In the essay, When Does Human Life Begin?, Brook Stanton makes a clear and forceful statement, with highly summarized arguments which are really—and he admits so—references to well-established facts and theories of modern biology: human life begins at conception. He doesn’t show awareness that there is some, if not total, truth in the claim that there are no facts without theories; that is, even raw or brute facts are interpreted by our perceptions and conceptions of what the context of those facts is, what the world is. By the end of his short essay, Stanton does show an awareness of the importance of philosophy in forming greater understandings, based upon the idea that “Accurate science should be the starting point for resolving the philosophical question, not the reverse.” Not entirely true. I would urge reading of his entire short essay because of the complex evaluation I’m making of the truth and insights of that essay, as well as the misleading nature of his viewpoint. Let me first quote the beginning of Stanton’s essay and then I’ll move on with my explanations:
The question of when a human life begins is a strictly scientific one and one for which the scientific community has had an empirical, internationally acknowledged answer for a very long time.
For more than a century, the field of human embryology has documented that in human sexual reproduction a new, whole, individual, living human being begins to exist at “first contact” between a sperm and an oocyte/”egg” (the beginning of the process known as fertilization.) Immediately when these two mere cells make first contact and fuse, organism proteins and enzymes specific to humans are produced. One new single-cell human being with his or her own new, unique, and complete set of human DNA begins to exist. This is an internationally recognized empirical fact that has been documented by the Carnegie Stages of Early Human Embryonic Development since 1942, and updated every year since then to the present by the international nomenclature committee (FIPAT). The 23 Carnegie Stages cover human development during the eight-week embryonic period, and a new human being is represented by Carnegie Stage 1a.
Stanton notes that the life of a human being, new and unique, begins at conception. True enough. Sort of. At least in most cases. Stanton doesn’t seem to know about infrequent situations which don’t follow his simple understanding. For example, there are human beings who are chimeras, results of the mergers of two different fertilized egg-cells, mergers of two organisms with two different unique sets of DNA. So far as I know, more than two are even possible. In the article, Chimera (genetics), you can learn that some of those with mixed sexual characteristic are chimeras and even that a female chimera might have given birth to children carrying DNA which was not that found in most of her body. Moreover, lesser forms of this phenomena often result in strangeness in blood type when one embryo picks up only some cells from a sibling sharing the womb. Even at a basic `factual’ level, the world is altogether too complex to be understood at all without, yes, philosophical or theological principles which can answer such questions as:
- Is a human chimera one human being or two? (Or more?)
- Is a human chimera carrying both male and female sets of DNA a man or woman? Or something else?
We need to acknowledge empirical facts but acknowledging only those which are convenient to our arguments will just put us deeper in the intellectual quicksand we’ve created in this Modern Age. We’ll probably just repeat the stages of the Enlightenment when a promising intellectual program went bad. It wasn’t just the Enlightenment which went bad; Etienne Gilson made the well-justified claim that the Catholic Church failed to respond properly to the problems and opportunities of the modern world and the Church’s intellectuals and other leaders led the Church into an intellectual ghetto. This problem, spread to many parts of the West, seems to be one of the problems which Stanton is addressing.
I’ll write in this context of the life of a `human animal’ to keep important terms clean—I’ll explain more fully below, but the term “human being” covers “human animal” and also “human person.”
I’ll retreat to a more basic level for now, so that I can lead up to my conclusions about the importance of acknowledging empirical reality, not just `facts’, and the need to see that greater reality by way of the philosophical and theological explorations Stanton would push off to some undefinable time when we have a very good understanding of physical stuff at a factual level.
Yet, Stanton is right—in a way—that this issue can be clearly settled by empirical science; he doesn’t seem to realize that is true only if that empirical science is done and understood in a greater context in which ordinary and scientific words and concepts carry the proper moral meanings, as they did for nearly a thousand years in the West right into the early stages of the Enlightenment. He is right that we have to be clear about those empirical facts, but he doesn’t show enough awareness of the history of science to realize there is no objective schema given to us that makes sense of the findings of even physics, let alone biology. Think about a puppy and colt and ask yourself what is different about human babies that makes each one different and gives it greater worth than other animals. To say simply that human babies are members of our species is to forget that such feelings develop naturally for those who are members of our local communities, communities upon which we are dependent, whether clan or tribe or urban neighborhood. There is no intuitive understanding of ourselves as members of such an abstractly defined group as a species. Ask yourself also, what biological facts can define the magical point in time when a member of the genus homo gained this special status so that he was of greater worth than the mastodons or cave-bears living nearby. Or his cousins, the chimps and gorillas and other great apes. There is even confusion in the terminology as the word, hominid, originally referred to modern and archaic humans and maybe chimpanzees and now refers to gorillas and the other great apes as well. These changes reflect the desires of scientists to make some issues more clear—is such a desire no more than a reflexive response to empirical facts?
