Abortion and the Philosophy of Mind

In all of the debates raging over the status of the fetus I have yet to come across material which articulates the connection this issue has with the philosophy of mind.  This strikes me as odd, because one’s theory of mind is inextricably tied to one’s anthropology.  More to the point, one’s theory of the mind will have a dramatic impact on how he views the fetus.

The most pertinent topic in the philosophy of mind relating to this issue is the so called mind/body problem—which deals with defining what a mind is and how it relates to the brain.  Philosophers tackling the mind/body problem usually fall into two camps: dualists-those who believe both immaterial and material substances exist–and physicalists—those who believe only material substances exist.   In more common language, dualists believe human beings have a soul and physicalists do not.  In relation to issues regarding the fetus, the question boils down to this: if souls exist, does a fetus have a soul?  And how does this impact the abortion debate?

How one answers the mind/body problem will not only have a dramatic impact on how he views the fetus, but on how he views a full grown human being.  This is because one’s theory of mind reflects his general ontology of the human being.  For example, if one adheres to a physicalist theory of the mind then he believes that a human being is nothing more than matter and energy—the hapless byproduct of billions of years of evolution.   Under this scheme, human beings are not endowed with any special or unique importance or value-our existence is just a brute fact of nature.

In contrast, those who hold to some form of substance dualism—that both material and immaterial substances exist—believe human beings have a soul.   If human beings have a soul, this entails the existence of a transcendent immaterial being—namely God.  In natural theology, this forms the basis for the so called Argument from Consciousness which has recently been reformulated by J. P. Moreland (Consciousness and the Existence of God, Routledge Studies in the Philosophy of Religion.)   If the argument from consciousness is sound, then God exists; and if human beings are a special part of his creation, it stands to reason that human beings have a purpose—a reason for existence–and that they are inherently valuable.

So we see how foundational our theory of mind is to the status of the fetus.  If the fetus is merely matter and energy, and God does not exist, then the fetus has no intrinsic or objective value or importance.  But, according to the physicalist scheme, this is true for the full grown adult as well.  In essence, there is no ontological difference between a fetus and a full grown human being under the physicalist perspective—both are simply matter and energy and neither one possess intrinsic value or dignity.

However, if substance dualism is correct, then there is a strong possibility that God exists.  If God exists, man has a purpose and is intrinsically valuable.  Like the physcialist, the dualist theory does not delineate an ontological difference between the fetus and a full grown adult.  Both posses a human soul, both are made in the image of God, and therefore, both are intrinsically valuable.

It becomes obvious that the position one holds on the status of the fetus and abortion is inextricably tied to ones theory of the mind.  If a fetus is simply matter and energy then it is ontologically equal to a full grown human being—that is, it possesses no intrinsic value or dignity.  As such, there is no objective reason why abortion is wrong—and for that matter there is no objective reason why the killing of a full grown human being is wrong either.

Conversely, if the fetus is made up of more than matter and energy—if it has a soul—then it is ontologically equal to a full grown human being.  More importantly, if a fetus has a soul, it has intrinsic value and worth—and this is true of the full grown human being as well.  Accordingly, there is an objective reason why abortion is wrong; because it is the killing of a human being; the destruction of a life endowed with the same value, dignity, and worth of a full grown adult.

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2 thoughts on “Abortion and the Philosophy of Mind

  1. Interesting comments on abortion here. What would you say about Christians who are pro-choicers then? I’m very pro life (as you could see from my blog), but I’m just wondering what the philosophy of mindconcept with abortion would have to say to a Christian pro-choicer.

    • Hello Mr. Wartick,

      Great question! Well, if you are a substance dualist (which all Christians should be) and you believe the soul is present at conception–and that the soul is the essence of a human being–then the fetus is just as valuable than a full grown adult. In other words, there is no ontological difference between a fetus and a full grown adult–both have human souls and are made in the image of God. They have the same essence–therefore, it is morally wrong to kill a fetus.

      The problem is, there is a trend among some Christian intellectuals to deny that the soul is present during the early development of the human body. In other words, some Christians deny the first premise: that the soul is present at conception. If you take this view then it would be easy to assert that abortion during the early stages of pregnancy is acceptable; because the fetus does not have a soul. I think the reason this view is popular is because the predominate version of substance dualism espoused by Christians is Cartesian Dualism. This is why I am an advocate of Thomistic Dualism. For more on this topic see my most recent post.

      I hope this was helpful for you 🙂

      God Bless,

      Josh

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