Sunday, January 30, 2005

Elect Rick.

Congratulations Iraq! Welcome to the wide world of voting! Now you, too, can be perpetually disappointed in your candidates!

Regardless of what you think of Bush, Republicans, the military, etc., (and I'm certainly not a fan of the first two) Iraqi elections are a good thing, and for at least a day or two people need to express some appreciation for the fact that a tyranny has been replaced by a democracy. Well done, all around. For an insider's thoughts and experiences, check out Dykhoff's blog (link on the sidebar).

Music Review: Hot Fuss

Just as I was behind on seeing Sideways, so too am I behind on listening to The Killers' initial album, Hot Fuss. After hearing a couple of their songs I decided to go listen to the album, and after listening to the album I've decided to share my thoughts - this is my first non-movie review, so bear with me.

Hot Fuss is a strong initial offering by the Las Vegas band, a synth-rock album with a strong mix of pop. Other reviews that I've seen have been mixed (and a scathing one here: http://pitchforkmedia.com), but I feel the strong pop helps what would otherwise be too obscure become a more accessible sound. The first single, which I'm sure most have heard by now, "Somebody Told Me" is in many ways typical of the album, though a bit on the loud and aggressive side. Several of the other tracks are more subtle while equally enjoyable. The Killers do better with their quicker songs, which seem to find a few more hooks (am I using this word correctly? I mean something to the effect of "really good riffs").

One of the concerns that many of the other reviewers seemed to have was that this was an unoriginal album, stealing from the 80's and several other bands from the genre. I do not share those concerns because, although there are certainly familiar moves, this helps with the accessibility. At the same time, lyrics about jealousy and murder help push a dark undercurrent that the pop world rarely experiences. The songs "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine" and "Andy, You're a Star" have a melodramatic tone that I expect is under-appreciated. I'm not sure how I'd feel about this album if I were more familiar with the independent rock scenes, but as an outsider (who is becoming ever more interested in the scene) this album provides a wonderful introduction. It's familiar, lightly innovative, but not edgy. Perhaps we should demand more out of our music, but when you can be comfortable with a new sound it needs to be appreciated for that accomplishment. I'd recommend you check it out. If not for a few of the slow tracks I'd bump this grade up. B+

Movie Review: Sideways

Sideways does for 40-year-olds what Garden State did for 20-somethings. Its a light-hearted drama centered on the emptiness and confusion of a person searching for their place in life. Of the two movies, I preferred Garden State, but I can understand why Sideways resonates so deeply with many of the people who see it. The main character, Miles, played by Paul Giamatti (one of my favorite actors), is a wine-loving teacher, hoping to get his novel published, and struggling with where his life has taken him. He always aspired to be more than he is, and clearly his divorce two years earlier is still taking a toll. It is at this level that Sideways failed to reach me - I am not divorced, mired in the middle of my life, faced with the realization that things did not go as I had planned or hoped. Instead, much like the character in Garden State, I am young, and find myself brimming with potential. A film which takes on personal exploration relies on it's ability to relate the main character to the audience. Sideways does this well for one generation, Garden State for another.

However, this is not to say that I didn't enjoy Sideways. In fact I enjoyed it immensely, and found myself laughing tremendously at the highest points. There were moments of simple brilliance, and for those alone the movie is worth seeing. The low points too, are essential to the movie, and are also executed in such a way that the audience experiences the character's lack of place. In some of the best moments of the movie the tragic and the comic are tied together in a way that is purely artistic.

The movie focuses on a week-long wine tasting trip, shared between a groom and his best man, before the wedding. Wine serves as an open metaphor to almost every other subject of the movie, and the translations between metaphor and subject are often quite clean. I know nothing about wine, but I felt comfortable with the approach: it seemed good to me.

