Monday, October 10, 2005

What Constitutes a Human?

While I was an undergraduate at Rice, sometime between 1958 and 1961, a wonderful psych professor, Trenton Wann, who influenced me more than any other single person, had us read a novel You shall Know Them by Vercors in translation from the French original. Some years later I found a copy but now it is lost. But it raises the question of what are the criteria by means of which we recognize an entity as a human, an issue that is raised by the abortion issue.

The basic plot is that evidence of a potential "missing link" is found in Africa and the Brits send an expedition consisting of a variety of different sorts of people including a theologian, I believe, and a reporter who serves as the novel's protagonist. Their mission is to find extant members of the group and study them. They are found and are observed. In the meantime the reporter discovers that a corporation, possibly French, plans to exploit these entities as slave labor so he impregnates a female. My memory is a bit hazy but I believe he brings the pregnant entity back with him and when the child is born he kills it and calls the police claiming he had committed a murder. He thereby creates the dilemma for himself that if he gets what he wants -- a determination that the child is a human and that therefore he has, in fact, committed murder -- then he will have to go to prison but the newly discovered people cannot be exploited as slave labor since they would have to be recognized as sufficiently human to make it morally repugnant. If he doesn't get what he wants, he stays out of prison but the corporation would be within its rights to exploit these nonhuman entities as it wishes (pace PETA).

The British parliament takes up the issue as to whether or not these entities are human and they are given access to all of the expedition's information. They decide that they are sufficiently human to warrant being called human (just as Neanderthals are called "human") and their reason was that in smoking their meat briefly before eating it -- too briefly either to cook it or give it a smoke flavor (I believe) -- they were exhibiting ceremonial behavior and that is a characteristic shared by all humans but no animal species. I open to you what you would look for in a newly discovered "missing link" set of beings as evidence that they are or are not human.

Notice how different this question is from the question whether the human foetus is a human. There is no question that a born child would meet our conditions for something being a human being though given how limited newborns are they wouldn't present much evidence. They don't talk, can't sit up to say nothing of being able to stand up or walk. The human foetus is clearly human, that is it has the quality of being human (adjective use). But it doesn't follow from that that the foetus is A human (noun use), a fully human entity, at least early on in the gestation period -- certainly not when it is a zygote or two-celled entity or four-celled entity, etc. You can take a look at a one month old foetus to determine for yourself whether you think it looks like a human.

Religious people, especially Christians, seem most firmly to believe that abortion is immoral and that their basis for believing his would be the Bible. I found a very silly site that gives ten Bible reasons for believing this. After reading the first two "bible reasons", which came down to the fact that the Bible uses "babe" and "infant" not "foetus" in reference to the foetus, I gave up reading this nutty site. I have better things to do. Obviously the Bible would not use "foetus" because the Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, as well as in Greek. And this dude was reading an English language bible.

In any event, this blog site will not accept any religious text, including the Hebrew or Christian Bibles, the Koran, or whatever as an authority on any issue. The problem with arguments that appeal to such texts is that we don't all believe in the same texts so there will be no common ground upon which all of our arguments can stand. In any event, any moral principle that cannot be defended on nonreligious grounds isn't worth the pixels it takes to print it on a computer screen.

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Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

The silly site had one good Biblical argument:
"Notice that in Jeremiah 1:5 we are told that God KNEW Jeremiah:'Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.'"
This shows that Biblically, a fetus is human and is a human. But I applaud you mentioning that religious texts can't be the basis of an argument or decision outside the circle of believers in that text.
I'll try to post more on the abortion issue in my blog.

1:00 PM

Blogger Moise said...


How can that be used as a justification for life beginning at conception when God (a timeless entity who generally speaking is without form) was (most likely) refering to the prophet Jeremiah's soul (also a timless entity without form in a temporal world). It seems as though it is a faulty position to state that the LORD was referring to the physical matter of Jeremiah (justifying a conception argument) when He was speaking to the soul of Jeremiah authorizing him to be a Prophet and recieve the Spirt in order to be inSPIR(T)ed write the book.

However, if you mean that the soul exists (in some timeless place) even before conception than I'm all for your position and for that passage.

Again great post on your site.

2:31 PM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

Hmm . . . I don't want to turn the Language Guy's blog comment into a religious debate. Ask me again in another forum.

