Wednesday, July 06, 2005

An intriguing exchange

Christopher Blosser of Against the Grain has another great post, this time at Catholics in the Public Square, on philosophical reasoning and "delayed personhood". He debates Nathan Nelson from Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. Observe:
Our debate began with my response to a post of his -- "Returning to Christendom" June 25, 2005 -- in which he contends that Catholics make a grave mistake in seeking common ground with evangelical Christians ("extremist Christians" or the "Christian Right" in his words), due to the latter's belief in "dominion theology" and implicit desire to instill a theocracy. Examples of this collaboration would be Fr. Pavone standing beside Operation Rescue's Randall Terry in the defense of Terry Schiavo and "the vast majority of neoconservative Catholic leaders [who] endorsed and actively promoted a man who clearly does believe in dominion theology for President of the United States.".

According to Nathan, such collaborations are ultimately detrimental to Catholics because "When the common enemy of the Evangelical Right and the Catholic Right has been eliminated, the Catholic Christian minority in this country will be in very real danger from the theocratic government ruled primarily by evangelical Christians." Consequently:

[Nathan Nelson]: I consider the alliance between Catholics, Orthodox, and mainstream Protestants on the one hand and evangelical Christians on the other to be an unholy alliance that will eventually come back to bite the Catholics, Orthodox, and mainstream Protestants. The majority of evangelical Christian leaders do want a theocracy, and have said so publicly, and the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and the mainstream Protestant Churches are helping them reach their goal. . . .

Dialoguing and aligning ourselves with extremist evangelical Christians who want a theocracy would be tantamount to rational Muslims sitting down to dialogue and align themselves with Wahabi Islam and al-Qaeda.,
Mr. Blosser then notes the heart of their disagreement:
Nathan Nelson] Regardless of how one tries to paint the picture, Catholic teaching on abortion is Catholic teaching on abortion. The debate is not a debate about the scientific beginning of human life -- everyone agrees that occurs at conception -- but the beginning of personhood. When is this human life to be considered a human person? Current Catholic teaching -- and it is current Catholic teaching, not Catholic teaching throughout all time -- says that the embryo is to be regarded as a human person from the moment of conception. This, of course, is not consistent with what Aquinas and the Church Fathers thought about the beginning of personhood, but that's beside the point. The point is that we're not having a debate about the beginning of life in this country, we're having a debate about the beginning of personhood. For Catholics these days, the beginning of personhood is conception. But for Jews, the beginning of personhood comes some time later. Whereas the beginning of life is a scientific issue, the beginning of personhood is a philosophical and/or ethical issue that has a lot more grey area than Fr. Pavone, George Weigel, et al. are willing to admit.

Which of course brings us to the question: Is the contention that the unborn are persons an essentially Catholic proposition or is it one that can be defended by reason alone? That is to say, absent of appeal to Catholic dogma and divine revelation?

If the argument that Nathan is proposing sounds familiar to readers, it should. It's the same argument advanced by Senator Kerry in the 2004 Presidential election, in an interview with Peter Jennings. It was addressed by Amy Welborn and myself ("Senator Kerry may be human -- but is he a person?", CatholicKerryWatch July 23, 2004).

It was also made by Ron Reagan during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, making the case for embryonic stem cell research (Ron Reagan and Functionalism, Revisited CatholicKerryWatch July 29, 2004).
He determines the philosophical root of Mr. Nelson's position and finds it wanting. To demonstrate this, he acknowledges Peter Kreeft's analysis of the reasoning of those separate the human being from his personhood:
He reveals the philosophical premises of those who through pure sophistry attempt to separate personhood from humanity:

There is a common premise hidden behind all seven of these pro-choice arguments. It is the premise of Functionalism: defining a person by his or her functioning or behavior. A "behavioral definition" is proper and practical for scientific purposes of prediction and experimentation, but it is not adequate for ordinary reason and common sense, much less for good philosophy or morality, which should be based on common sense. Why? Because common sense distinguishes between what one is and what one does, between being and fun functioning, thus between "being a person" and "functioning as a person." One cannot function as a person without being a person, but one can surely be a person without functioning as a person.
Seasoned readers of Holy Fool know that I agree with Mr. Blosser on this point. However, Mr. Kreeft's analysis, which Mr. Blosser has admirably provided, only goes so far in identifying the philosophical problem of Mr. Nelson's position.

