Sunday, April 19, 2009

If a Tree Falls in the Forest, Are Embyos People?

The problem is as follows: "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" For the first several times I heard this, I turned my nose up at its "obvious" sophistry. It seemed to me to be no more than a skeptic's metaphorical attempt to convince one that experience is the only true means of knowledge. Recently, however, I have begun to reexamine the question in question. What is sound? Surely the impact of a felled tree produces waves, which when passing through the ear canal are processed as sound, but if the waves are never processed, are they sounds? Or merely sound waves? The well-crafted analogy eventually leads one to answer this most basic question: Is potential actual? One's answer has far-reaching implications. If potential IS actual, then "pre-crime," (unmanifested criminal intent such as that surrounding the plot of the sci-fi film Minority Report) should be a punishable offense. If potential is NOT actual, then how does this affect our view of frozen embryos? I humbly admit I don't have a black and white answer here. I guess I'm just suggesting that the world is a much more complicated place than I ever imagined back when I knew it all...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Remember Dr. J's class. The potential is a giant circle which contains the much smaller circle that is the actual. Excluded from the potential circle is the circle of the impossible. (I think the 'real,' if it is used in a certain sense, is an even larger circle containing the possible and the actual, but not the impossible--I think.)

Most of what is potential is not actual; to say otherwise is to reduce the terms to meaninglessness.

Even if one imagines a vast number of universes, in some of which Potential X is actual, while in others Potential Y is actual, and in others Potential Z is actual, etc., then still the ratio of potential-but-not-actual to potential-and-actual has not changed, for in Potential-X-is-actual land, Potentials Y and Z are not actual, while in in Potential-Y-is-actual land, Potentials X and Z are not actual, etc.

Re: embryos: even though (most of) what is potential is not actual, we have a responsibility to treat them as we would any other human. For they are not potential humans. They are potential children and potential adults, but all of the inherent ingredients necessary for the 'actualization' of those states of life are present in the embryo (unlike the sperm and the egg, which have only half of said ingredients).

Coda: I always take it as a good sign when a person talks about about how the world seems more complicated than it used to.