God's Image and Personhood

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In one of the comments at the Panda's Thumb post Richard linked to on the Intelligent Design post below, the following statement appears:

The fact that an early foetus is less sentient than a carrot doesn't matter because its visible characteristics are accidents just as the communion wafer, which certainly looks like a cracker, is substantially the body of Christ.

In context, this is from the author's comparison of special creationists' views on species differentiation with Aquinas' views on substantial forms. Special creationists believe, at the very least, that it took an act of God to produce humanity as apart from any other species. Some special creationists believe evolutionary theory explains some species differentiation and just humans came separately, and some take it all the way to saying that no species can come about except by a miraculous act of God. The commenter is therefore a little unfair to those who believe special creation only occurred for humanity to come about, since the comment is directed toward those who believe in special creation at all, and the complaint is that it involves an inability to see how any species could come about through small change.

What was interesting to me about all this, though, even if you ignore the inability on this commenter's part to distinguish between versions of special creation, is the substantial forms issue in relation to humans. This is something that is unfair again on one level but helps explain at least one strain within pro-life thought about personhood and complexity of development.

I don't think everyone in the contemporary pro-life movement holds a view like Aquinas' substantial forms. Aquinas thought there was this component of who we are that makes us what we are. It is our essence. You can take away anything else, what he called accidents, and we'd still be who we are. If the essence is gone, we're no longer there. A number of contemporary philosophers believe that we do have essential properties that are like this, but the difference with Aquinas is that species is part of the essential nature. So my being human is at least part of my substantial form. The matter can be arranged in many different ways, but the substantial form organizes it in such a way that I will develop into an adult human being as long as something doesn't go wrong in the process (e.g. I die first).

I think something along these lines is involved with the pro-life view, in many cases at least. Only for Roman Catholics does it involve anything that would be extended to believing the human substantial form and divine substantial form are in communion wafers, but the first part of the quote above does seem to me to get the view right, except for one small detail, which isn't an issue about whether the quote gets the view right but about whether it gets scientific fact right. A fetus is more sentient than a carrot. There's no question about that, since a fetus has some sort of sensory neural input from the earliest fetal stages. Maybe an embyro doesn't have senses, but a fetus clearly does. A carrot doesn't. A better example would be a lower animal such as a slug. At some stage in development, I'm sure the fetus is less developed than a slug in terms of sensory input and neural complexity. This is, as far as I can tell, the only reason 99% of philosophers today would say that it's perfectly ok to kill a human organism at this stage of development.

Two assumptions could lead to such a conclusion. One is the utilitarian assumption that causing pain would be the only reason to prevent killing something. In some abortion discussions, proponents of the pro-choice position argue that early fetal development doesn't involve as much in the way of pain receptors as other things we kill all the time, e.g. mosquitoes. Utilitarians then say that there's nothing wrong with killing such a creature, since it's so small an amount of pain that it doesn't matter. One problem with this is that by the time most abortions occur there really is much more pain, something more on the level of a cat. The biggest problem, though, is the assumptioin of utilitarianism, which is a dying view among ethical theorists today. The mainstays defending utilitarianism are actually metaphysicians and not ethicists, and I wonder if in some of those cases it's so that they won't have to do the hard work of real ethical discussion. Utilitarianism is so easy. One professor in my department refers to it as a view for children until they can reach maturity to see that it's much more complicated than happiness and unhappiness, and I think that's right.

The second assumption that could give an alternate path to this conclusion is that complexity of development is all the essence of what you are that could matter for whether you can be killed. This, I think, is the part of the orthodoxy of the philosophical world. I don't see why anyone believes it except that they think it follows from materialism. If we're just physical beings with no immaterial component, they can't see how anything could determine whether we're higher beings with moral rights unless we have a more complex makeup than lower beings without those rights. This takes some nuance if it's to be consistent with some kind of animal rights perspective (which I don't think most politically active animal rights proponents have even considered), but that's workable as long as you have a gradation of when killing an animal and killing a fetus are ok. The lower complexity of each makes it less bad to kill. This will of necessity force a limitation on both scope of which animals have rights and on how late an abortion can be justified, but I think such a nuanced view is workable. It's just not going to be the standard pro-choice orthodoxy of the political left.

Pro-life views of personhood do not involve anything to do with levels of complexity. If a fetus is as much a person as I am, then its basis for that personhood and the rights that come with it can't have anything to do with how complex it is. It's true that a fetus has sensory input, but that is much lower at earlier stages, and the pro-life position isn't generally that earlier abortions are ok (though some who call themselves pro-life allow it at earlier stages). The argument isn't usually based on pain, at least not for early-stage fetuses. The argument is usually based on a notion that simply being human involves a distinction with the entirety of the rest of the animal kingdom (and lower forms of life as well). I argued last week that an argument for the presumption of a pro-life position can be mustered very easily without appealing to religious conviction or revelation from God. I still stand by that. What can come in from a religious conviction is the explanation of what is different about a human fetus and an adult orangutan. The fetus is made in the image of God. The ape isn't.

Theologians differ widely on what the image of God consists of. Some think it's something to do with reason. Some think it's a special level of moral development. Some think it's a kind of emotional capacity to connect on a deeper level. Some think it's a spiritual ability to relate to God. Others suggest free will, self-consciousness, something to do with personality, or an ability to relate to God (which sounds to me as just some combination of these, which could well be what was originally meant). A fetus doesn't have most of these properties if the idea is a fully realized level of reason, moral development, etc., but that's not what people mean. They mean all the potential for that development is there, so that any human being is made in God's image, regardless of age or level of development.