3:45 PM

Blogger DEN said...

Some of your readers seemed to miss your point about the translation issues between Aramaic, Hebrew and English which renders a literal interpretation of the Bible to be largely meaningless to anyone with honest objectivity.
The arguments about abortion as interfering with God's plan and the Sanctity of the soul should equally apply to political leaders who drop bombs on sentient living beings. The fifth commandment does not contain any fine print or parenthetical exceptions.
I think it was Ray Stevens who posed the critical spiritual question of our times, "Would Jesus wear a Rolex on his Television Show?"

5:49 PM

Blogger Moise said...

You are correct. I apologize Mr. Language guy.

6:07 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks it ain't human.
Besides, in referance to abortion, how could an already astablished human abort anything besides another human?
Jeez guys, you don't need religion to answer this one.

7:25 PM

Blogger rosie said...

I'm sure you're familiar with Peter Kreeft, but didn't he compose an entire socratic dialogue about the same thing?

7:44 PM

Blogger Julia said...

I like your blog and will come back to visit often. I need to exercise my brain more.

I am not a linguistics expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I do love words. Visit me at my blog, cafeofwords.

11:36 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi ...you might like the book ...Hardball by christopher mathew have you read it???

11:56 PM

Blogger Betty N. said...

I love reading your blog! It´s marvellous!
I doing my Master in Portuguese Language History, but I love reading about linguistics and, mostly about the aspects evolving the use of language in the discourse!! Congratulations!!

By the way, I linked your page on my own blog, so that, my friends may be interested in the subject and read your blog... I hope you don´t mind!

Thank you!

1:07 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Disgruntled me said: "may even be more correct to ascribe to it partial sentience to begin with."

I believe that your argument requires substituting "potential" for "Partial", and changes the coloration of your assertion. Nothing you said supports "partial", although others have made this argument, I believe.

1:12 AM

Blogger define_me said...

I find your blog absolutely fascinating. You exemplify what my English teacher drilled to us in high school --- clarity and cohesiveness. In addition, you are succint in getting your points across. I am looking forward for more interesting topics.

1:40 AM

Blogger AndyT13 said...

Bulletin from Obviousman:
There is an imperative inherent in all life, and that is to procreate. Genetically we are programmed to do all in our power to propigate the tribe.
Use any lame religious excuse to explain that if you wish, but the bottom line is we NEED to BREED.
It is our nature. Therefore it is unsurprising that a substantial portion of any given demographic should find abortion unacceptable. Moral considerations are beside the point. Emotionally it's untenable because genetically it's it's counterintuitive.

Darwin suggests that animals naturally breed with a view towards improving the species. Therefore one might infer that those who choose not to breed (or to have an abortion)are, in fact, expressing evolution.

Oh wait, that's at odds with intelligent design.

One might think that with these facts in mind those opposing abortion would consider it to be part of the necessary culling of the herd; especially because it would seem to benefit them. Their children will be raised with the idea that abortion is wrong.

These arguments are futile of couse since the constitution guarantees us the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Wait...

We now return to our regularly scheduled debate...

1:51 AM

Blogger Gabriel said...

"I contend we are both atheists - I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you reject all other gods, you will understand why I reject yours as well." - Stephen F. Roberts

2:38 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your post is totally cool. Finally someone admits to my viewpoint that there are nutty christian sites. HAHA!

4:59 AM

Blogger Elfred said...

There are two sides to abortion...

The need to abort, and the need not to abort...

And if you stand on the other side of situation, you would never realize what your side really need to do is to understand the other side.

Put it simply... rationally speaking... very few wanna go for abortion.

But realistically speaking... reality never takes sides but on its own.

11:25 AM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

No one ever questioned the fact.

How many abortions are actually performed because the fetus was going to be disabled or deformed? I suspect very few fit that mold.
And as to the 14-year-old situation, I suspect that this is also vastly in the minority, although there are probably more of these than in the former situation.
You state first that it should always be the woman's choice, and then you give two compelling situations in which your argument holds up. I suspect, however, that the vast majority of abortions are for the sake of convenience by people who could afford to have a child as much as the average person.

12:29 PM

Blogger minukis said...

