Article on Orthodox Conversion in Utah

The Salt Lake Tribune recently ran this article on Orthodox converts in Utah. I am briefly quoted midway through.

Utah Mormons, Protestants finding new spiritual home in ancient Orthodox church

Here is my full interview:

—Tell me about you. Age, what you do for a living? Education? Married? Kids?

I’m 30 years old and I am a stay-at-home dad during the day and a warehouse manager in the evening. I graduated from Utah State University with degrees in Philosophy and Political Science. I then went on to complete a Master’s in History from the same institution. I was accepted to study historical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary but opted to forego the opportunity. I am married and have two young boys.

—Were you raised and baptised in the LDS faith?

I was born and raised LDS in Idaho, baptized at 8 years old as is customary. Both sides of my family are multi-generational Mormon and both of my parents remain active in the LDS faith, and the LDS faith was very much a part of my upbringing and my identity.

—What led to your questioning Mormonism, and how did that lead to Orthodoxy? (What “flavor” of Orthodox did you choose? Greek, Russian, OCA, etc?)

I actually learned many of the messier aspects of LDS history as a child, so unlike a lot of disaffiliated Mormons who today have a crisis of faith upon learning these things, it wasn’t Joseph Smith’s polygamy, the Adam-God theory, or the Mountain Meadows Massacre that led me to question. I simply never acquired the conviction that the LDS faith or church is what it claims to be.However,  I continued to identify as Mormon into my early undergraduate years. During my second year at Utah State I began taking courses in both philosophy and religious studies and found that early Christianity didn’t look like modern Mormonism and  Mormon beliefs, in many ways, seemed more to reflect post-Enlightenment and particular American ideologies than ancient Christian and Jewish worldviews. In other words, what really made me lose faith in the LDS movement was that it seemed very much a product of and response to its time and environment, it didn’t sound like what I was finding in the earliest Christian records, and its temple theology didn’t match up well with what I was learning about Jewish views of the temple.

This all motivated me to see what other modern faith groups believe, so I began reading about everything from Shintoism to Jehova’s Witnesses. Ultimately, perhaps due to my encounter with the robust philosophical tradition of early and medieval Christianity, I both found the naturalistic worldview and atheism unpersuasive and found myself attracted to Roman Catholicism. After spending a year or so in RCIA (an educational course for those preparing for baptism in the Catholic Church) I decided to be baptized Catholic. However, during one of the class sessions the instructor said “I can’t understand how any Christian who knows their history could be anything besides Catholic, or maybe Orthodox.” At the time I was ignorant of the Orthodox Christian tradition so I asked the instructor if, by Orthodox, she was referring to Orthodox Jews. Through her answer I learned for the first time about the Orthodox Christian tradition, which remains relatively unknown in the US, despite being the second-largest Christian body in the world. Eventually, after a couple more years of study, I found the Orthodox Christian spiritual tradition more beautiful and compelling in light of my reading of history and theology. I decided to be baptized in 2014.

All of the Eastern Orthodox churches share the same faith and commune with one another so, although I attend a Greek Orthodox parish due to its close proximity, I feel at home in the other jurisdictional churches as well.

—What is it about Orthodoxy that seems to fulfill you spiritually, where the LDS Church did not?

Honestly, my conversion to Orthodoxy wasn’t so much about perceived spiritual fulfillment as it was about convictions about what is and isn’t true, and what perspective offers a more persuasive account of the human story and experience. As one might expect, however, spiritual truths often have practical, tangible manifestations, so I suppose I might say that I find Orthodox Christianity more fulfilling because the way of life it prescribes better accords with what I hold to be true, good, and beautiful.

—How has your family, friends, etc., reacted? Do they consider you an “apostate?”

All of my family members who know about my conversion have been more-or-less tolerant of my decision, and those closest to me tend to be more understanding because I have been able to better explain to them why I made the decision. One has even considered following in my footsteps. My friends have been even more accepting of my decision, probably due more to our modern culture of tolerance and plurality than to the actual merits of my decision, but one of my best friends actually converted about a year or so following my own. I don’t know if any consider me an apostate. Nobody has condemned me as such.

—How were you accepted by Orthodox folk, especially those who were born into the faith rather than converted into it?

The Orthodox Christians I have encountered have generally been friendly and welcoming, regardless of whether they are cradle (born into the faith) or convert. When I first began attending predominantly cradle Orthodox parishes there were some who found it a little odd that someone who isn’t Greek, Russian, and so on would choose to be Orthodox, but conversions are now frequent enough that such occurrences are seen as commonplace. Additionally, I’ve now been around long enough that I’m welcomed like family.

—A good portion of Orthodox Christians in the U.S., and Utah, are converts . . . from Mormonism, mainline Protestant denominations, Catholics, Episcopalians, evangelicals, etc. How do those varying backgrounds play out in this new, common theological and liturgical setting?