Some people in the abortion literature don't care much for the mention of potentiality, because they think reason, moral development, etc. are part of personhood, and therefore a fetus is a mere potential person and not a person. The result is that a fetus has the potential of developing moral rights but doesn't have them yet. The pro-life view is very different. The image of God is what gives the rights. The image of God is itself a potential to develop reason, moral rights, etc., but not everything with that potential has the image of God. An unfertilized human egg has that potential, if it were to be fertilized and developed. A stem cell in my bone has that potential if real cloning, as opposed to what they've done with sheep (which is just genetic engineering of an egg to have the DNA of another being rather than taking a cell of a being and turning it into a duplicate organism), is possible. A stem cell doesn't have the image of God, though, nor does an egg until it is fertilized (it's not even an organism until it has the right chromosomal makeup and capacity to develop). The pro-choice discussions of potentiality seem to me to assume that anything with the potential for certain features will give the potential for rights. The pro-life view seems to me to say that it has the rights because it has the right features that also give it the potential.

I want to suggest a further sense of what the image of God might be that could explain a little more here. This comes right out of some of the most important recent commentaries on Genesis, so it's not as if I'm making this up out of thin air. Gordon Wenham, for instance, considers some of the above ideas about what the image of God might be (noting that these would be the image of God because they're ways we're like God) and then opts for an explanation along different lines. Bruce Waltke takes the additional explanation Wenham gives on top of all the others rather than as exclusive of them. I think Waltke is more likely to be right, but Wenham's version with just this different explanation is sufficient for my purposes.

This further notion is one of standing in a certain relation to God, one ordained by God but not part of the essence of being human other than by God's decree. There are two ways God might decree something. The first is to declare it such that it changes something about the thing. For example, God might declare that there be light, and there will be light. God might decree that I be transformed as a new creation, and the work of the Holy Spirit will bring about change in my life (which of course includes my role in obeying Christ, for instance). The second kind of declaration changes how God related but doesn't change the nature. God might declare that someone would be legally righteous even before any life change has taken place so that the person is becoming more righteous to match that declaration. God might declare that a child is to obey a parent, and that relationship is fixed in some spiritual sense even if there's no biological connection between parent and child, e.g. with adoption. No change takes place in the child due to being adopted, but by virtue of the fact that this child is now the child of a new parent, the child has a relationship declared by God, with certain role relationships, including obedience and love. Something similar takes place when someone is declared married even before the physical consummation gives a real connection between two people. They are declared one flesh even without having become one flesh in a physical sense.

According to this view, which Gordon Wenham defends and Bruce Waltke seems to think is at least part of what the image of God is all about, God therefore says certain things about humanity that define our relationships. One element is that we are God's stewards of all creation. This is something God's declaration makes real but not through changing anything in us. God did give us the abilities to do a better job of this than any lower animals could, but it's the declaration that makes it true of us, not the abilities. This is true no matter what stage of development a human being is at. The responsibilities that will develop and the moral status declared by God to be true of us go along with this. It's stronger than this, though, and reflecting a bit on what being an image in the ancient near east would have been helps a little. People would create images to represent their gods. They weren't foolish enough to think the piece of wood covered with gold trim or the hunk of rock that they bowed down before was really a god. Isaiah makes fun of them by saying that this piece of rock can't save them, because he knows full well that there isn't anything to it more than the hunk of rock, but the people worshiping the god realized that the image was only a symbol. Otherwise, there would be a lot more gods than myths about them, if each hunk of wood was a different god rather than just a different token of the same type, a different instance representing the same god.

In Israel God was represented by an absence. The ark of the covenant contained a setup with cherubim rigged to look like a throne for God to sit on, but no image of God was ever allowed. Nothing was deemed fit to represent God. Yet in Genesis 1 and elsewhere we see these statements that we are made in the image of God. We are made to represent him. Stewardship (in a sense ruling in his place) over creation is one element of that. We're given the responsibility to manage things that God has placed in our laps, his property, for his sake. We're given to rule in his place over whatever sphere we occupy and have authority over. That's almost directly implied by the Hebrew in Gen 1:26 right after humanity is declared to be in his image. That's at least part of being made in the image of God. It's being made to represent God, but this aspect of being made in the image of God isn't ontological. It isn't some aspect of our being that's made a certain way. It's moral and relational. God made us to be this way, but it's not a way we're formed to be. It's a way we're declared to be.

Bruce Waltke gives one more element of being made in the image of God, so please bear with me before I get back to what the pork this has to do with abortion. One thing I discovered after learning a lot about the abortion debates that makes them all seem a little strange is that the origin of the term 'person' was in theological discussions of the Trinity. When theologians were coining terminology to explain how God can be a complete unity of being while also being three in some other important sense (without being three gods), they used the Latin ancestor of 'person' to say that God is what we now in English as refer to as three persons but one being or substance. That was the origin of the word person. Now butterflies have nothing to do with butter or flies, so we don't want to commit the fallacy of taking a word's origin to guide us into an exact meaning today, but there's something important about the Trinity in Christian theology that I think does have a bearing on the image of God, which in turn has a bearing on personhood, so hear me out.

