Am I My DNA?
Published on: December 8, 2010
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  • Nate Rinne

    Dr. Berger,

    I enjoy reading your blog. I am a Lutheran too (LC-MS) who found out about your work, interestingly, through Albert Mohler.

    You say:

    “It seems to me that, coming from a Catholic source, this is rather a strangely scientistic, indeed materialistic argument. I would question it: Am I my DNA? Am I my body?”

    If I were to reformulate your question to: Is that *human cell – that zygote* a valuable human being, created in the image of God (and hence a human “person”? [relatively new concept I know]) would that change things? Or, maybe, better : “Was I a zygote?” My answer to both questions: yes. You are/were not only that, but this is/was you.

    “A negative answer is most strongly suggested in cases where an individual affirms his dignity in confronting the body’s deformity, disease or decay. What such an individual is insisting on is that his essential self (whatever term one may use for it) is not to be identified with his defective body. In some hard to pin down manner, this self is capable of transcending the genetically programmed limitations of the body: I am not my DNA! I am not my body! What is more, to gainsay this assertion is to assault the basic human dignity of the individual making it.”

    I am not sure about this. No, you are your body and more – to appeal to your soul, which is likewise subject to disintegration because of the infection of original sin – is a losing strategy. The body may show us the effects of the curse of sin more clearly (and there may be unique manifestations of this disintegration, for example, persons with disabilities, genetics diseases, intersexuality, etc) – namely, the reality of death and disintegration. But the soul really is no better, as black and evil as it is due to that persistent infection that plagues us (Romans 7). The real self – the true new self, which is the new man in Christ – is both body and soul, a whole person – and this true self will only be truly unveiled in the last day.

    Finally, I realize we all want to assert our dignity (I take it you’ve read the Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer, particular his work: Living by Faith) and justify our selves, existence, etc., but this is not the point. We are to justify others – for in Christ, we have peace. Therefore, it is not so much that our own life is a gift to us (and hence, for example, something like suicide is wrong, per Aquinas), but the lives that are given to us are a gift to us (and hence suicide is wrong: you are a gift to the other).

    I would love to get your response to this – but I am sure you are a busy man!

  • senoy

    I’ve always found the stances taken over the abortion issue to be intriguing. Religious people taking a ‘person from conception’ stance has always seemed to me to be a rather physicalist position. There’s no reason to believe that a being becomes a soul upon fertilization of an egg. Perhaps it does, but perhaps it doesn’t. It’s certainly not a sola scriptura biblical truth that a zygote has a soul. The closest perhaps we get is Jeremiah 1:5, but that’s speaking about a being before the body even is conceived, so at best it’s confusing and certainly not convincing.

    The non-religious pro-choice position to me seems rooted more in when exactly a fetus becomes a person. This is almost a transcendent argument. There is no physical mechanism that occurs that means a 19 week old pregnancy is ’tissue’ while a 21 week old pregnancy is a ‘person’. Really, there’s no particular physical reason why a 17 week old pregnancy is not a person, but a two year old child is. You can try to define it as perhaps a certain amount of synapses or awareness, but such a definition is arbitrary at best and leads to crazy conclusions. There’s nothing particularly magical from a physicalist point of view that occurs that should imbue an organism with rights, yet the pro-choice claim seems to hinge on some untouchable concept of personhood.

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  • Josh

    It seems to me that all this argument does is establish that we have no way of conclusively determining when someone becomes a “person” in the spiritual sense from the physical evidence. Fair enough. But given that all Christians believe in the inherent value of each human life, shouldn’t an atmosphere of doubt result in taking the most cautious reasonable position to safeguard human life? Rather than saying “You can’t prove that’s a life, so you can’t restrict my killing it” shouldn’t the proper Christian attitude be something like, “Because there is a reasonably strong possibility of that being life, we should safeguard it to the extent possible, allowing harm to come to it only under fairly compelling circumstances (life of the mother, etc)”.

  • Mark Steven Zuelke

    Jesus would not have entered the world in such a fashion as He is famous for, unless it was necessary to the human condition, to be fully human. I, as you, as Jesus, existed as humans beginning with our respective conceptions, divine or otherwise.

  • Michael Sierk

    From the fact that you are not your DNA, it does not follow that a zygote is not a human person. Robert George and Patrick Lee explain this dualistic confusion in First Things:–17

    “But this immaterial aspect is not the whole self, only an aspect or part of the self. On the one hand, then, one can hold that the human being is not a soul alone, but the whole living bodily entity, a composite of body (or matter) and soul (the “form” or organizing principle of the living thing). On the other hand, there is an aspect of the human being that is nonmaterial, and could not have emerged from matter and material forces. So neither body-self dualism nor materialism is correct. We are essentially physical organisms, and so we come to be when these organisms come to be—at conception. Yet we are more than just the latest product of blind evolution, since there is an immaterial aspect of us that could not have emerged from lower material forces.”

  • jbay

    Viewing myself and the world around me is completely limited to the occipital lobe. Seeing clearly the existence of things, “matter or otherwise”, outside the occipital lobes ability to discern I’m forced to recognize the limits to which I can see.

  • Mark Steven Zuelke

    jbay suggests the following; “I see, therefore I am”????
    Visualizing the unseen…faith.
    The existence of Jesus; beyond faith, historic.
    No visualization needed.
    Just some occipital matter to read with.

  • Matt

    I think the mistake too many people make is trying to pinpoint when “personhood” begins or simplify its definition. As best we can tell, being human is the result of the aggregate function of a human body, i.e. that consciousness, which includes self-awareness, is an emergent property of a highly functional brain. This develops over time. I would caution against defining humanness as being “the ability to be aware of ourselves” since this definition wouldn’t even apply to human infants. Other primates, for example, don’t have as well developed a sense of self as we do, but they have highly functional brains that produce a redamentary sense of self, more advanced than an infant human and much more advanced than a human zygote. Would we value a chimpanzee over a human infant?

    I know this doesn’t lend itself to a simple answer and make the ethics that much more complicated, but it doesn’t do us any good to try to simplify reality.

  • Mark Steven Zuelke

    “”i.e. that consciousness, which includes self-awareness,””

    We could all become very afraid to fall asleep, I’d say, lest someone count us less than human.

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