Letters – Vol. 40 No. 6

Personhood

Re: “The Real Reason for the Anti-abortion Movement,” by Gregory S. Paul, and “The Human Soul and Life after Death,” by Jeremiah Bartlett, FI, June/July 2020. With belief, and in particular dogmatic belief, there does not have to be a basis in fact for the belief. Personhood at conception is one of these beliefs and is a fairly familiar concept among some. This is a belief and is largely supported here in the United States of America by our so-called religious Right. This idea of personhood at conception is based on the belief that there is something called “ensoulment” that occurs at the instant that the sperm enters the ovum.

Scientifically, this belief is fraught with several problems. The first is that the genetic material must join to actually start the chain that leads to a zygote. A small problem that could be corrected to some degree by simply redefining the ensoulment event to after the joining. Of course, there is still the timing problem of the exact point in the exact time when this is complete. It is the same question of when does the opening rosebud become a rose. Perhaps this is solved at the quantum level by the time-position uncertainty. Albert Einstein was wrong; God must roll the dice.

For the religious, the second problem is this personhood poses a problem for the god of that religion. The simple fact is that most zygotes do not implant in the uterus. The zygote just dies. What kind of god would permit all that death to his creations? That god could not value personhood very highly. That god could not be very pro-life.

Now we come to some scientific problems. The first is not too uncommon, that of identical twins. They start as a single zygote. To this definition of personhood, a single person or soul is created when the chromosomes join in the zygote. In the case of identical twins, the zygote spontaneously splits and becomes two zygotes. These zygotes become identical twins. By this definition, how can we resolve this new dilemma? One soul and two bodies? Does one of the zygotes retain the personhood or soul and the other is not a person and has no soul? If this is true, how do we determine who is the person and who is not? I grew up with twins, and both seemed like persons to me. Legally, how do we treat these two—one with and one without? I admit that I did like the one twin better than the other, but I think that was a personal matter of taste. Or like the material that made them, does the person split and each become half a person with half a soul? Legally, should we be fair and treat them as equals and as half citizens? If we do this, how do we apply to them half of their civil rights? Could they just get halfway to heaven? Maybe this is why there was a purgatory belief for many years.

Fraternal twins do not usually pose the problem above. They start as two ova and are fertilized by two sperms and become two people. There is a quite rare anomaly to this, however. In something on the order of one in one hundred million births, fraternal twins are born as one body. Somehow the two separately fertilized ova implant together in a single placenta and the zygotes join together. This gives rise to hermaphrodites in about half of these cases and to double males or double females in the other half. Hermaphrodites will usually be known, because they have physical differences that are obvious. The doubles are not obvious. They appear to be either males or females. However, their DNA can reveal that they are indeed two different people. Setting aside the question of a god that would do this, what does it mean for personhood and soul? Legally, is this person two people? Should they both get to vote? Suppose one of these people kills another person, who would be guilty of the crime? How would one be punished without punishing the other innocent? Would that one soul go to heaven or not? That makes me think of Flip Wilson’s quip, “The devil made me do it.” Just change it to “My evil twin did it.”

From the days of the ancient Greeks, we did not have this problem. We simply defined stages: zygote, morula, blastula, embryo, fetus, and then a baby when it was outside the mother. It seems strange to me that the religious now want to change this. This system worked for nearly 3,000 years and has been the basis of our science and medicine for those years. And now, based on a new belief, we open a can of worms.

(As a footnote, Augustine did not believe that ensoulment or personhood happened at conception. He thought that it happened three months after conception. That got him around some rather dodgy scientific problems. Of course, he thought that you could arrive at a belief in God through a rational argument, too, and he had studied the Greek literature that explained the reasoning for the phases of a developing person. Perhaps he could see that it was a happening [continuing phenomenon] rather than an event [one-time thing].)

Wilfred C. “Rusty” Lyon
Katy, Texas

Anti-Abortion

In presenting “The Real Reason for the Anti-Abortion Movement,” FI, June/July 2020, Gregory S. Paul overlooked the socioeconomic contribution of soldiers to war. Boots on the ground begin with booties on the babies. War is retroactive abortion, a laudable result of male decision-making. Eighteen years of a mother’s work can be paid off for the price of a coffin and an American flag. If instead the father in the sky feeds and watches over children with loving care like it says he does in the catechism, then he can send them to combat the evil in the world if he wants to because he’s the only one to have made an investment in their care.

I’ve been told that abortion would cease to be an issue in 100 years because by then men will have invented an artificial womb. A different man told me he didn’t see what the big deal was about raising kids because they sleep the whole first year, and then after that they’re up and around on their own. Another told me that the only reason women have children is so they’ll never have to work. The modern concept of “the working mother” may blow a hole in that theory.