The Genesis passage doesn't say that male and female together make up God's image, as if each is half of it (or part of it if it's somehow not supposed to be 50-50). It says that each is made in God's image, male and female. God is fully represented in each. Each represents God. Yet the wording of it might be important. Waltke cites Gen 5:1-3 and Gen 9:6 together show that it's not a partial image in each of male and female (from 9:6), but being made in his image involves being male and female (5:1-3). Both are true. We are unity in diversity, and neither overrules the other. Those who overstress the difference between male and female ignore biblical themes of unity and equality, such as Paul's statement in Galatians that there is no male or female, slave or free, etc.

Yet some overstress the sameness based on that one verse Galatians, including such magnificent commentators as F.F. Bruce and Gordon Fee. This ignores the plain teaching that there aren't just differences between men and women but sometimes role distinctions that serve a distinct purpose, role distinctions that don't imply lack of equality on what counts. Paul bases some of those differences on the creation order in I Tim 2 and I Cor 11, so they're part of the good creation and not a fallen disorder from the curse of Gen 3. These two truths together form a very interesting way of imaging and representing God. We as humanity are in his likeness because we are unity in diversity, in the most biological differences humans can have, that of sexual distinction. There's a unity in duality in male and female that represents the unity in Trinity in God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have clear role distinctions. Nowhere does the Father submit to the Son, and the Spirit doesn't send the Father or the Son. Prayers are to be directed to the Father, not the Son or the Spirit, though the Son is clearly to be worshiped explicitly, as in Revelation 4-5 (I'm a little unclear as to whether the Bible says anything about worshiping the Spirit). After being given all glory upon full ascendance to kingship, Jesus will turn it back over to the Father in submission, according to I Corinthians 15.

If Waltke is right that this unity in diversity is part of how we represent God, as Paul seems to say explicitly in Ephesians 5 and I Corinthians 11 (with wives submitting to husbands as to the Lord and husbands loving their wives as Christ does the church, dying for her; with husbands the heads of their wives as Christ of husbands, and God of Christ). The analogies are all there. I'm not making them up, and neither is Waltke. It's one way humanity represents God iin our relationships in a structural way, even if there are other ways each person represents God directly. Corporate truth is as important for the Semitic mindset as individual truth, and it's something we Westerners don't consider enough. It's fundamental to some of the themes in scripture.

So now what does this have to do with the personhood and the image of God? What I hope I've done a decent job presenting is an account of ways the image of God is present not just in a potential way to be realized later, though I've argued that that's sufficient as long as it's the image of God that carries rights and not the properties the image of God will eventually lead to that give rights. This second way of conceiving of the image of God or of representing God has to do with what God has declared about us. That's true of human beings simply because God has declared it about human beings. It's not true of other species, no matter how cognitively or emotionally developed they are. That doesn't mean we have no obligation to be kind to animals. It does mean there's something different about human beings because God has declared us to be different. I've given only two ways we're to be different in representing God, but the details of that aren't as important as the fact that these are declarations that make us different and make the nature of our relationships different. The fact that God has spoken us into certain relationships of moral concern is enough that every human being has those relationships regardless of whether we recognize it and independent of what capacities they've achieved. I'm not claiming to have established this about us, but I am claiming that this is the scriptural view of human beings, and those who believe the Christian scriptures have an account of personhood that can lie in these elements that can then explain moral rights and responsibilities even with regard to human embryos. I think this will go a long way toward explaining why it could be wrong to destroy something that has much less perceptual ability than a slug, no self-concept, something far short of even the kind of reasoning a mosquito can do, and no ability to control how its life might go. None of this involved immaterial souls or substantial forms of any sort.

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I was being a bit rhetorical with the carrot bit , though not very much. Meanwhile, your long and interesting discussion may or may not have succeeded in defending the unborn without appealing to substantial forms, but it is interesting that you do have to appeal to the notion of God to make sense out of it. For a nonbeliever, that appeal has zero force. Indeed, I find that the substantial form line has more credibility since a scholastic like Aquinas at least had a philosophical as well as a theological notion of what he was talking about when he used the word "deus." I expect you feel that the word "God" does have such a meaning, but it beats me what the heck it can be after Kant and Hume. Of course I'm only interested in arguing philosophically, My interest in religion does not extend much beyond trying to figure out how to deal with its political effects.

Anyhow, I certainly admire your stamina. At my age I have a hard time writing so many paragraphs about anything.


I contend that the pivotal point is not in any "notions of God", but in the idea of human-ness: what makes man human.

Though I am a Christian and that will inform much of the idea of what sets humans apart from the rest of creation, it is not necessary to the argument. I think that it happens to be built into the makeup of mankind. that is beauty of this "image of God".... it speaks for itself. Man's reason and man's communication, and all of man's potentialities speak of something 'more' than the rest of the animal world. And we humans are loathe to give that up in our reality. That will always be the wrench in ethical discussions.

I think this is essential in speaking with the post-Christian culture which waves away the Bible and its pertinance to themselves.

What cannot be waved away is the basic morality questions of whether one human may decide, with no good reason other than their own well-being, to do away with another human being.

Anytime ethicists, and some of the religionists are the worst for this, try to set up ambivalent imaginary points in the timepoint a human is a person, they set themselves up for a spin-off of ethical difficulties that most will not be able to abide. Cognition: does that mean when someone loses that, after having had it....they are no longer human? And who measures how much sentience is verifiably human sentience? What exactly is human sentience that when it is gone the person may be treated as so much meat?


