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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

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-- Agreed. You refuted Feinberg.

-- Now the next point really _is_ extraneous to this one. So take it as a theme worthy of another post.

Some would balk at (2), which says that the fetus is a _potential_ person. They would argue rather thus:

1'. All persons have a right to life.
2'. The fetus is a person for it has the potential to think rationally, etc.
-----
3. The fetus has a right to life.

So what is a (descriptive) person to you? Yes, you said in the post "Abortion and Infanticide") that it is something self-aware, sentient, rational, and purposive. But when do you count something as self-aware, sentient, rational, and purposive? Am I sentient self-aware etc., in your sense, _only_ at those times at which I am paying attention to myself, have feelings, and am entertaining rational thoughts and my own goals?

Vlastimil,

I am glad we agree on the logical point.

>>But when do you count something as self-aware, sentient, rational, and purposive? Am I sentient self-aware etc., in your sense, _only_ at those times at which I am paying attention to myself, have feelings, and am entertaining rational thoughts and my own goals?<<

As a preliminary point, I am flexible on the exact list of properties constitutive of descriptive personhood. But this is a point we can set aside for the moment. All we need is the notion that there is some set of properties constitutive of descriptive personhood. But we agree that capacity to reason is an element of that set. "Man is a rational animal."

To answer your question, I make use of a distinction between occurrent and dispositional mental states/processes. You don't have to be occurrently reasoning to be disposed to reason, or able to reason. You have the capacity to reason at times when you are not actually or occurrently reasoning, when you are in a deep, dreamless, sleep for example.

Similarly for self-awareness. It is the capacity for self-awareness -- a dispositional property -- that is an element of theset mentioned above. If you are anything like me, there are moments when you are occurrently aware of X without being occurently aware of oneself as aware of X.

Whether every property in the set is dispositional is a nice question. I don't know. But sentience would look to be.

Now does a human fetus have the capacity to reason in the same sense that you have the capacity to reason even when you are in a deep, dreamless, sleep? I say No. But the fetus has the potential to develop this capacity in time. (It used to be said that the age of reason is 7, but let's not quibble over this.)

If we speak of the capacity to reason as a potentiality, then we can call it a second-order potentiality, and the potential to develop this 2nd-order potentiality a 1st-order potentiality.

Now this distinction -- I think you agreed -- 'cuts perpendicular'
to your distinction between 'ready' and 'in principle' potentiality. No human fetus is ready to reason but every (non-defective) such fetus has the 1st-order potential to develop the capacity to reason. And whatever you mean by 'in principle' potentiality, it doesn't seem to mean what I mean by '2nd-order potentiality.'

My problem, all along, has been that 'in principle pot.' is ill-defined. So I suspect your ready vs. in principle distinction of being bogus.

Cats soon develop an amazing power to jump, a power they possess even when they are sleeping and grooming themselves. But a cat born with no legs will not and cannot develop this power.

Now it strikes me as absurd to say that a cat born with no legs has the first-order potential to develop the power to jump because normal cats do have this first-order potential.

Is that what you are committed to?


Bill,

I am not committed to that idea (that a cat born with no legs has the potential to develop to jump because normal cats do have this potential). It's just my working hypothesis. I will reject it as soon as I see its convincing disproof. The idea does _not_ strike _me_ as absurd. My problem, all along, has been that all the rebuttals I've seen so far are unconvincing. I dare to belive I've explained why. See my comment to your post "Does the Potentiality Argument Prove Too Much?"

By the way, thanks for the dialogue. (If you still classify our interaction as such.)

Cheers,

V.

V,

Unfortunately, I find your working hypothesis preposterous. To my mind, it is not a matter of disproving it, but of simply pointing to it, with the hope that the interlocutor just sees that it is preposterous.

Yes, it is a dialogue we are having, but it is nearing its end, an end like that of almost every philosophical discussion. One ends with a stand-off with neither side being able to convince the other.

Bill, I find your argument solid. This post will be somewhat extraneous.

Bioethical questions have led to vexed debates among moral theologians. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, "Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity" (CCC 382). A "person," therefore, is precisely the unity of a body and a soul. But at what moment does a human being receive his or her soul? Over the course of the last millennium, theologians have taken different positions. The modern Church rejects St. Thomas' position of delayed ensoulment, because his argument was premised on an unsound understanding of embryonic development. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI approved an instruction entitled, Dignitatis Personae, which deals with bioethical questions. It states the following.

