Saturday, January 16, 2016

Diplomats are Our Solders for Peace

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Diplomats are our solders for peace. They should be treated like the great patriots and heroes that they are. For too long they have been put on the shelf or forgotten. President Obama set them to work again for America, for all of us.

Today Iran released the American journalists and others that it held hostage in Iran for months. And now the NY Times says Iran has dismantled major parts of its nuclear program, paving the way for sanctions to be lifted. The UN Nuclear Agency is reporting that Iran has met all of its commitments in the Landmark nuclear deal with six world powers. This appears to be a major triumph of American diplomacy and for world deplomacy. Let's celebrate and see who cares to joins in the celebration!!!

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Sowell on What Makes Poor Folks Poor - Liberal Racism and Inferior Culture


Thirdly, when distinguishing this amalgam of race based culture from "racism" he by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Thomas Sowell is a conservative "scholar" at the Hoover Institute and author of a new book, Intellectuals and Race. I haven't read his book yet, but I did watch Sowell's interview with Peter Robinson of the Wall Street Journal. I found Thomas Sowell's interview disturbing in that it seems to boil down to an old conservative argument that the poor have no one to blame but themselves and the liberals who made them helpless. You can watch his WSJ interview on You Tube.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6ImP-gJvas

Several points stand out in Sowell's arguments on the negative impact that " liberal/progressive" intellectuals have had on our attitudes towards race vs. racism. First, he conflates liberalism with progressivism. These are two separate dynamics in their scholarly meaning. The opposite of progressive is conservative, but the opposite of liberal, in its classical meaning, is totalitarian. Within the actual social context of these two dynamics it is entirely possible to hold both liberal and conservative policy positions or progressive and totalitarian positions. For example, it would not have seemed inconsistent during the Progressive Era, in the early twentieth-century, to be for union rights but opposed to woman's suffrage, Progressives then were not as liberal as most progressives are today. By treating these terms interchangeably, in their current colloquial sense, he maligns the liberal movement that seeks to empower today's poor or marginalized people and make America more inclusive. 

Secondly, he seems to conflate race with culture. These are also separate elements of sociology. The former is a largely subjective classification system based on superficial physical attributes associated with continent of origin. The latter is a complex set of rituals, customs, values, norms and shared history by loosely associated clans or social groups. There are as many different cultures within each race as there are among the races, even just within North America. Generalizations based on race as a culture are inherently flawed.

Thirdly, when distinguishing this amalgam of race based culture from "racism" he incorrectly identifies racism as primarily perceptual in nature. His concept of racism doesn't incorporate the many physical racist acts that socially marginalized people endure every day. These foundational fallacies allow Sowell to make his larger points, the same ones often raised by other conservative thinkers. The first is that there are, and have always been, better and more adaptable cultures in the world. This is an accurate statement but he leaves it there, as if it were an immutable law. He offers no hint as to why this is so. He fails to mention our human capacity to alter social institutions in ways that improve the outcomes of individuals from variant cultures.

These foundational fallacies allow Sowell to make his larger points, the same ones often raised by other conservative thinkers. The first is that there are, and have always been, better and more adaptable cultures in the world. This is an accurate statement but he leaves it there, as if it were an immutable law. He offers no hint as to why this is so. He fails to mention our human capacity to alter social institutions in ways that improve the outcomes of individuals from variant cultures.

The other major point he raises is that marginalized people allow themselves to be defined by the racist perceptions against them by others. The "others", he argues in his example, are liberal intellectuals, especially during the "progressive era", who blamed the economic plight of African-Americans (among other groups) on broad social factors and government policies, rather than on the their mal-adaptive culture. This shift in the causal roots of their less successful living standards, according to Sowell, absolves the marginalized from responsibility for their own self-improvement and causes them to see themselves as helpless victims of a society organized against them.

The explicit argument here is that every person has within themselves the power to rise above all obstacles and prejudices set against them. It is the familiar argument of taking personal responsibility as the only condition for economic or personal success. The proof offered (as is so often the case) is the personal experiences of the writer and anecdotal examples of other success stories. The obvious logical fallacy is that these exceptions prove that everyone else can do what these few have done. Unfavorable social conditions are only controlling factors if individuals allow it to be so. The failing is theirs. It is their own fault. It is a weakness in their character or collective culture.

The empirical truth is that for the vast majority of those who are subjected to social or institutional discrimination, their chances for success in life are seriously harmed. All the physical racist acts they suffer cause immeasurable personal damage and have an accumulating effect on them as individuals. That there are rare exceptions who become successful doesn't prove that the majority of marginalized people are flawed individuals. In fact, it proves the opposite, that the infrequency of exceptions is a measure of the extent of the damage discrimination causes.

If equal opportunity can't produce equal personal outcomes under the best of circumstances, as most would agree, then why would unequal opportunity offer the same chances of success? And if policy can benefit one group of individuals (as is certainly true), why is it an individual's personal failing when policy choices disadvanges then. It makes no sense.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Poisoning the Postal Service


by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Article 1, Sec.8, Clause 7: [The federal government] is to provide for naturalization, standards of weights and measures, post offices and roads, and patents.

Citizen access to personal or business communications, and an adequate means to distribute goods and communications from anyone to everyone were central concerns of the founding fathers. They understood that healthy commerce and a free and healthy democracy require every citizen to have access to these vital services. It was an article of faith that the states would mostly provide these services for their own citizens, but it may have been less clear whether competition between states would restrict communications or transportation between states. This outcome would weaken us as a nation, and threaten democracy in our Republic. So the founders made it explicit in our Constitution that the federal government would provide for post offices and roads.

If you need a reminder of just how the US Postal Service makes America great, read the great Op Ed piece in today's New York Times written by a Turkish immigrant. Zeynep Tufekci wrote:

"I WAS transported recently to a place that is as enchanting to me as any winter wonderland: my local post office.
In line, I thought fondly of the year I came to this country from Turkey as an adult and discovered the magic of reliable mail service. Dependable infrastructure is magical not simply because it works, but also because it allows innovation to thrive, including much of the Internet-based economy that has grown in the past decade. "

Today, the great national infrastructure we call the US Postal Service, which delivers mail to every citizen, without regard to what it cost to deliver mail to citizens living in remote regions, is under attack by commercial interest lobbyists. Capitalists don't want the US Postal Service competing with UPS or FedEx or Amazon's delivery services. Government competition, they argue, reduces potential corporate profits.

Wealthy corporate owners are intent on killing off the US Postal Service. Their methods are to funnel campaign cash to federal elected officials and encourage them to pass laws and regulations designed to impede the Postal Service operations. The US Postal service costs taxpayers zero dollars in taxes, yet the once financially viable Postal Service is made to pre-fund their retirement system. This is unprecedented in business. It causes the post office to operate in the red so politicians can point to it as a model of government inefficiency.

Politicians also appoint cronies into upper management positions to advocate draconian cuts and adopt policies that undermine employee morale and weaken customer services. In many parts of the country you can no longer call your local post office and speak directly with the post master if you have a question. When I call my local post office phone number the call is redirected to a national call center that tends to screw up the processing of even simple complaints. Still the postal system survives and most of us don't want to see it go away.