Modern human beings are still so close to chimpanzees in terms of that magical DNA and in bodily structure and in physiology that the famous anthropologist from Mars might well classify us as different subspecies rather than two species, assuming he even classifies living creatures in quite this way. Our very fine-grained understanding of homo sapiens sapiens as a species separate from our close relatives (by standards of DNA) is itself based upon a moral, philosophical and theological, understanding of human being based upon our own feelings but also upon a variety of empirical facts folded into those understandings—facts not fully reducible to that DNA which Stanton proposes as a clean starting-point.
As the anthropologist, John Hawks, has noted, we think of homo sapiens neanderthalens as being a non-human species though scientists define him as a subspecies of homo (humanity). We are partly him (maybe 2-3% of the DNA for most Europeans, a little more for many Asians, and 0% for sub-Saharan Africans). The decision as to whether that fellow, robust but no more so than some of our sturdy friends, was our brother or a distant cousin is philosophical and moral and might be of some importance as scientists are recovering better sets of Neanderthal DNA and might be able to fertilize the egg-cell of a living woman to produce a human creature who is at least significantly Neanderthal; `progress’ in this sort of activity might even allow the creation of an embryo which is fully Neanderthal. This might well happen and I’d like to hear how `only’ empirical facts can tell us if this creature should be accorded full human rights.
We need better philosophical and theological understandings than we have rather than trying to gather `empirical facts’ without any such understandings, though Stanton is right that we can only have those better understandings if we pay better attention to empirical facts.
At the risk of being repetitive, I’ll try to deal with some word issues I mentioned above. I use `human being’ to include the state in which we are born, `human animal’, and also the state which we can reach if we establish the proper relationship with God or at least His Creation: `human (moral) person’. As persons, we become true `images of God.’ That seems to me to be a state we really can’t reach until we fully share the life of God in the world of the resurrected. If we don’t respond properly to God or at least His Creation, we remain human animals. In all cases, it is appropriate to consider all of us, from conception to death or beyond, as human beings. We start out as human beings who are `merely’ human animals and then, if we respond properly to the Creator or at least His Creation, we can begin to become human persons, images of God in the Person of the Son of God. As human animals, we are images of God in the sense that each bit of created being and all of created being is an image of God, a manifested thought of God in another way of phrasing matters.
I’ll repeat one of Stanton’s strongest statements from the quotation above:
For more than a century, the field of human embryology has documented that in human sexual reproduction a new, whole, individual, living human being begins to exist at “first contact” between a sperm and an oocyte/”egg” (the beginning of the process known as fertilization.)
Fair enough. Sort of true enough, but not fully true—remember those human chimeras and that hypothetical Neanderthal who might soon be among us in an ambiguous moral status. Yet, it is very good that Stanton and his associates acknowledge the importance of the empirical knowledge about human beings. We need to go beyond, first of all, realizing that the very processes of evolution and of genetics blur the distinction between species and obscure the meaning of `unique’ and `individual’ when we try to deal with certain issues on the basis of `only’ empirical facts.
Without philosophical and theological thought, how can we reduce the “problem” of the beginning of human life in this way and then deny that the death of that human being, the decay of his flesh—including his DNA, is the end of the existence of that human being. At least to a Christian, this way of `solving’ the problem is a bargain with the devil. A real solution to the problem would involve an understanding of why this newly conceived human animal might have a claim to be of greater worth than the embryo of a wallaby or a cobra. And then it might be possible also to understand what the death of that human being might bring to an end and what it might initiate. And we might be able to deal with that Neanderthal, a member of homo sapiens neanderthalens, who might be conceived before long in a test-tube and then born from an artificial womb or the womb of a woman of the subspecies, homo sapiens sapiens. We might be able to deal with that very small number of human beings whose bodies are a mosaic involving both male and female sets of DNA or, more generally, a mosaic of two originally separately conceived human beings.
For the past twenty years or more, I’ve been engaged in a struggle which overlaps that of Stanton and his associates: I’ve been trying to re-understand the world in explicitly Christian terms. The God of Jesus Christ is the Creator of this world and of the greater Creation which this world is part of. This world, indeed—all of Creation, is a manifestation of thoughts of God.