One usually doesn’t see manifestations of this variety in liturgical worship itself, since these rituals and practices stem from continuing ancient traditions, though there are sometimes enthusiastic converts who bring  new life to parishes that may have fallen into mundane repetition. Some areas where the diversity is more visible is in conversations regarding evangelism and disputed aspects of the faith. For example, those who come from proselytizing traditions like Mormonism and certain Evangelical groups may want to bring some of the missionary strategies from their old traditions into Orthodox Christianity. With an ever growing pool of converts, there is also always the risk that people will try to conform Orthodox Christianity to their old ways of thinking rather than the other way around. There are even terms like “Byzantine Baptist” and “Reformed Orthodox” that refer to individuals who are perceived as maintaining too much from their former traditions, or who attempt to interpret Orthodox theology through a Protestant, Catholic or perhaps Mormon lens and vocabulary. For the most part, though, the diversity of converts has been a positive thing for Orthodox parishes in America, which in many areas had become enclaves of cultural Christianity.

—What have been the biggest challenges for you in becoming Orthodox? (Some say the top-down discipline, initial social/cultural disassociations, doctrines about the Trinity, nature of God, veneration of Mary and the saints, etc.)

Traditional Christian doctrines were certainly an issue at first, but they became less of an obstacle once I found out that much of what Mormons tell one another about traditional Christian beliefs are misrepresentations. Furthermore, I began to find the perspectives of classical Christianity more persuasive than Mormonism’s unique views of God and cosmology. The deeper one goes into Orthodox theology, the more one sees that everything from the veneration of saints and the hierarchy are not only important, but essential elements for the continuing and proper function of the Church.

The biggest challenges to becoming and remaining Orthodox are actually logistical. The closest parish is 60 miles away, so it takes an hour just to get to church. There have also been several times when severe winter weather has prevented travel through the canyon pass. Fortunately, efforts are currently being made to establish regular Orthodox services locally in Logan, and there are live liturgical services online for the days one is unable to travel.

—Are you as zealous about your choice of Orthodoxy today as you were following your conversion, baptism, Chrismation?

I don’t know that I have ever been zealous, to be honest. You might be better off asking my friends this question. I am by nature skeptical, second-guessing, and slow to make decisions, so my conversion to Orthodoxy was a pretty sober development. As a historian and enthusiast of philosophy I tend to see Christianity a bit differently than others; not necessarily in a superior way, but in a manner that makes it difficult to be zealous or triumphalistic. That said, I would definitely say that my continued participation in the Orthodox Christian life and the fruits of this perticipation have reinforced my conviction that I am in the right place.

Review: Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (Revised & Expanded edition)

I first encountered Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick’s “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” project through his podcast series on the Ancient Faith website. Orthodox Christianity was new to me at the time, and Fr. Damick’s podcast seemed like an ideal introductory resource. It was informative and helpful, but I was disappointed by the polemical tone and oversimplifications I perceived in his descriptions of Roman Catholicism. Therefore, I was pleased to read in the preface to the new edition of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy that he had made a concentrated effort to avoid unnecessary polemics and to learn about the various faith traditions discussed from the adherents in these respective traditions. Fr. Damick’s commendable effort is seen throughout the book in quotations from source materials relevant to each respective group being considered and his ability to find common ground with even religious groups that have few apparent similarities to Orthodox Christianity.

The book begins by stating both the motivation for its creation and the position of the author. Truth, Fr. Damick tells us, is as central a foundation for religious and spiritual considerations as it is in disciplines like science and history. It is important for Orthodox Christians to hold this in mind as they learn about and engage other faith traditions, especially in light of ever more popular relativist and consumerist views of spirituality that view one’s denominational choice in the same category as their entertainment or transportation preferences.

Following a helpful glossary of the heresies Christianity encountered in its early history, chapters are arranged by their similarity and developmental proximity to Orthodox Christianity, beginning with Roman Catholicism and ending with a section on non-Christian religions. For the most part, these chapters accomplish Fr. Damick’s stated intention: to provide an introductory overview of the beliefs of non-Orthodox faith traditions and a comparative analysis of how each of these respective traditions are similar and dissimilar to Orthodox Christianity.

My favorite section is the epilogue, in which Fr. Damick turns his attention to the conversational habits of many (or at least the loudest) within his own Orthodox Christian tradition. He observes that modern dialogue between Orthodox Christians and others, especially on the internet, is often too polemical and unproductive and emphasizes the need for a loving evangelism that seeks to establish common ground and fellowship rather than exclusivism and division. He is especially critical of those who condemn ecumenical dialogue in all of its forms and those who are quick to label those with whom they disagree as heretics.

Because Fr. Damick’s survey of religions extends far beyond my own areas of competency, I cannot speak to the accuracy of most of the book’s chapters; however, I am familiar with Roman Catholicism and Mormonism which allowed me to assess the sections relevant to these faith groups with more scrutiny. In the section on Roman Catholicism, Fr. Damick occasionally overstates the differences between it and the Orthodox tradition. Following other prominent Orthodox Christian thinkers like Vladimir Lossky, Fr. Damick has a tendency to juxtaposes rational West with experiential, mystical East. However, as is made evident in the works of Orthodox thinkers like Fr. Georges Florovsky, Fr. Dimitru Staniloae, and more recently Fr. Andrew Louth, the late Fr. Matthew Baker, and Marcus Plested has shown, this juxtaposition does not do justice to the historical reality. To Fr. Andrew’s credit, he does emphasize that one ought not to take this comparison too far, yet  he still reminds the reader at several points of Roman Catholicism’s injurious rational approach and legalism.