What would mail delivery look like if the Postal Service closed? We don't have to guess because we have many examples to learn from. The principle obligation of private corporations is to their shareholders. More specifically, it is to maximize profits. Whatever business model or corporate mission statement, shareholder profits come first in law and practice.

The impact of competition between corporations to maximize profits naturally causes them to focus more on profitable segments of their business and spend less time and resources on unprofitable segments of their business. In the package delivery business, as is true with Amtrak in the transportation business, there is a competitive advantage to reconfigure routes in ways the optimize profits. Some routes in less profitable areas become under-served while others are more than amply served. Eventually corporate executives come to see beyond competing interests to areas where mutual interests would be better served if service to certain segments could be dropped altogether, The government would then steps in to insist that service must be maintained for people living in unprofitable segments of the "market." Private corporations then complain that government is on their backs and insist that if the government wants those citizens to have the service, government must subsidize their corporation to make up for the unprofitable routes they are forced to maintain.

So in effect, if applied to the US Postal Service, we would go from a nationwide, person to person delivery system that costs the US taxpayers nothing, to a private corporation system that would require taxpayer assistance in order to maintain the most unprofitable routes. And once the corporations start engaging in high level collusion, the cost of postal services would creep up and up.

Capitalism does best when distributing benefits based on merit, provided the rules of the market are structured to encourage honest competition. This capitalist model does not work well when distribution of benefits is based vital human needs or open, universal access. This seems to be a natural law. We need to resist the capitalists call for privatization of essential government services and recognize the US Postal Service in particular as the national treasure it really is. 

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Great Abortion Divide - Part III

The Theory and Evolution of The Soul

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

PREFACE: This is the final part of a series of short essays called The Great Abortion Divide. It is less of an original essay than an organized compilation of my notes on the evolving history of the human soul. Its purpose is to give an overview how concepts of the human soul originated and developed over time. It is not my purpose or intent to minimize or refute anyone's belief in the human soul, but only to point out that a rigid adherence to a specific doctrine regarding the human soul cannot be fully justified. My notes are taken from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and other sources, as noted.

During the time period of writing The Great Abortion Divide there have been a number of attacks on Planned Parenthood facilities nation-wide, including a mass shooting on November 27, 2015, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. A police officer and two civilians were killed. Five police officers and four civilians were injured. The attacker, Robert Lewis Dear, Jr., surrendered and was charged with first-degree murder. In his December 9th court appearance, Dear repeatedly expressed anti-abortion and anti-Planned Parenthood views, calling himself "a warrior for the babies."

It may be that Mr. Dear is mentally ill, we shall see. Even so, his belief that every fetus, at any stage of development, is "a baby" reflects a religious doctrine shared by many. Biologically speaking, a single cell or even a fertilized egg is clearly not a baby with complex, fully functioning organs and a conscious, intelligent brain. Gestation is a biological process where cells develop to become" a baby". You can argue, as I have in the past, that even an early stage fetus is treated by a woman's body as a foreign object, but it is clearly not a baby. At what point that transition happens is open for debate. It is, in fact, at the core of the abortion debate.

From a legal perspective, personhood and certain (not all) human rights have been conferred at the time of birth. Even after a child is born, there are limits on the constitutional rights they have until they become legal adults. In limited cases, and under special circumstances, the courts have granted status to unborn fetus' prior to birth. This was done, in one case I know, to protect the life of a child at birth from a schizophrenic mother who threatening to drown her baby at birth. The concept of assigning personhood to a zygote (a fertilizes human reproductive cell) and characterizing it as a human being is a more recent theological development. The principal argument for extending personhood to a fertilized egg (or even unfertilized eggs as some see it) is that it contains a human soul. (See Part II)

In most of our childhood religious training the existence of the soul is assumed. It is a self-evident fact and It receives no other explanation. We all have a soul. In Christian theology our soul contains or supplies our essential self and it collects the history of sins and good deeds while we are on earth. Human beings are "ensouled" by the time of our birth and leaves us (or our bodies) at the instant of our death. It continues its existence after death and (at some point) our souls are judged by God as worthy or unworthy of entering eternal paradise. If our souls are found to be unworthy they is cast into hell and eternal damnation. It is an essential tenant of Christian theology that our souls are not born pure. They are born with original sin that must be restored before we die. This is at the root of salvation theology. This concept of being "ensouled" with an imperfect soul speaks to one philosophic concept about how the soul originates. It suggests that souls, like people themselves, are somehow begotten from the souls of Adam and Eve who committed the first sin. There are other philosophic positions on the origin of the human soul.

These matters about the nature and origin of the human soul are not scriptural. The Torah, Bible and Koran offer no solid clues or specific instructions. It is therefore useful to a discussion about the morality of abortions to consider the philosophic theories of soul and how they evolved over time. Only then may we see the inherent uncertainty underlying the premise that a fetus is fully human in a spiritual sense. The categories that follow are my addition to the notes, but the content is not my own. This discussion below starts in ancient Greece, but the concept of soul goes back much earlier in time. The reason I start in Greece is because it was the Greeks who first introduced the concept of soul to the Hebrews in the Middle-East, according to many Greek and theological scholars.


GREEK theory of soul


Notes taken directly from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ancient-soul/

Life Force: The soul is, on the one hand, something that a human being risks in battle and loses in death. On the other hand, it is what at the time of death departs from the person's limbs and travels to the underworld, where it has a more or less pitiful afterlife as a shade or image of the deceased person. It has been suggested (for instance, by Snell 1975, 19) that what is referred to as soul in either case is in fact thought of as one and the same thing, something that a person can risk and lose and that, after death, endures as a shade in the underworld. The suggestion is plausible, but cannot be verified. In any case, once a person's soul has departed for good, the person is dead. The presence of soul therefore distinguishes a living human body from a corpse. However, this is plainly not to say that the soul is thought of as what accounts for, or is responsible for, the activities, responses, operations and the like that constitute a person's life. Homer never says that anyone does anything in virtue of, or with, their soul, nor does he attribute any activity to the soul of a living person. Thus, though the presence or absence of soul marks out a person's life, it is not otherwise associated with that life.

Human Life Force
: ... whatever precise way the soul is conceived of as associated with life, it is in any case thought to be connected not with life in general, or life in all its forms, but rather, more specifically, with the life of a human being.

General Life Force: In ordinary fifth century Greek, having soul is simply being alive; hence the emergence, at about this time, of the adjective ‘ensouled’ [empsuchos] as the standard word meaning “alive”, which was applied not just to human beings, but to other living things as well.

The semantic expansion of ‘soul’ in the sixth and fifth centuries is reflected in the philosophical writings of the period. For instance, once it becomes natural to speak of soul as what distinguishes the animate from the inanimate, rather than as something that is restricted to humans, it becomes clear that the domain of ensouled things is not limited to animals, but includes plants as well.

