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Religious Tolerance logo

An article donated by Dr. Sanford Aranoff

A detailed analysis of diverse views about the
beginning of a person, with biblical references


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This discussion is a continuation of Part 1

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IV. Warren's arguments about what is a person:

Let us go to the third point. The issue that roils people is that there is no physical distinction between a fetus immediately prior to birth and the newborn baby. We all agree that infanticide is murder. The logic based upon physical looks, is that we should consider killing a late-term fetus as first-degree murder. Indeed, some states have passed laws to this effect.

There is a subtle difference between Kenny and Warren. Whereas Warren discusses the idea of person or "human", Kenny focuses on the concept of human life. Warren says that a fetus is neither a person nor a human, and therefore it is not immoral to kill a fetus. A fetus does not have the same rights as a person. Kenny, on the other hand, claims that human life begins before birth, maybe even at conception. He discusses the question when the life of an individual person begins. Again, Warren discusses whether a fetus is a person, and Kenny discusses when the life of a person began. According to Kenny, although a fetus is not a person, since the life of the person began as a fetus, it is immoral to kill a fetus, and a fetus has the same rights as a person.

Warren states "neither a fetus's resemblance to a person, nor its potential for becoming a person provides any basis whatever for the claim that it has any significant right to life. Consequently, a woman's right to protect her health, happiness, freedom, and even her life, by terminating an unwanted pregnancy, will always override whatever right to life it may be appropriate to ascribe to a fetus, even a fully developed one." Kenny rejects this argument by saying that the question is not whether a fetus has the right to life, but that the fetus is actually human life. Hebraic Law agrees that a fetus is life, as mentioned above, for it is a crime to kill a fetus.

I wish to give a novel argument to support Warren, by giving another argument to define a human being, giving a unique quality the baby has upon being born, by applying some concepts from physics. Use of physics to clarify this issue is legitimate, as our bodies obey the laws of physics.

Warren discusses that since a fetus has the potential for becoming a person, does this fact endow it with some of the same rights as people. Her response is that it does not.

Here is an example from physics. If we pass a beam of helium atoms through a narrow slit, the atoms will behave as particles, as we expect. If, however, we pass the beam through a pair of slits, they will behave as waves and interfere as waves. The beam will display fringes on a screen. That is, initially the atom is potentially a particle or a wave, after passage, it actually becomes a particle (or a wave). The ancient Greek philosophy of potential and actual helps clarify this. We normally think of helium as a gas consisting of particles. In the double slit experiment, the potential particles actually become waves. This is just an illustration that we must not make decisions based upon potentialities, as Warren states. The birth process changes the fetus from being a potential person to being an actual person. This just gives a picture in your mind to support Warren.

The change from particles to waves is very different from a phase transformation like ice into water. A wave is a very different entity than a particle.

The particles slowly pass continuously through the slits, whether it is one or two, and becomes particles or waves when we observe the fringes. The fetus passes continuously through the vagina and becomes a baby as it starts breathing.

The mathematical expression of the above is this. There is a complex function ψ that describes the beam. The only thing we know is | ψ| - this is the actual reality. The imaginary part of ψ is the potential reality.

Potential reality is reality, and not simply something that does not exist. This is a touchy and confusing point. The fetus is in a sense a person. Therefore, abortion should not be permitted. However, potential reality is not the same as actual reality. Killing a fetus is not the same as killing a person. In the Biblical account of men fighting and aborting a fetus, we see that it is a crime to abort a fetus, but not a capital crime.

There are several points that we must understand when discussing Warren's ideas. When we make laws or establish moral principles, we do so in a general fashion. When we give criteria for a person being a person, and then say that a baby satisfies these criteria and is therefore a person, this does not imply the converse. If a baby is born that does not satisfy these criteria, such as having almost no brain, we do not say that this baby is not a person and we can practice infanticide. Since most babies do satisfy the criteria of personhood, then we consider all babies as persons.

Another point is that Warren's ideas by themselves do not stand up. For example, she says that a person has the capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems. Since a baby does not have this capacity upon birth, it is not a person. Here the concept of organization discussed below may help. The new organization, the baby independent of immediate physical attachment to the mother, determines personhood. This new organization will have reasoning capacity, and so the baby is a person immediately. We need both ideas together, Warren's personhood and organization.

V. Human life and organization

Let us now discuss Kenny's point about human life. His article consists of many subtle hints that there is something special about human life, and this special something makes it immoral to kill a fetus. This point is not clearly stated, and so is a challenge to refute. I will attempt to challenge it using a concept from physics.