Nice Blog! I'm a Spanish university student of Law and I find very interesting your posts about this subject :-) I'll keep reading.

8:25 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an attorney, I find your legal/linguistic posts to be very interesting. Indeed, now that the law is researched using keyword searches in electronic databases instead of under subject headings in the ink/paper codices, there are linguistic implications that already have begun to leave artifacts in the legal literature.

As for this abortion thing, never mind the religious prohibitions against taking innocent life (to which I happen to emphatically subscribe). I have, on more than a few occasions, met physicians who specialize in performing abortions. In each instance, WITHOUT EXCEPTION, I distinctly disliked the person even BEFORE I knew that he or she was an abortionists. I had occasion to handle the estate of a decedent who was a professional abortionist. He was also a thief, liar, wife-batterer, child abuser, deadbeat dad (though he had plenty of cash), insurance fraudster and tax cheat, and, by all accounts, a very despicable person.

I have never encountered an abortionist I liked, and I disliked them even before I knew that they did abortions. This, to me, is strong evidence that the act of performing an abortion has some sort of corrupting influence upon the personality or the psyche or the soul or whatever you wish to call it.

-- Orly

10:58 PM

Blogger Y said...

Wow! Language guy, great synopsis. I am going to check your blog daily, you can check mine out, but I'm sure it's not as great as yours.


3:49 AM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

Anonymous, I think an alternative hypothesis would be that the abortion industry attracts a certain kind of person. But, whatever.

I just posted again on the subject of abortion, this time on Roe v. Wade itself. It's rather long, but you can just read the introduction and conclusion if you don't have that kind of time.

10:22 AM

Blogger Russianger said...

"fully human entity"

So a human without a leg isn't a fully human entity, or a human that can't speak because of a "brainproblem", or somebody who isn't selfsustaining, like an old man, who can't eat because his stomach is cut out (maybe just partially) because of cancer, so he needs to be fed with glucose or something.

There is neither a reason to disqualify a living human from beeing human nor living human "material" (zygote) wich has the potential to develope to a "fully human entity", from beeing a human.
The things a zygot needs to develope are on principle the same a human need to stay alive. = food (+social contact)

10:42 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Don't apologize for word verification. It's only a problem if you're really drunk.

Sorry I couldn't help myself; had to inject a little humor into this forum.

10:56 AM

Blogger Ripple said...

I'm not quite as articulate as some of these philosophical buffs, but I think I can weigh-in on this topic. Sure, the question is whether or not this life is a human life. I'd say it is, but it is not enough just to answer this one question. And just by answering "yes" to this question doesn't, in my opinion, validate a right to life stance on this issue. It goes beyond that. We have to ask ourselves, "what is socially responsible and what is socially irresponsible?" I think it is like a murder, but it is socially irresponsible to disallow this behavior in society because I recognize that not everybody has the same moral foundation that I have. Another question we have to ask is, "how viable will this human life be?" If it is an unwanted pregnancy, the fetus already has the cards stacked against it in this world. History is chalked full of moral dilemmas. Sometimes the weak or unwanted were sacrificed for the betterment of mankind as a whole. Sad, but true.

2:07 PM

Blogger Right to Life of Michigan said...

I'm wondering how a seven inch journey down a birth canal (a mere change in location) changes the fetus from being something that "has the quality of being human (adjective)" into something that is unquestionably a human (noun)?

Or is this simply using linguistics to discriminate against some human beings?

2:37 PM

Blogger The MetaKong said...

My apple-G's (that's "apologies," to the linguists) to all. I tried, I really did, to make it through and read all the replies to the most recent post. Simply, the babble bored me. Where's the originality, people? Does anyone actually think anymore? Or, is 99% of the world conditioned to rehash the same "mouth-turds," over and over again. Only one reply desires to leap to this keypad for the pragmatist - pragmatism is nothing more than a neo-Hegelian excuse to do whatever you wish so long as it serves self-interest and a justifiable end. At least, is appears to serve a justifiable end in the pragmatists self-centered thought. You can't predict the future no matter how reliable previous patterns may be as it relates to human behavior and governance of said behavior.


