Science in Christian Perspective
ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
Richard H. Bube
Professor of Materials Science and Electrical Engineering
Stanford University Stanford, California 94305
From: JASA 22 (June 1970): 49-51
All life is a marvel; only human life is considered sacred. We do not hesitate to kill cows for food, although in other parts of the world this is unthinkable. Animals who are friends to man, such as dogs and cats, are afforded a position of greater value at least in our culture, presumably because of their association with human life. Much of one's attitude is culturedetermined. The Christian community has consistently upheld the sanctity of human life in a unique way, in spite of those inconsistent records of the church's commendation of killing in support of itself. But the question is, "What is human life?"
Webster's dictionary says that "human" means "characteristic of man." Of "man" the dictionary says, "art individual of the highest type of animal existing or known to have existed, differing from other high types of animals, esp. in his extraordinary mental development." To be human then is to exercise the faculties made possible by this extraordinary mental development. It is this development that makes possihle insight, rational thinking, conscience, hope, Codconsciousness, awe, reverence, appreciation for beauty, self-consciousness and the desire for understanding, to name just a few.
A chimpanzee is not human. Yet a one-year old chimpanzee displays more "human-like" characteristics than a one-year old infant. It is recognized that the one-year old infant has the potentiality to become human, whereas the chimpanzee does not. We give to the child the value placed upon an individual who will in the normal course of events exhibit the qualities of humanity; he is a potential human. We withhold from the chimpanzee the value placed upon a potential human, because in the normal course of events it is impossible for him to exhibit the qualities of humanity at any time. The value we attribute to the life of the infant, or to the unborn fetus, is an imputed value, held in expectation of what the fetus or the infant can become.
A very old person who is the victim of advanced senility may live in the condition of an unthinking creature. He exhibits none of the human qualities associated with extraordinary mental development. The same could he said of a person who has suffered grave and permanent brain damage. His mental faculties have ceased to function; in a real sense they are dead. The value we attribute to such an elderly victim of senility or to the victim of brain damage is an imputed value, held in memory of what the elderly or injured person once was. He once was' human; his humanity can be remembered.
What shall we say of the creature born into the world with grave brain damage? It has no potential for humanity; it has no past of humanity. If we define it as human, we are saying in effect that any creature born of a human being is a human being. What is the meaning of such an affirmation?
In an exact sense of the word, neither the fetus nor the senile is human. (We shall not press the other variations mentioned above further at this time.) If we are to contemplate ending the existence of the fetus, we must consistently consider ending the existence of the senile. In fact, the life of the fetus may he regarded as having the far greater value; it represents the potentiality for human development. The life of the senile is virtually at an end; only the memory of his humanity remains.
These considerations are closely connected to the question, "When does the unique spiritual quality of man (soul) come into being?" This question can be coupled with a second similar to it, "When does the unique spiritual quality of man pass out of existence (either end, or undergo transformation)?"
The question, "When does a man's soul come into being?" cannot be answered. It is in the class of meaningless questions. It incorrectly assumes that a time can be set for the event under inquiry, and that a man's soul has a certain timeless identity independent of his body. These two assumptions are discussed in what follows.
To make it possible to set a time for the coming into existence of soul, it would be necessary that there be two well-defined states: the soul-less and the soul-full. This use of the word "soul" cannot be related to the world as it is. Every living creature possesses aspects of those attributes we associate with the concept of "soul." A cat has "sour': a cat's "soul.' A dog has "sour': a dog's "soul." By this we mean simply that the characteristics associated with soul in terms of a description of life on the "spiritual" level are at least partially present also in cats and dogs. They are not identical with "human souls", however, for the entire being (physical, biological, psychological etc.) of a cat or dog falls short of the capabilities and potentialities of the entire being of a man. The soul of any creature is commensurate with the total development of that creature. Thus the fetus has a "fetus' sour' and a senile man has a "senile soul." But language becomes meaningless if these "souls" are identified with the "human soul." The quality we call "soul" is not an either-or situation. We can maintain properly that there is "soul" present from conception to death, but if so we then have to ask ourselves what it is we have really affirmed. We can watch as the "fetus' soul" develops into the "human soul," but we cannot ask when the human soul came. We can watch as the "human soul" degrades into the "senile soul;" can we ask when the human soul went?
Continuity of "I"
What is meant when we speak of "I," as though the 'I" of today is the same as the "I" of a decade ago or of a decade hence? What is there in common between the child of five and the man of fifty? Is the man, who in his wisdom would avoid the sins of the child, still guilty for the youthful misdemeanors? Is the child, who in his naivete is not capable of the crimes of the man, still guilty for the sins he may one day commit? Take away the tie of memory, and what identity is left between the man and the boy? Does a victim of amnesia respond to a movie of himself in childhood in any other way except that of indifferent non-recognition? There is only one common link between the man and the boy: they are both the embodiment of a specific biological life system at two different times during its life. Whether they are necessarily both the embodiment of the same psychological or spiritual life system is not so easily decided. If the man develops from the boy in the normal course of events, memory affirms the common root.
But suppose that something happened to that boy in the course of his life: a severe accident that affected the working of his brain and altered his personality. In what sense is the link of continuous personality now present? Is the "I" before the accident the same as the "I" after the accident? Or shall we say that the "I" before the accident died, and that the "I" after the accident was born at that time? But then we would have two personalities, two "I's", evidenced by embodiment in a single life system, and even our definition given above to link a person at two stages of life would prove deficient.
In some sense the experience of Christian conversion can be related to these considerations. The event of regeneration is pictured as a creative act of God, a second birth, whereby a new element to the "I" is brought into being (e.g., Romans 71:15-32). The "I" after conversion is not the same as the "I" before conversion; the latter has been and is being in some sense put to death, while the former is newly born. Conversion not only saves a man's soul, it also changes it.
What is the point of this discussion? Two conclusions may be made. (1) Issues in the area of Christian ethics, whether in abortion, euthanasia or mental illness, cannot be resolved on the assumption of a changeless identity that exists partially or completely independently of the physical, biological and psychological "body" of this life and then passes away from the body upon death. Nor can they be resolved by assuming that distinctions can be made between soulless and soul-full states of living existence. (2) Any concept of a soul-identity that transcends the specific physical embodiment at a given time and condition must be attributed to a creative act of God beyond the experiences of life in this world. If a "soul" is to exist after the death of the body-in particular in the "interval" between an individual's death and the resurrection (if it is meaningful to speak of such an "interval") -it must be a "soul" newly created by God, since the soul that we see, experience and deal with in this life is intimately and indissolubly related to the health and life of the body.