One Soul Or Two?

One Soul Or Two? April 6, 2015

One Soul or Two

When I saw this graphic, I knew I had to share it. I actually raise this issue in a number of my classes, to highlight the difficult questions that are often simply ignored by those who use phrases such as “life begins at conception” as though they were indisputable. Life is present long before conception, and consciousness – if that involves a brain – is not there until well after. And so, far from being a clear-cut matter, the question of when we should speak of a “person” who has rights and so on, is ambiguous, and while we must draw dividing lines for legal reasons – as we do between adults and minors – those lines are drawn arbitrarily (some people are mature before they turn 18, and others remain immature even beyond that age).

"In his beautiful book "The Mystery of Christ" and also his new work that challenges ..."

Trinity and Love
"I'm thinking about connecting Galatians 3:28 with Mark 12:25, because- "There is no longer Jew ..."

What Jesus Learned from Junia
"“I wonder if Junia's standing as an apostle of note in the early Christian movement ..."

What Jesus Learned from Junia
"Sorry for being late to the discussion but something interesting but often neglected was the ..."

Reformers: Comparing Muhammad and Martin Luther

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment

    And when one twin envelops the other and a chimera is formed, does that person have one soul or two? What if one twin is male and the other female and they merge into one person? It happens. If God doesn’t make mistakes, then He makes people whose sexual it is not binary.

    • Jonathan Bernier

      Oh, no, Rebecca, that’s not God. That’s the corruption of creation brought about when naughty Adam and naughty Eve ate an apple, due to the peer pressure exerted by a talking snake. I mean, that’s way more reasonable an explanation than the results of diligent scientific inquiry, right?

  • The solution to the puzzle is that if you have a brain, you have a soul. But let’s consider it a dormant soul until it awakens. The first short term memory should suffice.

    • lmntCrans

      so, since he has a short term memory, my dog has a soul. Do all dogs go to heaven?

      • Shiphrah99

        MY dogs do!

        • Gary

          And my cats (and dog).

      • Don’t we all want our beloved pets to join us in the afterlife? I believe any animal which is capable of interspecies compassion or love, will be drawn to the greatest source of love energy when they die. Call that Heaven or The Kingdom of God.

        • lmntCrans

          I’d also like wings, measureless wealth and a pony. Guess what, objectively, all those things have in common?

    • So any animal more complicated than a sponge has a soul?

      • Artemiy

        Please don’t discriminate against sponges…

        • Oh, I love sponges, regardless of whether they have brains or souls.

      • If it has a brain and if it can love, then why exclude it from having a soul?

        • Because I exclude even myself from having a soul. I think and love quite well, I think, but I have no idea what a “soul” would add to the mix.

  • Fernando Diez Cantera

    How about 0 souls but 2 human beings after twinning. You dont need to believe in religion or the human soul to defend someone s right to life.

    • How about the thousands of sperm that fought to inseminate that egg in the first place? Don’t they have a right to life?

      • Jeff

        The difference between the zygote/embyo/fetus and sperm cells, skin cells, legs, internal organs, cancer cells, and every other canard that you can sarcastically hurl at the pro-life position, is that the former is a complete human organism and none of the others are, and there is no dispute about this among biologists.

        • David Evans

          Instead of “life begins at conception” a better slogan might be “the life of the individual begins at conception”. But then, how many lives began at the conception of what went on to become twins? How many individuals were there at the start?

          • And how many such individuals are aborted naturally through miscarriage? Far more than are aborted through medical means.

        • Hogwash. Biologists don’t universally define a fertilized egg as a “complete human organism”.

        • Nick G

          On the contrary, in biological terms the sperm is as much a complete human organism as the zygote. The fact that it is haploid rather than diploid is irrelevant: it is a member of the species Homo sapiens.

      • Gary

        I think a politician said everyone deserves a chicken in every pot. I think every sperm deserves an egg in every … Well, never mind.