But if we believe and agree that we should treat one another in a "humanitarian" manner, we have to define what that is, and it will go back to the fact that there has to be consistant treatment that extends across all the distinctions to universally be applied to mankind. What we name as essentially human arises from biological reality that we start from the embryo and develop into all that we are.

The biological definition is the strictest, but most consistant, definition of a human being.

The greatest difficulty that ethicists without religion will have is that they are necessarily subjective and have no greater authority than their peers.

We all have our opinions. Unless we all agree to acquiesce to an elite, a god-substitute, as it were.

The definitive standard will arise from religion, whether directly or borrowed. But it will take discussion to come to agreement on that. Until that is hammered out in the discussion, we will continue with the hackneyed and unsatisfactory set of morals and ethics which is increasingly unfit for some of the technological advances that are made.

It wouldn't hurt for there to be more education on the actual science of what goes on in the womb. Then rhetorical "carrots" wouldn't be thrown around quite so cavalierly.

If you don't like carrots, how about slugs? Somebody used that word recently. Anyhow, I've got a right to use rhetoric in this case since sentimentality about foetuses is also rhetoric, rhetoric that has made it almost impossible to talk rationally about abortion.

For the record, "Ethicists without religion" are no more subjective than ethicists with religion unless the religions are somehow objectively true, which they don't appear to be. You want an authoritative standard, but wishing doesn't make it so.

I don't think things are so dire. While the edges of the human fact are pretty ragged, things are pretty clear in the center. Mutual respect is not impossible or even threatened just because there are hard cases on the margin.

"If you don't like carrots, how about slugs? Somebody used that word recently"

I believe you. However, the rhetorical analogy is just as incorrect if you continue to ignore the sentient and cognitive abilities of what you term "foetus" if you don't want to get into the particulars of where in the development you are exactly pinpointing.

"You want an authoritative standard, but wishing doesn't make it so."
It really isn't that I want that standard, as much as it makes no sense to try to define an ethical point without one.

The standard has to come from somewhere, and religion is the usual source on a broadbase scale.

I am not sure that one is bound to the need to prove a religion is objectively true to use it as a standard. There does need to be a consensus that there is something higher than the peer group.... or else one that an elite will do as well. Since the elitism of a special group creates its own ethical problems, a recognition of something like the American forefathers used in the Constitution works without demanding subscription to a particular religion.

Simply recognizing and agreeing to the idea that the human designation carries certain inalienable rights. That this would override the rights of, say, a carrot, or if you would insist, a slug.

I beg to differ with your opinion that things are pretty clear. I submit that things are not at all clear and that is what makes all the trouble.

I'm more of a rationalist than you. I don't think that supernatural sanction is necessary to recognize one's obligations to other human beings.

It may be arguable whether a 12-week old foetus is a person or not without putting in question the humanity of Uncle Charlie. It's hard to say, I suppose, whether a euglena is an animal or a plant but that doesn't prejudice my ability to distinguish an oak tree from a chicken. The good news is that the same ambiguities that makes it debatable whether a foetus should be treated as a human being make it a less important question unless, and this is where we came in, you do believe that some sort of substantial soul arrives at some point after conception.

By the way, while it is obviously true that many ethical notions originated in relgious contexts, surely whatever validity they possess does not depend on their source. I had to learn the quadratic formula from someone, but Mr. Edwards the algebra techer is not the reason I think it's valid today.

Jim, as I said I think there are plenty of things to say without appealing to God. That's what the previous post I linked to was all about. This was just something that your comment got me thinking about along different lines. What struck me about it was that it require substantial forms or any mind-body dualism that some pro-life people rely on but still involves an image-of-God consideration.

I never said it would appeal to a nonbeliever. It's just an account of what Christians might mean by the image of God that doesn't deal with metaphysical assumptions about human beings. It assumes theism, but most pro-lifers are theists already, and this isn't a polemical argument for pro-life positions but simply an account of one thing pro-life people can mean when they say an embryo is a person.

As for stamina, this is kid stuff compared to the metaphysics dissertation I have to produce if I ever want my Ph.D. work to lead to a real Ph.D.

I'm not sure what Kant and Hume have to do with what the name 'God' refers to. They both expressed epistemological worries about how we know things to be true of God, but that says nothing about whether someone in genuine interaction with God succeeds in referring to God with the name 'God'. Even if you might worry about how we can know anything about God (which I think analytic philosophers of religion have addressed more than adequately), the reference issue just seems to be a non-starter. Proper names get their meaning through causal processes. I'm aware of some arguments against the possibility of referring to God because our terms would be inadequate to get at something beyond us, but William Alston's arguments that we can speak literally about God in an analogical way have convinced me that there's nothing to those criticisms. If none of this is what you meant by introducing Kant and Hume, then I'd need to know the specific complaint.

Ilona, if you're going to harp about people getting the facts right then you need to do so yourself. An embryo doesn't have any sensory organs yet. A very early fetus doesn't have much. Those start to develop within the first couple weeks, but the level of input and experience can't be much beyond a slug at such an early stage. It's not mere rhetoric. It's an accurate comparison. I don't know the exact schedule of development, but a gradual development from not sensing anything requires some time with no sensing to what we now have. That's one reason I don't think arguing for personhood on the basis of sensory input is a good idea.

