March of the Idiots

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And…IdiotsUpdateThe beauty about the internet is that it gives many people a forum in which to write that they would otherwise not have, exposing their ideas to wide swaths of people. And then there are those whose critical thinking skills are evidently so under-utilized and whose subsequent production is so idiotic that the things they write are simply brimming with unintentional hilarity.

This past weekend an article appeared in the New Yorker wherein Adam Gopnik tried his hand at the latter and succeeded in crafting a truly master stroke.

The article is too long to fisk the whole thing, but there are myriad nuggets simply begging to be pilloried with mockery.

I, for one, am delighted to oblige.

Ryan then went on to say something oddly disarming in its inherent lack of self-awareness. He talked about how, looking at a first sonogram of his daughter, he was thrilled by the beating heart in the tiny “bean” on the image, so much that he and his wife still call that child “Bean…”

But Ryan’s moral intuition that something was indeed wonderful here was undercut, tellingly, by a failure to recognize accurately what that wonderful thing was, even as he named it: a bean is exactly what the photograph shows—a seed, a potential, a thing that might yet grow into something greater, just as a seed has the potential to become a tree. A bean is not a baby.

This spectacularly bad argument will be developed more further in, but it bears pointing out that Gopnik is playing fast and loose with the terminology to underscore his point. A bean is exactly what the photograph shows? Really? There is no biological difference between a seed and an embryo? None at all?

The use of potential is sloppy as well, since it does not have a univocal meaning. Potentialities differ between types of things. After all, a bear has the potential to be a rug if it is killed and skinned and tanned. But bears do not naturally tend towards rugs. Nor do only bears make rugs.

In a different sense, an acorn has the potential to develop into an oak tree, but that potentiality is inherent to its end. Hence, it is an acorn rather than something else, since oak trees don’t develop from dandelion seeds. At the deepest biological level, the oak tree and the acorn are not different things, but bear within them (I couldn’t resist) the nature of an oak tree.

But a closer look at the situation reveals the notion of potential that Gopnik is employing to be utterly vacuous. Biologically, a human being has the same genetic material it had from its moment of conception. The ability to think and reason and such is not something accidental to a human being, but inherent to its nature. Any powers or abilities that constitute a person as a person are essential to it; the actual utilizing of these things is what develops, not the innate capacity, meaning that someone who is conscious and thinking didn’t acquire that as accidental to his nature but has them by virtue of possessing that nature.

The fundamental condition of life is that it develops, making it tricky sometimes to say when it’s fully grown and when it isn’t, but always easy to say that there is a difference and that that difference is, well, human life itself. It is this double knowledge that impacts any grownup thinking about abortion: that it isn’t life that’s sacred—the world is full of life, much of which Paul Ryan wants to cut down and exploit and eat done medium rare.

Let’s start from the end of this argument. If life (generically speaking) isn’t sacred, then the entire last sentence is absolute nonsense, for how can one exploit something that isn’t sacred? Why should eating it  medium rare or well-done or whatever make any difference? Mr. Gopnik seems to lack even the most basic sense of logical consistency.

Life develops. Wow. Mr. Gopnik drops this bombshell on us, no doubt surprising all the religious people who can’t keep their rosaries in their chapels and who apparently think that life is static and unchanging. As for the difference- I’m not entirely sure what difference he is referring to. In what sense is an embryo, which has all the biological components of human life, not human life? Is it non-human life? Is it actually a bean, as has already been advanced?

It is conscious, thinking life that counts, and where and exactly how it begins (and ends) is so complex a judgment that wise men and women, including some on the Supreme Court, have decided that it is best left, at least at its moments of maximum ambiguity, to the individual conscience (and the individual conscience’s doctor).

Ah, answers. Conscious, thinking life is what counts as human life, apparently. Mr. Gopnik evidently didn’t take the 3 seconds of intellectual exertion to realize that such a definition would exclude anybody who is asleep.

After all, what comprises conscious?‘ What determines the content of thinking? A 6 year-old is not conscious or thinking in the same way as someone who is 32. A 1 year old is certainly not conscious or thinking in the same way either. Do my two nieces not count as human life? If we grant that they will develop into conscious, thinking life and are thus worthy of protection from termination, there is no logical reason why that should not carry back. Gopnik’s sad equivocation on life certainly isn’t one.

