EMBRYOS, SOULS, AND THE FOURTH DIMENSION
David W. Shoemaker
327 Shatzel Hall
Department of Philosophy
Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green, OH 43403
ABSTRACT FOR “EMBRYOS, SOULS, AND THE FOURTH DIMENSION”
While appealing to the "fact" that embryos have souls does not constitute a legitimate public argument against stem cell (and other embryonic) research in a secular democracy, it is nevertheless an argument that continually makes its way into public discussions of the issue. While nearly all philosophers have summarily shunted this argument aside, I intend to take it seriously, both for itself and for other interesting issues it raises in the philosophy of religion and ontology generally. I start with the claim that embryos are ensouled from the moment of conception, reiterating the familiar view that such a position in general has difficulty handling cases of twinning. But I then go beyond standard treatments of the issue to consider more specific Thomistic and Augustinian conceptions of the soul in some detail to explore whether either conception has a way to avoid these familiar problems. The Thomistic view turns out to be logically impossible in light of less-familiar fusion cases. The Augustinian conception, on the other hand, runs into a number of crippling (but heretofore unnoticed) ontological difficulties. In particular, it cannot coherently address the question of whether or not human beings are three-dimensional objects, enduring through time, or four-dimensional objects, perduring through time. The soul view, in either conception, then, ultimately yields too many theological and/or metaphysical problems for it to be of any use to its advocates.
EMBRYOS, SOULS, AND THE FOURTH DIMENSION
Human embryos are not mere biological tissues or clusters of cells; they are the tiniest of human beings. Thus, we have a moral responsibility not to deliberately harm them . . . .
- Statement from Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics, 19991
Why would someone believe that an embryo is a human being, albeit an exceedingly tiny one? It is merely a cluster of cells, after all, and it in no way resembles ordinary human beings like you and me, entities with the functional abilities to think, feel, locomote, laugh, love, and actually be seen by the naked eye. Furthermore, even if embryos were human beings, why would that fact alone generate a moral obligation on our part to refrain from harming them? In other words, what precisely is it about human beings that warrants their moral protection?
These sorts of questions have played a major role in the longstanding abortion debate, of course, which nevertheless generally focuses not on the embryo but on the fetus. Specifically, abortion theorists typically want to figure out (a) what the ontological status of the fetus is, i.e., into what category of the world it fits, and (b) what its ontological status implies, if anything, about its moral status, i.e., how entities categorized-like-that ought to be treated.2 Fetuses, though, especially late-stage fetuses, at least resemble clear-cut human beings – specifically infants – rather closely, and so granting them the ontological status of human beings is a rather easy pill for many to swallow. The difficulty, though, comes in establishing a coherent and/or non-question-begging argument about the fetus's moral status from there.3
However, the debate over stem cell research (and, for that matter, therapeutic cloning, and other forms of embryonic research), while similar in this formal respect to the abortion debate, is still importantly different regarding the subject of the brouhaha, viz., the embryo. It is an embryo from which the enormously significant stem cells are harvested, for example, and it is (for now, anyway) only embryos that produce this rich potential. Once an embryo has developed into a fetus, such harvesting potential is lost. So there are different reasons offered for engaging in the various procedures: abortion is typically desired on the basis of its expected utility for the mother/parents, whereas stem cell research and the like are typically desired on the basis of their expected utility for, in the grandest of schemes, humanity in general. Nevertheless, the reasons offered against both procedures typically boil down to the same essential fact: both abortion and the harvesting of stem cells involve the destruction of a living human organism. And in either case if this organism is actually a human being, and it is (for whatever reason) wrong to destroy human beings, then it would be wrong to destroy the organism in question. Now as has already been noted, late-stage fetuses certainly resemble clear-cut human beings (of the infant variety), so a case may be made for their status as human beings, which would get them a pass on at least the first of our two general questions. But to return to the query at the outset, why on earth should we think an embryo is a human being?4
The stem cell issue is primarily a public policy issue, but despite the fact that this debate is taking place within secular democracies like the U.S. and the U.K., religious arguments against such research are regularly heard and taken into consideration by various public advisory committees, leaving many secular liberals with their collective jaws agape.5 But while there are very good reasons for why such religion-based arguments should be rendered weightless as justifications for public policy, I propose instead for now to take them quite seriously, for two reasons. First, a large number of citizens accept these religion-based arguments about human beings, and their beliefs about the limits of public funding for certain scientific pursuits flow directly from such arguments. Failing at least to address these arguments, then, leaves the impression that the government is silencing a significant portion of its citizenry, and the undercurrent of resentment produced by such a perceived silencing may express itself in less peaceful ways in the future (think here of abortion clinic bombings). Second, even if the religion-based view is discounted at the political level, it still represents a moral stance, one producing various publicly expressed (if not politically legitimate) judgments about rightness and wrongness that may ultimately be influential in generating enough public pressure to stop certain scientific pursuits altogether, despite the absence of any legal constraints.
My aim in this paper, then, is to deal with these arguments head-on. More specifically, I hope to show that the best developed and most popularly cited religion-based argument(s) about the ontological status of embryos/fetuses, focusing on the nature of human beings and the beginning of life, yields, upon close inspection, an overwhelming number of problematic theological and metaphysical implications, many of which have not been discussed before. But because this is an issue in which the biological details are crucially significant, we must start there.