This movie is marked by excellent acting, with Giamatti, Thomas Hayden Church, and Virginia Madsen all playing their roles brilliantly. The pacing of the movie, set to create the feeling that one has lost their place, must have made their roles that much more difficult. But the characters fit neatly into place and the movie seems to come off exactly as it was intended. The timing is right, the characters are kept from over-ripening, and the subtle blend of comedy and tragedy make this an excellent film. Now if only I knew something about wine, I could really review this movie. I give it an A.

Friday, January 28, 2005

"Save me!" says Zelda

I've figured out how to link. My blog template didn't give the option, so I had to go into the script and work it out. After a little experimentation I was able to figure it out (it took about 5 minutes). And since I haven't worked with html since 9th grade, and had forgotten anything I ever learned about it, I'm pretty proud of myself. I always tell people I could have done computer science stuff, but now I can really mean it! Anyways, eventually I'll get everyone's links up, just not right now. Right now I need to eat and then go see Sideways.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

A Treatise on the Beginning of Life (This one's for you Justin)

Happy Roe v. Wade day! Ok, I know I missed it by a few days (the 31st anniversary of the decision, (which, regardless of your views on the topic, is analytically one of the worst in American history) was on Monday - January 24th)(which, coincidentally, has been determined by a group of learned people (scientists and psychologists and sociologists and such) to be the most depressing day of the year). But I haven't been able to get to my blog recently, and so now that I'm here I'm gonna take the opportunity to wish everyone a happy holiday. Happy Roe v. Wade day!

Of course, I don't really like abortion. I'm soundly pro-life. So why do I say happy? Truth be told, I'm not really sure. But every year, when Roe v. Wade day rolls around, I feel a certain amount of pleasure, a distinct happiness. I guess if I had to push the issue I'd say that the feeling is directly related to a hopeful confidence. I firmly believe that someday pro-life will be the only way people are. That they won't even question the issue.

I know, this seems to be a blind hopefulness, that doesn't look at the world around, that somehow overlooks the deep divisions in the country and the impractical nature of such a vast change. But this hopefulness isn't an issue of practicality, of when and where and how laws will be rewritten. It isn't founded on the idea that we can build bridges between the polarized factions. I'm not even concerned with igneous process, time and pressure slowly changing dissent into support.

My hope, my confidence, is purely philosophical. For anyone who approaches the question with an honest rationalism there is only one conclusion: Life begins at conception.

"When does life begin?" is, of course, the essential question in the abortion debate (The companion question "What is it that constitutes a life?" in many ways serves the same purpose in this debate; in order to reject that life begins at conception it must be shown that a fetus lacks some critical definitional aspect of "life." It is precisely my contention that this cannot be accomplished.). To answer the question, let us examine serious contenders (I should note that Peter Singer (the noted animal rights philosopher) has done a similar analysis, though he uses it for a different ends. I vaguely remember reading it around 7th grade and I couldn't tell you much about the execution, though I remember that I approved of the approach.). There are only three potential answers which might find reasonable support: conception, viability, and birth.

Let us start with birth. The argument that life begins at birth is simple: the fetus has become independent from the mother, and is now a completely separate person. Those who argue this point would claim that there is some individual element in the constitution of life, and that only at birth is that element satisfied. This argument falls short for several reasons. First among them is that using birth seems to impose an arbitrary line. One minute, while inside the mother, the fetus is not a life, the next, while outside the mother, the fetus suddenly meets the definitional requirements of life. In many ways this is tantamount to saying that anyone inside a certain boundary - let's say, oh, Iowa - is not alive, while everyone outside that boundary is alive. There is nothing about the nature of the people inside Iowa that distinguishes them from those outside of the state. Similarly there is nothing about the nature of a fetus inside a womb that distinguishes it from a fetus outside of the womb. The boundary is more natural, but the nature of thing which is being defined is no different. Perhaps it would be objected that while inside a womb a fetus is hooked directly to the mother and so it is only when the umbilical cord is severed that life begins. The problem with this objection is that it fails to recognize that the fetus is capable of independence, even while still connected to the mother. The natural response is that it is not enough for something to be capable of independence - that the definition of life requires that the fetus must at some point actually be independent. This, of course, would mean that any dependence defeats the definition, and thus no one actually becomes a life until they carve, completely unaided, from existence their own sustenance. If this is the case, there are very few of us who are truly alive. More importantly, however, is the way in which this fails as a definitional argument. If we look at a parallel we can see why requiring actual independence is a fruitless requirement. If we consider the definition of "human" we see that certain characteristics are required. Aristotle famously listed "rationality" as a distinctly human trait. Thus, to be a "human" there must be an element of "rationality" present. If we use the logic of the birth argument that something must actually be independent we would require that before something can be a human it must first actually exercise rationality. The capacity for rationality is not enough to make a being human. Thus, until an infant becomes a child who reasons, it is some other species than it's parents, than the rest of humanity. This seems clearly absurd. If independence is to be considered part of the definition of life (which I do not dispute) it must be enough for the fetus to be capable of independence to satisfy the definitional aspect. As this capability is required much earlier, birth cannot be the starting point for a life; life must start at some earlier time.