Fr. Damick’s brief section on Mormonism is surprisingly fair, especially in light of most outside descriptions of the tradition. It is evident from this brief section that he likely consulted resources that are true to Mormon history and beliefs. However, on at least one occasion he implies that a somewhat common Mormon belief (that the Virgin Mary was physically impregnated by God the Father) is official teaching. In Fr. Damick’s defense, though, it is often difficult to distinguish official Mormon teaching from popular belief because Mormons do not have well-defined creedal statements.

Beyond these section-specific criticisms, I think that the book is still too polemical at points, though I commend Fr. Damick for his frequent efforts to highlight the common ground between Orthodox Christianity and other faith traditions. I especially appreciate his focus on Orthodox beliefs that are often overlooked, such as the need for compassion, and a respect for animals and the environment. There are also instances where Fr. Damick establishes his views as the Orthodox position on matters that have long been, and are still debated within the Orthodox tradition, such as the place Scholastic philosophy and apokatastasis have in the Church.

As a note of personal preference, I believe the book would have been more valuable to the dialogue if it had focused more on the ideological trends throughout the history of Christendom rather than the historical events and players themselves. For instance, central to the Reformation was the adoption of Nominalism in opposition to the Scholastic tradition that dominated both the Catholic Church and its universities, yet there is no mention of this pivotal change. Furthermore, Fr. Damick frames modern ideological conflicts in terms of truth vs. relativism, yet as philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor have convincingly argued, the issue often isn’t about whether or not one or more parties accepts truth or not, but about how one is able to determine it. That said, ideological considerations are not completely absent from Fr. Damick’s surveys, and his summaries are executed with care and consideration.

I agree with Fr. Damick’s estimation that this book will be informative for Orthodox Christians looking for an introductory survey of many different faith groups and how Orthodox Christian beliefs are different from those of other faith traditions. However, I can’t speak to the accuracy of all its sections and would recommend checking the accuracy against the self-understanding of each faith group considered in Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy.

Observations of Orthodoxy in America

I’ve now attended an Orthodox parish for four years, and I am still happy to have it as my Christian home. During this time I have had the opportunity to meet many other converts, most of whom have been interesting and wonderful in their own ways. Converts are often a blessing, bringing new light and life to parishes that had become ethnic enclaves; however, there are also many attitudes and trends within these circles that are concerning. What is especially concerning is that it is often the parishes in which these elements are thriving that are experiencing the most growth.

Orthodox Christianity is, in some respects, a safe haven from the world of vacillating ethics and values. Many inquirers and converts are attracted to it for this very reason. However, they often focus only on a select number of things from which the Church offers protection, which may or may not do justice to what the Orthodox way truly offers to the world. For instance, rather than seeing Orthodox Christianity as a place where one can work against the selfishness, consumerism, and objectification of the human person in Western society, attempts are often made to depict Orthodox Christianity as a sanctuary for the ideals particular to American conservativism, such as the preservation of gun rights and the reduction of federal powers. This perhaps stems from the reality that American citizens, and especially American Christians, are inheritors of American Exceptionalism, the notion that America and its ideals are divinely exalted above the world at large. Now, I don’t mean to say that a Christian should reject gun rights, or support a strong federal government, and I certainly do not wish to give the impression that American is without its merits. My main point is that the Orthodox Christian tradition has little to say about these and other ideals particular to American conservativism and it is disingenuous to perpetuate the idea that Orthodox Christianity is particularly fitting to individuals who adhere to conservative ideologies. The reality is that Christianity does not fit neatly into either American conservative or progressive paradigms. As Fr. Paisius (now Hieromonk Alexii) Altschul stated, (paraphrasing) “I am more conservative than conservatives and I am more liberal than liberals because I am a Christian.” By failing to realize that Orthodox Christianity isn’t at home in American conservativism we do a disservice to the Church’s tradition and its true mission, and we drive away those who don’t adhere to these standards.

Following the recent Orthodox gathering of bishops in Crete, a friend stated that Orthodox ecclesiology has become fundamentally schismatic. While I think this is an overstatement, my interactions with some Orthodox Christians, convert and cradle alike, allow me to understand the temptation of such generalizations. After all, the Ecumenical Patriarch has been condemned by many for merely referring to other Christian denominations as “churches” (I guess they haven’t read St. Basil!). Furthermore, the loudest of American Orthodox bloggers are increasingly defining their faith in negative rather than positive ways. What I mean by this is that one will often encounter an individual who explains Orthodox Christianity not by detailing its rich history, theology, and methods, but by talking about how it is different than and superior to alternatives. Rather than simply noticing differences, such individuals often seek them out. This sort of activity is fuels contention and divisiveness, and it often carries over into the way in which one chooses an Orthodox parish. A family may go out of their way to travel to the parish in the next town over because the local parish holds joint activities with the Catholic parish, has pews, because the priest believes in biological evolution, or any other number of reasons.  The drive for “correctness” has often landed individuals in schismatic parishes that aren’t even in communion with the greater Orthodox Church. I understand the importance of truth and right worship, and I understand the desire to be around like-minded people, but this isn’t what we are called to. Excessively focusing on these aspects risks turning the faith into an ideology rather than a way of life. Furthermore, it can lead to an escapist mentality that leaves deficient parishes to die when one should instead work along side the parish family to bring improvements and new life about.