The other is that apes are as sentient as humans. They just aren't as cognitively or emotionally developed, and they don't seem to have a self-concept like what we have (their sign language abilities hit a roadblock when it comes to that sort of thing). Their sensory processing is pretty similar, though, and that's what sentience is. As for cognitive abilities, an embryo has none and even a newborn baby has far less than some animals we kill and eat all the time. It has much greater potential for later development, but you sounded like you were talking about actual ability.

Also, it's not about the definition of 'human being', which is clearly biological and at least includes a developing embryo. What's at issue is what counts as a person. The best philosophical papers on the topic show an understanding of that, even if most popular-level discussions on both sides ignore that.

As for the God and morality issue, I believe that God's eternal nature is the ground of morality, but it's hard to know any ethical theory at all without realizing that many who deny God's existence are still objectivists about morality. They believe in objective facts about what grounds right and wrong. Utilitarians, for instance, believe that whatever maximizes happiness and minimizes unhappiness is right, and the opposite is wrong. Facts about right and wrong depend on facts about happiness. Social contract theorists base it on a theoretical contract rational people would make with each other if they were to discuss rules for living at peace with each other. Those rules are the moral rules, and it depends on what rational people would prefer. I don't think I know of any real grounding for such theories, but there's no question that they're objective theories.

My problem with the word "God" is not that it doesn't denote anything real but that it doesn't seem to connote very much either. I have trouble with the intention, not the extension. As it is, I don't know if I'm an atheist or not since nobody will explain to me what it is that I'm not supposed to believe in. I can't be an agnostic either since I don't know what sort of being or BEING or whatever I'm supposed to be in doubt about.

I'm not just being polemical about this. Kant, who famously didn't think we could have knowledge of God, nevertheless felt oblgated to define the concept of God in the Transcendental Dialectic since he didn't think it would be quite decent for a philosopher even to have faith in something without at least having an idea of it.

Obviously I'm am requesting more than a lexical definition of God. As an English speaker I know the meaning of the term in common language. If God is going to mean something more than a vague affirmation of life, however, shouldn't an apologist at least be able to provide some clue as to what sort of entity he's talking about?

Richard Swinburne has at least a whole chapter on what he sees as explaining what he sees as a definition of what 'God' means. Each apologetical argument should define clearly what sort of being it attempts to establish, but I thought they already did that. The cosmological argument, for instance, merely attempts to establish a necessary being that explains the existence of the rest of the universe. The moral argument purports to argue for a perfectly good being whose existence grounds morality. The ontological argument argues for a being then which nothing is greater. The design argument argues for some being intelligent and powerful enough to have had some design role in the universe or in life. Arguments for Christianity in particular argue for a being who fits what Christianity and the Christian Bible say about God. If that's not what you mean, then I think I need more of a sense of what you're looking for.

The classic arguments for the existence of God don't really address my concerns. They don't specify what sort of entity is supposed to make or design the world. Animal, vegetable, mineral? I can live with a fuzzy difference, but I'd like a genus. Necessary being or Being period gets around the problem, but only at the cost of making god kind of uninteresting.

The trouble is that all the divine attributes about which one might give a damn only make sense as the characterisitics of a biological organism -- so far as we have empirical knowledge, only living things have genders or perform actions. Does God have HOX genes? But if you start getting rigorous about avoiding anthropomorphism and opt for a completely spiritual God ala the Guide for the Perplexed, the connection with the engaging God of the Bible goes away and you wind up with a vanishing abstraction. I might be willing to admit the concept of necessary being, but that version of God doesn't obviously create even a single moral obligation.

I'm Kantian in the very general sense that I don't think our concepts can be successfully absolutized. You can make up Cabbalistic romances about the internal life of the godhead, but I just don't think people are in any position to know about such things even if language worked in that airless realm beyond finite things. Incidentally, that doesn't mean that I think theological language is humanly meaningless. On the contrary, in the absence of extra-human input , theology and religion offers a privileged vantage point on human wishes and fears precisely because it operates in a perfect vacuum.

Saying that God doesn't hold your interest doesn't seem to me to be a very good objection to God's existence. I don't know how you could possibly think the biblical descriptions of God allow for God to be a material object, given all the statements to the contrary, particularly ones that suggest that God isn't just non-physical but is non-temporal (which makes sense if space and time are really just different aspects that we perceive of spacetime that in principle seem able to be perceived more analogously than we can accomplish).

I think the main resistance I have to what you're saying is that I believe there has been extra-human input, and that God has in fact spoken in some particular ways, including through becoming incarnated as a human being. Christians hold out Jesus as the prime revelation of God, believing him to be as the gospels plainly portray him, the revelation of God in human flesh. Thus he revealed the nature of God in whatever ways God thought necessary to reveal such things beyond what the words of the prophets and so on had done. So your argument just seems really strange to me. I can understand that if you don't believe God has really spoken you don't believe you have any way to know what God is really like, but it sounds to me as if you're denying the very possibility of this, and that's something I just don't get.

You misunderstand me. If you make the notion of God vague enough, I may be willing to sign on to theism. I'm not objecting to God's existence in that case, just his relevance. For example, Pliny the Elder said God is man helping man. That's OK by me.