The weakness of the "birth" argument becomes the appeal of the "viability" argument. Viability is simply the point at which the fetus is capable of independence, that is, it could survive without the mother. This point is generally deemed to be around the end of the first trimester (or is it second? I forget...), and is a focal point of the law as it currently stands (pre-viability, abortion is legal). I am convinced that the popularity of viability as a starting point is largely attributable to the way the law is currently structured. In other words, from the law people draw the idea that viability is the legal starting point of life. However, what the Court has actually said is "we don't know if it is a life before viability, but after viability we are more confident that the fetus is a life." In essence the court hasn't given a legal starting point for life, but has only drawn a line after which it considers a fetus to be a life. This is exactly like drawing a line for "adult" at 18 - people may reach adult maturity before that, but legally we're not going to investigate, we're just going to draw the line and call it a day. This is exactly what the court has done at viability, and nothing in the legal reasoning precludes the idea that life begins at conception.

But I regress... Viability is the strongest counter-point to saying that life begins at conception. Viability builds on the idea that "life" must contain an element of independence. At viability a fetus is capable of surviving without the mother and is therefore deemed to be capable of "independence." But what does "independence" mean? It certainly does not mean that the fetus can survive completely on it's own, for again this would force the definition of life to a point at which an individual is capable of sustaining itself free from the assistance of others, and we would be left with the same problems discussed above (notice that if this is what is meant by independence the only difference between birth and viability is that the birth definition requires the individual actually survive on their own, while the viability definition requires only that the individual be capable of surviving on their own).

So we need another definition of "independence" in order for viability to have any real meaning. (Notice that we are sticking to the question of independence because our focus is on the beginning - that is, something starts being a life the moment it possesses all of the qualities of life independent or separate from something else which possesses those qualities (i.e. the mother)). What could independence possibly mean then? We have already eliminated complete self-sustenance, so the answer must be "capable of surviving outside of the womb." To say that life begins at viability means that life begins when the fetus is capable of living outside of the mother.

This seems to be a logical place to find independence - the fetus can survive without the mother, and so is clearly an independent being. Notice, like with the legal definition, that the conclusion that a fetus is a life at viability does not preclude it's being life before that. All that we have proved with this definition is that a fetus is certainly a life at viability. The question we must ask is whether there is anything which identifies the point at which a fetus is "viable." What distinguishes a viable fetus from a non-viable fetus? The answer, of course, is the definition of viable - able to survive outside of the womb. But what does this mean? It means we need to look to the empirical evidence, to ask what point an infant can survive outside of the womb.

I must confess, the question is a bit of a tease, because the answer is not important to our discussion here. What is important about the question is the fact that the answer is impermanent. It has changed as technology has progressed. Babies have survived at unbelievably premature birth ages and weights. As early as 1977 there was success with in vitro fertilization - a developing fetus lived for a time (days I believe, though possibly only hours) outside of the womb before it was even placed inside of it. Potentially there will be complete in vitro children someday, fetuses that survive outside of the womb in their entirety. If technology ever reaches that point the concept of viability will lose all meaning; all fetuses will be capable of surviving outside of the womb as early as conception. Once technology progresses far enough there will be no meaningful distinction between viability and conception.

