Scientific and Philosophical Expertise

1, 2, 3, 4  »

VI. Philosophical definitions of "personhood"

I could continue, biologically, down any number of "marker events" where it is argued at different points during biological development that until that point there is only a human being and only after that point there is a human person. But virtually every single marker event claimed is also using extremely problematic scientific "data" to back up their philosophical claims of personhood. It would seem that there is more of a problem here than simply the use of incorrect science. Perhaps there is also involved - whether consciously or not - the imposition on that incorrect science of certain characteristically problematic philosophical presuppositions. What I see is the use of specific metaphysical and anthropological presuppositions which result in a classic mind/body - or even sometimes a body/body split - that are imposed upon the scientific data.

A rough consideration of just how different philosophical schools of thought have defined a "human being" or a "human person", then, is in order. Especially in light of the obvious biological continuity present throughout the entire course of embryological development, as well as the specifically human development which we know empirically takes place, how adequately do the various philosophical definitions of a human person reflect the correct biological facts as we empirically know them?

I will focus on the definition that is most generally agreed upon these days, i.e., one that is basically "derived" from Descartes90  or Locke.91  Generally, a human person is someone who is actually acting at the time in a rational manner (Fig. 3). That is, he or she is self-conscious, self-aware, competent, autonomous, logical, mature, conversant, and interacts with the environment and other rational beings around him or her. In short, if one is acting rationally one is a person. If this is true, then 99% of the possible examples of human persons I gave you at the beginning of this paper are - by definition - not persons. Those examples include the mentally ill and retarded, drug and alcohol addicts, patients with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, and the comatose (medical conditions which especially effect a considerable percentage of the elderly population).

This is the sort of philosophical definition that in fact has been used for many years by writers such as Engelhardt,92  Tooley,93  Kuhse94  and Singer95  (yes, the animal rights person) who argue in the literature for infanticide of even normal healthy infants. If, they argue, a normal new-born baby cannot act rationally (as described above), then it is not a "subject" but only an "object" - and we can therefore use it in destructive experimental research if we rational agents so chose. In Singer's own words:

Now it must be admitted that these arguments apply to the newborn baby as much as to the fetus. A week-old baby is not a rational and self-conscious being, and there are many non-human animals whose rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel pain (sentience), and so on, exceed that of a human baby a week, a month, or even a year old. If the fetus does not have the same claim to life as a person, it appears that the newborn baby is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.96  (emphasis added)

And philosopher Richard Frey (presently a Senior Scholar at the Hastings Center), pushing Singer's logic (correctly) one step further, suggests that mentally ill human beings are therefore also not "persons", and therefore they might be used in purely destructive experimental research in place of the higher animals who are "persons".97 

Would you agree that the killing of normal healthy human infants, or the substitution of mentally ill human beings for the higher animals in destructive experimental research, is morally justifiable? If not, then we have to question, at least, such very rationalistic definitions of a human person, and the metaphysical and epistemological foundations on which they are grounded. If one argues from the rationalistic premise that a "human person" is defined only in terms of active "reason" (or only the rational part of the soul), and if only normal older children or adults exhibit such active "rational attributes", then even a normal newborn infant, or a 15-year old child is not a person - and to be logically consistent, you must agree with Singer's or Engelhardt's arguments for infanticide, and with Frey's conclusions about the mentally ill in research. To be even more logically consistent, you might also have to agree that my partial list of human beings who are not presently exercising their "rational attributes" could also be used for the "greater good" in experimental research, be denied medical help or costs, or be euthanized.98  After all, these populations of human beings have a "reduced moral status" - they are no longer human persons - no longer "subjects", but "objects".99 

On the other hand, sometimes a "human person" is defined only in terms of the whole soul - i.e., the vegetative, sensitive and rational "souls" all together. Once this soul unites with a body, we then have a human person. It doesn't matter, they say, whether this person is presently acting rationally. What is important is that the rational nature or capacity is present. But if we think about it, we run into similar problems as mentioned earlier. If there are no vegetative, sensitive, or rational directions injected until about 3 months - how did a specifically human biochemical, tissue, organ system get built before 3 months?

Or perhaps we should restrict ourselves to a purely material definition of a "human person". The human person is simply a complex system of molecules, tissues and organs. But this definition has continuously failed in explaining our experience of thoughts, ideas, and concepts, and especially of intentionality, willing, or choosing. It is argued that a "person" is simply a more advanced sophisticated phase of a material complex human being. But aren't we really talking then about a secondary or accidental quality? Surely the definition of the nature of a human person should not be put in terms of only a secondary or accidental phase - however sophisticated it may be. And again, if you are arguing from the materialist premise that a "human person" is defined only in terms of sentience, or the physical integration or functioning of the brain, then you will also have to argue for infanticide - or worse (as already indicated), because as pointed out, full brain integration and sentience is also not completed until over the age of 20 years, and parapeligics, stroke victims, advanced diabetics, and the comatose often cannot optimally feel pain.

