“After-Birth” Abortion?

Like many people, I reacted with horror and disgust when I first read in The Weekly Standard about this recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics. It is by two ethicists in Australia, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, and argues for the ethical legitimacy of what they call “after-birth abortion.” It’s a fascinating read, but it comes to a chilling conclusion: it is ethically permissible to kill an unwanted baby even right after it is born. The same reasons which justify abortion, they say, should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn. This is because a newborn baby is not yet a “person” in the proper sense of the word. It can take a few days or weeks for an infant to develop a sense of self, purpose, and aims. If the child is going to cause undue stress to the mother or her family, or if the child’s life will not be worth living because of some debilitating disease, the best thing to do is end its life.

I come from the pro-life camp, and I’ve no doubt that a lot of pro-lifers will probably jump on this article and claim that it is the inevitable result of the pro-choice position and that all abortion advocates implicitly promote infanticide. I don’t want to go that far (at least not quite yet), but I do think that it demands some hard questions of abortion proponents.

Given the assumptions that justify abortion, their reasoning that extends this to newborns sure seems pretty valid to me, but I’d be curious to hear it from any pro-abortion folks out there: what makes killing a newborn different from aborting a fetus? If there is no line before birth, why should birth itself be a line? And if we want to delve more into the philosophy of it, what gives us the right to decide when a fetus becomes a person?

For William Saletan, writing for Slate, the big question for pro-choicers is this:

How do they answer the argument, advanced by Giubilini and Minerva, that any maternal interest, such as the burden of raising a gravely defective newborn, trumps the value of that freshly delivered nonperson? What value does the newborn have? At what point did it acquire that value? And why should the law step in to protect that value against the judgment of a woman and her doctor?

Or to follow another line of thought: why shouldn’t the mother’s best interests, particularly her psychological and economic well-being, take precedence over the destruction of human life—even if that life is still potential? It is, after all, on an inevitable course to personhood, which brings us back to the basic abortion debate. I’m not asking these questions to back anyone into a corner. I’m genuinely curious.

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Book Review: The Shallows

NOTE: This post marks the end of my longest blogging drought since starting this blog a little more than a year ago. For more than a month, I posted nothing. That’s unacceptable, but there’s no point in self-flagellation. What matters is that I’m back with another book review.

Yeah, it feels good to write again. On with the review:

About a year ago, I noticed an odd irony about my college experience. When I looked back to high school and compared my study habits, classes, and the things I remembered then to my college classes right now, I found that I was much sharper in high school. I remember being much more focused and engaged when I memorized biology terms as a high school freshman than when I studied Hegel in Intro to Philosophy last semester. I have no doubt that I’m smarter and more informed than at any other point in my life, so how could this be? (aside from sleep deprivation)

I found the answer in Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” Few books have shaken up my thinking like this one. It will probably end up changing the long-term course of my intellectual life. Here’s why:

As the subtitle implies, Carr’s argues in “The Shallows” that the internet is changing our brains. It is shaping the way we think largely without anyone realizing it. This happens at the neurological level. The more we do certain activities, the better we become at them because our brains forge new circuits to make us more adept and sensitive. This applies to motor skills like playing the piano as well as more abstract thinking like reading a book. The more we practice a certain pattern of thinking, the more our brain map makes space for it.

This process also works in reverse. When we don’t practice certain things, those neural pathways start to go away. In people who become blind, for example, the neural paths that the brain once used for sight are rewired to enhance other senses like hearing and touch.

The implication of this is, as Carr quickly points out, is that technology ends up shaping and even controlling us much more than we might like to think. In the case of the internet, it trains our minds to be distracted. We jump from one thing to another within seconds—always shifting and moving and consuming. . . without really retaining. And with the sheer volume of information out there, we hardly have a choice. Between RSS feeds, Facebook status updates, Tweets, email, and instant Google searches, no one can afford to read anything anymore.

At least, we don’t read in the same sense that we traditionally mean when we “read” a book.