Modern science tells us that relationships are primary, they create stuff. This is the reason for the strangeness of quantum mechanics and biological evolution alike. The strangeness appears because we try to see thing-like being as existing and then forming relationships. And that’s strange in itself because Christians were told that relationships create and shape stuff by St John the Evangelist centuries before Darwin and Einstein and Planck and the other modern re-founders of biology and physics. That is, St John told us that God didn’t create the world, explore it to understand what He had made, and then decide to love it. The world came to exist because God already loved it, had already formed the relationship of Creator to Creation. A human being is of greater worth, to God for believers and to some group of other human beings for all of us. Such an understanding as this has to be introduced at an early stage when empirical facts are yet being gathered—for one thing, some facts can be—and maybe have been—gathered by acts destructive one of those human embryos.
A world reduced to “empirical facts first and then we’ll discuss philosophy when we’ve got those facts in hand” is bound to be a disordered world, a world of quicksand when you explore for meaning or moral purpose. It would perhaps be even better to see it as a world in which seekers of greater meaning or purpose will ever travel in circles, chasing their own shadows.
When will we have `enough’ empirical facts in hand to connect beliefs in moral purpose to those facts? The context of a human life, its meaning if you will, is needed for the task of understanding any part of that life. If we start talking about the beginning of life at conception in terms of DNA, we better have some answers at hand when someone asks why that human life doesn’t come to an absolute end when that body created by the DNA, even the DNA itself, begins to decay at death or even before. We better be able to produce some morally decent understanding of those human chimeras and that hypothetical Neanderthal.
Within the Christian Worldview I’ve developed, there is an obvious answer that tells us what is the `true’ meaning of a human life: it is God’s love for us which brings us into existence and shapes us and maintains us in existence, that is, the Almighty’s love for each of us as individuals and for us as communal human beings, including the entire species or—far more importantly—for those who are to be saved as members of the Body of Christ. We are special because we can respond to God in a special way and can share His thoughts as Creator and maybe even share His life in some meaningful sense. When we die and our bodily stuff accelerates its ongoing decay, then we will exist again if God chooses to direct that particular love for me or thee at a, so to speak, small spot in the world of the resurrected, the world of the true friends of God. We will find ourselves in our proper spot in that world on the other side of the grave.
If we choose to deal with empirical facts, imagining that we can ever do such a thing without a philosophical and/or theological understanding of what a fact is and what matter is and so on, we’ll soon enough find ourselves, at best, in a world of pagan tragedy, a world of moral despair though possibly adopting a noble sort of fatalistic acceptance of that moral despair. Even worse, we might find ourselves in a world such as the one we’ve actually created over the past two centuries when the Enlightenment—a good thing on the whole—went bad and took science with it on a path of radical secularism which included the belief which made possible the suicide of the West: the idea that we can produce a valid understanding of this world by the reductionistic path of putting all philosophical and theological considerations aside and then simply gathering up empirical facts. To be sure, the Enlightenment also went bad because of those who adopted idealistic ideologies, seen as above empirical reality and capable of providing judgments upon that reality. Perhaps this latter problem is the one Stanton wishes to solve, but the real problem is a disengagement of ways of gathering knowledge and understanding knowledge which can be only partially separated into empirical research and philosophizing or theologizing and then only by ignoring the intertwined and even recursive nature of all of these ways of thought.
In his article, Stanton advocates a very good idea: we need to have the empirical facts in hand to understand the world and—I would add—all of Creation. When that idea is allied to the belief that we need to go through this exercise and come to some allegedly objective scientific understanding before trying to gain any philosophical or theological understanding, then we arrive back at the point where the Englightenment had gone bad and was going worse, circa 1800. We can do no better than to reinforce that environment which Nietzsche described so well in the colors of nihilistic despair.
The reader interested in exploring further the Christian worldview I’ve built up, an expansion and enrichment of Thomism to account for modern empirical knowledge, can download: Catalog of Major Writings by Loyd Fueston. Two freely downloadable books which might be of particular interest for this issue are: A More Exact Understanding of Human Being and The Shape of Reality. Two shorter pieces, essays published on this blog, of some interest in the recent direction of my explorations of God’s Creation, of abstract and concrete created being, are: A Very Simplified View of the Woes of Christianity—Now and at Two Earlier Times and Making God’s Thoughts Our Thoughts, God’s Ways Our Ways: Why Christianity Is Not Simple..