A fragment from an unsent email to a girl I met at a wedding in London who I pointlessly fancied, and who occasionally contacted me only to then become as silent as the grave if I actually respond...
I feel like you are a koan my Zen master keeps presenting to me every six months to chart my spiritual growth... “Quinxy-san. Master Kenze arrives at the zen-do with a letter for you from a friend. If you reply to this person, you will hear no more from them. If you don't reply, you will hear no more from them. Master Kenze gives you a quilled fountain pen, a well of black ink, and one piece of bamboo parchment. What do you do?”
And I know the answer, I've been presented with this particular koan several times before, and each time I get it wrong I am told the answer: “You pick up the quilled fountain pen, drive it through the center of the paper lying pinning it to the desk, leave the pen standing nib stuck in the soft wood. You dip your pinky in the ink and draw two concentric circles around the pen, the first on the paper, the second on the wood of the desk. And from your diaphragm, growl, 'Yasuke!'.”
As with all koans, the answer is gibberish to the unenlightened, and no fakesies. The master will know if the answer I give is rote or real, though the words are the same.
So, on this day, I readily admit to the master that once again, I do not know the answer. But I do tell him this much... “I know now that the day ends with no words written on the paper.” And he gives me a rare and precious smile, so in sympathy and joy I smile, too. With love he cracks me on the back with his stick. I have made progress.
I don't speak all dialects of human very well, and yours is apparently one of those.
This is based on a letter I recently wrote to a friend following a discussion we had on the topic of abortion. It's a rough sketch of my position.
I'll start in reverse, stating my conclusion, then explaining it. The short answer is, I think both sides have it very wrong. I think both sides have agendas which have nothing to do with the real issue. At this instant in time, with the technology we have currently available, with the ethical issues as they now exist, I do not believe it can be established that abortion is either moral or immoral. I do not want Roe v. Wade overturned, but neither am I certain it is right. I do not know what the answer is, but I feel that the answers both sides present (pro choice/pro life) are wrong. I would fight for, vote for, protest for alternative solutions which attempted to address the reasonable concerns of both sides, those being (in my estimation) maximizing a woman's equality/options/growth potential while doing everything possible to avoid the destruction of tissue that at some uncertain moment inherits the rights of a human.
The central and only real issue is, of course, when does "life" begin? Specifically, when does do the collection of cells go from having no rights to having the rights of a full person? That is the only issue. That issue is unrelated to religion, unrelated to feminism, unrelated to pre-existing law. If one is going to consider these issues, to try to find the truth, to find what's right (independent of one's desire, convenience, larger goals, etc.), it must be without the color of emotion and without the taint of agendas. It's what all good science strives to be about, avoiding personal bias, ignoring (or compensating for) the blindness of what one inherits culturally/socially, seeing the data only as it is, and discovering reality as it really is.
I do not believe there is any clear moment when a fertilized egg attains the rights of a human. That moment is not conception, not attachment of the zygote to the uterine wall, not formation of the fetal brain stem, not beginning of the heart beat, not viability with medical intervention, not viability without medical intervention, and maybe not even birth. But, at some point in the growth from >= 1 cell to <= 1+ billion cells it becomes universally believed to be morally wrong to destroy. I do not know when that point is. Anyone who says they do is arrogant, a liar, or overly simplifying the issue to satisfy their own personal agendas. The problem is, what does one do when you don't know if something is moral or immoral? To be 100% moral the only option is to err on the side of caution and not do that thing which may or may not be immoral. That is the only "safe" course. And I'm not talking about morals in a religious sense, I'm talking about morals in the sense of the atheist finding a wallet when no one is around and feeling the obligation to return the wallet, despite his own financial difficulties.
I'm not suggesting that doing something which may be immoral is the same as doing something which is immoral. This highlights our need to add punctuation or notation to the English language which can capture multi-state conditions seeing in the realms of logic and quantum mechanics. But neither can I explain how it's exactly different. Because it may or may not be. We cannot know. It's a subtle but important distinction. In a similar way, my vegetarianism is not based in my belief that eating animals is absolutely immoral (though I personally suspect it is, and have reason to logically believe that mankind's morals evolve as our environment evolves, and I can no longer morally justify my eating meat). I choose not eat meat because I believe it *may* be immoral, not because I believe it absolutely is; and my decision is therefore the only truly moral option for me in that situation, to play it safe, and not do the possibly immoral thing. All I can personally do is try to act out of an abundance of caution, and avoid doing something which may be immoral.
Now, if the only truly moral thing to do is avoid something which may be immoral does that mean I do not believe abortion is ever ok? The short answer is that I don't know. And since I don't feel I can have a strong opinion on that, given that I don't know, I'm not of a mind to tell people what they should do, try to legislate what they should do, judge them. (Technology and social progress/change will provide good alternative solutions in the future, which will alter the awkward ambiguity which now exists.) While I have no strong opinions now in general on this topic, I do have some in specific situations. If someone is using abortion as a method of birth control (as opposed to as a last resort when birth control fails), that position disappoints me and feels very wrong. If someone is getting an abortion and has thought about doing so with no more gravity (introspection/philosophizing) than they would having a wart removed, that position disappoints me and feels ignorant; I do not like people oversimplifying, ignoring inconvenient complexities, etc. I do not believe I have the right to stop even those people, but I will quietly (in my own head) strongly disagree with them.