At this point, Carr treads with care. As a technology writer who has written for publications like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Wired, he has a pretty good understanding of the power of the internet to process information, mine data, and help us live better, more productive lives. He shows us how the internet has wrought an irreversible change on humanity, but demonizing the web is the last thing he wants to do. It is not inherently good or bad. And Google in particular is neither God nor Satan–although many people see it as one or the other. Even though the impact of the internet is unique, technology has always changed the way we think. Continue reading →

Book Review: A Rumor of Angels

We live in an age in which beliefs about religion and the supernatural–especially in the public square–seem to be growing increasingly polarized and antagonistic toward each other. The religious seem to be growing more religious, and the secular more secular. Modernity has engulfed the world over the last two centuries, and genuine, deep-set religious faith seems to be growing more and more untenable.

What are we to make of this? How should church leaders and secularists alike respond when faced with decisions about how to engage with the culture and those with differing beliefs? Or more important still, how ought we to go about finding answers to questions of faith and the supernatural?

Enter “A Rumor of Angels” by Boston University sociologist Peter Berger. Berger is one of those delightful intellectuals who refuses to be easily categorized. He does not subscribe to the typical thinking and well-known rhetoric of either side and offers his criticism to traditional Christians and the secularizing left alike. Berger himself probably put it best in a 1980 article in The Christian Century in which he described “A Rumor of Angels” as “an attempt to overcome secularity from within.”

I was first introduced to Peter Berger through a pastor. In this video about the question of certainty in biblical interpretation, Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York city referenced “A Rumor of Angels”, noting that the decision to remain skeptical and avoid taking a position on something is itself a decision about what the text is saying. In other words, you can choose from the various interpretations, come up with your own, or claim some sort of “enlightened uncertainty”, but all three are concrete statements about the nature of what you are interpreting. Any belief you choose takes a stance about the nature of reality. If one of the first two positions is correct, then the third one isn’t going to do you much good.

Indeed, the most valuable insight of “A Rumor of Angels”, I found, was Berger’s insistence that the cultural forces that condition our beliefs really have little to no bearing on whether or not something is true. At one point in the book he recounts a visit to India where he encountered a street funeral and afterwards spoke with a Hindu who shared a passage from the Bhagavad Gita. It spoke of life, death and reincarnation. Berger found that his western, Judeo-Christian sense of life sharply rejected the eastern view. He admits why: worldviews are relative and his beliefs had been largely conditioned by his background and society.

This fact in itself, however, does not present any “new” problems to the question of belief; it is merely a sociological observation. “The matter becomes interesting in a very different way,” Berger writes, “the moment one passes from, broadly speaking, the sociology of knowledge to questions of truth.” For all of our observations and analysis about how religious belief comes about, it does not help much when it comes to answering the one big question: Who is right? Continue reading →

Highlights from Orthodoxy, Part One

I just finished G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

It’s a delightful read. They don’t make great writers, journalists, and public intellectuals like they used to. Chesterton’s prose is simple, clear, and concrete. He has just enough British snobbery to make him interesting and humorous at times, but not so much that he comes across as an arrogant jerk. He is opinionated and strongly convinced of his own beliefs, but he still humbly embraces the paradoxes and mysteries of life. One thing that I most appreciate about him is how he tends to find errors in a way of thinking only after he has first studied and believed it.

Most fans of Chesterton will agree that perhaps the greatest testimony to his genius is the timelessness of his work. He clearly anticipated the flow of society toward the coming modernist age. Although he deals with some outdated ideas and criticisms of Christianity, much of what he has to say remains relevant today.

But enough of what I think. I’ll let the man speak for himself. Here are some of the top quotes (in my opinion) from each chapter:

From Chapter I, Introduction (to help put the rest of the quotes in context):

When the word “orthodoxy” is used here it means the Apostles’ Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed. I have been forced by mere space to confine myself to what I have got from this creed; I do not touch the matter much disputed among modern Christians, of where we ourselves got it. This is not an ecclesiastical treatise but a sort of slovenly autobiography.

From Chapter II, The Maniac:

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. . . The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid. Continue reading →

TV Review: Dollhouse, Part 2

Be sure to check out Part 1 of this review before reading this.

SPOILER ALERT: No part of the show and it’s story is off limits to the discussion. You’ve been warned.