Why do we assume that the fetus, or, for the bible thumpers, "the soul," desires to come into this world? Seriously - I mean, you're here, why on Earth would a fetus want to deal with the likes of you? Seriously, if I were a fetus right now, I certainly wouldn't want to come into a world where my freedom would be restricted, my actions governed by the likes of some turd that thinks its vision of turdhood is best - it would be me and my fetus-like turdhood that I would prefer, not yours....ABORT ME PLEASE!!!

With love and a grin,


P.S. I'm only 25% serious up there, and I assume God is too.

2:18 AM

Blogger The MetaKong said...

Oh - for the record -

I don't believe in God and don't know what I'm talking about.

But you knew that already, didn't you?



2:20 AM

Blogger cikuism said...

This room is heating up like a hot balloon! Your blog is good, something which is rarely to find!

For I am not a Christian nor any religion-believers, not dare even for me to comment and decry every statement of everyone's post.

Just a few thoughts that popped up in my mind would be:

1) What about Artificial Intelligence? (A.I.) A movie filmed years ago and would it be a question the boy David entitled to be called as a "thing of intelligence"?

2) Is it abortion still a subject of debate although we dare not to kill any lives of any Kind?

3) Extension to question (2): would killing the poultry such as chickens and cattles be considered an immoral act, when threatens like birds flu, SARS, mad cow disease disseminate? (I know this is out of the main topic but am curious for such topic)

4) Say we 'mark' abortion as illegal legitimately, what about the one who produced Him/Her and the abortionists and the authority who allows it to execute the operation? Where is the drawline?

5) If this topic is to be extended to cross among the animals, aborting the new lives by removing the sex-organs from the animals to exempt them from mating would considered as an act of acceptance or VV?

Thanks for all the discerning bloggers. Appreciate that.

12:23 PM

Blogger Sehrgut said...

Sorry for the long delay in response, here . . . you posted a comment on Academic Musings asking for my views on abortion.

Well, I'm both a Christian and a libertarian so I can neither flatly condemn nor unilaterally approve abortion without answering the one question which can bring the two philosophical frameworks into harmony, and that seems to be the question many people have been answering here: "What is a human?"

What follows is a brief synopsis of what I believe to be Biblically-accurate and consistent metaphysics. Since it's not the topic under discussion, I'll present it without going into any reasons or proofs. I believe to take the life of a human, unless in defense of self or of others, or in the case of capital punishment, is murder, and hence, is wrong. I believe what constitutes a human is the concurrent presence of spirit and soul (humans being tripartite entities, consisting of body, soul, and spirit). The soul is the personality and intellect, and is a component which is shared with "flesh, wherein is the breath of life" (or, as near as I can figure, multicellular, aerobic animals). The spirit is that component which raises us above the animals, giving us a spiritual awareness (a "connection to God," if you will).

Now, the moment of humanity is when body, soul, and spirit unite or are united as a single tripartite entity. Since the soul is definitely unique, being by definition the individual, and the body is usually unique (defined genetically), and spirit may or may not be unique, since little is spoken of its nature in the Bible, I focus my attention on the soul. Life may begin at any point from conception to birth, but a pre-human state is defensible only so far as a complete (100% of embryos) lack of tripartite humanity exists. Given that a soul likely is united with a body by God at an unspecified time, this unspecified time may safely be looked at as the beginning of tripartite humanity (the spirit either already having been present, bestowed at that time, or possibly bestowed at a later, but even more unknowable time).

There is some evidence that this moment occurs about two weeks after conception, since until that point, mechanical twinning of the embryo is still possible. By mere logic, since no evidence exists for either possibility here, the entity being "split in two" is not a tripartite human, since such maternal twins always have distinct personalities/individualities. A logically-unlikely possibility is that God, upon twinning, sovereignly unites the soul with one of the two new embryos and unites another soul with the soulless half, but that's absolutely unspecifiable (in a discussion already of unspecifiables!). This would mean that "morning-after pills" and other mechanisms to prevent embryo implantation are not, in fact, inducements of the death of a tripartite human being.

However, since the soul is not a scientifically-testable item, I go with the assumption, for conscience's sake, that life begins at conception. While I personally believe human life begins some time later (no earlier than ten days and no later than sixteen) than biological life, there is no way, short of asking God Himself (and I'll not pretend I receive "words of knowledge" or other such nonsense), if my hypothesis is correct.