We spoke above about helium gas. If we cool it enough, it liquefies. As we cool it further, it becomes something physicists call a superfluid. Although we picture helium gas as a collection of atoms bouncing around, we cannot picture a superfluid as a collection of atoms. It is a single entity. The atoms have lost their individual entities to become a collective whole. This change is instantaneous as we lower the temperature.

The concept of a collective group as being different from its parts is basic to physics. Other examples are the concepts of temperature and entropy in thermodynamics. There is no meaning to the temperature of a single atom. The brain is another example of a collective group, different from its parts.

I ask my students what is a molecule. They say it is a collection of atoms. No, I reply! Take a drop of water, a tiny drop, the tiniest drop you can take. This is a molecule of water. A molecule is the smallest object of something that is the same something. 1 Break that, and you get hydrogen and oxygen. An atom is a molecule of an element. Break that, and we get electrons, protons, and neutrons. Entities exist because of organization. A molecule of water is fundamentally different from its parts, hydrogen and oxygen. The existence of the entity depends upon the organization.

Here is a simple, clear example. The atoms of graphite and diamond are the same. The difference is the organization. Graphite atoms are arranged in hexagonal sheets, whereas diamond atoms are arranged as pyramids. To deny the reality of organization is to deny the reality of the differences between graphite and diamond. Diamond is more than carbon atoms.

Imagine taking graphite and subjecting it to high pressure and temperature so that it becomes diamond. At the moment it became diamond, the reality changed. When ice melts, the reality has changed as the organization of the water molecules has changed. Again, as the organization changed, a new reality came into existence. Try telling a woman who just received a diamond ring that the diamond is really just carbon. She will not agree! She knows diamond is different!

A corporation is another example of a group as being more than the sum of its parts. It is interesting that a 19th century U.S. Supreme Court decision stated that corporations have legal rights as persons. 2

The idea is that the person becomes a single collective and separate entity upon birth. This means that before birth the fetus was not this single collective entity, a living human. This point needs further clarification.

Of course, at fertilization a new quality is produced from the unfertilized egg to a zygote that is a different structure from the molecular point of view. The zygote is a new organization. However, it is not a person. We need both organization and personhood.

Warren discussed what would be in the future as computers become more powerful. However, she did not go far enough in her analysis. At some time in the future, a desktop computer will be more powerful than the human brain. (This may possibly happen, or it may not.) These computers will not be androids, as science fiction writers assumed, for all these computers will be connected via the Internet. They will form a single logical entity that will exist forever, for people will not be able to destroy it. People will communicate with this entity in a fashion that people communicate with each other. We do not know what people are thinking and what they will say or do. Likewise, we will not know what this entity is thinking or what it will say. People will relate to it as a living entity, as people consider God as living. Of course, this is speculation, but it sounds probable. We do need to think seriously about the issues that will arise.

The point is that today we do not, of course, consider computers as living, even though they have the same physical form as the future computers. There will be a transition point in the future when this may happen, because of its complexity and organization, and separation from human control. It will be a sharp point. This is analogous to the birth process. The fetus is not a living human even though it physically has the same structure. Upon birth, when the organization and separation from the mother, the fetus becomes a living human.

This argument shows that the notion of human life is based upon a collective complex independent entity. Examples such as this may help the confusing concepts like human life, and show why Kenny's arguments are not valid.

We do not need to postulate the existence of the soul to explain human behavior. The concept of collective complexity is sufficient. The idea of the soul is what confuses people like Kenny, who say that the fetus also has a soul.

The pro-life movement poses the wrong question regarding abortion. The question is not when life begins. The question is not can we destroy life in order to enhance a woman's health. If someone donates blood, the blood is life, but can be destroyed. The question is when the fetus becomes a person.

We need philosophical and legal analyses in order to determine when the fetus becomes a person, defined by saying that killing the organization is murder, i.e., a capital crime. We cannot rely upon Catholic teaching, but must rely upon all that have contributed to American law and culture. We have to examine Hebraic law to see how it influenced our government at our beginnings, and how it is relevant today. Of course, American law did not derive from the Hebraic Law, but it had some influence, and it would be useful to examine the extent of this influence.

We must be careful not to use the power and force of government to compel people to follow one idea.

This discussion concludes in Part 3

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better", S. Aranoff, BookSurge Publishing (2007). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. The 1886 Supreme Court decision granting corporations the same rights as living persons under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The defendant Corporations are persons within the intent of the clause in section 1 of the Fourteen Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. See:

Written: 2008-DEC-27
Originally posted: 2009-MAR-01
Latest update: 2017-OCT-18
Author: Dr. Sanford Aranoff, Adjunct Associate Professor of Mathematics and Science, Rider University, Lawrenceville, NJ 08648

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