing grieving widows) and lead to great altruism (for example, consider Mother Theresa). This is true, but it is not clear these benefits outweigh religion’s costs. By allowing in contradictory and unsupported beliefs, religion undermines clear thinking. It also contributes to an incredible amount of religious and inter-ethnic violence. This likely involves the death of hundreds of thousands. Even if religion does have net benefits, and this is not obvious, we are still trading off truth for happiness. This might be worthwhile, but in any case it is worth acknowledging.

A third objection to this is to assert that belief in these aspects of Jesus rest on faith and hence need not be coherent or supported by evidence. However, we are not impressed by unsupported belief in other areas. Consider a scenario in which you are drinking at a bar and a fellow bar patron tells you that he believes that the Aryan man should reign should reign supreme over the other races. When you ask him why, he says that he doesn’t have an argument or other evidence for this view, he just believes it on faith (that is, in the absence of adequate evidence). You would think him irrational. Your view should not change if we substitute beliefs about Jesus for beliefs about Aryan supremacy. The structure of his beliefs in the two cases is the same.

In addition, if our beliefs about Jesus are contradictory, then it is hard to say what is wrong with holding other contradictory beliefs, particularly in the context of religion. However, religious people have little tolerance for other contradictions in religion. For example, if you believe that God is all-good, this is often thought to rule out the notion that God is also a cruel mean-spirited child-molester. Similarly, if God is all-knowing, this presumably rules out the notion that he doesn’t know his multiplication tables.

If our beliefs about Jesus are not supported by evidence, then we should be willing to tolerate other beliefs not supported by evidence. However, in other areas of our life, we have little use for beliefs not supported by evidence. For example, a scientist who consistently drew scientific conclusions unsupported by evidence would be drummed out of his field. A judge would be unimpressed by a prosecutor who sought to convict and punish a defendant when he lacked evidence that made it likely that the defendant did the crime.

None of this would matter except that religion, including Christianity, plays an enormous role in shaping our world. In the United States, religious reasoning is used to justify wealth redistribution, slow down medical research, block abortion-clinics, condemn gay sexuality, oppose evolution, and criminalize a wide range of activities in which a person harms no one but himself (for example, pornography, gambling, and drugs). Internationally, religion contributes to countless acts of violence and destruction. Examples include the torrent of violence in Sudan and ever-present repression in the Middle East. To the extent that that contradictory or evidence-free reasoning leads to such injustice, death, and destruction, it matters and is damaging.