If Donum vitae [a previous papal instruction], in order to avoid a statement of an explicitly philosophical nature, did not define the embryo as a person, it nonetheless did indicate that there is an intrinsic connection between the ontological dimension and the specific value of every human life. Although the presence of the spiritual soul cannot be observed experimentally, the conclusions of science regarding the human embryo give “a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person?”.[8] Indeed, the reality of the human being for the entire span of life, both before and after birth, does not allow us to posit either a change in nature or a gradation in moral value, since it possesses full anthropological and ethical status. The human embryo has, therefore, from the very beginning, the dignity proper to a person.

I understand this to mean essentially what you write above. Regardless of state of development, human beings possess "full anthropological and ethical status." The concept of "dignity" is central to Catholic positions on bioethical questions. I understand "dignity" to express implicitly the "actual qualification for the right to life" that you defend above.

"Now it strikes me as absurd to say that a cat born with no legs has the first-order potential to develop the power to jump because normal cats do have this first-order potential."

A couple of questions. I take it to be an uncontroversial truth that cats born without legs are defective. Now imagine the following scenario straight out from "Frankenstein": a cat is born without legs -- call it Max. A surgeon (probably half-mad) comes along, and attaches cat legs to Max. Then zaps it with electricity and, lo and behold, Max is now in working order and starts jumping around. But if Victor (now completely mad), chopped off the legs of a chair and then tried to attach cat legs to it, we do not thereby expect the chair to "develop the power to jump". Does not this scenario at least suggest that a "cat born with no legs has the first-order potential to develop the power to jump because normal cats do have this first-order potential"? Or to put it in other words, there must be something that accounts for the differences in the two attachment scenarios, and is not that difference rooted in the essence of cats and their potentialities? And correct me if I am wrong, but would not a neo-Scholastic say instead that a "cat born with no legs has the first-order potential to develop the power to jump" because it is the essence of cats to have such a potentiality?

And I ended up making three questions.

Bro Noah,

Thank you for the very useful quotation from Pope Benedict.

>>I understand this to mean essentially what you write above.<<

No, but it is consistent with it. I agree that there is no "change in nature or gradation in moral value" as between pre-natal and post-natal human beings. But whereas I appeal to potentiality, Benedict does not in the passage above. And whereas he makes a bare assertion clothed as a rhetorical question -- "how could a human individual not be a human person?" -- I argue that it is the potentiality to develop the capacity to reason, etc. that grounds the right to life.

I also, so far in these posts, make no appeal to a "spiritual soul." Not that I deny such a soul. (What I have written in my various abortion entries is consistent with it.)

As I have said before, it is important to persuade secularists to see the great moral evil of abortion, if such persuasion is at all possible; but it is not possible if one employs theological premises. Isn't that perfectly obvious?

G. R.,

My cat Max didn't like your example. [grin]

Well, Vlastimil and I have discussed this sort of thing several times before.

Let's assume what is not obvious, namely, that it is nomologically possible and surgically feasible to attach real feline legs (not prosthetic devices) to a congenitally legless cat, and in such a way that the once legless cat now jumps and cavorts exactly like a normal cat does.

Does this possibility show that Max has the first-order potentiality to develop the capacity to jump in the normal cat-like way?

I say No.

First, a possibility is not the same as a potentiality. I have gone over this many times. If an organism has potentialities, they are definite, occurrent, ontological ingredients in the organism. A potentiality, even it is not yet manifested or developed, is itself something actual. This is important. A potentiality is not itself something merely possible. Therefore, the possibility mentioned above does not show that there is any related potentiality in the cat.

Second, if the half-mad surgeon tries his experiment and succeeds, then the first-order potentiality resided in the surgeon, not in Max. Right? It cannot be a 1st-order potentiality of Max (subjective genitive), that very cat, to develop the capacity to jump if some other agent is needed to 'do a job' on Max.

Note also that the first-order potentiality in the surgeon is directed at a different outcome, namely, the attaching of cat legs to Max.

I would say that you and Vlastimil and many others play fast and loose with the concept of potentiality. It is a very specific notion, and one cannot gain an understanding of it from the uses of 'potential' and cognates in ordinary English.

As for the 'Crazy Victor' case, it is not really so different from the 'surgeon' case. Victor may well have supernatural or preternatural powers so that, when he attaches cat legs to a chair, he 'transubstantiates' the chair in such a way that while it retains the outward sensible accidents of a normal wooden chair, its inner substance is that of a cat.

So, by your reasoning, the chair has the first-order potentiality to jump around like a frisky kitty. Why because Crazy Victor with his preternatural powers can 'do a number' on wooden chairs so as to transmogrify them into cats.

This is the *reductio ad absurdum* of the "fast and loose" conception of potentiality that you and Vlastimil appear to subscribe to.

