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Of falling trees and other deep philosophical questions

By Alisa Craddock
web posted April 21, 2008

Do you remember that philosophical question that floats around from time to time about a tree falling in a forest?  It goes like this:  If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one around to hear it, did it make a sound?

I wanted to be sure I remembered it correctly, so I checked online.  The WikiAnswer was consistent with what I remembered:   "Everything that vibrates the air creates the potential for sound, regardless of what conscious being is there to perceive it in the first place. If there is nothing to perceive it occurring, then it could not exist. Sound is a subjective interaction with matter. All sound is, is vibrations through a medium [sic], without humans to perceive it, those vibrations that we call sound, when the tree fell, would make vibrations, but "sound" as we know it, couldn't exist, since no conscious being was there to interpret those vibrations." (my emphasis)

The issue of this so-called philosophical question (for it seems to me rather more a scientific question than a philosophical one) came up during a correspondence regarding how to argue for pro-life.  My remarks went thus:

"…the burden of proof may fall on you [pro-lifers] to prove that the gestating little guy really is a human being? It's a no-brainer for us, but do you remember the question: If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one around to hear it, was any sound produced? The objective answer is, "of course". The vibrations still occurred, their frequency was unique to that moment, and distinct from, say, the frequency of the screeching of the birds who were disturbed when the tree fell. But we're dealing with people who say "that depends on what the definition of 'is' is. They think in subjective terms--that the existence of sound depends on the availability of ears. It's a very effective defense against the clear din of reason because it confuses everyone with sophistical [balderdash]."

I went on to suggest that "we may have to prove it's a human being (which could
definitely work to our advantage if we point out the fallacy of the high court taking it upon themselves to declare that it might not be...)"

This conversation took place about three years ago, but I found myself thinking about that "philosophy" question again when I read the statements of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton regarding "when life begins".

Clinton's answer, at Messiah College's "Compassion Forum, seemed to tinker with the question (she doesn't want to seem uncompassionate, now), but her position is well known, and she simply restated it:  "I believe the potential for life begins at conception," she said.

Potential for life.  It isn't a life, I guess, until Mommy decides it is.  Clinton goes on to say, "For me, it is also not only about a potential life. It is about the other lives involved. ...I have concluded, after great, you know, concern and searching my own mind and heart over many years, ...that individuals must be entrusted to make this profound decision, because the alternative would be such an intrusion of government authority that it would be very difficult to sustain in our kind of open society.

Funny, it wasn't considered an "intrusion of government authority" 50 years ago.  It was just understood that you don't kill your babies.  I didn't think it represented an "intrusion of government authority" to protect innocent human life.  Ah, but we're talking about "potential life", aren't we?  And that's what this whole conflict is about, isn't it. 

Unlike Clinton, Barack Obama admitted he doesn't know when life begins:  "This is something that I have not, I think, come to a firm resolution on," Obama said in a separate appearance at the same college. "I think it's very hard to know what that means, when life begins. Is it when a cell separates?  Is it when the soul stirs? ... What I know, as I've said before, is that there is something extraordinarily powerful about potential life and that that has a moral weight to it that we take into consideration when we're having these debates."

There's that word again.  POTENTIAL.  Potential for soundPotential for life.  The thing we have to note here is that this subject, like the issue of sound, has been slid from the category of science over to philosophy.  From objective to subjective.

Of course, the real question, the one that "potential for life" seems to skirt, is the issue of whether or not a soul has been created, because, to use Obama's words, there is something extraordinarily powerful about [the existence of a soul] and that has a moral weight to it. 

The church settled the question long ago when it declared that the soul is created at the moment of conception.  (There is an example from Scripture, often cited from Luke 1:39-42.

"Right after hearing the news of Elizabeth's miraculous pregnancy, "Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechari'ah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!'"

It seems unlikely that Elizabeth's 6 month fetus would have leaped in his mother's womb over a vegetable, or a potential life with no soul.  He was, rather, immediately sanctified by the presence of the life in Mary's womb.  And Elizabeth further said, "Who am I that the Mother of My Lord should come to me?"  The child had an identity at conception.   "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you."  Jer 1:5.

To acknowledge the soul, however, would violate the First Amendment, because the idea of a soul (in our modern world) would be considered a theological issue, having no place in a secular society.  It would also verify in the most vivid way the sanctity of life, which pro-abortion folks simply must deny.

Soul or no soul, the question of whether life begins at conception is, on its face, an absurd one. As anyone who isn't invincibly or selectively ignorant knows by now, the fact of the humanity of the newly conceived child has been decisively answered by genetic research.

"It is at this moment that both fertilization and human life begins and the cell divides into 2 cells, then 4 cells, 8 cells, 16 cells and so forth until the complete human body is formed," writes Dr. Frederick T. Zugibe.  He went on to explain, "Dr Alec Jeffreys developed a method to isolate common core sequences on the DNA for identification purposes ( 4, 5 ). The term "DNA fingerprinting" was born and now for the first time, geneticists could demonstrate that the DNA in every cell of every person contains a code unique to that individual, like the bar codes in the supermarket."

Which has established (if you needed to be told the obvious) that a fertilized egg is a unique human person with a complete genetic pattern from conception -- a human pattern, not a puppy, not a tomato, not an inanimate object, but a person, that at once begins to grow.  It is an absurd question to ask if the conceived child is a human being or whether or not it is alive

Clinton also added that abortion should remain legal, safe and rare (how compassionate of her).  The question of the safety of abortion is increasingly surfacing in stories of botched abortions, coerced abortions, and post traumatic stress disorder associated with abortions.  But rare?  We've murdered 50,000,000 "potential" lives in this country.  Is that what Clinton calls rare?  I guess if Mrs. Clinton can delude herself into believing she was caught in sniper fire, it's a piece of cake to delude herself into thinking that a newly conceived life isn't life yet, or that 50,000,000 abortions represents a level of occurrence one would reasonably consider "rare".

Obama is slicker.  He speaks of moral struggles about when life begins, or whether the unborn child has a soul, but as an Illinois senator, his response to Jill Stanek's story of the infant born alive who was left in a linen closet to die reveals that his philosophy is no different than Clinton's (worse in fact).   Here's what he said:

"Whenever we define a pre-viable fetus as a person that is protected by the Equal Protection Clause or the other elements in the Constitution, what we're really saying is, in fact, that they are persons that are entitled to the kinds of protections that would be provided to a -- a child, a 9-month old -- child that was delivered to term. That determination then, essentially, if it was accepted by a court, would forbid abortions to take place. I mean, it -- it would essentially bar abortions, because the Equal Protection Clause does not allow somebody to kill a child, and if this is a child, then this would be an anti-abortion statute." After listening to her heart wrenching story, he told her that his concern was that she was suggesting that "doctors really don't care about children who are being born with a reasonable prospect of life because they are so locked into their pro-abortion views that they would watch an infant that is viable die." He told her, "That may be your assessment, and I don't see any evidence of that. What we are doing here is to create one more burden on a woman and I can't support that."

So it seems to me that Mr. Obama doesn't have a moral struggle regarding the humanity of an unborn child.  It is a calculated decision to reject the very notion of the life and humanity, and the soul of a pre-born baby.  That would make killing it murder.

Wouldn't want a woman to be "punished with a baby", would we, Senator?  Even if there is absolutely no doubt even in your mind that the baby was alive. ESR

Alisa Craddock is a columnist and activist in the culture war, a convert to Catholicism, and describes herself as a Christian Libertarian.  She may be contacted at alisa.craddock at hushmail.com.


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