But we really have no quarrel. If you can manage to believe in special revelation, you can beleve in anything. Of course earlier theists, even theists who believed that revelation was indespensible to knowledge of God, took pains to show that their beliefs were consistent with reason if not based on reason. Modern believers have streamlined things, evidentally.

One odd thought occurs to me. The oldest definition of a verb in Western thinking is a word that has a tense. if that's right, how can a verb such as "created," be univocally predicated of a nontemporal being?

Well, Jeremy, this particular harpy was referring to the analogy, when saying one ought to get the scientific facts right. I don't think you want to try to compare embryos and carrots, do you?

My point on human designations being difficult to separate from the embryo/ fetus state was two-fold. One: biologically it doesn't make sense. Two: You have a long development line when you say the word "fetus". But you knew that, I think.

"Those start to develop within the first couple weeks, but the level of input and experience can't be much beyond a slug at such an early stage. It's not mere rhetoric. It's an accurate comparison."

You do think so? Try to support it, I am genuinely interested in how this looks , elaborated upon.

"I don't know the exact schedule of development, but a gradual development from not sensing anything requires some time with no sensing to what we now have."

The reason you do not know this is because no one can accurately measure this, that does not not support your statements, however. Gradual development is another way of saying lifespan. You start somewhere and you end somewhere with gradual development of different sorts in between. I think it is a false argument as presented here.

I used the word sentient because that is one of the criteria that is raised in this particular debate. It is a troublesome point, and not one I would make for my own personal view...but it is one that comes up in this type of discussion.

"Also, it's not about the definition of 'human being', "

I think it is. What exactly do you mean by "person" then?

"The best philosophical papers on the topic show an understanding of that, even if most popular-level discussions on both sides ignore that."

The "best philosophical papers" are discussing what constitutes "human-ness" I would imagine. They are trying to draw a line at where one becomes "human" in the sense that we understand ourselves to be human. I am simply saying that the biological test of that is the most consistant, especially ethically. Otherwise you have to draw lines on the cognitive levels which makes problems for Jim's Uncle Charley.

"They believe in objective facts about what grounds right and wrong."

No argument from me there. But where do they get this? This is my question, and my submission is that they borrow it.
"whatever maximizes happiness and minimizes unhappiness is right, and the opposite is wrong."

Ah yes. I have spoken with some of these. but they get into trouble on "happiness, for whom?""And who is in charge of gauging this happiness?"

"I'm more of a rationalist than you. I don't think that supernatural sanction is necessary to recognize one's obligations to other human beings."

I genuinely like you, so far, Jim. I'd have to question whether you are truly more rationalist, however. It depends on how you flesh out that "supernatural sanction". You do need a standard from somewhere, and the interesting thing if we had a personal conversation would be: how do you derive your standards, and what sort of model would you use for group standards?

I definitely think Uncle Charley might be vulnerable, but I think you are glossing over the reality of ethical standards if you think our definition of a fetus is ambiguous. My guess is that for you, personally, there is a line where you do not feel good about ending a baby's life. My question for you would be whether that line is one of emotional appeal, rather than pure "rationality".

Am I right, and do you have a line somewhere along the development process?

"it is obviously true that many ethical notions originated in relgious contexts, surely whatever validity they possess does not depend on their source."

I don't understand the quadratic formula, and did not understand Algebra ( how I passed I'll never know). I agree with you on the point, however. I'm just saying that it does derive from a source that whether you believe in the validity of all of it, you certainly have taken some of it to heart.

Valid is valid.... and there are many who do not accept that there is a God, who nevertheless have a strong moral model. If God doesn't make you believe, I certainly am not equal to the task. There are two ways to comment on Jeremy's post: one is to look at theist commentary for the insights in to the thought process ( which is how it seems it was meant) and the other is to point out that not all will accept this sort of argument. Both valid paths.

I seem to be highly dualistic of late....

The trouble with arguments between philosophers is that they can go in any direction and sometimes they seem to go in every direction at once. So let me pick up one thread of the discussion which harks back to my original bit about substantial forms.

You claim that my rationality requires me to draw a bright line between human and nonhuman, at least on the issue of abortion. That lines have to be drawn, however, doesn't imply that they must or even can answer to some sort of sharp distinction in the things. In California, for example, it is perfectly OK to seduce somebody who is 18 years and a day old, and a major felony to seduce somebody who is one day younger than 18. To recognize that this bright line is pretty arbitrary is not to reject the notion that their ought to be some special protection for tthe innocent. It isn't even an objection to the arbitrary line. By the same token, one can support a cut-off point for legal abortions without thinking that anything decisive happens at 12 weeks or 24 weeks or 36 weeks or whenever. Why is it impossible to think of development as a continuum? That's where the substantial form bit comes in. If you think that being human is a result of the absolute presence or absence of a mysterious x (soul, form, spark, whatever), then you feel that a rational ethic about abortion obliges you to outlaw abortions before the arrival of this something. If you believe in a continuum between animal and human life, you may think humanity forms a fuzzy set and be perfectly happy with the notion that early term abortions are not morally serious while killing a child is. i'm a firm believer in epigenesis. People come into being gradually and their rights develop along with their bodies and minds. That's inconvenient for those who want things to be nice and tidy, but they apparently aren't nice and tidy.

Within your comments on the distinctions that are made for legal purposes, the common point is that one recognizes something within the development that needs protection. That is why there is a line. It isn't a case of development all by itself, which is why we would consider the seduction of a thirty year old who has severe mental handicaps to be as aberrent as that of a physical minor. We are protecting the vulnerability of the inability to make such life-impacting decisions. And yes, the line has to be drawn somewhere.