A less fanciful example. Suppose an anencephalic individual is just about to die. (As a matter of empirical fact, they do not live very long.) Death is imminent. But God intervenes, giving the individual a normal brain.

I think Vlastimil & Co. are committed to saying that the anencephalic individual in question has the first-order potentiality to develop the capacity to reason.

I say No. There is no 1st-order potentiality in that defective human specimen. If there is any 1st-order potentiality operative in this case it is in God, and its is directed at a different outcome: not the development of the capacity to reason, but the modification of an existing organism in such a way that it can develop the capacity to reason.

That normal human individuals have the 1st-order potential to develop the capacity to reason is irrelevant. For potentiality is grounded in concrete indviduals, not in kinds, types, species, . . . .

I'm on the side of those who say irreparably damaged individuals do have potentialities that cannot be expressed because of the damage. But I have some sympathy with BV's argument here because I believe it is a mistake to suggest that what _constitutes_ potentiality of an irreparably damaged individual is its membership in a species of which normal members can express those potentialities. (At least in Lydia McGrew's case, I suspect she wasn't saying this, but the way the discussion has developed, it does give the impression that that's what's at issue)

On the contrary: a sufficiently clever engineer, looking at a damaged machine the like of which he had never seen before, could figure out what it was supposed to do, how it was supposed to work, what its design plan was. In the case of an artifact, what counts as "proper" function versus a "defect" is not something intrinsic to the artifact, but imposed on it by the artificer. But in natural substances, there is a fact of the matter about what constitutes a defect and what constitutes proper function, a fact that is about the substance itself, not about the external intentions of artificers (even if their existence happens to entail the existence of an Artificer, their teleology does not consist in something external to themselves). And this would be the case even if only one individual of such a substance ever existed.

In short, recognizing an individual natural substance as having a defect entails that there is something like a design plan intrinsic to it as a concrete individual substance.

Normalcy is latent within an abnormal specimen.

Hence an appeal to normalcy need not be an appeal to facts about other members of the species.

Living things are so complicated that it's sometimes hard for us mere humans to figure out what normalcy is from a single defective specimen, so we appeal to what we see in non-defective specimens in order to tell what this defective specimen is supposed to be like. But that doesn't mean its "supposing to be like that" _consists in_ being a member of a class other instances of which have some property P. Rather what we see in other specimens stands as epistemic grounds for recognizing something about the way the defective individual is in itself.

Does this "something" deserve to be called a potentiality?

Well, in a non-defective individual the potentiality to develop capacity C is that X on account of which the individual will, given normal circumstance, develop capacity C. Now it is entirely possible that such an X exist within some individual while at the same time another thing Y exists within that same individual which prevents X from doing what it normally would do. In such a case an individual would have potentiality for C even if it is practically speaking impossible to eliminate Y, so it will never develop C.

And it's at least a prima facie reasonable hypothesis that this is what is going on in irreparably damaged human infants and fetuses. Being human, they have that potentiality for C, that is, they have that which _would_ lead to the development of C if it were not blocked in its operation by some defect. Even if the defect consists in the _absence_ of a part that is supposed to be there. Particularly in living things, which grow their own parts. The design plan calls not only for the part to be there, but contains the mechanism by which that part will naturally grow there, unless its growth is prevented by some defect.

And I believe this is the right lesson to take from those thought-experiments where God or aliens repair what to us is irreparable damage: in order to do so they would not need to reengineer, or import from elsewhere, a brain, or legs, or whatever. They would only need to fix what was broken so that the potentiality present within the design-plan will cause the individual to naturally regrow the missing part on its own. Because the "fix" doesn't (might not) require that the aliens had ever seen any other individuals of this species, nor that they invent their own version of an organ that confers the capacity, nor that they import one from elsewhere --- because the "fix" involves merely attending to what is already present within the defective individual, by which the aliens understand how it's supposed to be, how to fix the defect --- because of that, the ability to develop the capacity really can be regarded as coming from the natural something X within the defective individual, which might have on its own, but as it happens in fact could only with the help of the aliens, cause the capacity to develop naturally.

And if this isn't a potentiality, it's something very similar which could be put in its place in the potentiality argument.

Suppose a person's brain is missing a part, that the part is exactly the shape and size of a small book - for instance, "Humor in Calvin's Institutes" - I made that up - and that missing part makes it impossible for the person to display rationality.
Does THAT person have the ability to display rationality? Nope.
Does THAT person have the potential to display rationallity. I don't think so.
If an alien stops by, diagnosis the problem, and fabricates said small book, slips it into the book-shaped hole in the brain, and Voila! - the person displays rationality - if that happens, it still remains that THAT (originally defective) person did not have the potential for rationality.
If we can think of 'potentiality' as a "power" (potens), then of course the original defective person did not have the power to display rationality.
Questions of 'personhood' nothwithstanding, I like BV's statement:

"That normal human individuals have the 1st-order potential to develop the capacity to reason is irrelevant. For potentiality is grounded in concrete indviduals, not in kinds, types, species, . ." . .