The Church is on the Offensive

Matthew 16:18 reads “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” The latter portion of this verse has often been interpreted as a promise to Christians that Satan, hell, or the powers of evil will not destroy the Church. However, in a recent “Be the Bee” video, Steven Christoforou reminds us that gates are not an offensive, but a defensive tool:

Thus when Christ tells us in Matthew 16:18 that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the Church, He is indicating that the Church is on the offensive against Hades rather than  defending against it. Most importantly, Christ is reminding us of the central Christian message, that Christ and therefore the Church overcomes Hades and the powers of death. This interpretation of Matthew 16:18 turns popular alternatives on their heads, but it is clearly the more obvious reading of the verse.

Review of Marcus Plested’s Orthodox Readings of Aquinas

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In Orthodox Readings of Aquinas, Marcus Plested argues that the historical use of scholastic methods and philosophy, and the reception of Thomas Aquinas among the Orthodox, bears little resemblance to the picture painted by contemporary polemicists.

The book’s first section, “Greek East and Latin West: An Exercises in Multiple Perspective,” focuses on Aquinas and St. Gregory Palamas, who are often presented as exemplars of two irreconcilable theological perspectives. Plested argues however, that Aquinas is much more “Greek” and apophatic in his theology, and Palamas more “Scholastic” and rational in his methods than is often suggested. The primary example of this for Aquinas is his reliance not on the Latin St. Augustine, as one would expect, but on the Greek St. John Chrysostom who “… is the single most cited author…” in all of Aquinas’ work. (18) Furthermore, Plested identifies the mystical thread running throughout all of Aquinas’ works, and emphasizes that “… any presentation of Thomas that paints him as an out-and-out rationalist… will fall short of the truth. (14) Plested then highlights that Palamas was “… praised for his mastery of Aristotle…” and logic, and penned theological works that were just as systematic and, dare one say, scholastic as those of Aquinas. Perhaps the most important of Plested’s revelations in this first section is that there existed no clear division between Scholastics and anti-Palamites on the one hand, and anti-Scholastics and and anti-Palamites on the other has no basis in history. In fact, the record shows that some of Palamas’ chief rivals, such as Barlaam of Calabria, were opponents of logic and rational argument within the theological discipline.

Section two, “Byzantine Readings of Aquinas,” is a chronological survey that details how Aquinas was received in the Christian East during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Plested demonstrates that Aquinas was widely read among Orthodox intellectuals and hierarchs, and even had loyal followers who used his works to defend Orthodox Christianity and Palamism against the Latin West. Gennadios Scholarios, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople from 1454 to 1464 CE, provides this praise and lamentation of Aquinas:

If only, most excellent Thomas, you had not been born in the West! Then you would not have been obliged to justify the errors of that Church concerning, for instance, the procession of the Spirit and the distinction between the divine essence and operation. Then you would have been as infallible in theological matters as you are in this treatise on ethics. (132)

Methods one might today label as “Scholastic” were also widely used throughout these centuries, even by stalwart defenders of the Orthodox faith, such as St. Mark of Ephesus:”Like Palamas and indeed Aquinas he expressly commends and embraces syllogistic reasoning even in the highest realms of theology – so long as proper subservience to the authority of scripture and the Fathers be maintained.”

The third and final section, “Ottoman Era and Modern Orthodox Readings of Aquinas,” surveys receptions of Aquinas in both Orthodox Greece and Orthodox Russia from the fall of Constantinople to our modern era. Here Plested shows that the staunch opposition to Aquinas one finds in modern Orthodox thinkers like Lossky and Romanides has not been the prevailing position since the advent of Aquinas’ works in the Orthodox East, but is rather unique to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. After the Greek Church fell under the rule of the Ottomans, engagement and appreciation for Aquinas continued:

… Gennadios’ anti-unionist but otherwise pro-Latin stance achieved normative status in this period… [Aquinas] remains in the days of the Ottoman Empire, as in the Byzantine, a prominent interlocutor and recurrent resource for Orthodox theology. (169)

Plested notes that appreciation for Scholasticism and Thomism found its way into the Kievan school of Orthodox thought, and even became its preferred method of inquiry and pedagogy. Even St. Dimitri of Rostov’s theological works indicate that he was well-versed in Aquinas, as they bear, in Plested’s words, “… unmistakable traces of his Western learning.” (175)