Technological progress, of course, is uncertain, and though this development seems like only an eventuality, I am not satisfied to rest my argument on uncertain grounds. There is a much clearer reason why viability cannot be the starting point of life: viability is not universal.

It is the nature of definitions that they are universal. What is defined as a square in the US is defined as a square in England, is defined as a square in Somalia (setting aside translation issues). 4 sides of equal length, 4 right angles, 2-dimensional, etc. If the definition were different in Somalia - there were only 3 sides, still 2-dimensional and a total angle value of 180 degrees (a triangle obviously) - we would think something were amiss. It doesn't make sense to accept that a square can be one thing in the US and something different in Somalia. Even if there are some similarities between the two definitions we cannot accept that they are the same thing. Definitions must be universal.

This is precisely why viability falters when held as the starting point for life. If we include independence in the definition of a life (a fetus is a life when it has properties x, y, z, and independence), and in turn define independence by reference to viability, (a fetus is a life when it has properties x, y, z, and is capable of surviving outside the womb) then, because whether something can survive outside the womb is an empirical question, it follows that we are defining "life" by reference to an empirical condition. And here's the rub for viability as a definition: empirical conditions differ - from time to time and from place to place. The point of viability is different between the US and a third world country. When a fetus is capable of surviving outside of the womb is different now than it was in 1900. Because these empirical references are being used in a definition of life, we are left with a definitional impossibility.

To say that life begins at viability is to say that life is defined as having the property of being able to survive outside the womb. The property of being able to survive outside the womb differs from place to place and time to time. In the US our current definition may say that life exists at 24 weeks. In 1900 it may have been 30. In Somalia it might be 37 (Just for reference, 37 weeks and before are considered premature).

Parallel to the definition of a square, this kind of variation is unacceptable. "Life" cannot be different between times and places. A baby at 27 weeks in the US possess life but the same infant in Somalia does not? This is clearly absurd, for it pushes all meaning out of the concept of "life," which, by it's nature, must be something without reference to empirical properties. To say that life begins at viability is to commit a logical fallacy, a definitional error. Life must begin at some other point. And, recalling that we have already established that a fetus must be alive at viability, we know that life must begin prior to viability. The only option, of course, is conception.

Given that we started with three options, and eliminated two, we could, as Sherlock Holmes would surely do, conclude that conception is our answer. However, I think more can be said to strengthen the case for conception, and so we will consider it in more depth. To say that life begins at conception is to say that the moment an egg is fertilized a new being, with all the features of a life, has come into existence. Any challenge to this claim must be based on the claim that a newly-fertilized egg does not possess all the qualities of a life. But what qualities could it possibly lack? It can grow, develop, it has a unique genetic structure, etc. (I would further contend that at conception the fetus possesses a soul, but that view is merely supplementary to this argument, and so will be set aside). The only quality of "life" which it seems a newly-fertilized egg might not possess is the same property which our earlier discussion focused on: independence.

How can it be that a newly-fertilized egg is independent? It cannot survive outside of the womb, it is physically attached and dependent on the mother, it has no distinguishable form. These would seem to be hallmarks of independence, but our fetus has none of them. There is no physical reason to conceive of this cell-clump as alive. And in fact, I'm willing to grant that there is no physical reason to presume a life in a newly-fertilized egg (although I will grant it, I am unwilling to say that it is true - I have not investigated this question of physical evidence of life, and have no basis for developing an opinion).

The reason I am willing to grant that there is no physical evidence of life is because there is evidence on a different plane of existence. There is metaphysical evidence that life begins at conception. For anyone with a philosophical background this idea is relatively simple: there is independence of being in the new fetus and this clearly satisfies the requirements laid out in the definition of "life."