The first scene of “Dollhouse” ends with a profound climax. Through a hazy, monitor-like screen, we see Dollhouse manager Adelle DeWitt try to convince a college student named Caroline to join the Dollhouse (Caroline becomes Echo). At first she refuses, but the pressure is so great that she has no other choice.

“I know, I know,” Caroline says, “Actions have consequences.”

“What if they didn’t?” Adelle says.

Therein lies the Dollhouse’s fundamental appeal: escape. For those that enlist to become dolls, it offers freedom from the pain and consequences of a past life. For the clients, it offers people that are as real and genuine as anyone else but also perfectly suited to any relationship or task one could want–but minus the long-term consequences. Everyone’s happy; what could go wrong?

A lot, as it turns out. As in any good story, that’s only how people want things to go.

Adelle DeWitt argues for the morality of the Dollhouse by claiming that it gives people what they need. I won’t delve too deep into the psychology of the issue, but in the show, many of the engagements ring hollow or become downright vile. It seemed that few, if any, of the Dollhouse’s clients for romantic or relational engagements give us the sense that they are really satisfied. Most of the time it involves indulging their own vain, selfish desires or living hopelessly in the past.

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TV Review: Dollhouse, Part 1

I’m not a big television watcher. I refuse to take up the gauntlet of 24 or Lost, catch a few game shows every night, or follow any of the great sagas like Star Trek. Simply put, I try to avoid starting anything that will dominate my life for an extended period of time. The lack of creativity and story that comes with formulaic shows tends to turn me off. Yes, I love Psych as much as the next guy, but after three or four seasons it gets a little old, okay?

That said, the TV medium has it’s uses and can be done well. Two summers ago, I made it through Joss Whedon’s woefully short “Firefly” series. It quickly rose to the top of my list of favorite TV shows. Over the course of this past summer, I’ve worked my way through another of Whedon’s creations: “Dollhouse”.

You could start by describing “Dollhouse” as a sort of science fiction drama, though the genre hardly begins to explain anything about the show’s uniqueness. “Dollhouse” is set in modern times with one fictional factor: people have invented a top secret computer technology capable of manipulating the human brain. It can add and subtract memories, personalities, skills–even allergies and other sensory functions. In other words, you can wipe away someone mind and replace it with whatever you want, thus creating any person you want in any given body. You can even take a full “imprint” of one person’s mind and put it in another person’s body.

The show gets its name from an underground institution called the Dollhouse. In a Dollhouse, people sign their lives away for a number of years to become a “doll.” In doll state, heir minds have been wiped and restored to the “tabula rasa,” or blank slate, where they live in a state of absolute innocence and ignorance. Dollhouses rent out their dolls, or “actives”, as they’re called, to clients. Whatever a client wants is programmed into an active for a genuine experience, or “engagement,” with another person. These range from romantic engagements, where the active is basically a programmed lover, to undercover spy operations. Within their database of mind “imprints”, the Dollhouse supplies its clients with anything from the perfect wife to a master thief.

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Which Came First, God or Man?

Last week, the LA Times ran this little op-ed by J. Anderson Thomson and Clare Aukofer, authors of “Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith.” The title of their piece is “Science and religion: God didn’t make man; man made gods.” I couldn’t resist taking a look.

Articles like these always catch my attention. I think part of it is curiosity to see what new “anti-god” rhetoric atheists have come up with this time, but on a more serious note, the question of God, morality and origins is pretty fundamental to how we look at the world, and it has huge implications for how we live our lives. One of the compelling things about Christianity, I find, is that it is awfully hard to explain away.

Thomson and Aukofer claim to be able to do just that, and it therefore deserves a great deal of both fear and fearlessness as we approach it. I mean a sort of “fear and trembling” in the sense that it speaks to a high-stakes personal decision, and “fearlessness” in that we must be willing to listen to both sides. If they are right, we have nothing to fear about the claims of religious believers, and if a certain religious belief is true, then it should be able to withstand scrutiny.

(that said, thankfully I never thought to start reading the 2000+ comments. . . rarely a good idea, especially on YouTube)

I admit that on one level they have a compelling case. A lot of it does make sense. . . given certain presuppositions. However, the interesting thing about some of the claims of the article is that one can argue in the opposite direction. In fact, some Christian apologetics does exactly that.

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