Plested then moves to considerations of how the Enlightenment, bringing with it challenges to Thomism and traditional Christianity in general, shaped Orthodox engagement with Aquinas. With Thomism’s decrease in popularity, Greek theological scholars found less with which to engage, and thus Orthodox Greece is relatively silent on matters of Thomism during this era. In Russia, however, a Slavophile distrust of rationality and scholasticism arose, which eventually found expressions in the works of Pavel Florensky and then Vladimir Lossky. Others, such as Sergius Bulgakov, accused Aquinas’ philosophy of a fatal subservience to Aristotle. Such unflattering treatments continued in the twentieth century neo-Patristic works of Orthodox thinkers, namely Lossky, Romanides, and Christos Yannaris. However, Orthodox scholar Fr. Georges Florovsky adopted a subtler position, claiming that “The antithesis of “West and East” belongs more to the polemical and publicistic phraseology than to sober historical thinking.” (198) This criticism was aimed primarily at Lossky, whom Florovsky thought had exaggerated tensions between East and West in his works, and had further failed to acknowledge that there were tensions even within the Eastern tradition itself, such as those between the Christian schools of Alexandria and Antioch. Where Lossky had, in Florovsky’s estimation, too easily dismissed the West, Florovsky saw “… creative possibilities… for Orthodox engagement with Western medieval theology-with Aquinas and Scotus especially in mind.” (201) This is, Plested notes,  “… a far cry from the positions of Lossky and Bulgakov.”

In Florovsky, Plested sees an exemplar for how the future of Orthodox theological scholarship and engagement ought to operate: “Florovsky is… something of a hero of this study.” (203) Plested concludes by identifying those who he believes have followed in Florovsky’s footsteps, paying Western theology its due respect. Such individuals include Olivier Clement, Archimandrite Lev Gillet, Fr. Dumitru Staniloae, and Met. Kallistos Ware.

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Plested’s Orthodox Readings of Aquinas is a valuable historical contribution that highlights the contrast between Thomas Aquinas’ initial reception among Orthodox Christians and the way in which he has been received and described by his Orthodox critics in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Plested persuasively argues that a lack serious engagement with Western theology and especially Scholasticism is working to the detriment of Orthodox thought. However, Orthodox Readings of Aquinas, while being concerned primarily with the philosophical methods and attitudes of both East and West spends little time actually detailing them. Throughout the book one is provided examples of Orthodox thinkers who did or did not view Aquinas favorably, but insufficient space is dedicated to explaining, philosophically, the reasons Aquinas’ ideas were received as they were by the noted individuals in the Orthodox East. An especially noteworthy omission are details regarding how pro-Palamite Thomists in the East reconciled the essence-energies distinction of St. Gregory Palamas and the Absolute Divine Simplicity of Aquinas. This, however, should not be held against Plested, whose task was to provide a historical rather than philosophical exposition of Aquinas’ reception among the Orthodox.

This volume is an invaluable resource for those wishing to know the “who, where, and when” of Aquinas’ reception among the Orthodox; however, deeper philosophical and theological questions regarding why and how Aquinas was received as he was is a topic left to be explored elsewhere.

 

Can Human Self-Awareness be Exhaustively Explained by Science?

 

 

Since the enlightenment, it has become ever more acceptable to believe that the category of existence, or things that are real, is limited to phenomena composed of matter. The naturalist asserts that if it is not constructed of material parts, then it does not exist at all. This and other such claims, however, betray their veracity from the onset because they rely on metaphysics in their appeal to a source of validation beyond the material realm. This is because materialism has no method by which it can prove this claim as a brute fact; one cannot prove that only matter exists by observing matter. Beyond this are additional problems. This materialist view excludes all things qualitative, be they experiences of music, visual art, beauty, love, and so on. The most interesting phenomenon excluded by this materialist perspective is the very means by which one has the capacity for qualitative experiences: self-awareness.

Philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers notes that we humans “play movies” in our heads that project to us real time observations, dreams, memories, ideas, and other mental images. What is fascinating about these experiences is not the “movies” themselves, but that there is a “me” that is observing and experiencing them.

Before progressing further, I want to emphasize a distinction that highlights the primary focus of my argument. By claiming that human consciousness and self-awareness cannot be exhaustively explained by science, I do not mean that science cannot observe and explain self-awareness right now, but might find a way in the future. What I mean is that this “me,” this observer, this subject cannot ever be accessed and quantified by the scientific method because it isn’t quantitative but rather qualitative, and the aim of science is to observe and explain that which is quantifiable.

In light of of this qualitative problem of self-awareness, some have posited a radical hypothesis: self-awareness is an illusion. If they are correct, then my argument is moot from here on out because there is no use arguing for something that doesn’t exist. This claim, however, is not merely radical. It seems outright absurd, for it denies the very phenomenon that, for centuries, has been held by epistemologists to be the chief certainty among our human experiences. There is even a school of philosophy, solipsism, that argues that our self-awareness is the only thing we can know exists.

To question self-awareness is to introduce contradiction from the outset, for if one asks “do I exist?” they must also necessarily ask “well, who is asking?” In other words, the question cannot even be posed without presupposing the existence of the self, the subject. To deny self-awareness is not only denying that there is a “you” experiencing the world, hearing music, viewing a film, etc.; it is denying that there is a “you” or a “me” at all. It is to propose that the foundation and awareness of each of our subjective experiences, the means through which we observe, interact with and know the world doesn’t actually exist. It is the most absurd of absurdities; it is to deny the most obvious aspect of our existence.