I recognize the point were making, however, when you say "without thinking that anything decisive happens at 12 weeks or 24 weeks or 36 weeks" I can't imagine what you mean. Of course decisive things happen, and we know this. Cognitive things, measurable things. We just don't know all of them, nor have ability to accurately interpret them.

Whatever my ideas on a soul are, I would not expect that to be the legal criteria for defining humanity, so your point is moot.

I am saying that this statement of yours "People come into being gradually " is your own type of philosophical view. Biologically, it isn't true.

Humans do develop..as humans. We use the designation people as a plural of these humans ...but the science is that we start at a point in the reproductive process and go from there... in a fairly regular sort of manner (generally speaking). We don't become human gradually from something other than human. Or less human.

If you say rights, as in rights to existance, come gradually along the body/mind continuum I think you are in trouble. Do people lose rights as they decay/diminish, then? Why not, if it is on that basis?

Where we get fuzzy is in the why and how of rights of independence, not of existance. We don't deny that a month old infant has a right to exist, we just recognize the lack of rights that comes from inability to choose and fend for oneself.

Such things don't depend on unified ideas of a soul. They do depend on our idea of what a human being is, and what are the unalienable rights of that human. When those who are granted rights are too young, or otherwise unable to care for such themselves, we hold them in safekeeping.

Epigenesis. Ok. but the dna still maps out what that zygote becomes, doesn't it? As for rights at that point, well, we do have legal fights over those sorts of things. Admittedly tangled.

but getting back to this:"Why is it impossible to think of development as a continuum?"

It's not. What is impossible to think of this way is the flexibility of the state of death. Death is rather final.... and that is what happens in an abortion. No more development.

i certainly admit that an embryo is human tissue from the get go, if that's what you're getting at. But then, by the same light, spermazoa and ova are the haploid phase of the human species, too, so presumably it isn't just that generic identity that lends a special right that we wouldn't give to a different species, unless you're really going to claim that the haploids have the same rights as the diploids.

Maybe I'm being unfair to make the suggestion, but aren't you treating DNA as a surrogate for the substantial form your kind of argument desperately needs? DNA is not a homunculus or even a recipe for one. By itself, as many of my biologist friends like to point out, it is a rather inert chemical. It certainly contains and perserves some information, but absent the right environment, including, crucially, the ongoing metabolism of the egg, it can't do anything. It's an aperiodic crystal, not the essence of MAN.

By my lights, dim though they may be, humanity is something that comes into existence in a social world.
Embryos not only don't have much of a social life�that wouldn't be so crucial�but they can't. For that matter, I think that the killing of a child is more serious than the killing of an infant or of a permanently comatose or drastically disfunctional adult. Which, incidentally, doesn't mean there aren't a host of nonmetaphyscial reasons to be careful about difficult cases.

Jim, most of the believers I'm in close contact with would be horrified if any of their beliefs turned out to be inconsistent with reason. I know there's a strain of anti-intellectualism within evangelicalism, but I think that's just a symptom of anti-intellectualism within America as a whole.

Philosophers have given a lot of attention to what God's creation can mean if God is atemporal, and I'm not going to repeat all that here. I will say that the existence of a very old definition for something doesn't make it a correct one, especially one that sounds so implausible as that. A tense is a property verbs can have, not a definition of what a very is. There are clear counterexamples anyway. Chinese doesn't have any tenses, for instance. It has plenty of verbs.

Ilona, the embryo/fetus line does make sense. It's clearly defined biologically and existed in scientific lingo before the abortion debate ever came to a head. I'm not sure what you want me to do to explain that neural input is required for an organ for a brain to allow perception. That's basic biology. That neural structure takes time to develop. It's not there in an embryo. Again, that's basic biology.

You can say all you want that you think it's about the definition of 'human being', but the last place that happened in philosophy was Mary Ann Warren's paper in the early 70s distinguishing between biological human beings and morally significant human beings (an arbitrary distinction to my mind). Since that time, philosophers have referred to the second as persons and the first as humans. That really is where the philosophical debate stands. At the popular level people who don't know that will say confused things about life not beginning at conception or a fetus not being a human being, but those who spearheaded the pro-choice movement from the philosophical end conceded both of those points in the 70s but continued to argue that abortion is sometimes permissible because a fetus isn't necessarily a person (and even then Judith Jarvis Thomson argues that giving full rights to a fetus isn't enough, since rights can conflict).

On gradual coming into existence, it's beginning to seem to me that this is going to be true on any view except the ones that we've always existed, as Mormons believe (which is interesting given their materialism). I believe fully that I existed when I was an embryo. Did I exist while the sperm and the egg were still in the process of uniting? That's not an instantaneous process, and there isn't an exact moment when they unite in exactly the right way such that an organism with its own DNA now exists. It takes time. At one point there's no organism. At a later point there is. In between, there's this fuzzy area where it seems as if you shouldn't affirm that it exists, but you also shouldn't affirm that it doesn't yet.

Perhaps we can leave it at this: you perceive that various traditional themes of theism still make sense. I'm inclined to think that the requisite metaphysical context is gone and that many kinds of God-talk just don't work. That doesn't augur badly for the future of religion�what do people care about logic or probability?�but that's al irrelevent to me since I'm not appealing to the sociological "God is Dead" idea.