For those with no philosophical background I will try to explain a little more clearly. Everything which exists has it's own independent being. A person, a building, a pencil. Even perfectly identical things - two completely identical pencils - are different things. If there are two identical pencils on a desk and you are asked how many things are in the room you will answer three - the desk and two pencils. Each of these has its own "thingness." That "thingness" is, long story short, the object's being. Each of them is a separate being from the other things, and that being stays with the object. Even if we switch the pencils' position so that they sit in exactly the place that the other pencil just sat in they possess the same being that they did before. Each pencil is still the same pencil that it had been previously. Now say we were to grind up the two pencils and make one super pencil. Say that we did so in such a way that each of the previous pencils was completely destroyed and someone walking into the room would now say that only two things were in the room. The being of those pencils, their independent existence, has been destroyed, and they no longer exist. What does exist, however, is a new thing. A giant pencil which has it's own being. This new thing is more than the total of the "thingness" of those previous two pencils. The giant pencil has an independent thingness, it's being is separate from the being of those previous two pencils. (To prove this point simply conceive of the pencils being ground up and turned into a pile of sawdust instead of formed into another pencil - the pile of sawdust is a different thing than the giant pencil, therefore there must be something in the giant pencil's being which is independent).

The same idea applies when an egg and a sperm conjoin. A new thing comes into being, something that is more than the total of the egg and sperm. This fertilized egg has it's own being, and therefore is independent. And, to keep it simple, that's all we need to identify it as a life. It has all the other properties (distinguishing it from a giant pencil, which cannot, say, grow, as a "life" can), and now we find that it truly has independence of being. Philosophically, life begins at conception.

Perhaps this is not enough for some. Surely, even after reading these arguments there are people who will maintain that life does not begin at conception. Perhaps they will point to some other reason which I haven't addressed, perhaps they'll take issue with a particular argument. Perhaps they can point to an element of "life" which a newly-fertilized egg doesn't appear to possess. If that is the case, we will have to begin our investigation anew. But I cannot conceive of such an element, and independence certainly isn't the property which is lacking (if indeed one is). To be sure though, I do not expect this treatise to satisfy everyone now. But to be sure, someday people will come to this table, and they'll take on this analysis, and they'll come to the only possible conclusion.

And so I conclude with a smile and a hopeful confidence. My recommendation is a strange one for someone who has just undertaken the treatise you have read: I recommend that we relax. That we take joy knowing the soundness of the philosophy. This is not say that we otherwise abandon the cause, but rather that as we go about it we take the time to say happy Roe v. Wade day, full in the confidence that someday when people ask the question they will answer with the one true conclusion: life begins at conception.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

I sure hope my kids are more respectful.

First the good news: People apparently want me to continue blogging.
The bad news? I'm going to indulge them.

Seriously though, it's been a long, long time since I've written anything here. And that kind of makes me sad, because there's a bunch of stuff I've wanted to put up. Unfortunately, I don't really have the time right now. After the next two weeks pass I should be able to find some real time for writing, but until then I'm just gonna keep it quick and simple. I do have one little reflection, spurred by the just-passed holiday season, to share right now:

Remember when you were little? And you gave "coupons" as gifts? You'd have to fill in the yellow slip of paper with a chore and so they'd say little things like, "One free: Dishes for a week with no complaining." or "Redeem to have the living room vacuumed." Yeah. For anyone hanging onto those, I'm afraid they expired a long time ago. I know the expiration date isn't printed on them, but how awful would that be? Say its 35 years down the road, and I'm governor or something when I hear a knock, knock, knock on the door.

"Hmm, who could that be? Oh, hi Mom! I'm in the middle of a budget meeting right now could I get bac- what's that in your hand? A chore coupon? Are you serious? Here? Now? In front of the Speaker of the House? Well... Fine. Yeah, sure, I guess I can oblige. It was a Christmas gift after all. What's the card say I need to do? Change a diaper? But... you don't have any kids in diapers anymore, only Da-Ooooooooohhh."