      • Fernando Diez Cantera

        They may be a form of life but they are not human, you need both sperm and egg.

        • Ian

          You’re just begging the question.

          What form of life is a human ovum? What species?

          What form of life is a blastocyst?

          What about ova in species that do not require sperm in all cases to divide and develop? How do they become their target species?

          What about fertilization of ova without sperm in mammals? Do they never become their true species?

          All you’ve done is made a blank claim : this is human, this is not, because you say so.

          • Fernando Diez Cantera

            Never heard of eggs that develop without fusing with sperm, do you have an example?
            The blastocyst is just an early stage of development of an animal.

          • Ian

            You didn’t answer my questions.

            There are many species that can develop without sperm. Natural parthenogenesis is common in vast numbers of species, with mammals being an obvious exception. Induced parthenogenesis has been observed in mammal species, however, possibly including humans (‘possibly’ because doing so is illegal, but there is evidence that it has been done). Then, of course, there are many other species that don’t reproduce sexually at all. Or that recombine sexually independently of reproduction.

            > The blastocyst is just an early stage of development of an animal.

            So a parthenogenetic blastocyst is the same species as its adult form?

        • And even if you were to make the arbitrary distinction that a fertilized human egg is a person, why aren’t pro-life advocates fighting to prevent early term miscarriages, vastly more common in occurrence than clinical abortions?

          • Fernando Diez Cantera

            Not an arbitrary distinction.
            Embryo: an organism in the earliest stage of development, in a man from the time of conception to the end of the second trimester. Medical dictionary.
            I dont even know if we have the technology to avoid early miscarriages, but abortions can be avoided.

          • Ian

            The point is that, if folks who oppose abortion took their own rhetoric seriously, then miscarriage would be the largest cause of death worldwide, utterly dwarfing every other cause of death combined.

            There would be very little point in investing in any other disease or medical treatment, since the mortality rates of other diseases are mere rounding errors compared to the number of miscarriages. Yet there is no organised vocal political movement to take this massive death-toll seriously.

            This isn’t happening, because everyone understands that these embryos are not people with the same medical rights. It is just convenient to pretend so when it comes to exerting sexual control. Pro-lifers aren’t worried about the hundreds of millions (possibly more) deaths of fetuses each year from miscarriage, because it isn’t a tool in their culture war.

          • Noone questions whether a fertilized egg is an organism. A bacteria is an organism. The arbitrary distinction is to define a fertilized egg as a “person”.

            But if pro-life advocates are determined to define a fertilized egg as a person, where is the flood of money and activism they are spending to prevent miscarriages?

          • Fernando Diez Cantera

            Bacteria may be an organism but it s not human, same with a dog or a cat.
            The point we are trying to make is that person equals human being, no matter how developed.

          • I know what your point is, but you have failed to argue it’s validity. A single fertilized cell or a blastocyst of undifferentiated cells cannot be called a “person” in any meaningful sense.

            I do think that a person with feelings and the beginnings of thought processes is in the womb sometime before birth takes place, and that there are hard questions to answer about the stages at which a person begins to develop and what that means in terms of prenatal care. But to call conception the “moment” of personhood is arbitrary. There are many medical circumstances in which a pregnancy creates a real danger to the mother’s life. In such circumstances, a mother should never be barred from an early term abortion for the sake of her health.

          • Fernando Diez Cantera

            Well everything between fertilization and birth is subjective, in fact you cant say a baby is very conscious either. It may be dificult to see a single cell embryo as a human being but every line you draw, 12th week 24th week or birth doesn t separate human from non human.
            Sometimes it may be necessary to stop a pregnancy for health reasons but that s a minority.

          • You are right, the question of when a person develops in the womb is entirely subjective. Virtually everything growing in the mother’s body is “human”; not everything in the mother’s body is a person.

            There are already cases in which doctors fear lawsuits for performing medically necessary abortions for a woman’s health and safety.

