Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ontology of the Soul

Jean Kazez in Abortion Sense and Nonsense (Talking Philosophy - The Philosophers' Magazine Blog) brought up an ontological question about the human fetus: what is it?

"The problem is," she says, "that’s a very hard question. A baby-in-the-making is not exactly like anything else we’re familiar with."

Ontology is the science of fundamental principles, the doctrine of identifying categories, making distinctions between: 1) "entities", i.e., existents; 2) the qualitative attributes of entities; and 3) the relationships between 1) and 2).

One method for illustrating ontological identifications is "taxonomy." Aristotle used the system of taxonomy in his study of flora and fauna. It is ontological based on empirical observation or proof of either the genus or the specie(s) of an entity. Such observation or proof requires "making distinctions" between such entites as the chimpanzee and its cousin, the bonobo, to use only one example, and in making the distinction between them the relationship is made.

A specie, when further divided, itself becomes a genus with its own specie(s). But when such divisions occur each genus is given its own categorical name, e.g. family, tribe, order, (see below) until the very last division is the one we categorize as "species."

An example of taxonomy as illustrating ontology is the description of Homo sapiens as a specie; its genus is Homo. But Homo is the specie of the genus "tribe." Tribe is the specie of the genus "family", etc.

The entire ontological process begins with identifying an entity, then going backward in connecting it to the first genus at the top of the hierarchy. This makes the identification a matter of deciding where the species fits into the entire puzzle of classifications.

It also means the genera (genuses) must already have been identified. It was easy for men to classify themselves into a genus denoting "life". It then became the task to identify the classifications between "life" and "man". Where in the hierarchy did man's best friend belong? Where did the ox belong? Obviously the ox, the dog, and the man all had something in common, but just as obviously there were differences that separated them from each other. Making those identifications created new genera and new species labels.

Kazez writes: "A 5-day old embryo composed out of undifferentiated, pluripotent cells is not a complete person like you and me. A 2-month-old fetus, even with its complete set of rudimentary organs, is not a complete person like you and me."

The ontological task then becomes to identify just what "a complete person like you and me" is; and what an embryo is; and what a fetus is. Some of the scientific categorization has long since been finished: the embryo is scientifically different from a zygote, both of which are scientifically different from a fetus.

But in the end, ontology is a branch of metaphysics, and "zygote," "embryo," "fetus," "chimp," and "bonobo" are all metaphysical classifications, made by identifying metaphysical differences between them, differences based on scientific descriptions, but identified by metaphysical values.

One of the difficulties of nailing down a classification, either of genus or of species, is where to draw the line. What line of demarcation, either scientifically or metaphysically, is there between a zygote and an embryo?

In 2003, National Geographic News reported "that chimpanzees are so closely related to humans that they should be included in our branch of the tree of life," according to biologists at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan. This would change them from Pan troglodytes into Homo troglodytes.

"However, experts say many scientists are likely to resist the reclassification, especially in the emotionally-charged and often disputed field of anthropology." (They seem to have forgotten to mention the disputations religion would put up.)

Studies indicate that humans and chimps are between 95 and 98.5 percent genetically identical. But there is more to classification according to such similarities, similarities which either do not seem to take metaphysics into account, or operate by a different set of metaphysics. However, no one can get around the fact that it is a metaphysical decision to separate species strictly by scientific standards, even if the decision makers believe they are leaving (contestable) metaphysics out of the picture.

Morris Goodman, a co-author of the chimp study, said that how we group organisms is flawed from the historical point. Aristotle began grouping species according to their "degree of perfection," with man as the pinnacle. Doing it in this manner is a metaphysical decision.

Genetic relatedness becomes a big factor in the ontological process of identify, now that genomes are quickly identifiable. The metaphysical question is whether or not that is the only thing you should take into account. Anthropologist Bernard Wood at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said a genus should consist of very similar species, that share attributes such as behavior and (mode of movement)," he said.

Ontological classifications should account for the differences as much or more than for the similarities, even though any differences may be acceptable within the classification. Chimps move differently, have different nutritional needs, live in social orders that are not like humans; but they have a rudimentary language, can learn to solve problems like a human of about the age of six, and, in the model of "it takes a village," are tribally protective of their young.
When the white man first identified the chimp in taxonomy, the decision was almost made at that time to include it in the genus Homo. Perhaps it was too politically explosive at the time to do so. It was the era of the beginning of fierce anti-Darwininism. It could not have been politically correct at that time, anymore than it is today.

But speaking practically, "The problem is," Wood said, according to NatGeoNews, "if you call the chimp Homo troglodytes, you deny yourself [those differences] to help guide you through the tree of life."

Being "guided through the tree of life" is the end purpose of metaphysics itself.

To demonstrate the nature of divisions, this is the taxonomy of animal life: (For plant taxonomy visit )

Homo sapiens sapiens (Man) is (the only sub-species)
of Homo sapiens, now extinct.
Homo sapiens is the species.
Homo is the genus.
Hominini is the tribe.
Himinidea is the family.
Primates is the order.
Mammalia is the class.
Chordata is the phylum.
Animalia is the kingdom.
Eukaryota is the domain.

The task in separating abortion sense from nonsense is decided in the metaphysics of classifying the various stages of the existence of an "incomplete" human. At what point in its existence does it become "complete enough" to be unalienably endowed with the rights of individual sovereignty?

What divides Americans so deeply on this issue is the ontological description of the human soul.

"The time when the body receives a soul is a major factor in the debate on abortion. Catholics believe that a person gets a soul at conception, thus any form of abortion is the murder of a human being. Some Protestants believe that a body gets a soul at birth and that abortion is not killing a human being, rather part of the mother."

So the entity "soul" is determined at various points in the development of a woman's fertilized egg by a man's sperm, and these various points are admittedly either religious, or secular. Some determinist/naturalists don't even believe in the soul.

But those facts make it clear that any attempt to define the soul as an immediate endowment of conception is a religious notion, not a secular one.

And that is where ontology must be able to decide just what kind of entity the soul is, and then how such an entity originates. Tomorrow we will investigate the ontology of the soul.

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