The Sorites Paradox, or the “paradox of the heap” is an ancient Greek puzzle posed by a pupil of Euclid named Eubulides. The paradox demonstrates that the results of human logic depend upon one’s initial assumptions.
The paradox begins with a large pile of sand. The philosopher then removes one grain and asks, “Is this still a pile?” The answer, it would seem, is that it is still a pile because no one missing grain establishes a logical point where a pile of grains can no longer be called a pile.
But then suppose we start with a single grain and add another. Now the philosopher asks, “Has the one grain now become a pile?” Again, it seems perfectly logical to assert that two grains do not magically become a pile, and that no one added grain is a logical point where grains of sand always become a pile.
The paradox of the heap demonstrates how the same logic leads us to two opposite conclusions depending on our initial assumptions. I often think of Sorites paradox when abortion is argued. Two perfectly logical positions, each based on differing assumptions end up with opposite conclusions. If one begins the debate with the abstraction of a fully developed baby in one’s head, there is no point in pregnancy when it would be logical to say, “that is not a life.” But if one begins with the abstraction that pregnancy is an event that happens within a woman, there is no logical point in the gestation process that clearly turns the egg into a person.
Depending on one’s initial assumption the “right to life with no exceptions” and the “abortion on demand” argument are both perfectly logical. Being prochoice means getting beyond these two abstractions. Being prochoice recognizes that both the prolife and pro-abortion position are perfectly logical, but are based on abstractions and so neither has the right to impose itself on the other.
Gestation is a continuum like the Sorites paradox. Depending upon one’s initial assumptions, logic can take honest people to very different conclusions, therefore no one can make the logical case for taking that decision away from everyone else.
Anyone who recognizes the paradoxical nature of the topic of abortion is already well on their way to being prochoice.
There’s the unanswerable question, I think, of at what point the link between one’s soul/spirit and his/her body occurs in the zygote/fetus. 7/21/13–08:02 CDT
I think I stopped too soon. It’s not how many grains of sand there are in a collection, but their relationship to one another, that makes a pile. One grain upon another creates a pile. Two grains side by side do not. So it is with this question. It is a theological question more than a biological one when we begin speaking of the “sanctity” of life. 7/21/13–09:10 CDT
I think this is an excellent analogy. However, I wonder why an understanding of the paradox pushes one towards the “pro-choice” side. I have always leaned “pro-choice” but I have always been sympathetic to true “pro-life” positions which fight to end the taking of life at either end and in the middle. But as to your argument, I doubt that you or many “pro-choice” people would support abortion of an nine month “fetus.” If you agree with any limitations on “abortion on demand”, then the paradox can equally push one towards “pro-life.” What I see from the analogy is that any law which places any restrictions on abortion is arbitrary by definition. The question for most is where that arbitrary line is drawn.
Walt, I’m arguing that that the prochoice position is not nearer to pro abortion than to pro life. believing that the woman is the one who should make the decision in no way implies that an abortion is the right choice for her. People equate being prochoice with abortion because we have had to fight to defend that option. If the right to choose were safe I guarantee all our efforts would move to preventing unwanted pregnancy in the first place. We can’t do that because of the unrelenting attacks on a woman’s rights over her own body. Late term abortions are already rare, but they would be even less if the right would stop attacking birth control and sex education.
I understand where you are coming from. I also agree that extreme cases lead to bad policy/law. However, with those ackknowledgements, the question revolves around society’s legitimate power/respnsibility to protect the rights of the helpless. We clearly agree that infacide should be prohibited. Parents do not have/should not have the right to kill their crying babies. The issue becomes society’s role in protecting those same children before birth. The paradox you present cuts both ways. Granted that late term abortions are rare, would you argue that they should be solely the mother’s choice up until the moment of delivery? The question becomes where the heap of evidence of viable life ceases to exist.
One of the things that color my opinion is my daughter’s quest to become a mother. We have been through a number of fertility attempts, all of which have ended in miscarriages. (They are now certified on fostering to adopt.) The point is that I got used to thinking of those little organisms as grandchildren. What a thrill it was to sense their presence and what a brokeness when they ceased to move and respond. Technology cuts both ways. It may have been ethically simpler when no one had any safe choices in terms of reproduction.
Walter, I agree the paradox cuts both ways. Roe vs Wade was an effort to break the continuum into three parts and treat each part of the continuum differently. The legal dilemma somewhere in the third trimester is how to protect what is now a human being without robbing the woman of choices in the case of drastic discoveries or developments.
Those two approaches to questions are encountered everywhere and at odds with each other in all kinds of sticky problems. One approach is based on a belief in the whole as an essence even without its parts. The other approach sees the whole as merely an assemblage of parts.
Your point about how this affects the abortion debate is right on. Both views are correct to a point. Both views are inadequate alone. The whole cannot exist without its parts, including its full history of development in a vast and complex world. The parts really do add up to something far greater than their mere association would suggest, bringing about a very real new existence in its own right.
When we disagree vehemently, it’s often evidence that we are holding on to one of these views too forcefully.
Nicely said, thank you.