  • Jeff

    Questions about “when does the organism acquire a soul?” aren’t crucial to the question of when life begins. From the moment of conception, a distinct organism, and thus a “human life”, exists — it is in the earliest developmental stage, but it is, without question, alive, and human, and unique, and is therefore a human life, whether it’s a “person”, a “soul”, or what have you. There isn’t really any dispute about this.

    The question you raise, and that is often raised, pertains to what rights a life at this stage enjoys. My personal feeling is that this may be the wrong trajectory along which to approach the question; that instead of asking about the (moral) rights of the individual that we are obligated to protect, we might more fruitfully ask (moral) questions about the level of care and support that parents are obligated to provide to their dependent children. I think we have a pretty good and pretty generally uniformly calibrated social concscience regarding the idea that both parents ordinarily owe their dependent children care and support post-birth, and it’s not really a logical leap to run that moral calculus backward in time to pre-birth as well.

    • Andrew Dowling

      The big X factor your leapfrogged over is that post birth the baby is an individual entity; it’s an independent organism. In utero, the baby is in more of a grey zone since it’s is essentially a PART of the mother. One can debate the morality of a mother’s decision to terminate her pregnancy, but the question is should an external party have the right to make that decision for her.

      • Jeff

        It’s not really “part” of the mother, it’s a distinct, complete human organism. If you mean it’s part of the mother in the sense that it can’t survive without her care and support, yes, that’s correct; but a 1 day old can’t survive without care and support from someone other than himself, and ordinarily the parents are understood to have the (moral) obligation to provide that care and support, and to be morally culpable should they fail to discharge that obligation absent some extreme circumstance (or, in the case of adoption, by transferring that obligation — obviously not an option pre-birth, though).

        Putting it differently; the degree of care and support a child needs from its parents exists on a continuum; early on the child needs considerable support, but needs less as he/she grows up. Obviously, before birth, the child needs the most extreme form of support, because he/she is most developmentally immature and biologically fragile.

        • Andrew Dowling

          If you cannot sustain yourself without being inbedded literally within the belly of something ,you are “apart” of it.

          Again, I’m not talking about whether, morally, the mother “should or should not” pursue an abortion (I think that is a very complex topic that depends on much context) . . it’s whether the state should bar a woman from having the choice to make that moral decision on her own. Since that is what the whole abortion debate is about.

          I generally feel it’s immoral for a woman to abort a healthy baby, but say that with a big asterisk as there are lots of variables within each person’s situation, and I do not feel it would be moral for the state to restrict a mother’s ability to make the decision herself.

          • Straw Man

            Without arguing the anti-abortion case, I must say that this argument never sat well with me. What about humans on life support? They are not “independent entities”…

            …but you say, “Ah, but they’re not INSIDE another human being!” True. Trouble is that as you add conditions like this, you’re basically defining what it is to be a fetus, and saying, “Fetuses don’t count because they .”

            Now I’m comfortable eating cows, even though a limpid-eyed creature does to provide my hamburger, and I’m comfortable saying, “Cows don’t have a right not to be hamburger because, well, they’re cows.” But I try not to pretend that I’ve just made a logical argument. I haven’t; I’ve declared my own personal species-ist bigotry against animals that aren’t human but are tasty with mustard.

          • Andrew Dowling

            I fail to see how saying a fetus living inside another person carries with it unique moral/ethical considerations equates to “fetuses don’t count/matter.” I say they do matter, but not in the clear way a person out of the womb does. It is fully logical to say humans who have been born have certain rights that humans not yet born do not have. This is actually the historical precedent. When counting populations, no ancients ever counted pregnant women as two people. They were one person until the birth.

          • Straw Man

            Andrew: you’re focusing on an incidental point. “Don’t matter”, “are OK to be aborted”, “stay crispy in milk”; none of that is germane to my point.