Fortunately, our intellectual betters such as Gopnik are more than willing to tell us exactly what kind of life counts and even how we determine what that kind of life is. Are you conscious? Check. Are you thinking? Check. You count! (until you fall asleep, at least…)

The cost of simplifying this truth is immense cruelty—cruelty to the bean when, truly developed, it becomes a frightened teen-ager who is to be compelled by law to carry her unwished-for pregnancy through with all the trauma that involves.

Interesting argument. So apparently the bean- which is not a life that counts until Gopnik says so- can have cruelty perpetuated against it. Funny, in the last sentence this sort of life doesn’t count, but now it does enough for Gopnik to smuggle in a moral argument via equivocation. (I sense a pattern…) His entire argument is undercut since he admits that this bean is not really a bean (even though earlier he said that’s exactly what it was…) but is actually a human since it will become a human and nothing else. (unless he is expecting these beans to sprout into magic beanstalks or bears or squirrels)

Of course, that is blindingly obvious to (almost) everyone, and this is fact the reason this bean can ever be frightened, have a pregnancy, etc.

Ah, but there is that word truly in front of developed! What, exactly, is truly meant to indicate? Why, not just any development, but a certain kind of development! But if we lay aside the question begging for a moment, we might inquire as to why a particular level of development suddenly makes an organism into life that counts? It is not as if biological development creates ex nihilo something in the organism that wasn’t there before. In the sense of a recognizable organ (say, the brain) there are ‘developments,’ but all of these arise from the genetic information contained in the new life from its first moment of existence. The distinctions between organs, states of being, etc., are really taxonomies that we have developed, categorical tags we apply to this function or that. To make those taxological statements the basis of a moral judgement is utterly foolhardy.

Fortunately, Mr. Gopnik seems more than willing to play to the fool.

Ryan talked facilely of what “science” says in this case. But what real science has to tell us, of course, very different; it says that life has no neat on and off, that while life may in some sense begin at conception, the moment when the formed consciousness that distinguishes human life from bean life arises is a very different question, not reducible to a dogma or a simple claim.

Stand back, I’m going to try science! So life begins in just some sense at conception? What sense, exactly, is that? We have already witnessed him equivocating on life so that a particular kind of life (human life) gets generalized with all other kinds of life, (“life is everywhere”) even though there are vast difference between all types of life. The biggest absurdity with this argument is that human life, no matter how undeveloped it is, is still human life. It’s not just human life in some sense, but in as much a sense as it will be at birth, at 30, and when it dies. Or do we become more human as we develop biologically?

As for dogma or simple claims- Mr. Gopnik, if I’m not mistaken, earlier told us that only conscious, thinking life counts. I don’t know how one can get more simplistic or dogmatic than that. Funny how the ones who complain about dogma have little difficulty making their own. The obliviousness of this tendency’s victims is certainly delicious for the rest of us to behold.

And, since science cannot, as Gopnik has already helpfully informed us, make clear distinctions about on and off, (whatever that might mean) exactly what scientific argument is he raising? From the standpoint of biology a human being is human life from its conception until it dies. Consciousness and thinking are beyond biology’s purview. So we finally come down to it and discover that for all of Gopnik’s blathering about science, he is the one predicating his argument upon some rather sophomoric philosophizing, rather than grounding it in science. If legislation shouldn’t be informed by religion, as he states, then why should it be informed by ridiculous philosophy?

A bean isn’t a baby; a baby was once a bean, and between those two truths it is, or ought to be, every woman for herself.

According to the conditions set forth already, Gopnik doesn’t really give us any reason to suspect that a baby is not actually a bean. After all, a baby doesn’t experience consciousness or think as it will when it is more fully developed. On the other hand, neither are we given any reason to suppose that the ‘bean’ is actually different from the baby. Did the bean die and the baby pop into existence in its place? Will the baby die and a conscious, thinking life rise out of the metaphysical ashes?

Gopnik’s argument thus ends with him cutting off two legs of his already broken stool.

What is unquestionable is that the kind of fully conscious life that everyone claims to prize already belongs to the woman who happens to be pregnant, and it should be her individual moral conscience that, in a society devoted to the individual, ought to rule.

Why? How is this unquestionable? Mr. Gopnik is evidently blissfully oblivious that he is merely begging the question here. For if his premise is not assumed (which it should not be, since it is fallacious) then there is absolutely nothing unquestionable about this assertion.

But hand-waving is, I suppose, so much easier.

One reason we prize life is because it makes minds. And women, who have them, should be free to make up their own.

Wait, I thought that life didn’t count unless it was conscious and thinking. Now we are supposed to prize it, which, I suppose, means that it counts.

Curious.

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Jason Watson

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