Thales of Miletus, who is credited with successfully predicting a solar eclipse occurring in 585, reportedly attributed soul to magnets, on the grounds that magnets are capable of moving iron (Aristotle, De Anima 1.2, 405a19-21). Thales' thought was presumably that since it is distinctive of living things to be able to initiate movement, magnets must in fact be alive or, in other words, ensouled. Thus, while Homer spoke of soul only in the case of human beings, in sixth and fifth century usage soul is attributed to every kind of living thing. What is in place, then, at this time is the notion that soul is what distinguishes that which is alive from that which is not.

Socrates explicitly appeals to the idea that it is the soul that animates the body of a living thing

Motivational Force: It is also the case that an increasingly broad range of ways of acting and being acted on is attributed to the soul. Thus it has come to be natural, by the end of the fifth century, to refer pleasure taken in food and drink, as well as sexual desire, to the soul. People are said, for example, to satisfy their souls with rich food (Euripides, Ion 1170), and the souls of gods and men are claimed to be subject to sexual desire. In contexts of intense emotion or crisis, feelings like love and hate, joy and grief, anger and shame are [became] associated with the soul.

Soul as Conveyer of Attributes:
In the Hippocratic text Airs, Waters, Places, the soul is thought of as the place of courage or, as the case may be, its opposite.

The connection between the soul and characteristics like boldness and courage in battle is plainly an aspect of the noteworthy fifth century development whereby the soul comes to be thought of as the source or bearer of moral qualities such as, for instance, temperance and justice.

Soul as a Source of Conscience: To educated fifth century speakers of Greek, it would have been natural to think of qualities of soul as accounting for, and being manifested in, a person's morally significant behavior. Pericles acts courageously, and Hippolytus temperately (or chastely), because of the qualities of their souls from which such actions have a strong tendency to flow, and their actions express and make evident the courage, temperance and the like that characterize their souls. Once we are in a position properly to appreciate the connection between soul and moral character that must already have been felt to be natural at this stage, it should come as no surprise that the soul is also taken to be something that engages in activities like thinking and planning. If the soul is, in some sense, responsible for courageous acts, for instance, it is only to be expected that the soul also grasps what, in the circumstances, courage calls for, and how, at some suitable level of detail, the courageous act must be performed.

Thus in non-philosophical Greek of the fifth century the soul is treated as the bearer of moral qualities, and also as responsible for practical thought and cognition.

[The soul].. as Plato conceives of it in the Phaedo, is crucially characterized by cognitive and intellectual features

Body/Soul Distinction: As a result of these developments [the semantic expansion of the word "soul"], the language made available something that [earlier] Homeric Greek lacked, a distinction between body and soul. Antiphon says of a defendant who is sure of his innocence that though his body may surrender, his soul saves him by its willingness to struggle, through knowledge of its innocence. For the guilty, on the other hand, even a strong body is to no avail, since his soul fails him, “believing the vengeance coming to him is for his impieties”

Plato [later] furnishes the conceptual framework needed for saying that body and soul differ in kind, the one being perceptible and perishable, the other being intelligible and exempt from destruction. What he does, in fact, conclude is that the soul is most like, and most akin to, intelligible being, and that the body is most like perceptible and perishable being.

Immortality of Soul: It is probably true that in mainstream fifth century Greek culture, belief in an afterlife of the soul was weak and unclear

.. Socrates' arguments for the immortality of the soul, most prominently in the Phaedo, are offered to interlocutors who, at the outset of the discussion, are by no means convinced of the idea. “Men find it very hard to believe”, Cebes says at Phaedo 70a, “what you said about the soul. They think that after it has left the body it no longer exists anywhere, but that it is destroyed and dissolved on the day the man dies.” This view .. includes the idea that the soul is a material thing, and is destroyed by being dispersed, “like breath or smoke” (70a). Glaucon, in the last book of the Republic (608d), is taken aback by Socrates' question,

“Haven't you realized that our soul is immortal and never destroyed?”

He looked at me with wonder and said: “No, by god, I haven't. Are you really in a position to assert that?”

Qualities of an Immortal Soul: Moreover, apart from the question of immortality or otherwise, there is the further question whether the soul, if it does have some form of existence after the person has died, “still possesses some power and wisdom”. Answering both questions, Socrates says not only that the soul is immortal, but also that it contemplates truths after its separation from the body at the time of death.

[Again,] ... the soul is most like, and most akin to, intelligible being

Socrates attributes a large variety of mental states (etc.) not to the soul, but to the (animate) body, such as, for instance, beliefs and pleasures (83d), and desires and fears (94d). At the same time, the soul is not narrowly intellectual: it too has desires (81d), even passionate ones (such as the non-philosophical soul's love [erôs] of the corporeal, 80b), and pleasures as well, such as the pleasures of learning (114e). Moreover, the soul's functions are, as we have seen already, not restricted to grasping and appreciating truth, but prominently include regulating and controlling the body and its affections

Where Immortal Souls Reside: The argument that sheds most light on what Plato takes the nature of the soul to be is the affinity argument (78b-80b). This argument confronts head-on the widespread worry that the soul, at or soon after death, is destroyed by being dispersed. It begins by distinguishing between two kinds of things: on the one hand, things that are perceptible, composed of parts, and subject to dissolution and destruction; on the other hand, things that are not perceptible, but intelligible (grasped by thought), not composed of parts, and exempt from dissolution and destruction. These two categories are obviously mutually exclusive.


JEWISH theory of soul

Notes taken directly from The Jewish Encyclopedia http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12340-preexistence-of-the-soul


Life Force:  There are no direct references in the Bible to the origin of the soul, its nature, and its relation to the body

The Mosaic account of the creation of man speaks of a spirit or breath with which he was endowed by his Creator (Gen. ii. 7); but this spirit was conceived of as inseparably connected, if not wholly identified, with the life-blood (ib. ix. 4; Lev. xvii. 11).

[T]he Alexandrian Jewish school, especially of Philo Judæus,.. sought [in an] allegorical interpretation of Biblical texts the confirmation of his [God's? Plato's? not clear from the text] psychological system.

Body/Soul Distinction: Only through the contact of the Jews with Persian and Greek thought did the idea of a disembodied soul, having its own individuality, take root in Judaism and find its expression in the later Biblical books, as, for instance, in the following passages: "The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord" (Prov. xx. 27); "There is a spirit in man" (Job xxxii. 8); "The spirit shall return unto God who gave it" (Eccl. xii. 7). The soul is called in Biblical literature "ruaḥ," "nefesh," and "neshamah." The first of these terms denotes the spirit in its primitive state; the second, in its association with the body; the third, in its activity while in the body.

In the three terms "ruaḥ," "nefesh," and "neshamah" Philo sees the corroboration of the Platonic view that the human soul is tripartite (τριμεής), having one part rational, a second more spiritual, and a third the seat of desire. These parts are distinguished from one another both functionally and by the places occupied by them in the body. The seat of the first is the head; of the second, the chest; and of the third, the abdomen

In rabbinical literature the dualism of body and soul is carried out consistently.. ."The soul of man comes from heaven; his body, from earth"

Immortality of Soul: An explicit statement of the doctrine of the preexistence of the soul is found in the Apocrypha: "All souls are prepared before the foundation of the world" (Slavonic Book of Enoch, xxiii. 5); and according to II Esd. iv. 35 et seq.the number of the righteous who are to come into the world is foreordained from the beginning. All souls are, therefore, preexistent,

Both the rational and the irrational sprang like two scions from one root, and yet are so strongly contrasted in their natures that one is divine, while the other is corruptible.