            My point is that your efforts to answer the question, “why is it OK to abort fetuses,” revolve around picking out attributes such as “incapable of independent life,” and then piling on more attributes to distinguish them from, say, people in iron lungs. When you’re done, your collection of attributes will just be a verbose definition of “fetus.” So your real answer to the question, “Why is it OK to abort fetuses?” is, “Because they’re fetuses.”

            Why do they lack rights that anencephalic infants, or adults in a vegetative state, or the severely mentally handicapped, do have? Because they’re on life support AND lacking sentience AND never had sentience AND inside a womb AND haven’t been born yet… in short, because they’re fetuses.

            I’m comfortable with this argument in principle: why was it OK for me to eat a hamburger this evening? Because they’re cows. But comfortable as I am with this argument, I realize that it’s utterly subjective. To someone who thinks cows deserve not to be butchered and eaten, my argument holds no weight.

            In case you’re curious, my view on abortion doesn’t rest in any way on the rights, ontological status, or any other attribute of the fetus. It is simply that the mother is not an incubator. Full stop.

            If a mad doctor took a patient in renal failure and hooked him up to another person’s kidneys, that other person could refuse to serve as a living dialysis machine even if it kills the patient, and even if the patient is sentient, lucid, begs for his life, is the President of the United States, and just invented a cure for cancer but refuses to divulge it unless he is allowed to continue living off the other person’s kidneys.

          • Andrew Dowling

            ? you seemed to have repeated my point for me. I never said it’s OK to abort fetuses because their fetuses, but that their unique state INSIDE another person means the ultimate decisions of life or death should rest with that person ie the mother.

          • Jeff

            Interestingly, I’d mostly agree with the language of your penultimate paragraph, but come to exactly the opposite conclusion: the mother is not an incubator. That’s exactly correct! She is a /mother/; the fetus is her /dependent child/. It just doesn’t analogize well to the “compulsory kidney donation” rhetoric that seems to be popular among those who want to use “the fetus is a parasite!” arguments but soften them for polite society, I guess.

          • Nick G

            Since the fetus is not a child, it is not a dependent child.

          • Jeff

            Child in the relational sense, not the developmental sense.

          • Nick G

            That’s simply begging the question: assuming that the fact that the fetus is biologically the offspring of the woman in whom it is gestating* is morally relevant. The plain fact is that you want to deny pregnant women bodily autonomy which is, precisely, treating them as incubators.

            *In fact, it may not be, given the possibility of surrogacy. Which makes the fact that you are begging the question even clearer if possible: you are assuming exactly the claim you are putting forward: that a pregnant woman is in the same moral position as the mother of an infant.

          • Jeff

            Again, theosition I’m articulating is perfectly coherent and consistent. mYou don’t have to agree with it, but you’re not going in a direction that’s going to discredit it.

            The reason it doesn’t beg the question is that it doesn’t assume, as you do, that the organism’s ontological status changes at birth. It is, at all times, a complete, distinct human organism. It is, at all times, the depndent child of its parents. We ordinarily perceive a moral obligation for parents to care and support their offspring. It’s reasonable to conclude that this obligation therefore covers the entire span of the organism’s life until it reaches adulthood.

    • Bethany

      I’ve always thought about it in terms of “At what stage of development does the fetus aquire whatever property by virtue of which it’s immoral to kill a human in a way most people agree it’s not immoral to kill a chicken.”

      I don’t see it in terms of being alive — of course the fetus is alive, if it weren’t the woman wouldn’t need an abortion — or in terms of “unique DNA” (an identical twin doesn’t have unique DNA but no one thinks that means it would be OK to kill one because there’s a spare) or in terms of “stopping a beating heart” or brainwaves or even feeling pain — my chicken sandwich stopped a beating heart of an organism that has brainwaves and feels pain. IMO it’s about whatever it is that makes killing a human morally different from killing other animals. (Which, also IMO, is a topic about which reasonable people can disagree.)

      • Jeff

        I think that’s a useful way of thinking about it, but to me the question must be put the other way; it should be “at what stage does it LACK this property?” and, what is different about it at that stage?