Finally, there are some who would follow the long-discredited "scientific" theory that any individual instance of embryogenesis "recapitulates" the historical evolution of the species (e.g., that there is the formation of ancestral "gills" or "tails" during the embryogenesis of a single human embryo, somehow "recapitulating" the evolution of all of the species). Such "theories" are still attractive, especially to evolutionists, and to some "process" philosophers and theologians - leading again to a theory of delayed hominization.

However, these claims were based on scientific myths (the best they could do at the time) which have long since been discarded scientifically. There is no empirical evidence that the "gills" or "tails" of primitive animals are really formed during any individual embryogenesis of a single human embryo, and such theories are rejected (if discussed at all) even in human embryology text books. Such claims fail to make a real distinction between the historical process of the evolution of millions of different species (which takes place over millions of years) and the mere growth and development of a single individual human being within one species (which takes only nine months). In short, it confuses a "species" with an individual. As O'Rahilly succinctly puts it:

The theory that successive stages of individual development (ontogeny) correspond with ("recapitulate") successive adult ancestors in the line of evolutionary descent (phylogeny) became popular in the 19th century as the so-called biogenetic law. This theory of recapitulation, however, has had a "regrettable influence on the progress of embryology" [citing de Beer]… Furthermore, during its development an animal departs more and more from the form of other animals. Indeed, the early stages in the development of an animal are not like the adult stages of other forms, but resemble only the early stages of those animals.100 

Could "process" scientists, philosophers and theologians be imposing their philosophical presuppositions on the individual processes of human embryogenesis? Does every individual process imply evolution? Just because there is a process does not mean that there is no individual there or that the very nature of that individual is changing during that process. Consider the life-long process of growth and development (embryo, fetus, infant, child, adult, elderly) which any individual human being goes through. Just because there is a process taking place does not mean that there is no individual human being who retains his/her own nature throughout that process.

At any rate, if "recapitulation" were true, then we would also observe the formation of "fish" or "monkey" enzymes, proteins and tissues, which we don't. Even though there are many genes we do share in common with other species, let's not forget about the genes we do not share with them and which make us specifically human and different from them.

Once again, consider the legitimacy of the fundamental groundings on which so-called "process" scientific, philosophical or theological theories are based. Who is to say that any particular "rendition" of that "process" is either sound or valid to begin with. Can any such proponent successfully prove the validity of his or her "process" theory, or successfully defend it? Could such a "calculus" be arbitrary or abused? And once again consider the logical and practical conclusions to which one must be pushed if "moral status" is merely grounded on a "calculus of process". Literally no human beings contained within that process would be left untouched or unaffected.

The political and cultural impact of such incorrect scientific and philosophical definitions (or redefinitions) of "personhood" is potentially devastating. As Judge Robert Bork has so succinctly and brilliantly comprehended and demonstrated, such "logic", the scientific and philosophical premises on which they rest, and many of the several radical libertine and egalitarian agendas which have been derived from them, are pushing us ever more rapidly towards what he describes as "Gomorrah", the final stage or end point of the living, breathing political and cultural Slope on which we have already been and continue to be rapidly Slipping. Such "theories" or social "constructs", which inherently debase the inalienable value of newly existing unborn human lives, are now being tapped to ground the politically correct and absolutized concepts of "autonomy", perceived "social needs" and "convenience". The political and cultural consequences which he so carefully and at considerable length develops should give us immediate pause:

The systematic killing of unborn children in huge numbers is part of a general disregard for human life that has been growing for some time. Abortion by itself did not cause that disregard, but it certainly deepens and legitimates the nihilism that is spreading in our culture and finds killing for convenience acceptable. We are crossing lines, at first slowly and now with rapidity: killing unborn children for convenience; removing tissue from live fetuses; contemplating creating embryos for destruction in research; considering taking organs from living anencephalic babies; experimenting with assisted suicide; and contemplating euthanasia. Abortion has coarsened us. If it is permissible to kill the unborn human for convenience, it is surely permissible to kill those thought to be soon to die for the same reason. And it is inevitable that many who are not in danger of imminent death will be killed to relieve their families of burdens. Convenience is becoming the theme of our culture. Human tend to be inconvenient at both ends of their lives.101  (emphasis added)

V. Questions about professional "expertise"

Perhaps this is an appropriate point to at least raise the ticklish and often ignored question of both scientific and philosophical "expertise".102  It is clear from even the few arguments presented here that there are serious problems with both the scientific and philosophical inaccuracies pervading these arguments on "personhood".