As I understand it, Mr. Nelson believes that Catholics come to determine through revelation that personhood begins at conception. He mentions that other philosophers disagree, including jewish scholars. He also correctly notes that the American Republic has specific provisions against establishing religion, or in this case, endorsing the philosophy of one religion over another. Therefore, he concludes that the State can't legally endorse the Catholic conception of personhood.

His arguement, however, remains unsound. The fact that philosophers disagree with the beginning of personhood does not mean that the Catholic conception of personhood stems from revelation. It means that philosophers disagree with the philosophical conclusions of their peers, including their Catholic peers. Unlike much jewish philosophy, which references the Torah, A Catholic can explain why personhood begins at conception by utilizing philosophy with no reference to religious doctrine. I made such an argument myself with another blogger here. As to the philosophies that disagree on the beginning of personhood. Are these philosophies internally consistent and reasonable (in the Foolish sense, of course)? Or are they ripe with what Chesterton has quaintly desribed as the "one insanity" that one must believe in order to unlock all reality? Many of these philosophies may rest on premises that the philosopher then denies. Others can't even get past the law of non-contradiction. Mr. Kreeft effectively dismissed many of the utilitarian arguments for other advents of personhood. Subjectivist schools have their own difficulty escaping solipsism. In fact, Curt at Northwestern Winds provides an excerpt that's most revelent:
I suggest the premodern view that neutrality and objectivity are not the same, and that objectivity is possible but neutrality is not. To be neutral, if that were possible, would be to have no presuppositions whatsoever. To be objective is to have certain presuppositions, along with the manners that allow us to keep faith with them. We presuppose that we exist, that our students exist, and that we exist in a really existing world. We presuppose that perception is not wholly illusion, and that the consequent relation — “if this, then that” — does correspond to something in reality. We presuppose that nothing can both be and not be in the same sense at the same time. We presuppose that good is to be done and truth is to be known. We presuppose that we should never directly intend harm to anyone. And so forth. In the language of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, we presuppose the inescapable first principles of practical and theoretical reasoning and the conclusions which flow immediately from them. In the language of the Bible, we presuppose those things which the Creator has made plain even to those who reject the more particular revelations of Scripture. In saying these things are plain, of course, I do not mean that we cannot deny them. I only mean that we can’t not know them, whether we admit that we know them or not. They cannot be proven, of course, but they do not depend on proof, because, like axioms in geometry, they are that on which the proofs themselves depend..
Other philosophers essentially hold a premise, then deny they hold it. It's the old non-sequitor of denying the anticident. This wise observer finds a possible example:
When, despite considerable intelligence, a thinker cannot think straight, it becomes very likely that he cannot face his thoughts. The closer to the starting point his swerve, the more likely this explanation becomes. Somewhere in his mind lies a mystery of knowledge which he must hide from himself at all costs. If he presupposes the old morality in the very act of denying it, the lesson is not that the old morality should be denied, but that he is in denial. If he makes humanity God and yet cries out against God's inhumanity, it is clear who has really been accused.

The form of the indictment is not "If you deny P, then you are in denial about P." One is not "in denial" just because he denies that ice is cold, or that dogs normally have four legs. He might merely be mistaken; he might never have felt ice or seen dogs.

Put right, the form of the indictment is "If your objection to P presupposes P, then you have not given us any grounds to disbelieve P; rather you have have given us grounds to think that you know P after all."
Catholic Philosophy isn't true because it's Catholic. It's true bacause it's true. It's helpful for the policy of a Republic to be based on what's true since it addresses real concerns of real people. Mr. Nelson and others that share his legitimate constitutional concerns may want to consider this. Any person not of the Catholic Faith could accept the reasoning of why Catholics believe personhood begins at conception. There's no need to join RCIA. Therefore, there's no constitutional concern in considering policies based on this reasoning. Quite the contrary, actually. It would be nice to see policy based on common sense for once.