I believe very much in the value of the thought experiment to get at the heart of what is really motivating people, what the issue really is, and what we can really do about it. And because many thought experiments show us what we'll have to confront and decide in the future. So here are some thought experiments which I think are interesting on this topic, and may reveal some people's real agendas.
- Imagine they could teleport an undesired fetus out of pregnant woman and teleport it into another woman; and that there were enough women who wanted impregnation. Would this be acceptable as the only alternative to abortion (excluding incest)?
- Imagine they could teleport an undesired fetus into a frozen/suspended state for future re-implantation into the same woman when/if she is prepared to re-receive it? Would this be an acceptable alternative to abortion?
- Imagine they could transfer the fetus to another woman or freeze it but only after developing for 3 months. Would this change reaction to the above?
- Imagine this teleportation to another woman or to a freezer existed, and that the pro choice movement accepted that. Would it be acceptable in the cases of rape/incest? (Is part of the issue the eradication of the physical trace/dna of the event/crime?)
- Imagine a future where everyone wears a device that monitors their body. This device could detect pregnancy instantly (the moment the egg implants itself). If the woman was then given 24 hours to decide if she wants the pregnancy or not, would that be accepted as the only solution? (What if the time was 36 hours, or 7 days. Would it be acceptable to severely restrict the decision time?)
- Imagine that babies were in demand (no need for foster homes, orphanages, etc.), that all babies placed up for adoption would quickly go to good homes. Further, let's imagine that there was no social stigma attached to a) early/unmarried/etc. sexual activity, b) no stigma attached to carrying and then giving a baby up for adoption (whether in high school, in a career, etc.). Would the pro choice movement accept carrying a child to term as the only solution? (Let's assume an exception for rape/incest.)
- Imagine a new drug comes out, Plan 0. It has no side effects, it has no risks associated with it, and once taken it is 100% impossible to become pregnant until one takes the antidote for it. It can be given to children as young as 10. The antidote would be freely available to all above the age of 18. The antidote require 3 free injections, once a month, to reverse the sterility. (To avoid anti-government concerns, you can assume the antidote's formula is widely known, and can be reproduced easily with commonly available, harmless and unrestrictable ingredients. Just inconvenient and difficult enough for most people to not be able to make.) Would the pro choice movement support giving this to all children at age 10?
Anyway, those are just a few... I could insert lots of others including some trying to establish the relative value of lives based on cell counts, intelligence, rights (and lack thereof) over one's body, etc.
I do not mean the above as merely idle and un-testable thought experiments, this isn't "You're driving at light speed and you turn on your headlights" stuff. My point with the above is that all of the above items could happen, the technological/medical options above will all be possible at some point in the future. And what will be our position when they are? Because how we react to them then says a lot about what the different groups truly believe now. And it's hard to have discussions now, come to solutions now, when people are making one argument, while secretly motivated by another argument. And that's what frustrates me about the way abortion is typically discussed, it's two irate and deeply entrenched groups with partially obscured agendas and grossly over-simplified arguments uselessly attacking each other and largely failing to unite and focus on what is a shared goal (reducing unwanted pregnancies); there's a place and a way to have the other arguments, but even those can be constructively done looking towards and trying to build a future in which both sides are satisfied.
A few years ago I discovered something odd about myself, apparently most people are far, far better than I am at facial recognition. I never realized it because the effects are somewhat subtle. I've never failed to confidently recognize someone I know well, and even those I barely know I always recognize, but their recognition often comes with a great deal of uncertainty; I will logically strongly suspect it's the person I think it is, but I don't have that sense of just "knowing" it is. Where I really run into problems is people like actors and singers who I only know in two-dimensions, when they change their hairstyle or appearance, I may not quickly recognize them.
And apparently this minor inconvenience is an under-reported condition called Prosopagnosia. You too can see if you may have it by taking the Cambridge facial recognition test . I took it a couple of years ago and I think I found out I was only better than 23% of the population. (My friend Nora took a similar test the other day and said she scored better than 98% of the population.)
So, here's my funny/odd prosopagnosia story of the day...
The other night I walked my dog, Osita, down to the cafe to meet a bunch of friends and we were sitting and talking and this guy comes out to sit down about 10 feet away with some of our other friends. I was pretty sure I knew the guy, but I didn't have that transcendent sense of just "knowing". The reason I was confused? First some background on Adam. I've seen him probably 30 times, and talked with him 1 or 2 times, but never directly for long, just part of a larger group. Every single time I've seen him (without exception that I can recall), he is wearing a dark brown leather bomber jacket (with nametag affixed), a golfing-type hat, and 90% of the time he's smoking a cigar. But, the other night he was wearing a baseball cap, a light tan cotton jacket (w/ fighter squadron name and patches), he was not smoking a cigar, and he seemed to be smiling more. Now clearly I'm not an idiot, intellectually I know a pseudo-airforce-y jacket means it must be Adam, I've met no other people in my life who hadn't fought in WWII who would wear such a jacket. And his face did not look inconsistent with the Adam I can semi-"clearly" see in my memory, though oddly that guy has slightly darker skin complection. But even though I'm observing this guy for 30 or more minutes while talking to my friends I still can't "see" this guy as the Adam I "know". But, next time I see him wearing something different, and the more times that I do, the better I will have generalized the concept of Adam such that I will then "know" it's him, regardless of outfit or circumstance. So, that's sort of what my experience is. I need to observe a person enough to create that general model of them so that I can recognize confidently in any situation.
Next on my list of personal peculiar brain abnormalities to reveal... my inability to sing along to songs!