The science used is often selective, cryptic and/or simply incorrect, and does not apply to or is irrelevant to the philosophical issue it is trying to ground. Some still insist that the "science" being used is correct - although certainly to so "insist" does not make it so. We would all welcome those who support such "scientific" claims to prove them. When all of the human embryological, human genetic and other scientific texts - as well as the most recent research and assurances by the most respected researchers - state clearly and unequivocally that very different basic scientific facts are universally acknowledged which actually contradict the scientific "facts" used by many of the proponents of delayed personhood, let those proponents defend their scientific "facts" openly and publicly before an open body of their scientific peers.

What human embryologist, for example, would agree that ova and sperms are really the same as zygotes; that the zygote is not a human being or human embryo; that the early human embryo or fetus is just a "piece" of the mother's tissues; that human cells divide asynchronously and neatly into two, four, 8, etc.; that all of the cells at the two-cell stage are completely differentiated; that "totipotency" is somehow problematic, vague, or "indecisive"; that "molecular molecules" from the mother actually determine the very nature of the developing human embryo; that hydatidiform moles or teratomas derive from normal human embryos; that scientifically there is any such thing as a "pre-embryo", a "developmental individual" or an "ontological individual"; that none of the cells from the trophoblast layer ever find their way into the fetus or even the adult human being - or that none of the cells from the embryoblast layer ever find their way into the placenta, etc.; that twinning never takes place after 14-days; that implantation takes place at two weeks; that the physical brain is parallel to the physical nervous system or primitive nerve network, or that either is fully integrated by the eighth week; or that full sentience or rational attributes are present anytime before birth (or beyond)?

What chemist would agree that the sharing of electrons when Na and Cl combine changes the very natures of these elements, or that the nucleus of a radioisotope is physically or chemically analogous to the nucleus of a living plant or animal cell?

Such basic scientific inaccuracies are academically difficult to explain.103  Why don't other scientists publicly or privately refute such scientific mis-information? Might they lose much needed research grants if they did? At what point does such scientific mis-information become unethical - especially when it degrades and corrupts these very sciences, and is then applied and used to determine the moral status of certain human beings?

The philosophy that is often invoked is just as selective and problematic. Sometimes the "philosopher" apparently has had no background in the history of philosophy, and seems to be totally (or conveniently) oblivious to the theoretical problems inherent in any philosophical position with a mind/body split, or with rationalistic or empiricist philosophical presuppositions. Nor does there seem to be the least awareness that these philosophies are not really viable - but interesting today mostly from an historical or propadeutic perspective, i.e., examples of how such systems historically have failed. Sometimes an historical philosopher is depicted with grosse imprecision, or completely out of context - making that historical philosopher "say" things he never would or could conclude to.

There is no way many "quotes" from Aristotle, Aquinas or Descartes can be sustained academically. And it is hardly a new academic insight that the Aristotle of the De Anima is and has been (for centuries) highly problematic and contradictory to his main-stream metaphysical doctrines on substance and anthropology.104  Nor did Aristotle or Thomas even mention "proto-matter", and both argued that "prime matter" doesn't even really exist. Neither would have defined "substance" as "mass-energy"; nor equated "quantity" with "mass". And Thomas would have always included esse in his definition of any "substance". Nor are the proper academic distinctions made among the several different kinds of Thomists (e.g., neo-platonic, aristotelean, suarezian, transcendental, maritainian, rahnerian, process, etc.),105  many of whom read St. Thomas differently and conclude to different theories on these issues.

Descartes' philosophy was abandoned hundreds of years ago because of its multitudinous theoretical problems - not only because of its mind/body split, belief in innate ideas and that there were only two substances in the entire universe (Mind and Extension), and neo-platonic epistemology - but also because of the blatantly erroneous and absurd scientific theories to which it led (e.g., his theory of the "vortex").106  These basic philosophical are likewise difficult to explain.107  Again, let the "philosophers" in these "personhood" debates defend their philosophical positions with their mind/body splits, as well as their historical philosophical "depictions" and interpretations, openly and publicly before a body of philosophical scholars. Or would that be considered too "uncollegial"? At what point does "collegiality" become unethical - e.g., when it corrupts and degrades the history of philosophy, and is then also applied to determine the moral status of certain human beings?

