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The Unsurprised Handmaidens

“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

Gray’s second “scientific fact” is a puzzle.

Human beings can only give birth to human beings.

In one sense, this is trivially false. Chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestor; if it were true that this ape could only give birth to an ape of the same species, then human beings would never have evolved! Non-biologists think the term “species” is a formal definition, with strong links to one or more bits of biology. In reality, that term is yet another informal definition, which only works at all because of a few quirks specific to biological evolution.

We can rescue Gray, however, if we assert that human beings are not evolving, and never will in future, and thus we will always give birth to another human being. Unfortunately, there is evidence that human beings are evolving, such as our recent ability to drink milk after childhood. In order to qualify as a “scientific fact theory with consensus support from experts,” we also need to find a consensus among biologists that human beings are not evolving; that does not exist. Finally, this assertion can only be justified if we know how the future will turn out until humanity goes extinct. No-one, short of a god, could pull that off.

Gray still has one more save, though. All of the above problems have come from an insistence on a rigid, unchanging definition of “human being.” What if we let it change over time? This time, I can’t think of any objections. So we’ve done it: it’s true that human beings can only give birth to human beings, if we define “human being” to be whatever human beings have evolved to at the present time… or, in other words, we define it to be anything born of a human being.

Huh. So Gray’s assertion is either a tautology that’s perpetually true, or trivially false. So why on Earth would she need it in the first place?

The meaning of Life

“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

Gray structured her argument into three man categories: scientific, philosophic, and legal/ethical. The scientific part started off with two key “scientific facts,” the first of which is

If something grows, it is alive.

A staggering number of counter-examples spring to mind. The sun is currently growing in diameter, and might one day engulf our planet; does this make it alive? Snowflakes grow through random collisions with ice molecules; does this make them alive? Black holes? Planets? Crystals?

Mind you, there is another way to interpret that. Perhaps Gray meant “evolution” instead of “growth?” Even this is problematic, as I am not evolving; the genes that I pass on to my offspring do not change over time or with the environment, they were hard-wired in at conception. My immune and digestive systems are changing to adapt to the environment they live in, it’s true, but because those changes can’t be inherited they are not evolutionary. Human beings evolve as a population, not as individuals.

Still, we can be generous again. That definition can declare an entire population to be alive, which in turn implies that every individual of that population is also alive. There are still problems with this, for instance no member of a species on the brink of extinction would be alive by this definition, but these are sufficiently rare exceptions that can be swept under the rug. With a liberal, forgiving interpretation, we can turn Gray’s assertion into something reasonable.

No, wait: as I said before, there is no such thing as a scientific fact. For the third time we have to repair Gray’s statement, and claim that “growing evolving things are alive” is really a “theory with consensus support from experts” instead of a “fact.” So that statement has to be more than reasonable, it has to enjoy the support of most scientists.

It doesn’t.

Carol Cleland, a professor of philosophy at CU, grapples with these questions. She and Christopher Chyba of Princeton University are recognized authorities on the difficulty of adequately defining “life.” […]

“To answer the question ‘What is life?’ we require not a definition but a general theory of the nature of living systems,” Cleland and Chyba write. “In the absence of such a theory, we are in a position analogous to that of a 16th-century investigator trying to define ‘water’ in the absence of molecular theory.”

As Cleland and Chyba note, attempts to define life founder on counter-examples – living things that are wrongly defined as non-living, and non-living things that are incorrectly included in a flawed definition of “life.” Philosophers as old as Aristotle attempted to define “life” as something that could reproduce itself.

By that definition, mules (which are sterile) would not qualify as being alive.

Other attempts to define “life” are similarly flawed, Cleland and Chyba observe. For instance, life has been defined by metabolic standards: something with the ability to consume or convert energy to move, grow or reproduce. By that measure, fire and perhaps even cars might be deemed alive.

How can this be? “Life” is an informal definition, as I described earlier. It’s only used to describe things, not define them, and so doesn’t need to be precise. For Gray’s statement to work, though, “life” needs to be precisely defined. So no amount of generosity can fix one of Gray’s core arguments; it is simply too weak to use in any logical argument.

A minor issue and pet peeve

“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

Another problem I’d like to deal with is a term Gray brought up during the debate: “scientific fact.”

There’s no such thing.

The “scientific method” certainly does exist, though. It goes like this: “theories,” or absolute statements about reality, are proposed and then tested. If they fail, they are discarded. If they survive, another round of testing begins. Testing consists of creating predictions about reality from that theory, and gathering “evidence” to see if the predictions failed. Evidence is direct or indirect experience through the senses. Not many people realize that evidence itself is just a special type of theory; while theories can depend on other theories, pure evidence can only depend an one thing, that your senses are accurate at or during a specific time and place.

I digress, though. I hope you at least spotted the emphasis on dis-proof in science. Absolute statements or “facts” are things to be torn down, not relied on. Certainty is never reached; at best, it is merely approximated.

It’s embarrassing that Gray would claim to rely on science, yet misunderstand the basics of science. This doesn’t rule out that her “facts” can be relied on, of course; she could have meant “scientific theory with overwhelming support” instead, but misspoke or simplified the details. That’s why I’m dealing with it now, before I launch into her arguments; it’s a worrying detail, but by itself unimportant.

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.