Life, or something like it

“We are confident that embryology, biology, and a philosophically consistent view of human rights lie on the pro-life side, and look forward to making that case both on the streets and in the debate.” – Stephanie Gray

Having attended the Gray/Nye debate and heard the anti-choice case, I don’t know how she can say that with a straight face. In the next series of posts, I’ll be using my notes to review Gray’s case.

Before getting underway, I have to cover two key points. Today’s will be a simple problem involving definitions, specifically the difference between formal and informal definitions.

Let’s start with “bread.” What, exactly, is bread? Everyone agrees that the loaf sitting on your kitchen counter qualifies. But what about a loaf taken out of the oven one minute ago? That’s surely bread, even though it’s too hot to eat. How about that loaf two minutes before, when it was still in the oven? It looks the same, and is roughly the same consistency; it makes sense to call it bread. But what about two minutes before then? Or four minutes? We’re still talking about the same lump; nothing’s been added to it, after all, it’s only grown and darkened. Let’s go back even further, to five minutes before it entered the oven. Since we’ve only done small, gradual changes during this entire timespan, we must still call this thing bread, correct?

We run into problems if we go back further. At some point, we had to add eggs to the mass; this is a fundamental physical change, a sudden shift instead of a gradual transition, so we can’t call the former product “bread.” The same reasoning applies to the addition of flour, water, and other ingredients. We can travel no farther.

Still, you agree with me: “dough” is just “bread” by another name. Right?

Wrong. “Bread” is an informal definition. It contains a loose collection of physical characteristics, some of which are optional in certain circumstances. We don’t need to be precise about what “bread” is, because the details don’t matter in our day-to-day lives. But what if I suddenly became picky? I was able to extend “bread” far beyond its typical definition by being selective about the details, arguing one physical difference was small enough to ignore (the change in chemistry) while another was not (the addition of ingredients). This goes against our common usage, which is not precise nor even meant to be.

In contrast, “infinite” is a formal definition. If you say that something is made of X components, and I can find an extra piece for any value of X, then that something is infinite. This definition is detailed and precise, with no optional parts, special cases, or approximations. I can’t fiddle with it, like I could with “bread.”

Now consider “fetus” and “human.” Again we have two informal definitions, with the details left fuzzy. By being selective again, I can extend “fetus” to mean “young human,” which violates how we use both terms. Therefore, I cannot use the terms “fetus” and “human” to argue with, at least when the details are important. I could re-define both to be true formal definitions, like “infinite,” but since that isn’t the common definition I’d have to spend some time explaining and justifying my change.

Time and again, this will show up in Gray’s points. She frequently treats informal definitions as if they were formal, and by being selective she can twist them around to her advantage. That is unsound reasoning, but because we easily confuse the two types of definitions it can seem legitimate.


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