This observation has serious implications for the assumed "professional" status of researchers, philosophers, ethicists and bioethicists - issues which have received too little attention, especially in light of the current movement of the theories of these writers out of the "ivory towers" of academia into the domaine of public policy. Scientific, philosophical, ethical or bioethical "experts" are being used more and more as "expert witnesses" - for example, in the media, courtrooms, Congressional hearings, and federal panels - to help to determine health care and medical research issues in public policy. It would seem that they should at least be held to the same standards of professional activity as are other "professionals" who have as significant an impact on the public welfare. Interestingly, these four "professions" are not even listed in the Codes of Professional Responsibility108  - although physicians are. I do not consider myself an "expert" in any of these fields at all, and surely I am fallible as well. But given their impact on public policy, certainly there must be some bare minimum of standards in these fields below which one can not go without expecting to be held professionally accountable.

As "food for thought", consider the above-mentioned Codes. Among the criteria used as standards for "professionals" in that work are: accountability and responsibility; competence and qualifications; education, training and experience; law and legal requirements; licensing, certification, and accreditation; and other codes, bylaws, policies and technical standards - to name but a few. A glance down the list of "professions" included under these standards of behavior reveals some interesting examples:

1. Accountability and responsibility (p. 479): these professions state specific "codes of professional conduct" or "codes of ethics": accountants, arbitrators, architects, bankers, business executives, clinical social workers, counselors, dental hygienists, dentists, engineers, financial planners, government lawyers, hospitals, insurance agents, journalists, lawyers, legal assistants, lobbyists, mediators, neutrals, nurses, personnel consultants, physicians, prosecutors, psychiatrists, psychologists, public administrators, real estate agents, social workers, and trial lawyers.

Note that researchers, philosophers, ethicists and bioethicists have no formal professional code of ethics, and no formal professional standards of behavior.

2. Competence and qualifications (pp. 485-486): these professions state specific requirements which must be met before practicing, including the mastery of a defined body of knowledge and the attainment of professional degrees which reflect similar requirements; many require testing on local, state or national levels: accountants, advertising agencies, arbitrators, bankers, business executives, clinical social workers, counselors, dental hygienists, dentists, direct marketers, engineers, financial planners, hospitals, insurance agents, journalists, law librarians, lawyers, legal assistants, mediators, neutrals, nurses, physicians, prosecutors, psychiatrists, psychologists, public administrators, real estate agents, social workers, and trial lawyers.

On the other hand, biological researchers are allowed to use radioisotopes without having a course in nuclear chemistry, or chemists are allowed to use infectious microbes without having a course in microbiology or sterile technique. Also, one finds metaphysicians teaching bioethics with no previous course work, ethicists teaching metaphysics with no previous course work, and bioethicists teaching metaphysics and ethics with no previous course work. Wouldn't it be odd to find a lawyer teaching organic chemistry with no previous course work in organic chemistry? As someone once aptly put it, "you can't teach what you don't know". And although philosophers, ethicists, and bioethicists must meet the idiosyncratic requirements of their degree institutions, there are no local, state or national testing requirements or standards to meet in order to assure the public of any common degree of competence or mastery of a similarly defined body of knowledge.

3. Education, training and experience (p. 492): these professions go beyond the above standards by requiring constant professional up-dating of information under formal, systematic conditions, as well as competence in specific training and a clear demonstration of effective experience: accountants, advertising agencies, arbitrators, architects, bankers, business executives, clinical social workers, counselors, dental hygienists, dentists, engineers, financial planners, hospitals, insurance agents, journalists, law librarians, lawyers, legal assistants, lobbyists, mediators, neutrals, nurses, personnel consultants, physicians, prosecutors, psychiatrists, psychologists, public administrators, real estate agents, social workers, and trial lawyers.

Note that researchers are not required to take courses in research ethics; nor do physicians or nurses necessarily know how to do basic or clinical research. Nor do philosophers, ethicists, or bioethicists have uniform requirements for course work, yet alone even agree on how to define the subject-matters of their disciplines. There are no requirements for updating their bodies of knowledge, there are variable degrees and levels of post-degree training - if any - and there are no determinable formal and global professional oversights or requirements for any experience.

Of particular interest is the fact that many public policy issues discussed here (and others) have been grounded on bioethics and its three basic principles of autonomy, justice and beneficence ("principlism").109  But if "principlism" is no longer acknowledged as a viable basis on which to ground even bioethics,110  then how can all of those local, national and international regulations, guidelines and documents - which were explicitly grounded on "principlism" - any longer be valid themselves?

