Science, philosophy, and the question of life

my Trade Tripper column in the recent weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

One of the biggest frustrations I have with the Supreme Court ruling on the Reproductive Health (RH) Law was not that RA 10354 was upheld. Rather, it’s the irrational celebration by pro-lifers due to their belief that the Court affirmed the idea that “life begins at conception.” Irrational because the question of when life begins was never really an issue. RA 10354 itself, as noted by the Court in its ruling, “clearly mandates that protection be afforded from the moment of fertilization” and “that abortion is a crime.” All the while, the real and true issue of contraception was forgotten.

In any event, the implications of the RH Law ruling is for another article to tackle. Instead, let’s focus on the idea that life supposedly begins at conception. The argument usually given to support that position is that science (rather than religion) provided the objective and settled “fact,” hence concluding the debate.

To quote law professor Robert George (taken from his remarks before the American Political Science Association Convention): “A human being is conceived when a human sperm containing 23 chromosomes fuses with a human egg also containing 23 chromosomes (albeit of a different kind), producing a single-cell human zygote containing, in the normal case, 46 chromosomes that are mixed differently from the 46 chromosomes as found in the mother or father. Unlike the gametes (that is, the sperm and egg), the zygote is genetically unique and distinct from its parents. Biologically, it is a separate organism.”

From this, anybody can now logically conclude, as Mr. George does, that: “The scientific evidence establishes the fact that each of us was, from conception, a human being. Science, not religion, vindicates this crucial premise of the pro-life claim. From it, there is no avoiding the conclusion that deliberate feticide is a form of homicide.”

But if one looks closely at the matter, science did not declare the fetus’ humanity. And not even Mr. George said so (note he says that science merely “vindicates” the pro-life “premise”). The reason is that science could only describe characteristics. But to determine what those characteristics in total make up, one has to rely on metaphysics.

Or to put it another way: it is philosophy that tells us what a human being is and then science merely comes in to tell us if the conditions set by philosophy have been met.

As Fr. Cecilio Magsino (a philosophy expert and my Philosophy of Law co-lecturer at the University of Asia and the Pacific School of Law and Governance) once wrote in his blog: “... proving that human life begins at fertilization falls outside the scope of science. What science can do is to provide empirical evidence and elements to aid reason so as to arrive at the conclusion that life begins at fertilization. But this conclusion is itself a philosophical one. The reasoning behind it is quite simple: If we say that Peter is the same person we saw today and yesterday, we can say he was the same person the day before and so forth all the way until the moment he was conceived. He would not become a person if he was not one the moment his life began.”

Philosophy professor Mathew Lu affirms that “science can tell us when life begins, provided that we already know what to look for. Empirical biology alone cannot tell us what that is. Once we establish a metaphysical account of life, then empirical embryology can tell us whether the relevant conditions are met.”

Indeed. Science can’t “actually tell us when life begins. In fact, determining which criteria are the right criteria for ascertaining whether a living thing exists is not an empirical question at all. Instead, one’s answer to this question will turn on how one understands the nature of a living thing -- i.e., on one’s metaphysics of life. In the final analysis, questions of existence are not, and cannot be, ‘scientific’ questions, simply because they are not what empirical science is about.”

So what’s the point? Because contrary to what most involved in political or policy debates are concerned, while science may indeed be “objective” and arguably “neutral,” it has limits (as was demonstrated above). Instead, most of the really important issues that need to be confronted: poverty and social justice, same-sex marriage and divorce, euthanasia, stem cells and embryology -- all of these can only be addressed through a fundamental understanding of philosophy.

Fr. Magsino puts it best: “Developed countries have risen to that status by dint of hard work, justice, law and order, truth and other values their culture holds dear. The way a nation acts depends on the way its people think: it depends on their philosophy. Man acts based on what he knows. To act well, a man needs a good philosophy.”

That’s a truth that our Supreme Court, Congress, and the Executive Branch still need to learn.