[The Jewish philosopher ] Saadia devoted the sixth chapter of his "Emunot we-De'ot" to questions concerning the human soul.. According to him, the soul is created by God at the same time as the body. Its substance resembles that of the spheres; but it is of a finer quality.

General Life Force: Maimonides, except in a few instances, closely followed Aristotle with regard to the ontological aspect of the soul. The life of the soul, which is derived from that of the spheres, is represented on earth in three potencies: in vegetable, in animal, and in human life.

The Status of Soul: Philo does not say why the soul is condemned to be imprisoned for a certain time in the body; but it may be assumed that, as in many other points, he shares also in this one the views of Pythagoras and Plato, who believed that the soul undergoes this ordeal in expiation of some sin committed by it in its former state (see Philo Judæus).

Even before entering the body [presumably as the animating life force] , the mind [one aspect of soul] possesses not only rational faculties, but also ascending powers which distinguish the lower orders of creation, the habitual, the organic, the vital, and the perceptive.

As a divine being the soul aspires to be freed from its bodily fetters and to return to the heavenly spheres whence it came.

The Rabbis [tradition, however, holds] that the body is not the prison of the soul, but, on the contrary, its medium of development and improvement. Nor do they hold the Platonic view regarding the preexistence of the soul. For them "each and every soul which shall be from Adam until the end of the world, was formed during the six days of Creation and was in paradise, being present also at the revelation on Sinai. . . . At the time of conception God commandeth the angel who is the prefect of the spirits, saying: 'Bring Me such a spirit which is in paradise and hath such a name and such a form; for all spirits which are to enter the body exist from the day of the creation of the world until the earth shall pass away.' . . . The spirit answereth: 'Lord of the world! I am content with the earth, where I have lived since Thou didst create me.' . . . God speaketh to the soul, saying: 'The world into which thou enterest is more beautiful than this; and when I made thee I intended thee only for this drop of seed.'"

The Rabbis question whether the soul descends to earth at the moment of conception or after the embryo has been formed

[NOTE: This is the likely origin of Christian beliefs that human life is sacred from inception, or even before inception, but even in the origin of the concept it was a debated point as to when the soul entered the body, at inception or upon the development (birth) of the formed body.]

Mutability of Human Soul: This belief was rejected by the scholars of the Talmud, who taught that the body is in a state of perfect purity (Ber. 10a; Mek. 43b), and is destined to return pure to its heavenly abode. When God confides the soul to man He says, according to the Haggadah. "The soul I have given thee is pure; if thou givest it back to Me in the same state, it is good for thee; if not, I will burn it before thee" (Eccl. R. xii. 7; with some variations in Niddah 30a).

The soul has control over [the inclination towards good or evil], and, therefore, is responsible for man's moral conduct.

The descent of the soul into the body is necessitated by the finite nature of the former: it is bound to unite with the body in order to take its part in the universe, to contemplate creation, to become conscious of itself and its origin, and, finally, to return, after having completed its task in life, to the inexhaustible fountain of light and life—God.

Where Immortal Souls Reside: [again, the soul] is destined to return pure to its heavenly abode.. if not, [God] will burn it before thee" (Eccl. R. xii. 7; with some variations in Niddah 30a). [NOTE: The threat here is not that our soul will be consigned to hell, but that it will be destroyed, its immortality terminated.]

The entry of the soul into the embryo (see Golem) is similarly described in a conversation between Judah the patriarch and the emperor Antoninus. The spirits which are to descend to earth are kept in 'Arabot, the last of the seven heavens, while the souls of the righteous dead are beneath the throne of God. Associated with this belief is the Talmudic saying that the Messiah will not come till all the souls in the"guf" (the super-terrestrial abode of the souls) shall have passed through an earthly existence ('Ab. Zarah 5a; comp. Gen. R. viii. and Ruth R., Introduction).

[In the Talmud tradition the] soul's relation to the body is an external one only: when man sleeps the soul ascends to its heavenly abode (Lam. R. iii. 23). There it sometimes receives communications which appear to the sleeper as dreams.

Good and Evil of Soul: A parallel is established between the soul and God. As the world is filled with God, so is the body filled with the soul; as God sees, but cannot be seen, so the soul sees, but is not to be seen; as God is hidden, so also is the soul (Ber. 10a). The Rabbis seem to have considered discernment, reflection, and recollection as faculties of the soul; but they held that the power by which man distinguishes between right and wrong and the inclination to one or to the other are two real essences which God places in the heart of man. These are called "yeẓer Ṭob" (good inclinations) and "yeẓer ha-ra'" (evil propensities).

[The Jewish philosopher ] Saadia devoted the sixth chapter of his "Emunot we-De'ot" to questions concerning the human soul.. According to him, the soul is created by God at the same time as the body. Its substance resembles that of the spheres; but it is of a finer quality.

The Body as Incubator For The Soul:
[The Jewish philosopher, Saadia, also postulated that].. like every created thing, the soul needs a medium through which to attain activity; and this medium is the body. Through its union with the body three powers which are latent in it are set in motion: intelligence, passion, and appetite or desire. These powers or faculties are not to be considered as three separate parts of the soul, each having a different seat in the body, but as belonging to the one and indivisible soul, which has its seat in the heart. It is to the advantage of the soul to be united with the body. Without this medium it could not attain paradise and eternal bliss, because these are vouchsafed to it only as a recompense for its obedience to the will of God.



POSTSCRIPT: A review of the history and evolution of human thinking on the concept of "soul" makes it clear, at least to me, that there is enough uncertainty to question the religious doctrine that all abortion is murder. It certainly is not a doctrine on which one should justify murdering healthcare professionals who assist woman wanting an abortion. Yet this is exactly the moral basis that anti-abortion advocates use when trying to extend the existing statues on murder. It clearly is a religious belief for which there is no consensus or certainty among Christians or the population at large. This account may not persuade anyone to change their firmly held beliefs, but it is my hope that it opens up a more fruitful and well considered dialogue.


The Great Abortion Divide - Part I
http://aseyeseesit.blogspot.com/2015/10/the-great-abortion-divide.html
The Great Abortion Divide - Part II
Religious Dimensions of the Abortion Debate
http://aseyeseesit.blogspot.com/2015/11/the-great-abortion-divide-part-ii.html

Monday, December 21, 2015

Bernie, DNC and Hillary Connections to Data Company

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) is conceived to be a neutral Democratic Party facilitator working on behalf of all Democratic political campaigns. It raises money for candidate races, it helps develop political ads and, most importantly, it has this huge national database on registered Democrats, Democratic donors, etc. This database is the most important tool candidates need in running for public office, especially Democratic presidential candidates. The DNC allows presidential campaigns to access all of this national data on individual voters, and use the database to enter their own voter information collected in the field and through their own direct voter contacts. The analysis of this information is essential for developing and monitoring campaign strategies.