With that in place, the central question of this post is introduced: Can human self-awareness be exhaustively explained by science?

The scientific method is a system by which its employers seek to answer questions about the natural world. Scientists pose a question about some phenomenon in the universe and seek to answer the question through observation, testing, and re-testing their findings to control for anomalies and establish regularity. Thus in order for the scientific method to answer questions and offer new facts and knowledge about what is being observed, the phenomenon being observed must be 1) generally observable (meaning observable by most everyone, given the proper tools and sensory abilities) and 2) falsifiable. If a phenomenon isn’t observable, then it cannot be studied, and if it is not falsifiable, then there is nothing to be discovered about the phenomenon, at least as far as the scientific method is concerned. To answer the question central to this article in the affirmative, it must be demonstrated that human self-awareness is 1) observable and 2) falsifiable.

There is indeed a sense in which human self-awareness is observable; it is implied by the very term itself. The self can observe their own awareness. However, subjective observations or experiences are not adequate methods of observation because one’s subjectivity is not accessible to others. Effects related to self awareness can be observed, such as neurological activity in the brain and verbal descriptions of experiences being had. However, these material aspects of self awareness tell us nothing more than there are material aspects associated with self-awareness; they never grant firsthand access to what it is to be the subject.  To reduce human self-awareness to these material processes and observable constituents is akin to saying that one viewing a painting is nothing more than the painting’s material components or that, in Chalmer’s “movie” example, one isn’t the viewer of the movie, but the movie itself.

At this point, some may object to my claim that self-awareness will never be the kind of thing science can observe and argue that, while it is currently incapable of directly observing consciousness, science may eventually develop the tools necessary for making such a direct observation. To see why this argument fails, consider what it would mean to directly observe one’s self awareness. It would require that one, in essence, become the subject being observed, given that one’s self awareness, as previously stated, is the thing that makes me “me.” My self-awareness isn’t merely the movie of dreams, memories, and real-time experiences I am having, and one’s observation of these things would not be observing self-awareness, but rather that which the self is aware of. Self-awareness, in other words, is the very means by which I observe and have experiences of these visualizations. Thus even if scientists are one day capable of seeing my mental images, hearing my mental sounds, etc. they are still not accessing the “me” that sees and hears these things, but merely the things I see and hear.

Because self-awareness is not directly observable, it necessarily follows that scientific questions regarding consciousness are not falsifiable via the scientific method. Can human self-awareness and consciousness be exhaustively explained by science? Clearly, they cannot.

For further reading and viewing on this topic, I recommend the following:

“God and the Mad Hatter,” and article by David Bentley Hart

“What is Consciousness?” from the PBS tv program Closer to Truth

The Logical Pitfalls of the Pro-choice Position

With the recent release of several undercover videos purporting to reveal that Planned Parenthood illegally extracts the organs from aborted infants and then sells them to other parties for research purposes, abortion is an even greater hot-button issue than it was previously. However, while these videos seek to inform the public about the inner workings of Planned Parenthood, and perhaps to sway pro-choice individuals with their disturbing revelations, the truth is that abortion is an immoral action regardless of what undercover videos may or may not reveal. What these videos demonstrate is that it is easier for individuals to accept disturbing practices when they are out of sight and out of mind.

I am convinced that if pro-choice advocates truly understood the conclusions that necessarily follow from their arguments, they would abandon their defenses, or at least take pro-life advocates more seriously. In this article I consider the most often heard arguments for abortion rights and highlight their problems in hope that it might lead some to reconsider their views.

Argument 1: Abortion should be legal, but limited to a specified time-frame.

I have only ever heard two forms of this argument, though there may be others. Some pro-choice advocates believe abortion should be legal until the fetus develops a nervous system and can experience pain, arguing that it is inhumane to cause pain to any life form. There is a considerable amount of debate about at what point a fetus begins to feel pain, but most health professionals usually state that it occurs somewhere between twenty and twenty-four weeks gestation. Other pro-choice individuals hold that abortion should be illegal once the human-in-utero can survive outside of her mother’s womb, which is possible from twenty-four weeks onward. That thirty-eight of the fifty United States ban abortions at or before the point of viability, demonstrates that this view is widely supported.

Regardless of which of the two considered positions the advocate of limited abortion rights adopts, the logical conclusions that necessarily follow are quite disturbing. For instance, if one holds that abortion should be legal so long as the fetus being terminated does not experience pain, one is essentially claiming that either a) the state should only recognize a life as valuable so long as it is capable of suffering and/or b) it should be legally permissible to terminate a human life form if it experiences no pain from said termination. It logically follows, according to this position, that the value or life rights of any human being, whether in gestation or 125 years old, are dependent on their potential to experience pain. My guess, though, is that advocates of this view would hesitate to support a law that would make murder or infanticide legal so long as it was committed in such a manner that no pain was experienced by the victim.