Thanks, Dave. We are on the same page.

Although a concrete individual organism must be of some natural kind or other, there are cases of concrete individual organisms so internally damaged that one or more of the potentialities associated with the organism's kind will not be potentialities of the organism in question.

The crucial point here is that potentiality is in every case the potentiality of some particular concrete individual. It does not 'float free' of individuals. You might say it is a DE RE sort of thing. It is 'of the thing' (subjective genitive).

More later today.

Bill and Dave,

-- Please note that you are repeatedly denying without argument an option suggested by me and Christopher. Christopher put it thus:

"... in a non-defective individual the potentiality to develop capacity C is that X on account of which the individual will, given normal circumstance, develop capacity C. Now it is entirely possible that such an X exist within some individual while at the same time another thing Y exists within that same individual which prevents X from doing what it normally would do. In such a case an individual would have potentiality for C even if it is practically speaking impossible to eliminate Y, so it will never develop C."

Take again the example by G. Rodriguez of Max, the cat born without legs. It may well be that this lack of legs is merely the Y factor within Max that prevents him from expressing his potentiality to develop a (ready) capacity to jump.

You, Bill and Dave, still need to defeat this option. I've given three reasons for it in my comments to "Does the Potentiality Argument Prove Too Much?"

-- Likewise to Dave's example of somebody who lacks the missing part in the form of a book. Christopher said:

"... the right lesson to take from those thought-experiments where God or aliens repair what to us is irreparable damage: in order to do so they would not need to reengineer, or import from elsewhere, a brain, or legs, or whatever. They would only need to fix what was broken so that the potentiality present within the design-plan will cause the individual to naturally _regrow_ the missing part on its own."

It may well be that this lack of the book is merely the Y factor which prevents the given somebody from expressing his potentiality to develop a (ready) capacity to think. And that there's another and deeper factor which prevented him from expressing his potentiality to grow the book.

-- Finally, even if you are right that the option suggested by me and Christopher is false, he made another suggestion worthy of further discussion: "if this isn't a potentiality, it's something very similar which could be put in its place in the potentiality argument."

Vlastimil and Christopher,

That is an interesting suggestion. The idea is that within an organism O there is a potentiality X but also a potentiality-blocker or -impeder or -suppressor Y which prevents X from developing normally. So the organism has the potentiality X even though it is (practically) impossible to remove the potentiality-impeder Y.

This is ingenious but implausible. For now we have two occult (empirically hidden) items in O: the potentiality and its impeder, 'fighting' as it were within the ontological innards of O. How do you know that Y is there and at work impeding X? (As Vlastimil knows, I am on friendly terms with constituent ontology, but when one starts positing empirically occult items, I need to ask: How do you know?)

"Potency is known through act." That is an old Aristotelian saw. I know that I have the potential to run a marathon because I have done it. (This of course presupposes that there are potentialities in general, which is not empirically obvious, although it is a presupposition that I am now allowing. It is empirically obvious that there is alterational change; but it is not empirically obvious that such change is the conversion of potency to act. The latter is at the level of theory; the former at the level of data.) But try as I might I cannot now and never could run a 4-minute mile or anything close. Should I conclude that a potentiality-blocker was at work blocking my potentiality to develop the capacity to sprint that fast?

Surely that would be far-fetched?

I cannot PROVE (using that word strictly) that there are no potentiality blockers, but if there is no evidence of them, their positing is methodologically unsound. The motive for positing them, after all, seems to be nothing other than the desire to uphold at all costs the notion that every human being, defective or not, has the potentiality to develop a capacity to reason, and do the other things constitutive of personhood.

Why not say what appears to be obvious -- though I grant that "It ain't obvious what's obvious" to quote Hilary Putnam -- namely, that the anencephalic individual simply does not have the potentiality to develop the capacity to reason? It does not have it because it lacks the requisite material substratum for the unfolding of that potentiality. The lack of an upper brain in the anencephalic individual is, after all, empirically evident. Conreast tht with the empirical inaccessibility in principle of potentiality-blockers.

Vlastimil may recall that long and tedious paper on substance and supposits that I read in Prague. I am tempted to recycle some of the same moves I made in that paper. I argued that the substance-supposit distinction is ad hoc, crafted solely with an eye toward the justification of certain theological claims (re: Incarnation, Trinity)that would otherwise be philosophically unacceptable.