Because the DNC database contains both shared and private candidate voter information, a firewall and other safeguards are in place so that competing campaigns can't peek at the private data being collected and analyzed by their Democratic rivals. This too is essential for fair and free primary competition. Candidates would have unfair advantages if they could see the information developed by their rivals. At the end of the election cycle, however, the private field data collected by the campaigns are merged and used to update the DNC's national database.

BACKGROUND


This huge database is run under a contract with a company called NGP-VAN. NGP-VAN is a partisan company; that is it is a company comprised of Democrats working for Democrats. It is the DNC's choice to contract with a partisan company. There are many competent non-partisan company providing comparable services, but the DNC believes there are advantages to hiring a partisan firm. The key reason is to develop secure, less open technologies that feed data from NGP VAN's systems into tools and platforms that put it to use, such as mobile apps used by door-to-door campaign volunteers. The motivation for hiring a partisan company seems to be an overriding need to protect the data platforms from GOP intrusions. (See http://adage.com/article/campaign-trail/political-tech-picks-sides-stay-sidelines/294800 )

But Democratic politics is also an insider's game. There is competition within the Democratic party to be the Democratic candidate on the ballot. There are many primary candidates, campaigns and primary elections that must be fair and free if our democracy is to be properly preserved. Special interest corruption or establishment favoritism within either political party is a direct threat to our American democracy. The will of Republican or Democratic voters within their party is just as sacrosanct as is the will of the people in general election voting. It is the role of the DNC to preserve American democracy for Democratic voters. Maintaining the security of the DNC database is a principle obligation. Assuring proper access of the data to all candidates is an essential responsibility of the DNC. Making sure there are no political pressures or conflicts of interest to taint or corrupt the democratic process within the party is paramount.

The question rarely asked is this; If NGP-VAN is a company made up of Democratic partisans, how can we be sure they are scrupulously unbiased with respect to all Democratic primary candidates? How can we be sure the DNC is unbiased, for that matter. These are the haunting questions that still hang in the air even after the fireworks set off by the Sanders campaigns data breach has ended. Even though the DNC quickly unblocked the Sanders campaign from its data, and Senator Sanders apologized to Hillary Clinton for the intrusion, the integrity of the DNC and NGP-VAN remains a   question. This is especially true in part because there was so little concern expressed about the incompetence of NGP-VAN for the firewall failure.

UNDISPUTED FACTS

The undisputed facts regarding the data breach by the Sanders campaign staff are:
  • NGP-VAN rolled out updated software for this database on the morning of Dec, 17th. 
  • Afterwards, for about 4 hours, any data search on the system pulled up the private files of all the Presidential candidates. 
  • The breach was discovered by Sanders campaign staff after 10:00 am, at least 90 minutes later.
  • At least 4 Sanders campaign staffers obtained access to 24 Hillary campaign files over the next 40 minutes
  • NGP-VAN became aware of this activity and immediately notified the DNC
  • The DNC shut down the Sanders' campaign access to the database before notifying Senator Sanders, who was unaware of the breach until the chairwoman of the DNC, Debbie Wasserman Schultz called him.
  • Some of the Clinton campaign files were copied to the "Vote Finder" system of the DNC's database, meaning those files were still in DNC custody.
  • Whether files were copied to private location, or viewed and analyzed in any detail is in dispute. 
  • One of the staffers who opened multiple files was Bernie Sanders Data Chief, Josh Uretsky, who was immediate fired. 
  • The extent of actions by other Sanders campaign staffers who accessed files is still in dispute and under review. 
  • The Clinton campaign accused the Sanders campaign of stealing data. The Sanders campaign filed a federal lawsuit against the DNC for illegally terminating access to their data and hindering their campaign. 

According to a blog post written by the Stu Trevelyan, CEO of NGP-VAN, shortly after the breach was fixed the company audited its system and determined that only the Sanders campaign, and no other outside parties, could have possibly retained any of the exposed data.

Within less than a day of the Sanders lawsuit against the DNC, they restored his campaign access to the database. Bernie Sanders maintains that this isn't the first breach of data systems between the Sanders and Clinton campaign. (Although the prior breach involved a different data vendor.)


DISPUTED FACTS



The most innocent explanation of the data breach comes from Josh Uretsky, the former Data Chief. In an interview with Steve Kornacki on MSNBC, Steve said he was, "... trying to create a clear record of the problem." He was fully aware that his every move was being recorded by the NGP-VAN system. His thinking was that this breach happened hours before and he needed to determine if the Sanders data was as accessible at the Clinton data. He said he had to assume that they had accessed data as well in the hours before he discovered the breach. He denies any information was analyzed or saved anywhere out side of the NGP-VAN system. He believed his probative inquires were reasonable attempts to assess,"the scope of the problem."

When the NBP-VAN notified the DNC of the breach and the activity of Sanders staffers, they being the only ones to access opposition files, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the DNC chairwoman, acted on the worst case scenario, that data was being stolen which could then be manipulated using the DNC database to analyze Clinton's campaign strategies. The DNC acted swiftly before consulting with Senator Sanders. Senator Schultz claimed that the data was copied off the NGP-VAN system and demanded that it be destroyed before the DNC would consider restoring access to the database.

Throughout this controversy the DNC has reserved its anger for the actions of a handful of staffers on Senator Sanders campaign. It has exhibited litter anger or outrage towards the NGP-VAN for having compromised critical DNC data for hours.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST?


This all caused me to wonder, just who is this seemingly incompetent company that lost their firewall for four hours in the middle of a Presidential campaign? And what of the Sander's campaign long standing complaint that the DNC is trying to undermine Senator Bernie Sanders' campaign.

Here is what I found:

NPG-VAN (www.ngpvan.com): Claims to be the leading technology provider to progressive organizations and campaigns. Among its clients are; Obama for America, the DNC, Democratic state parties, the DSCC, the DCCC, the DLCC, a majority of Democratic state legislative caucuses, Democratic candidates and other organizations.

Co-Owner, Nathaniel Goss Pearlman: Is a political technology consultant aligned with the Democratic party. He founded NGP Software, Inc., in 1977. The company provided political software to a majority of federal Democrats including most Democratic candidates for President (including Dean, Gephardt, Kerry, Graham, Edwards, Obama, and Clinton). He was the chief technology officer for Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. In 2010, NGP Software merged with another company, the Voter Activation Network, and became NGP-VAN

NGP-VAN CEO, Stu Trevelyan: Was the founder of the Carol/Trevelyan Strategy Group (CTSG) which serve progressive groups and candidates starting around 1995. Before that Trevelyan worked directly on a number of campaigns, including the 1992 Clinton-Gore "War Room" and then in the Clinton White House. He was an early "Hillary for President" supporter and donor in 2013.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz: She is the current DNC chairperson and was the national co-campaign chairperson of Hillary's 2008 Presidential Campaign.

