Philosophy: February 2004 Archives

Coming Into Existence

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Now that I have some genuine philosophers reading my blog and commenting I guess it would be good to get some of my thoughts on what might turn into my dissertation to see if I can get any feedback on them.

One of the problems I've been thinking about has to do with coming into or going out of existence. I had thought I had identified a problem with a view that I've never really liked much, the view that posits coincident entities to explain the puzzles of change. Since a statue and a clay have different persistence conditions (the clay can go on existing once the statue has been melted down), they must not be the same thing, by Leibniz's Law. That means there's a statue and a piece of clay both existing at the same time in the same place, one constituting the other.

Coincident entity theorists have trouble when they admit to something taking time to come into existence. For example, Judith Jarvis Thomson's famous paper on abortion presents what's now the standard view, among philosophers anyway, about fetuses and personhood. A fetus isn't a person from conception but is by birth (or some say even not yet then but by age 2). The process of becoming a person is not immediate, because 'person' is a vague term, admitting of borderline cases. The problem with saying this is that coincident entity theorists believe some genuinely new thing has come into being once the person exists, just as a genuinely new thing has come into existence when the clay has been fashioned into a statue. Views that say that a fetus has literally become a person (i.e. it has a new property) but isn't a new thing don't face this problem at this point. An ontology that allows a new thing to come into existence out of exactly the same parts as something else that's there is going to have trouble with that thing taking time to come into existence, though, since there's a problem specifying whether the new thing exists during the transitional time. It's neither exists nor fails to exist, just as someone with a certain small enough number of hairs isn't quite bald but isn't quite not bald or some color right in the area between red and pink, say, might not be red but also isn't not red.

Personhood and Abortion

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NPR played a clip from Senator Sam Brownback (R, Kansas) this morning in response to the news that South Korean scientists have cloned a human embryo to harvest stem cells. (I�m ignoring the misnomer of �cloning� here, even though no one has ever cloned anything. All they�ve done is insert different genetic material into an already existing organism, which is not cloning but genetic modification. Cloning is when you create a new organism out of the DNA of an already existing organism.)

Anyway, Senator Brownback was making an argument that in some sense is right, but I think someone arguing the pro-life case needs to be a little more careful and not grant too much on this one. He was saying that how you take this depends on what you think of the moral status of the embryo. If this human organism is a person with all the moral rights thereof (even if the law doesn�t recognize those right), then it shouldn�t be treated as mere property. If it�s mere property, then it doesn�t matter so much (morally, anyway) what we do with it.

I have some serious hesitations about saying that and leaving it at that. Now, knowing media types, I don�t want to assume that he didn�t say more and had his words edited to say just this. I�ve been misinterpreted, taken out of context, and even had words added to what I�ve said in newspaper interviews. I don�t expect that�s what�s going on here, though. He probably does think this is just an issue of property vs. personhood, with that affecting your view of the moral status of an embryo. I don�t want this to be the only relevant concern, for two reasons.

God and Morality

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I've been recruited to talk about God and Morality at a Christian conference for college students this weekend. I've consolidate and updated some of my previous class notes on this issue on Moral Arguments for God's Existence for an introductory course dealing in part with God's existence and then a more ethics-focused discussion of issues about God as a Basis for Morality in an introductory ethics class. So here are my newly organized, though largely not new, notes consolidating the two, sometimes simplifying and sometimes expanding.

I've finished my lecture notes on just war theory, which includes some discussion of how these principles would apply to Iraq. At the end of the day it seems a lot harder to give a clear case against this military action to depose Saddam Hussein. That's about the best I can say for those who opposed it.

Now that I've got the extended entry feature, I'll continue it in that rather than just giving the link to the Word file (which I did, above). Keep in mind that these are just rough lecture notes. Some things might need more explanation than the notes provide, and an argued case would involve fleshing out this skeleton and provided references for some of the claims.

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