Work isn’t measured in ergs; it’s measured by how much you get paid. If women aren’t paid for raising children, it must not be work. If the father in the sky is doing it, it costs 10 percent of everybody’s income. He that provideth the gold maketh the rules. “The Father rules,” is the meaning of the word patriarchy. I used to have a textbook titled The History of Civilization. It was nothing but a chronicle of wars. The only part women had played in civilization was in nine-month womb leases to God—although that was assumed, not mentioned.

It matters what a society perceives as “got to be.” If a babysitting meal-maker, then soldiers are free. If a white, male supreme being, then we’ve created white male supremacy. We create with our beliefs.

Thank you for your magazine.

Jeanette Anderson
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Electable Warren

Re: “Elizabeth Warren and the Paper Bag Princess,” by Shadia B. Drury, FI, June/July 2020. Do you have an editor counting the errors in every Shadia Drury column? If so, please add the following from her recent piece about Elizabeth Warren:

  1. Thomas Piketty does not simply argue that American inequality is a function of “the political structure of the state.” He argues that capitalism inherently breeds growing inequality and that solving inequality requires more than state intervention. To quote Foreign Policy: “To reclaim the votes of the less advantaged and start tackling inequality, Piketty argues, social democratic parties need to abandon market-friendly policies that favor the wealthy and carry out a root-and-branch reform of the entire political and economic system, even if that means amending constitutions and neutering supreme courts.” His economic analysis has led many to suggest that Piketty is Marx’s contemporary.

  2. Warren is more “electable” than Bernie Sanders? By what evidence? In primary after primary, poll after poll, Sanders outran Warren by a mile. As NPR recently reported, numerous progressive groups supported Sanders “not because of anything Warren said or did, but because of Sanders’ credibility and consistency on issues like health care and climate change.”

  3. As Sanders himself has repeatedly said, there is a tremendous difference between the “democratic socialism” he advocates for and the “socialism” practiced by the Soviet Union. His model is Sweden—a capitalist system with less state intervention and control than that practiced in the United States. Yes, Ms. Drury, when you and I were grad students at York in the early ‘70s, Americans associated socialism with “Marxist dictatorships.” But no more. A recent (3/20) Gallup poll found that 47 percent of Americans would vote for an otherwise qualified person who advocated “socialism.” Before you call Sanders “tone deaf,” you might want to tune in yourself to American public opinion, which, by the way, seems to well understand Sanders’s positions.

  4. Yes, Karl Marx did not—really, could not—anticipate the state’s ability to mitigate the tensions created by capitalism’s structural inequalities. And it’s true that FDR’s New Deal succeeded in defusing revolution here in the United States. But it may be premature to state—as Ms. Drury does—that “Marx was wrong.” As Robert Kuttner has shown (Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?), international capital—not nation states—now set the rules for the marketplace, and the ability of nation states to play “the role of umpire in the conflicting claims of workers and capitalists” is nearly gone. Politicians—Canada’s included—have become whores who (in Thomas Friedman’s memorable words) “rent themselves out by night to whomever will energize [their] base to keep them in power and secure the economic benefits for their wealthiest donors.” In this environment, and as inequality increases even more, revolution may not be “inevitable.” But as recent uncontrollable rioting in the United States has demonstrated, it is surely possible.

Mark Kolsen
Chicago, Illinois

Doomsday

Re: “The Rationalist Case for Rejecting Doomsday Predictions,” by Barry A. Kosmin, FI, June/July 2020. I appreciate Kosmin’s attempt to bring optimism to our worldview, but there is no mention of the threat of nuclear war! Trump is going to upgrade the weapons, etc. Of course, this is only one of many ghastly things happening.

I’m afraid I am very pessimistic. But I did send a copy of the article to my son-in-law to try to help him look at things in a brighter way.

But as Scarpia says to Tosca: E fallace speranza.

Carl Saviano, MD
President, Western Massachusetts Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility
Northampton, Massachusetts

The Microscopic Terrors

Re: “Blind as Bats,” by Paul Creber, FI, June/July 2020. Thank you, Paul Creber, for your Op-Ed. Who couldn’t relish some humor during times like these? We humans love to boast that whether we are the offshoot of instantaneous divine creation or we gradually evolved over millions of years, our higher intelligence and manual dexterity renders us superior to all other creatures. And many people are proud that with their superior faculties, their countries have developed weapons of mass destruction to wipe out their real or imagined enemies. Yet, irony of ironies! Throughout history, microscopic creatures have killed or disabled more people than all the hatred and wars combined. Yes, those tiny bodies can kick our butts harder than we can kick each other’s butt. Just like the universe and its billions of stars, next to which our sun would appear as a tiny dot, the microscopic universe with all its splendor yet dreadful mysteries never fails to give me (and millions of others, I’m sure) a large dose of humility.