[12/28/15 Update] Josh Uretsky, Data Chief for Sanders: Bernie Sanders fired this person after the data breach. Media outlets are now reporting that he was hired in September by the Sander's campaign on the recommendation of both the VGP-VAN company and the DNC. This has raised further concerns among leadership in the Sanders' campaign.

WHERE THINGS STAND

Obviously the partisan nature of NGP-VAN, the connections to Hillary Clinton, the Hillary Connection between Hillary and DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Shultz who was Hillary’s prior co-campaign manager, doesn't prove anything or suggest anything nefarious. It doesn't, however, rule out the possibility of a conflict of interests either. The Sanders campaign has not retracted their claim that the DNC might not be acting as a neutral third party and the lawsuit is still pending as of now.

Both the Sanders and Clinton campaigns, as well as the DNC, are calling for an independent "audit" of the incident and the records to rule out a wider scandal or a conflict, and also to identify and fix any vulnerabilities in the DNC's database. This is as it should be, but there is just enough of a bad smell left in the room to require our fellow Democrats to maintain their scrutiny and to press for even more transparency at the DNC.

The idea of contracting with only partisan technology companies should be reconsidered and a broader conversation should generated on these issues. Finally, future DNC chairs should probably not be former campaign managers for any likely presidential candidates during their tenure.

ADDENDUM: There was a subsequent revelation that the Sanders Campaign Data Chief. Josh Uretsky, was hired in September of this year (2015) at the recommendation of both the DNC and NGP-VAN. A further revelation in the press claims that very soon after the breach was reported to the DNC, the Clinton campaign had copies of the database access log documenting the Sanders staffer's activity. The Clinton campaign used this information in their press releases about the incident. NPG-VAN denies giving this log to the Clinton campaign. These new pieces of information don't change the basic conclusions here, but to reinforce the need for a thorough, independent examination of this incident. (12/30/2015)


Correction: An earlier version indicated a connection between the DNC chair and an employee at DGP-VAN which was an error. The error was widespread on social media and was apparently made because of confusion as to whether or not a Wasserman at NGP-VAN was her brother's son. He is not. I extensively investigated this myself on social media and confirmed to my satisfaction that the information I had originally been given was wrong.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Cults and the Conservative Base

Has the right-wing fringe become a cult?

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

It was something Sean Penn said recent that got me ask this question. Referring to climate change skeptics, Mr. Penn said, "I think there are people who indulge in a culture of what can be reduced to Fox network thinking... It's like talking to a member of a cult."

This observation seemed so descriptive when applied to the most ardent conservative followers that it is worth exploring. To be clear, the description and this analysis doesn't apply to the majority of conservative voters, but only to those who exclusively rely on ultra-conservative media for their public information.

The word "cult" is most commonly used to describe religious groups or devoted groups of fanatics following a charismatic social leader, such as Charles Manson for example. The question is, can the behaviors and characteristics associated with cults apply when membership connections are virtual through media platforms and leadership is diffuse but highly organized?

To answer this question we have to start by examining and comparing cult leaders and cult members with the leaders and followers of ultra conservative media outlets.

Characteristics of cult leaders[i];

In their book, Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships, Madeleine Landau Tobias and Janja Lalich tell us that cult leaders have authoritarian personalities. They may be compensating for deep, intense feelings of inferiority, insecurity, and hostility. They form cultic groups primarily to attract those whom they can psychologically coerce into and keep in a passive-submissive state, and secondarily to use them to increase their power. They go on to say:
"The single most important word here is power. The dynamic around which cults are formed is similar to that of other power relationships and is essentially ultra- authoritarian, based on a power imbalance. The cult leader by definition must have an authoritarian personality in order to fulfill his half of the power dynamic. Traditional elements of authoritarian personalities include the following:
-the tendency to hierarchy
-the drive for power (and wealth)
-hostility, hatred, prejudice
- superficial judgments of people and events
-a one-sided scale of values favoring the one in power
-interpreting kindness as weakness
-the tendency to use people and see others as inferior
-a sadistic-masochistic tendency
-incapability of being ultimately satisfied
-paranoia "
These are the characteristics of individual cult leaders. How this might apply to a power network behind media ownership and the GOP is subject to interpretation. While a cult leaders feelings of inferiority and insecurity, or a need to keep followers in a passive-submissive state, might be hard to apply to a leadership group, using cult members to increase their power clearly applies. 

Furthermore, it isn't much of a stretch to believe that many of the specific traits above seem to apply in a general way to conservative media personalities and their messages. The problem is we know very little about the forces behind the obvious coordination of conservative media messaging.

What we do know is that message wording is carefully chosen. We know there are robust focus groups operations to identify which word choices evoke the exact emotional associations necessary to sell the messages, and that sophisticated marketing techniques are used to produce what amount to greater market share for these conservative ideas. This is an expensive operation, so when new language to frame an issues is chosen, it is rapidly disseminated across all conservative media outlets on the same day, usually within hours. These messages are then endlessly and slavishly broadcast to the public until it can't be ignored. They are forced into the national dialogue where there convey rhetorical advantages to conservative positions.

The high degree of message coordination in the conservative media suggests a very tight, closely held and very disciplined core leadership. Conservative messaging is disseminated very rapidly and uniformly. The exact wording and approach is unquestioningly adopted by conservative talk show hosts, pundits and commentators on every conservative media platform, television, radio, newspapers and the Internet, regardless of corporate ownership or boundaries. There is no competition among conservative networks for more attractive or alternative messaging. There is no original thinking. This lack of messaging competition suggests that the core leadership behind the conservative media is monolithic, but not centralized in any one network. In other words, the Fox News and Rush Limbaugh are not the message leaders. They serves as organs for the coordinating forces behind conservative messaging. The leadership behind the coordinating forces are hidden from public view. We don't know who they are or exactly how they operate.

So, can you have a true cult when the leader or leaders are clandestine and only identifiable by their messages to followers?

I think so. I also suspect that once the size of their ultra-conservative following reaches a certain tipping point the media messaging leaders will step out from behind the curtain and reveal themselves.

I don't think Donald Trump is that leader. He is more likely an interloper taking premature advantage of the pool of conservative media followers to satisfy his own lust for power.

That brings us to the next question. Who are these ultra-conservative media followers and do their characteristics align with those of typical cult members?

What follows are some of the characteristics of cult followers that might apply. These are taken from various sources.

Characteristics of Cult Followers:

- The group's coherence is maintained by the observance to policies handed down from those in authority.

- Avoidance of critical thinking and/or maintaining logically impossible beliefs and/or beliefs that are inconsistent with other beliefs held by the group.

-Avoidance of and/or denial of any facts that might contradict the group's belief system.

- Control of gender roles and definitions.

- The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and regards the belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

- Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

- The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel.

- The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members.

- The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

- The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

- The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members' participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group.

- Some cultic groups discourage members from thinking independently. The “thinking,” as it were, has already been done for them by the cult leadership; the proper response is merely to submit.

- Cults often believe that they alone have the truth.

- It is not uncommon in cults that people are urged to remain faithful to avoid being “disfellowshiped,” [sic] or disbarred, from the group.

