Responding to Wilcox #3: Human, Humans, Human Beings, the Sorites Paradox & Identity

Responding to Wilcox #3: Human, Humans, Human Beings, the Sorites Paradox & Identity May 7, 2020

Today, again, I am continuing my rebuttals of Clinton Wilcox over at Life Training Institute, a pro-life organisation, after he tackled a post I wrote concerning human/human being distinction. My original piece was here, his two pieces here and here, and so far my two rejoinders here and here. This is my third in that series.

I was pretty unimpressed with the points Wilcox had to make in the last piece I wrote. That said, here is his next point (my comment in italics) with my comments interlinearly. Many of these points concerning chickens and eggs, acorns and trees, will be much further established in the next post. This is the groundwork:

Bradshaw’s use of “human being” is superfluous, since he just means a member of the species Homo sapiens. There’s a lot wrong with this paragraph. There is a difference between “human” and “a human” — the former is a noun and the latter is an adjective, as Pearce points out. However, despite Pearce’s claims to preferring “accuracy of language”, he continues to use terms in ways other than they are intended. For example, he claims that human is an adjective, a human is an instantiation of the species human, and human being is something subtly different, implying personhood or specific human characteristics.

I stand by this.

Pearce is simply wrong when he says the blastocyst doesn’t have human characteristics. Perhaps he should consider revisiting his biology 101 class.

Whoah there. Let’s see what I actually said, pertinent point in bold:

JP: For him, “human” means something different to “human being” in that a human being is an individual of the human species. So human = homo sapiens, and human being = a human individual. Human being is an instantiation of human. Human is genetically human. He is differentiating “human” from “a human”: I agree that the word “human” when prefaced by the letter “A” means “a human being”. The issue here is that the use of the indefinite article (a) before “human” means “human” is now a noun, rather than an adjective, and implies a singular instantiation. So, really, “a human” should utterly suffice for doing what he needs it to do – being an instantiation of homo sapiens. His use of a “human being” is thus superfluous language, with the “being” bit being redundant. For people interested in accuracy of language (for philosophical and debate purposes), we have human (adjective) denoting of the homo sapiens species, a human denoting an instantiation of that species, and human being as something subtly different, implying personhood or specific human characteristics. Moreover, a blastocyst would be none of these still. A blastocyst is a developmental stage of a human, or of a homo sapiens, organism. It is a nested subset of the reference set “human” but I would contest it can be given the label “a human”. You could say “a human blastocyst” but you can’t say a blastocyst is “a human”.

Essentially, he is misquoting, misinterpreting, straw-manning me or some other mishap of reading, thinking and writing. Not much else to say. Perhaps he simply didn’t read the word “specific”. It’s kinda important. Either way, he is at best being disingenuous here.

Blastocysts are biologically human, in every sense of the scientific term.

And here he is playing fast and loose with language after all. I set out my terms specifically, and, in this quote, he uses “human” adjectivally, and I had previously already agreed with this: ‘You could say “a human blastocyst” but you can’t say a blastocyst is “a human”.’

I get the sense he is rushing things and not reading me carefully.

It’s simply absurd that Pearce would deny this.

I didn’t.

Calling a “person” a “human being” instead of reserving that term for humans (since if you “be”, that just means you exist — so a human being is just a human which exists, which certainly includes blastocysts, which are humans at a very early stage in their development).

So Wilcox is one to conflate “human” with “human being”. He goes on to make the error, as I have said many times, of calling a chicken egg a chicken. Would Wilcox do this? Really? Would he be happy if he asked, at a restaurant, for roast chicken and received a roasted egg? It is a chicken egg, or an early developmental stage of a chicken, but it is not “a chicken”. That is not how we would use language. Clinton claims otherwise in his next point, and we will deal with that to much more detail in the next post. Simply put, to claim otherwise is to bastardise language to his ideological ends. And this is essentially what he does with “human” terms.

Pearce asserts that blastocysts are none of these (without ever providing any evidence or reason to think it is not).

No, I said: ‘A blastocyst is a developmental stage of a human, or of a homo sapiens, organism. It is a nested subset of the reference set “human” but I would contest it can be given the label “a human”. You could say “a human blastocyst” but you can’t say a blastocyst is “a human”.’

He asserts that blastocyst is a developmental stage of a human organism, but it is not “a human”. This is just doublespeak.

A chicken egg is a developmental stage of a chicken organism, but it is not a chicken. This is not doublespeak. Go and use egg and chicken synonymously for the rest of your life and see where it gets you.

Pearce doesn’t seem to understand how human development works.

Oh, I do.

If “blastocyst” is a stage of development of a human, then a blastocyst is a human.

No. See chicken and egg, again. His point may have some intuitive force but it does not stand up to scrutiny, especially when we look at other examples. An acorn is not an oak tree. It is an acorn. And I can throw away an acorn without issue. I am not allowed to cut down an oak tree and throw it away because, in the UK, it will have a TPO – tree protection order. “An oak” is “a tree”, but “an acorn” is neither “an oak” or “a tree”.

A blastocyst is an instantiation of a developmental stage of a human qua member of the homo sapiens species.

Wilcox continues:

Or to be even more precise, “blastocyst” is one stage in the development of an embryo, but it is the same embryo at the zygote stage and at the blastocyst stage, and beyond.

Well, this last point is a fascinating one because it actually represents the personal identity over time debate. As Irving Copi has stated:

  1. If a changing thing really changes, there can’t literally be one and the same thing before and after the change.
  2. However, if there isn’t literally one and the same thing before and after the change, then no thing has really undergone any change.

I have previously denied the continuous “I” (see The “I”, personhood and abstract objects), though it is interesting to see differentiation so early in the developmental stages. Of course, this is a question of ontology, so I fully accept these things as useful pragmatisms that allow us to practically navigate society, and am interested in what it is that underwrites personal identity over time for people. But these things are well up for debate. Unless you are Clinton Wilcox. Identity is a conceptual construct, no matter how much banks like to tie ourselves down to mortgages over long periods of time!

Pearce may as well argue that infants are not human, “infant” is just a stage of development of a human organism. It’s a nonsensical claim.

Again, he is playing fast and loose with nouns and adjectives. I do not deny there are human, adjectivally, as I very clearly stated but deny they are a human. I really did express this rather explicitly.

Yet again, I’m not too threatened by his points, and again think he needs to do a lot more groundwork to establish his conclusions. Stay tuned for the next piece.


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