So, abortion? Well, even my libertarian ideals dictate that rights of non-interference are resident in the human entity, and if the embryo is a human entity, it has rights of non-interference with its ability to exist. These rights naturally preempt the corporal rights of the mother, since rights of existence naturally preempt rights of action. Therefore, I am against abortion when the only thing at stake is the life path of the mother.

When the life of the mother is at stake, it becomes her decision as a moral free agent whether to terminate the pregnancy, killing the embryo in her own defense, or allowing it to come to term. However, if there is little chance of the child's survival even if such heroic measures were taken, allowing the pregnancy to continue is, in my opinion, foolish. However, in this case, the rights of a mother to her own body (in terms of maintaining her sheer existence through that body) become paramount.

Therefore, I believe abortions to be defensible philosophically and morally only when the mother's life is at stake; and under the principle "innocent until proven guilty," not arguably homicides when occurring prior to 16 days of gestation, since there is no evidence that a true homicide occurred. After 16 days of gestation, a child is arguably human, and abortion is homicide, defensible only in cases of "self-defense" by the mother.

Well! That's long, isn't it? I ought to have a warning on my weblog not to get me started on a philosophical discussion unless you're ready for a lot of reading, eh?


2:40 PM

Blogger Sehrgut said...

Sorry, that wasn't Academic Musings you asked on . . . it was Ergle Street.

2:46 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why so many words to make a point? Philosophical windbags. Have some pity on those with a lack of patience for your endless validations of your point. Just cut to the chase.

5:47 PM

Blogger The MetaKong said...

Mouth Turds...all of it...Mouth Turds...Mouth Turds placed by people trying to impress other people, or, in most cases, themselves. In the words of the late, great Bill Hicks,

"You're not a human being until you're in MY phone book, kay?!!!" (emphasis exclaimed)

Rot in hell you righteous pompTURDthrowers.

I love you all.




11:49 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Sehrgut, If you ever return to this old site. Loved your Alice in Wonderland page on Ergle street. The music by Lucien Desar is beautiful. I eps. loved 'Advice from a catepiller' it reminds me of the diva in 5th Element.

10:30 AM

Blogger jbb said...

hello languange guy. i stumbled across your blog basically at random and must say i am most impressed.
i am a christian and so to be honest the abortion issue touches close to home. how ever in my defence of the issue i will not use a relgious text. (this is your site its only fair to play by your rules.)
what im going to type out is an excerpt from a book titled "What Ever Happened to the Human Race," by one Francis Schaeffer. i hope you will enjoy and perhaps grace me with a response.

Our reasons against abortion are lgical as well as mora. It is impossible for anyone to say when a developing fetus beomces viable, that is, has the ability to exist on its own. Smaller and smaller premature infants are being saved each year! There was a day with a 1000 gram preemie had no chance; now 50 percent of preemies under 100 grams are being saved. Theoretically, there once was a point beyond which technology could not be expected to goin salvaging premature infants-but with further technological advances, who knows what the litmits may be! The eventual possibilities are staggering.
The logical approach is to go back to the sperm and the egg. A sperm has 23 chromosomes; even though it is alive and can fertilze an egg, it can never make another sperm. An egg also has twenty-three chromosomes, and it cannever make another egg. thus, we have sperm that cannot reproduce and eggs that cannot reproduce unless they get togther. Once the unnion of a sperm and egg occurs and the twenty-three chromosomes of each are brought together into one cell that has forty-six chromosomes, that one cell has all the DNA(the whole genetic code) that will if not intrrupted, make a human being.
Our question to a proabortion doctor who would not kill a newborn baby is this: "Would you then kill this infant a minute before he was born, or a minute before that, or a minute before that, or a minute before that, or a minute before that?" at what point in time can one consier life to be worthless and the next minute precious and worth saving?

this is an increadable book that touch not only abortion but infantside, and euthinasia. thought it is written from a christian perspective, francis shaeffer was a brillian man and his book is not chocked full of biblical refrence, both points it seems you would appriciate. well thanks for your time language guy!


2:19 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand what you're saying about religious texts not being cited as authority, but I have to ask a kind of not really related at all question: can I still cite Jacques Derrida as authority?

6:42 PM


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