One might argue that it is not simply the absence of pain alone that makes terminating a pregnancy justifiable, but the lack of other characteristics that make up the human experience. This view is considered further in point 3.

Those who base the permissibility of abortion on the fetus’ viability, or potential to survive outside of the womb, overlook the fact that, while the infant is no longer dependent on the biological mother for its survival, it must be cared for in order to survive. However, if abortion rights are primarily rooted in a woman’s right to do with her body as she chooses, and if a human-in-utero has no legal claim on his/her biological mother, then one must ask why (or whether) the mere change in the infant’s physical location grants it rights. In other words, why is it legally permissible for the biological mother to terminate the human-in-utero while it is within her womb, but it is not permissible for the infant to be terminated or even neglected outside the womb? After all, the infant is still dependent on others for her survival and will die if not cared for. There is thus a glaring logical contradiction in this legal reasoning. On the one hand, advocates of this position believe that a fetus has no legal claim on the biological mother while in utero, but they believe that once the infant is removed from the biological mother’s womb it has a legal right to survival, yet all that has changed is the infant’s physical location. There is no reasonable basis for holding that a mere change in one’s environment bestows or rescinds her life rights.

This brings us to the second, closely related argument for abortion rights.

2. Abortion should be legal at all points during the pregnancy because a woman has exclusive rights over her person.

Although even many pro-choice advocates see the position as problematic, the conviction that a woman should have the legal right to have an abortion at any point during her pregnancy is held by a sizeable number of pro-choice advocates. Furthermore, aborting infants during the third trimester remains legal in several U.S. states. The argument for this position, as previously stated, is that a woman has exclusive rights over her person and thus has the liberty to choose whether to continue to support the human-in-utero that is dependent upon her. The first issue with this argument, which is also the reason many states have made abortion illegal once the infant is deemed “viable,” is that defending a woman’s abortion rights only necessitates ending the life of the human-in-utero during the first twenty-three weeks of pregnancy. From twenty-four weeks onward, it is no longer necessary to terminate the life of the human-in-utero to maintain a woman’s right over her person.

The second, and most unsettling problem with this position is that it opens the door to infanticide. Some have already argued that infanticide, like abortion, should be legal. Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, in an article published by the Journal of Medical Ethics, write:

[W]hen circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible. … [W]e propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide,’ to emphasize that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus … rather than to that of a child. Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be. Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk. (Source)

While many will rush to label this position as “extreme” and “irrational”, it has strengths in light of certain defenses given for abortion rights. For instance, if a thirty-four week-old infant inside the mother’s womb can be terminated, why can’t a thirty-four week old infant outside the womb be terminated? One may respond that since the infant is no longer necessarily dependent on the mother, the mother no longer has a right to dictate what happens to the infant, though this argument only works for those who believe abortion should be illegal from the point of viability. Those who hold that abortion should be legal for the entire duration of the pregnancy, including the period of viability, but argue that infanticide should be illegal base their argument on an arbitrary boundary that has no logical support. Other than physical location, which provides no real grounds for terminating a fetus, there is no difference between a viable infant in the womb and a viable infant outside the womb.

3. Abortion should be legal because a human embryo or fetus is not a person.

The greatest weakness of the position that a human embryo or fetus is not a person is that all attempts to define “person” in such a way that it excludes human embryos and fetuses are either fallacious or result in disturbing logical conclusions. The first argument given by advocates of this position is that personhood is a legal concept defined by the state and thus whether or not a fetus is a person depends on the dictates of the state. If it is indeed the case that the recognition of personhood is dependent upon the state, this extends to all individuals and not just fetuses. At several points in history, one cultural group or society has questioned the personhood of another group or society. For instance, when Europeans explorers first encountered indigenous peoples in North and South America they argued over whether these natives were people. During the era of slavery in the United States, many flat-out denied that people of African descent were persons, or saw them as persons, but persons of a lesser status. Pseudoscientific attempts were even made to argue that African slaves were not human, but apes.

If those who argue that personhood and the rights associated with it are dependent upon the state’s definition of personhood, they are logically required to hold that a human being, regardless of age, religion, or race, is not a person with rights unless the state says so.

Others claiming that a fetus is not a person avoid the above problems by arguing that personhood is not a legal concept, but a philosophical concept independent of legal statutes. This position, however, is plagued by its own fissures. The philosopher Daniel Dennett argues that for something to be considered a person, it must meet the following criteria:

For X to be a person X must be:

  1. A rational being.
  2. A being to which intentional predicates are ascribed.
  3. A being towards which a certain attitude, the personal stance, is taken.
  4. A being that is capable of reciprocating (3).
  5. A being that is capable of verbal communication.
  6. A being that is self-conscious.

Source

One who adheres to Dennett’s criteria is not necessarily guilty of fallacious reasoning, but they do hold to a system that would condone views most find objectionable, especially if Dennett believes an individual must meet all six of his criteria to be considered a person. The most fundamental criterion on Dennett’s list, and the criterion upon which the other five criteria depend, is self-consciousness. A person is not able to think rationally, intend actions, or communicate in a meaningful way unless they are aware that they exist and are the origin of these actions. The problem with basing personhood on self-consciousness, though, is that experts aren’t exactly sure when it arises, and furthermore there are several stages of self-consciousness. Can personhood be established on a factor that is itself so difficult to establish? Is even the most basic level of self-consciousness enough to qualify an individual as a person?