- Us against them mentality. Therefore, when someone (inside or outside of the group) corrects the group in doctrine and/or behavior, it is interpreted as persecution, which then is interpreted as validation.

- The group's coherence is maintained by the observance to policies handed down from those in authority.

- Avoidance of critical thinking and/or maintaining logically impossible beliefs and/or beliefs that are inconsistent with other beliefs held by the group.

- Avoidance of and/or denial of any facts that might contradict the group's belief system.

- Control of gender roles and definitions.

These are among the characteristics of cult members that anyone can confirm by searching the topic on the internet. They also seem to apply to the many of the most ardent conservatives in the base of the Republican Party base, conservatives who rely almost exclusively rely on conservative media. Anyone who has ever tried to hold a conversation with these individuals should decide for themselves if these characteristics fit. It confirms, for me at least, that Sean Penn may on to something. The dimensions and dynamics of the most conservative elements of the GOP base do seem cult-like. This would explain why the presentation of entirely verifiable facts has no purchase with those who strongly identify with the conservative media.


Clarification:  A correction on 12/4/2015 makes it explicit that the cult description does not apply to most conservative voters, but only to those who rely exclusively on ultra-conservative media outlets.



[i] Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships
Madeleine Landau Tobias and Janja Lalich. Hunter House,Alameda, CA, 1994, pg 304

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Nona's Christmas List of 1953

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
My wife and I were going through some old boxes when we found a small notebook with receipts and hand written notes from mother. On one page was her Christmas list from 1953. I was just eleven-months old that Christmas in 1953. Patty, my big sister, was four.
I was struck by how quaint Mom's list seemed. I can see the  care she took to plan this special day for us. The neatness of her figures are a tribute to her business training at Butler High School where she was the first in her family to graduate from the twelfth grade.  Years later she would put these skills to work in her first bookkeeping  job at Robert Halls clothing store in Rockaway, New Jersey, and later at J.C. Penny  in Dover.  But in 1953 she used her skills to plan our family budget.
Nonas Xmas List 1953
I can see her sitting at the kitchen table of our rented bungalow on Lake Parsippany. It was a log cabin that had been a summer cottage before being  converted to a year-round home.  It had a fenced in yard and an wonderful enclosed porch that overlooked the lake. The kitchen was just wide enough to accommodate a small chrome legged table with aluminum sides and a Formica top. Mom would sit there in the morning light after Dad left for work, sipping her coffee and enjoying a crossword puzzle or paying the bills. It was her quiet time before my sister and I were awake. It was probably one of these quiet mornings when she penciled this account of our Christmas.  She had gone though each receipt, punching holes in them to file them in her little black, ring bound notebook.
Dad usually left for work most mornings while I was still sleeping. He was an appliance repair man for Sears, which was called Sears and Roebuck back then (I always felt sorry for Mr. Roebuck when they dropped his name. I still think that the change in business model behind this was the beginning of the companies decline).  He worked his full eight-hour day, five days a week and was usually able to be home by dinner.  I have one early memory when I was three or four years old of waking up before Dad left for work and running to the front door to say good-bye to him. But in 1953 I was just an infant.
I don't know how much Dad was paid for his work. He was very skilled, some said gifted, at this job. I do know whatever he was paid was enough that Mom stayed home with us until I was in school. We weren't rich, but we had all the things we needed; food, a warm house, clothes, shoes, a doctor who took good care of us and a few nice things to open under the Christmas tree each year.  I know from bits of conversation I heard when I was older that Stretching the budget was always a challenge, but we managed.
Then, after reminiscing about the past,  I asked myself, how much did Christmas cost my parents in 1953?
Including the cookie cutters and cookie sheets, which would become fixtures of our childhood holiday celebrations, Christmas that year cost them just shy of thirty bucks.  But how much is that relative to today's dollar? It seemed like pocket change based on the numbers.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator, a dollar in 1953 was worth $8.91 today. That means Christmas cost our parents $288.93, not including food, beverages, gifts between my parents or gifts for friends and relative. And, of course, there was the cost of the Christmas tree. What follows is Mom's 1953 Christmas accounting in 2015 dollars:
1953 Xmas in 2015$
This suddenly seemed like a lot of money.  I looked it up. Half of all Sears appliance technicians today make between $16 and $22 per hour.  The current living wage for a family of four (two children and two adult with only one breadwinner) in Morris County is $24.93/hour. That means over half of all Sears repairmen make less than a living wage.  Living in Morris County as a full-time Sears technician today, means either working a lot of overtime or having a second income just to break even.  Mom was being frugal and wise back then, but I doubt our childhood family, with only Dad working, would be able to afford such a Christmas these days.
Now when I look at Mom's figures they seem less quaint and more savvy.  A family today that is like ours was in 1953 would never be able to save up for a house, own a new car, go on a family vacation or get by without occasional assistance from family, friends or the government.
We constantly ask families to do more even though they already do. In most families like ours both parents work. The hours most of us work per week are more numerous. Many parents have more than one job, and children get to be with their parents less and less.  Is it no wonder people say that families are falling apart these days?
Money can't buy love, but a living wage can make us feel good about ourselves once again as we can take proper care of our families.  And returning to a 40 hour work week would allows us to spend more precious time with our children who really do need us to be there for them. These simple conditions are what made America strong in the past. They would certainly strengthen our families once again today.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Great Abortion Divide - Part II

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Religious Dimensions of the Abortion Debate

Despite recent attempts by pro-life groups to bring science into the argument against abortion, the critical difference between conservative Christian anti-abortionists and pro-choice opponents really is religious in nature. I know that many people in the pro-choice camp resist this claim. It clearly isn't how they want to frame their narrative. But the religious nature of the abortion divide remains true because, when you drill down, conservative Christians, who are driving this debate, truly believe we are endowed with an immortal soul at the moment of conception, or even prior to conception. They deeply believe that a human zygote is sacred. This belief separates conservative Christians not just from most people in the pro-choice groups, but also from many who identify more closely with pro-life sentiments. Avoiding the religious dimensions of the abortion debate isn't the most constructive path forward, in my view.

While the concept of "soul" is fundamental to Judaeo-Christian theology, the origin of a soul, and how or when it enters human flesh, is a matter of conjecture. There is no scriptural guidance on this point in the Old or New Testament, nor in the Koran. You won't hear much debate in churches or synagogues even though matters of the soul are unsettled questions. It is a fact that there was no concept of "soul" at all in the Hebrew tradition prior to the conquest of Alexander the Great, who brought Greek philosophy to the Middle East.

There has been religious and philosophic differences for centuries regarding the origin of the soul, and how we come to be "ensouled." Most people today, however, are not well equipped for this discussion. People prefer instead to take positions based on what seems morally right. They have a sense for what it means to be human and they recognize when actions or procedures are inhumane. This guides the thinking of many. Disrupting the growth of a few human cell in a woman's womb may not fit their understanding of what is inhumane, while calling a zygote a human stretches their idea of what "human" means to them. Then there are people of other faiths and people who aren't religious who hold entirely different notions on what it means to be "human." America is a pluralistic society with a great variety of different beliefs, so attempts to create a social norm around the most conservative Christian views on the sanctity of life aren't likely to succeed.