      • Andrew Dowling

        I think there is something askew morally when people claim the aborting of 20 week and younger embryos is akin to the Holocaust but have no issue with the factory farm industry that butchers billions of sentient, intelligent mammals annually, preceding their deaths with what could only be described as short lives of complete terror and physical/psychological torture.

        • Straw Man

          I’d agree that it’s rather bigoted to privilege humans above animals, as I do whenever I hit the drive-thru, but it seems a bit disingenuous to speak as if you don’t get that these people make a sharp distinction between human and non-human. They do. And it’s not the least bit difficult to comprehend, and there isn’t the slightest trace of self-contradiction in it.

          If you really believe the argument you’re making, would you go so far as to say that it’s morally preferable to harvest fetuses for their protein, than to eat cows? And are you a vegetarian?

          (In my college days I not only wrote an adaptation of “A Modest Proposal” to advocate the eating of fetuses, but I mounted an impassioned defense of Soylent, subject only to the condition that no fraud be involved. The argument against consensual cannibalism is harder to mount than you might think.)

          • Andrew Dowling

            But we’re not talking about harvesting fetuses. The debate is should the mothers have the ability to terminate the fetuses that live inside them, and the moral/ethical questions associated with killing a being that cannot feel pain or really has any self-conception whatsoever vs inflicting pain and killing creatures that fully experience the world around them as well as feelings of loss and pain. The point is moral hypocrisy (they may not believe they’re being hypocrites, I do)
            Heck, we induce abortions in animals all the time without getting their permission; forget torturing and butchering them for meat.

    • Cenk

      There is no “moment of conception”. Conception is a complex process that takes several days complete. In fact, or biological understanding of conception is not what ACTUALLY occurs. It is just a simplified, idealised, generalised model that allows us to make good predictions. The point is, it’s impossible to digitise this issue. At some point there has to be ambiguity. Going back all the way to the ” magic moment” of conception does not get rid of ambiguity.

      • Jeff

        By the time you know you’re pregnant, any ambiguity of the sort you’re appealing to is well past. Anyway, my point was, I think, clear enough — we don’t need to wade into murky waters like “when does personhood begin?” or “when does the soul begin to exist?”. We can reason exclusively from universally accepted bioloigcal facts, and commonsense ethical principles, to arrive at a perfectly coherent and consistent ethical posture toward the unborn

        • Nick G

          Indeed we can. Until birth, there is no evidence that the fetus is or can be aware of anything: fetal levels of cerebral oxygen perfusion are incompatible with consciousness in infants. Moreover, even if the fetus were a conscious being, that would not give it the right to make use of another conscious being’s organs to stay alive, any more than I can demand some of your blood or one of your kidneys to do so.

          • Jeff

            The problem with that view is that it’s not actually coherent or consistent, as Straw Man has already argued. And as I’ve previously said, I think the real question isn’t so much the fetus’ “right to make use of another conscious being’s organs to stay alive” but of the parents’ (moral) obligation to provide care and support to their dependent children.

          • Nick G

            It is both coherent and consistent. And we are not talking about “dependent children”, but about a fetus.

    • Nick G

      Actually, it’s a huge – and dishonest – logical leap. The fetus is not a child, and pretending it is in order to deny women bodily autonomy is wicked.

  • Bethany

    And I agree: this (and the related issue of what would happen to the extra soul in the case of chimeras) has always struck me as being the biggest logical problem with the idea that humans are ensouled at the moment of conception.

    • Caleb G

      I thought about mentioning chimeras, but you beat me to it. Just to clarify to others, a chimera is where the “process of twinning” is reversed. This reversal combines the cells that would have developed into twins back into one zygote. If these twin would have been fraternal rather than identical, and then this “reversing” took place, the resulting individual might an arm which possesses different DNA than their leg. So if one obtains a “soul” at conception, then a chimera possesses two souls.