Similarly, one appears to be making a censurably ad hoc move if one brings into one's ontology potentiality-impeders for the sole purpose of hoding fast to a claim that smack of a theological provenience. I mean the claim that every human being, defective or not, at any stage of development is a person with a right to life. Why does that smack of a theological origin? Because if God creates souls by a spiritual process and them 'inserts' (is there a techical term available?) them into the conceptus or some slightly later development from the conceptus, then of course each soul will be a full-fledged person wth all the rights and privileges pertaining thereunto, and it won't matter at all that the material substratum of ensoulment is defective.

But again, to repeat myself, we need to persuade secularists that abortion is a moral abomination, and one cannot persuade them from theological premises or premises that are theologically derived.

Furthermore, it seems to me that we should keep the heavy-duty metaphysics to a minimum. One can be a substance dualist in the philosophy of mind without being a theist, but imagine trying to get through to the moral cretins at Planned Parenthood with substance-dualist premises.

Vlastimil,

Thanks again for sending me John P. Lizza, "Potentiality and Human Embryos." You asked me whether my view is the same as his. It is not.

On p. 380, he says that he opposes two claims:
a) that potentiality is not affected by external conditions;
b) that what potentialities something has is true by definition of the kind of thing that it is.

Now I have been opposing (b); but I have been accepting (a).

In fact, my acceptance of (a) is part of my objection to your car example. Whether or not your car has the potential to start depends on IT, not on what someone could do to it. So if it lacks a battery, then it does not have the potential to start in the usual way, despite the fact that your could easily install a battery, in which case the car -- assuming we can speak of THE car (the problem of transtemporal artifact identity again) -- would have the potential to start in the usual way (i.e., not the get the sucker rolling and pop-the-clutch start of my impecunious youth). There was a time when the solenoid was shot in the '63 Karmann Ghia and I always looked for a hill to park on.

I really don't have time to discuss this fascinating topic further since I am getting ready for a BIG UNPLUG for a length of time. That includes no blogging. I will be incommunicado for a spell.

Perhaps we can take this up again in September sometime.

Thanks for a stimulating discussion.

Bill,

"The crucial point here is that potentiality is in every case the potentiality of some particular concrete individual. It does not 'float free' of individuals. You might say it is a DE RE sort of thing. It is 'of the thing' (subjective genitive)."

Consider the following two statements:

1. The Human Species has the potential to self-destruct.

2. The Human Species has the potential to progress.

I think that both (1) and (2) are meaningful as stated; reasonable as stated; about the Human species and they may even be true. I do not think that they can be, or should be, translated into possibility or probability statements. But if what you say in the quoted statement above is true, then these statements must be *true of* (de re) "some particular concrete individual(s)." But clearly neither statement can be attributed to a particular concrete individual in existence. What do you say?

Peter,

I think you are veering off onto a different topic, that of plural predication. And you seem to be using 'potential' in an ordinary language way different from the way it is being used in this context.

The point I am making is that the potentiality of an organism to develop the capacity to reason is in every case the potentiality of a concrete, whole organism, not a potentiality of the substantial form the organism shares with others of its kind. And so the matter of the organism is relevant to whether the organism has the potentiality in question. If the matter is sufficiently defective, it cannot support the potentiality.

Bill,

Thank you too! A lot. Have a fruitful unplug time.

Only this. You said (in "Does the Potentiality Argument Prove Too Much?") that "a sperm cell out of all contact with an egg cell simply cannot develop into a person." This sounds like a suggestion that potentiality _is_ (at least sometimes) affected by external conditions. So it surprises me that here you're saying you've been accepting just the opposite, that potentiality is not affected by external conditions.

Vlastimil,

I don't see that I am contradicting myself.

It depends on what the potentiality is. Each potentiality has a specific, or perhaps individual, directedness to an outcome. A human sperm cell has a potentiality to fertilize a human egg cell. It does not have the potentiality to develop a capacity to reason. We agree that the gametes, taken singly, are not potential persons. A normal human fetus does have the potentiality to develop the capacity to reason.

But I concede that what you quoted me as saying is misleading. I should have said:

A sperm cell, whether out of contact or in contact with an egg cell, cannot develop into a person.

As I myself argued some five or so years ago on this blog, and as you pointed out recently, sperm and egg do not survive the transition when they jointly give rise to a zygote.

Let's return to this in September.

The BIG UNPLUG has to start sometime, so I must now close comments. Why? Because to moderate them I have to access my blog and I am swearing off blogging for a time. To go near my site is the 'near or proximate occasion of sin,' a notion I am sure you are familiar with.

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