4. Law and legal requirements (pp. 500-501): these professions go even further and require their members to practice their professions within certain local, state and federal legal requirements: accountants, advertising agencies, arbitrators, architects, bankers, business executives, clinical social workers, counselors, dental hygienists, dentists, direct marketers, engineers, financial planners, government lawyers, hospitals, insurance agents, journalists, law librarians, lawyers, legal assistants, lobbyists, mediators, nurses, personnel consultants, physicians, prosecutors, psychiatrists, psychologists, public administrators, real estate agents, social workers, and trial lawyers.

There are virtually no local, state or federal legal requirements restricting the practice of philosophers, ethicists or bioethicists.

5. Licensing, certification and accreditation (pp. 501-502): these professions require that their members obtain local, state or federal licensing, certification and/or accreditation before they are even allowed to practice: architects, clinical social workers, counselors, dental hygienists, dentists, engineers, financial planners, hospitals, insurance agents, lawyers, legal assistants, mediators, nurses, personnel consultants, physicians, prosecutors, psychiatrists, psychologists, real estate agents, and trial lawyers.

Although physicians and nurses are required to be licensed as care givers, they are not required to be licensed as clinical researchers; nor are bench scientists required to be licensed to do basic research. Clearly philosophers, ethicists and bioethicists are not required to be licensed or certified to practice on any local, state or federal level.

In these times of specialization, many "insist" that we must rely on the "professional expertise" of others. But if this and other studies on the arguments for "personhood" indicate anything, it is that one still must question the kind of "expertise" abounding today. If one prefers to propound a scientific/philosophical/ethical/bioethical theory that the world is made up of "quadrads" or "zeta particles", for example, and that a human being is defined in such terms, such a theory use to be academically entertained "indulgently". But today, when such theories are taught as fact to thousands of students, and further incorporated into local, state, national and international public policies and guidelines which effect the health, welfare and very lives of multi-millions of innocent human beings, then such theories, as well as those who espouse and promote them, ought to bear serious accountability to the public who eventually bears the brunt of such theoretical mis-information.

VI. Conclusion

Given the scientific and philosophical problems inherent in the positions which argue for the various biological marker events of "personhood", can we really accept their various conclusions? Can we accept either the "science" that is used or the rationalistic or empiricist philosophical definitions of human beings or human persons which are incorporated into those arguments? Or is it even possible to reconcile the correct biological facts with a philosophical definition of a human being or a human person?

What I am leading to is a definition which does not split the human being from the human person, and which does not consist of only a part of the human beings of which we have experience. Can you really have a human person without simultaneously having a human being? And vice-versa, can you really have a human being without also simultaneously having a human person?

I would argue no - you really can't split them - except conceptually, as rationalistic or empiricist philosophers are wont to do. But if you do define a human person as only a part of the whole complex - i.e., only in terms of matter, or sentience, or soul, or a part of the soul, or rational attributes -then you will also logically have to argue not only for delayed hominization, but for the infanticide of even normal healthy infants or young adolescents, the substitution of the mentally ill in destructive experimental research, and the abuse and possible euthanizing of many sick human beings (especially the elderly) as well. And delayed hominization simply does not match up with the correct empirical facts.

Philosophically what has occurred is that a "part" of a whole has been turned into a whole thing itself (e.g., the "soul" alone, or the "body" alone are considered separate independent substances in themselves). And, of course, this leads to the chronic Platonic or Cartesian problems of a mind/soul, soul/body, or even a body/body split - with all of the accompanying chorismos or "separation" problems latent in those philosophical position (such as no possibility of any interaction between the separated "body" and the "mind" or "soul"). However, if we look closely at the earlier Aristotelean-Thomistic ball-park definition of a human person I would submit that - oddly enough - it matches the most contemporary body of scientific facts that are available today. For example, at fertilization substantial change has taken place, resulting in an embryonic human zygote possessing 46 chromosomes, and a human nature or potency which contains all of the information needed to effect or cause specifically human accidental or embryological change or development. And this original information is not lost until the death of the adult human being. Biological phenomena, such as totipotency, "positional molecules" and even twinning are really normal phenomena which are suppose to happen, and are explained by the human genetic information in the original single-cell human zygote. Once the biological facts are correctly understood it is not difficult to define a human being.

From empirical observations we can then draw our objectively based philosophical concepts of personhood, and these philosophical concepts should surely reflect or match those biological facts as accurately as possible - or else we are not philosophizing about the real world at all.

I have attempted to demonstrate, however briefly, that to define a "human being" or a "human person" in terms of only a part of the whole leads to counterintuitive and incomplete expressions of what we actually experience about human persons, as well as a miss-match with the correct empirical facts. The definition of a "human being" or a "human person" does not have to be relative - as long as the correct science is employed, and our philosophical definitions actually match that reality. I leave it up to you to decide which of the proffered definitions make that match.

Next page:  1  2  3  4  »