OK, that's fine with me, as long as you realize you sound like the philosophers of the 1950s. Philosophers used to say that sort of thing all the time until some Christian philosophers came along and resurrected Christian metaphysical views (amidst a general revival of metaphysics to begin with) beginning in the 70s but especially in the 80s. There was a new resurgence of Christian philosophers whose views of course are not accepted by non-Christian philosophers but who have shown to have a philosophically responsible and respectable methodology through undermining the arguments against Christianity and theism and then systematically developing a worldview that isn't immune to criticism but isn't any more in trouble than any other view.

If you're going to accuse me of being A.J. Ayers, I'm entitled to be unfair too.

From where I'm sitting,the Christian philosophers you're speaking about didn't come up with anything plausible or even really novel. They simply benefited from a cultural scene in which getting theological is highly marketable. Just as defense attorneys will never admit that the evidence condemns their clients, apologists will never admit that they are largely talking through their hats until (metaphorically speaking) the checks start bouncing. So there.

I didn't accuse you of being A.J. Ayer. Your statement did remind me a lot of the sort of thing the positivists and then the Quineans that suceeded them used to say, and that just seems archaic from the kind of philosophical training I've had (much of which was not taught by Christians or even theists).

I'm not quite sure who you're talking about here, but the technical work of Dean Zimmerman, Daniel Howard-Snyder, George Mavrodes, Nick Wolterstorff, Tom Morris, Bill Alston, Peter van Inwagen, Brian Leftow, and even Alvin Plantinga isn't really that marketable. Most Christian intellectuals might have heard of Plantinga but probably have never heard of the rest. Maybe you mean people like Bill Craig and J.P. Moreland, but even they don't have a large audience the way some Christian authors do. It's a very specific subset of Christian intellectuals who read that stuff, and the important philosophical work I'm talking about isn't really marketable to anyone but philosophers, and that's not enough to justify a claim that it's market-driven.

'Human tissue' is not good enough, semantically. So far, as human cloning is still in idea form, there is a difference beteen an embryo and an ova in terms of growing into a human being. As a woman I know this...every month.

"..aren't you treating DNA as a surrogate for the substantial form ...?"
I don't think so, since I was only replying to your comment, and not trying to build an entire argument on it. The point of dna - as I see it- would be a specifically human designation opposed to a slug one, and an unique dna mapping for an embryo in comparison to that of the parent's dna. It does have the inevitability within the embryo of growing into the entire human being such as you now are, if there is no termination.
But as you go on in your paragraph...

"essence of MAN. " Now that is interesting. I am now curious how you would define this essence of MAN. And what importance you would attach to it, in terms of rights.

"humanity is something that comes into existence in a social world."

We are defined by the "others"? And can those others redefine us, at will?

"For that matter, I think that the killing of a child is more serious than the killing of an infant or of a permanently comatose or drastically disfunctional adult."

Having read your posts thus far, I well believe this. It seems you give degrees of valuation to people, and it seems to pivot upon their intelligence, as they are capable of expressing that intelligence outwardly. It has connotations of usefulness, too. Am I right?

But this would be an elitest system. That creates problems for large sectors of society, if they can be valued on their intelligence quotients or their usefulness to the group.

It loses something that is implied in the words"essence of man".

"be careful about difficult cases"

Sounds ripe for arbitrary criteria.

The embryo/fetus line makes sense within its perimeter of line of development. In the abortion issue it is borrowed for line of human/non-human by some, if not you. I don't ask you to say things, but I do wonder how you make your point on perception without then using that as the line of measurement for connotation of "human being".

And soon you would have me asking questions on how you line that up with your views on the image of God within humankind.

You have jumped the gun, here. I have not made my own definition of human being, but am pointing out that the biological definition is the most strict. It does not define by amount of perception, but by physical properties of the most basic type.

I think the philosophers wimped out, frankly. And I can't blame them...when even semantics failed them in drawing a satisfactory line for the definition of human-ness.

"Did I exist while the sperm and the egg were still in the process of uniting?"

Friend, this is where our work, as believers, begins. This is where you and I -if we both agree in Sola Scriptura- would begin to discuss things in earnest.

-and this would segue nicely into the original thought on the "image of God" and how this relates to human-ness, and the fact that there are some inalienable rights.

I don't believe there is so much fuzziness, so much as balance in mutual rights.

but I would absolutely hold the line on the importance of man.... as opposed to that of the slug. Especially on the individual basis.

I'm not sure what you're getting at. My claim is that the image of God is irrelevant to what actual capacities any human being has. That's why I was saying an embryo can have the image of God and thus have a right (derivative of God's rights over all humanity) not to be killed even if the abilities to perceive aren't there. That was the entire point of my post. Coming back and saying that I'm undermining my position by admitting that an embryo doesn't perceive misses the very thing I had originally set out to do.

Aside from that issue, though, I don't know who bases humanness on whether someone can perceive. That's completely silly. Philosophers don't do that. They base personhood on a whole cluster of concepts (cognitive abilities, self-concept, emotional complexity, moral reasoning, etc.), but perception isn't one of them, and the whole point is to distinguish a biological human being from a person, so there's really no effort to define humanity in terms of perception. I'm not sure who you're reading, but it's no one influential in philosophical debates on this topic.

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