David Quintero
Monrovia, California

Climate Change

Re: “Why Climate Change Is an Irrelevance, Economic Growth Is a Myth, and Sustainability Is Forty Years Too Late,” by Kevin Casey, FI, June/July 2020. Kevin Casey’s essay on the real cause of humanity’s woes—overpopulation—is spot-on. Climate change, pandemics, immigration, pollution, overcrowding, terrorism, vanishing fauna/flora, exhaustion of mineral resources, and many more are directly or indirectly the result of too many of us on this spaceship Earth. The earth has had far too many humans to maintain any kind of ecological balance for at least the past century or two. Overpopulation, with its handmaiden—religion—is taking humanity right over the cliff to oblivion like so many lemmings. Oscar Wilde described the English foxhunt as “The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.” I would describe humanity at this point as: “The oblivious marching over the cliff to oblivion.”

R. C. Gibson
Irvine, California


Re: Kevin Casey (“Why Climate Change is an Irrelevance, Economic Growth is a Myth, and Sustainability is Forty Years too late,” FI June/July 2020). It is not realistic to expect worldwide action to limit the human population. Kevin Casey (and Tom Flynn, by the way) does not suggest such a program. Endangerment of the environment is in a marginally better position, offering concrete goals that are achievable and pointing to overpopulation as the real problem. But we have a hard time getting even that far.

Ernst Kllenbach
Gainesville, Florida


I want to thank you for keeping human overpopulation on the front burner, so to speak. Kevin Casey’s opinion/informational piece in the June/July 2020 issue is brilliant and inspired. Also Tom Flynn’s editorial bringing up what I consider vital conversation.

I became population aware during the first Earth Day in 1970—overpopulation was explicitly connected at the time to all environmental concerns and problems, as well, most societal issues. Starting in the 1980s and ramping up through the 1990s and on into the new millennium, it increasingly became a taboo subject, especially in the mainstream and radical Left. Eventually, as a taboo, it’s infected the mindsets of ecologists, biologists, and environmentalists worldwide—the very people whose ‘job’ it is to be educating about it and who don’t.

Of all the magazines I regularly read and many I’ve subscribed and subscribe to (Smithsonian, National Geographic, Hi-Country News, Sierra, Discover, etc.) Free Inquiry alone brings up the subject and you do it well and articulately. It’s pathetic those above mentioned, especially the science magazines and so-called environmental magazines won’t touch it at all—I’ve cancelled my subscriptions to quite of few of them in recent years, accompanied by letters asking why, oh, why human population was so off their radar? Not a one printed my letters; talk about a taboo subject!

There seems to be a widespread contagion of politically correct cowardice of any population dialog whatsoever in both the Left and more specifically what passes as current eco-activist and environmental groups. Intellectual cowardice has got to be right down there near the bottom of nasty human qualities; kudos to FI for brave and science-based journalism.

Lyn Dessaux
Arrowbear, California

Comedy

Re: “The Keys to Irreverent Comedy,” by Bernard Schweizer, FI, June/July 2020. While I enjoyed Bernard Schweizer’s article on irreverent comedians in the June/July Free Inquiry, I was astounded that he made no mention of two of the most sacrilegious comedians of all time, i.e., George Carlin and Bill Maher. Those two have surely warranted a prominent place in the Pantheon of Godless Comedians!

Dennis Middlebrooks
Brooklyn, New York

Human Soul

Concerning Jeramiah Bartlett’s article “The Human Soul and Life after Death” (FI, June/July 2020), the continuing existence of some ethereal being after the death of my body is of no consequence unless it contains the essential “me,” which consists of my habits, mannerisms, and most importantly, my memories. There must be a connection between my soul and my earthly life. But we know for certain that injury to different parts of the brain can cause us to lose significant memories, which would seem to indicate that without living brain cells, there can be no continuation of “me.”

Art Davison
Sherwood Park,
Alberta, Canada


Thank you for your usually thoughtful and thought-provoking articles.

However, the article by Jeremiah Bartlett did not live up to your stated vision. There is a rich millennia-long literature about the soul. A more informed article would have engaged at least at some point with some of this literature. The kind of specious “thinking out loud” in this article leaves a theist like myself more than a little unconvinced.

But I’ll keep reading!

Sam Berg
Regina, Saskatoon, Canada


Personhood Re: “The Real Reason for the Anti-abortion Movement,” by Gregory S. Paul, and “The Human Soul and Life after Death,” by Jeremiah Bartlett, FI, June/July 2020. With belief, and in particular dogmatic belief, there does not have to be a basis in fact for the belief. Personhood at conception is one of these beliefs …

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