If you are a Christian who believes a fertilized human egg is endowed with a soul, then the immorality of abortion is an obvious and immutable fact. Abortion is simply murder. But If your religious beliefs don't specify when human flesh receives a soul, or if you believe the ability to terminate the pregnancy of a twelve-year-old rape victim is really answered pray, your views on the morality of abortion may differ. It is not theologically unreasonable to assume an all-knowing God knows which pregnancies will result in live births and which will not. Spontaneous abortions are a part of nature, so why would God ensoul a fetus that will never be born? Is it an automatic process over which God has no control?

And if God does control which human flesh receives a soul, an omnipotent God already know what decision a woman will make in her pregnancy. Why would a loving God condemn a young woman by intentionally ensouling a fetus that God knows will never be born.

The theology and theory of "soul" is seldom publically debated, yet the sanctity of a fertilized human egg is the position of the Roman Catholic church and most conservative Christian sects. Many otherwise faithful Jews and Christians instinctively resist this view and the moral position it requires. For them, for those of other faith traditions and for non-religious people, the morality of abortion remains an open question, which make it a personal matter. The decision to terminate a pregnancy is therefore a private and personal choice. This group does not want governments dictating morals that are not universally shared and they do not want governments telling women what they can and cannot do with their bodies on religious grounds.

I believe these observation correctly demonstrates that there are more than two sides to the abortion debate. The duality of our public discourse on the subject is a fiction created by our mass media. Mainstream media tends to over-simplifies and reduce most issues to a polarized duality. The effect of this media bias benefits conservative views on abortion because it suppresses public debate on the underlying theology. This creates an impression that there is more religious support for banning abortions than is actually the case. Confident that they are making progress on theological grounds, the religious right is reaching out to the secular community to continue building towards an anti-abortion social norm. This brings us back to the effort of conservative Christians to incorporate science into the abortion debate.

Science and the Anti-Abortion Debate

In an article entitled "The Best Pro-Life Arguments for Secular Audiences," author Rob Schwarzwalder counsels believers on how to use scientific arguments to persuade non-believers that abortion is wrong. It is clear from the beginning that the author assumes human life begins at or before inception. He writes:
"At the moment when a human sperm penetrates a human ovum, or egg, generally in the upper portion of the Fallopian Tube, a new entity comes into existence. "Zygote" is the name of the first cell formed at conception, the earliest developmental stage of the human embryo, followed by the "Morula" and "Blastocyst" stages. Is it human? Is it alive? Is it just a cell or is it an actual organism, a "being?" These are logical questions."

These questions, however, obscure more than they illuminate. The author is asking, "Is a zygote human?"

First, we must ask ourselves, what is a human? This latter question does not have a single clear answer. Is "human" defined by a collection of qualities, state of being, a class of species or is it the presence of that spark of deity we call spirit or soul? Do all cells have some sort of divine being? Does DNA determine what sort of being a cell will have? Are all cells autonomous? Do they have agency? And even if they have a cellular being, does that make a human cell a human being?

When we think of "human" we most generally intend the word as shorthand for a "human being". But what do we mean by "being"? According to dictionary definitions, the first definition of " being" mean a state of existence. This would cover everything in the universe, from stones to photons and beyond. So in this sense the quality of "being" merely refers to that which exists in this world. This definition of "being" doesn't advance our understand of "human being" very much.

The second meaning of the word "being" refers to living, as opposed to inanimate. Beings are alive. This eliminates most of the known universe of things but still leaves a planet full of beings, from bacteria to mushrooms, tomatoes and whales. In this sense a human being can accurately be distinguished from other living things as a member of a specific species. This definition is somewhat more satisfying, but it still doesn't explain how a zygote can be a classified as human since it is only one cell and not the fully developed organism with all the attributes that allow us to be identified as a species. If we only ever existed as a single cell zygote we would not be capable of classifying our existence at all.

The third meaning of "being" is a living thing with an essence that is divine in it's nature. He the author writes, ".. Is it just a cell or is it an actual organism, a "being?" The implication is that if it is "just a cell" it is not an organism, but if it is an organism it might be a "being". Since both a cell and an organism actually exist in the universe and are also alive, this use of the term "being" clearly doesn't refer to either of the prior definitions. It refers to "being" as a living entity containing a spark of the divine. It refers to a soul.

To be fair, there are many other definitions of the word "being" but each of these fails to solve the riddle of how a zygote and a human being are the same thing.

To solve this the author states the following: " The zygote is composed of human DNA and other human molecules, so its nature is undeniably human and not some other species. The new human zygote has a genetic composition that is absolutely unique from itself, different from any other human that has ever existed, including that of its mother."

All molecules are chemical in nature, and most are not unique to humans. That said, DNA can be undeniably human and unique. The distinction between mother and embryo is evidenced by activation of the mother's immune system to rid her body of this foreign organism. From shortly after inception, the embryo releases chemicals to trick the mother's body into not rejecting it. In the early stages of pregnancy this drama is often manifested as morning sickness. Later in pregnancy the relationship becomes more symbiotic and less parasitic. What science proves is that a fetus is a unique organism, but it is not separate and apart from the mother's body. It cannot exist except in the womb. So it isn't the viability of a fetus that makes a fetus human in this view, but its unique DNA signature. In essence, a human cell becomes a human being if it's DNA signature is unique. It begs the question, Is a unique pattern of DNA the essence of what it means to be human?

The author answers this by writing, " Finally, is the human zygote merely a new kind of cell or is it a human organism; that is, a human being?

Here again we see that the difference between a ordinary cell and a single celled "human" organism is whether or not the cell has a complete and unique set of human DNA. If it does, this single cell is a "human being," according to the author.

This seems like a biologically flimsy distinction from both a religious and scientific point of view. If you have two human cells, one that shares a DNA signature with other cells and one that has a unique DNA signature, why would one be a cell and the other something more? We know we can take DNA from any cell in our body and insert it in a human egg to grow a clone. This clone would have DNA identical to the human donor. Is this clone not a human? Would it matter that it does not have unique DNA? Any reasonable person would say a human clone is fully human. Even the author would probably admit a cloned person has a soul, so is it a distinct new soul or a shared soul. Either way, it isn't the uniqueness of the DNA signature that makes a human cell a human being.

Despite incorporating science into the abortion debate The position of those who hold that life is sacred from birth cannot be advanced by incorporating scientific knowledge into their debate. The abortion debate isn't about science, it is about theology, morality and humanity and personal liberty. It is about religion and philosophy. Until we push beyond the didactic constraints imposed on our public debate and grapple with the underlying philosophies and theologies, we will never get beyond our present deadlock.

In the next essay I will offer some perspectives on the philosophic evolution of the human soul as a means of opening up the broader public discussion that we need to have.

----------------------------------------------------------
Go to Part III of this series.

To read Part I of this series please go to http://aseyeseesit.blogspot.com/2015/10/the-great-abortion-divide.html

Counter