While cognitive scientists disagree about when self-consciousness develops, most agree that it originates, at its most basic levels, between twelve and twenty-four months. If one posits that 1) self-consciousness is a criteria for personhood as Dennett does, 2) agrees that self-consciousness develops at twelve to twenty-four months of age, and 3) believes that abortion is morally permissible because the human-in-utero is not a person, then it logically follows that any human creature that lacks self-consciousness, such as a one-year-old child, is likewise not a person and thus has no right to life.

There are likely other philosophical critera and arguments for what makes an entity a person, but since my purpose here is only to highlight the difficulties with basing abortion rights on lack of personhood are problematic due to the difficulty of establishing what exactly constitutes a person, and finding a definition of personhood that avoids disturbing conclusions.

4. Abortion should be legal because making it illegal would fail to solve or even exacerbate the problem.

This popular go-to argument, in its full form, rhetorically states that prohibiting abortion would only make things worse because women would still get abortions, but they would be forced to have dangerous, “back-alley abortions” rather than having the procedure carried out in a controlled, sterile, safe environment. Abortions are still going to happen, they argue, so why not at least make sure the procedure is safe for the mother? Advocates of this view are quick to cite studies and statistics that show that countries with more restrictions on abortion do not have less abortions, and in some cases even have a higher abortion rate.

These statistics would have force if they demonstrated that restricting abortion causes increase in abortion, but all they show is correlation. Statistical correlation indicates a relationship between some occurrence -be it a behavior, event, or spread of an idea- and the data. What is crucial to recognize, though, is that correlation is not necessarily causation. For example, data might show that a certain ethnic group has a higher average lifespan than other ethnic groups, but this information alone would not justify concluding that the longer lifespan is due solely to the group’s ethncity. It might be the case that this ethnic group has cultural and dietary customs that result in a healthier lifestyle. Without further scrutiny and data, it is likewise erroneous to claim that stricter abortion laws cause higher abortion rates. As Ross Douthat argues, “…many of the countries where abortion is illegal are located in Africa or Latin America. These countries have much higher poverty rates and a higher incidence of other social pathologies which may increase the perceived need for abortion.” He further highlights that when states with similar socioeconomic conditions are compared to one another, those with stricter abortion laws are seen to have lower abortion rates. For example, conservative U.S. states with stricter abortion laws typically have lower abortion rates than liberal U.S. states with less restrictive abortion laws (source). Furthermore, the two most Catholic European countries, Poland and Ireland, have much lower abortion rates than than other European countries with more secular inclinations.

The statistics are really beside the point, though, since the greatest problem with the argument here being considered is that it is essentially claiming that, if people are going to keep doing something anyways, that something should remain legal. It is easy for many to accept the argument when that something people are doing is abortion, but what if it was instead murder. After all, it is clear that murder continues to occur despite its being illegal. Does this mean murder should be condoned?

5. Abortion should be legal because sometimes it is necessary to save the life of the mother.

I admit that this is the argument to which I am most sympathetic, especially because if abortion was restricted only to such cases it would decrease the annual rate in the U.S. from approximately one million to less than ten thousand (source 1, source 2). Furthermore, many cases in which the mother’s life is threatened by her pregnancy are ectopic pregnancies in which the human-in-utero will not survive. In such cases the termination of the fetus is justifiable since the fetus has no chance of survival and failing to terminate would additionally result in the death of the mother. Even the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church, two of the world’s most pro-life religious institutions, condone preventative measures in such cases. Roman Catholics maintain that it is never permissible to directly terminate a pregnancy, but the Doctrine of Double Effect allows for life-saving actions that may result in unintended, unfortunate consequences.

Conclusion

Abortion is an unfortunate reality with which we are forced to grapple in modern society, but it doesn’t have to be, especially since there are many problems with the arguments utilized by pro-choice advocates. Arguments for abortion are often logically contradictory and risk opening the door to further atrocities. That said, it is likely that the greatest barrier to overcoming abortion will not be convincing people that their arguments are fallacious, but transcending the utilitarian, materialistic worldview that reinforces the pro-choice agenda. As a good friend of mine recently wrote, the “consumer-utilitarian culture,” as he calls it, is “the same cultural mindset that enslaved the world for the economic success, tends to think of abortion as a useful tool to maintain our potential success and happiness in modern life. Life is the modern world seems to be thought in terms of convenience and utility. At the heart of this debate, seems to be, “In the Pursuit of Happiness”, without ever defining what “Happiness” is.”

I hope my words are received well by those who stumble across them since I have tried my best to express myself charitably. I should also emphasize that, although I am adamantly pro-life, I do not judge those who have had an abortion. I have argued in this article against the act of abortion in general, which I believe should be judged and condemned.

As always I welcome feedback, and I am happy to amend my posts when necessary.