We have a basic set of assumptions about reality that structures thinking and discourse on any given topic. Many of these assumptions came out of the thinking of early western thinkers, the thought collectively known as metaphysics. Yet something like the assumptions that underlie anti-abortionist thinking, that somehow an embryo or foetus is more important, or even as important, as a human being appears to go directly against the thinkers deemed as ‘metaphysical’, and even against the thinking of many Christian theologians, although by and large the most vocal of anti-abortionist groups are also Christian groups.
Within metaphysics, and within western theology up to St. Thomas Aquinas and in fact long beyond that, what something is, its substance, concept or idea depending on the flavour of metaphysics, was determined primarily by its eidos, its look or outward aspect. At some point during the age of ‘enlightenment’, and becoming obvious in 19th century thinking, this changed specifically with regard to human being, and became something not seen, something hidden and mysterious. With this change came the change from cultural racism, based primarily on something overt such as the place you were born or the language you spoke, to something internal and intrinsic, and while mysterious, at the same time predetermined and unchangeable. Eventually science settled on self-replicating molecules as the source of this mysterious, unchangeable “thing” that determined everything overt about a human being, and indeed did so in a predetermined fashion.
Many will argue that that is simply science, but the thing is, it isn’t. Virtually every assumption about genes and DNA was already in place before DNA was actually ‘discovered’, i.e. the discovery was already posited, it just remained to find the already determined object, i.e. to posit it absolutely. That we can technically manipulate DNA in certain limited ways doesn’t validate either the theory or the underlying assumptions to any great degree, because there are a myriad of things that by common genetic theory we should be able to predict but in fact cannot. Further, validation by technological experiment has two basic flaws: firstly the technology used in the validation is designed with the same underlying assumptions and the same overt theory in mind and thus creates an immense likelihood of confirmation bias that has no counterweight, since the same technology must be used to repeat the experiment; secondly technological experiment, in order to procure its object, must decontextualize its subject matter, i.e. take it out of reality, prior to ‘having it’ as an object. This double flaw is the reason for the “uncanny” predictive validity of particle physics in “discovering” particles that are no more than an artefact of mathematical symbolism, contradictory theories with contradictory experimental setups also validate perfectly well.
When we experiment using technological apparatus the apparatus, as Bohr pointed out, is a necessary part of the result, such and such can only be said to be “true” if the apparatus is present and set up in a precise way. Or as Heisenberg put it, we cannot say how nature is via technological experiment, but only how it behaves in response to specific technical manipulations. Outside that the entire setup can only be said to be correct within its own rule-system, and that rule-system is determined by the set of underlying assumptions involved.
I alluded to the basic assumption previously, that something hidden and mysterious materially pre-determines every person, but the question remains how the original notion of idea as arising from eidos or outward look of a thing was changed so radically in this specific case: the determination of the validity of a human being. From the metaphysical determination still fundamental in Aquinas and Francisco Suárez an embryo has an almost indistinguishable eidos from other mammals at similar stages of development, yet no matter how annoying they may be, we aren’t dealing with vegetarians taking AK-47’s and shooting those who eat meat, or even those who farm it. The change to a genetic determination of human being in general and the nature of specific human beings and specific groups is the fundamental change that supports the behaviour of anti-abortion terrorists.
A quick overview of how this change became possible:
Firstly, the invention of interiority itself as psychological interiority by St. Augustine made it possible to conceive of a hidden ‘essence’ of a given person. Secondly the substantialization of Augustine’s neo-platonist notions by Aquinas allowed for the positing of a material basis for what was previously thought only as psyche, or soul. Thirdly the Protestant notion of predestination introduced the idea that this material basis could be predetermining of the human being in general. Fourthly the replacement of divine providence with theoretically predictable mechanistic causality allowed this predetermination to be known in advance by human beings.
These four changes, together, allowed the positing of an a priori material difference between human beings, and between groups of human beings, that could be known to predetermine their outcomes, and those outcomes, at least in a general sense, be known in advance by human beings, specifically by western scientists. It also allowed the notion that this hidden ‘essence’, as determinative, was equivalent to the developed person.
This notion gave rise to a series of pseudo-sciences that had the pretence to predictive validity of the outcome of a human being, initially via some overt, observable quantity that somehow was supposed to correlate to predictive outcomes. Although none successfully did so from phrenology to social Darwinism to socio-biology to evolutionary psychology, and were discredited one by one, the basic assumption remained undiscredited, and the technical manipulation of ‘genes’ in DNA appeared to confirm the basic assumption, although the mapping of human DNA was a failure in precisely the sense of validating the basic assumption, in that it resulted in the theory of how genes work being fundamentally disproven, and the idea that DNA can ever provide any predictive value outside limited and generally unimportant details put into serious question.
The human genome project resulted in such implications because it confirmed what a number of more thoughtful geneticists had suspected for some time, that genes in general do not directly determine anything, that they are dynamically interpreted by the developing human being. Since we have no source to the interpreter code, nor any way of understanding the code being interpreted, it’s equivalent to looking at hieroglyphs without even a theoretical Rosetta Stone, never mind an actual one. Only in rare cases, and generally ones that make no material difference such as eye colour, do genes directly determine anything.
This finding has been rather traumatic to the current generation of geneticists, zoologists and biologists who expected a simple mapping, not least because many of their other preferred notions about reality are dependent on the same underlying assumption. For instance Richard Dawkins’ justification of Oxbridge privilege is dependent on such fictional genetic predetermination, as is the biologistic racism of E. O. Wilson. Which starts to give some insight as to what propelled the adoption of the base assumption to begin with.
Humanism, as a Romanism, had to somehow reintroduce the difference between peoples abandoned by Rome itself as types of Romanitas in 212, in order to justify the new nationalism of the French “secular”, or nationalist, humanists; to justify the abominable treatment of the rest of the peoples of the world by the new colonial imperialism of the new nation-states, to justify the abominable treatment of people in one’s own country who weren’t of a certain ‘class’, etc. The assumption that underlies genetics as determinative of the human being, and thus renders what is to all outward appearance equivalent to a pig at the same stage of development equivalent to a fully developed human being, is the same assumption that supported American slavery and continues to support systemic racism, that supported and continues to support class and nationalistic privilege, that supported and continues to support the notion that certain groups of people are inherently inferior to “us”, whoever “us” happens to be.
Should we be surprised that anti-abortionists use the same types of terrorist tactics as racists, or ultra-nationalists, or those involved in class warfare, when they have the same basic assumption about the nature of their enemy, that the enemy is inherently, genetically, inferior? Not at all. Anti-abortionists trade on the same pseudo-scientific lie that the others did, and still do, but in a double sense, since it simultaneously supports the notion that the embryo or foetus is at least equivalent to a fully developed human being and that those involved in women’s treatment are inherently inferior.
Christians specifically need to rethink their positions in terms of their own theology rather than mindlessly absorbing pseudo-scientific thinking invented specifically to justify behaviour that is completely in opposition to any semblance of an appropriate Christian world view, which has to be based on love and not terror and hatred.
Catholics in particular should be questioning the ideological, socio-cultural and historical backgrounds of the two Popes who forced the anti-abortion agenda onto the Church.
Atheists need to pay more attention to the blatant ideological and socio-cultural bigotry of the ‘scientific atheists’ they pay such blind superstitious homage to.