Yes, everyone’s talking about this stupid thread from Patrick Tomlinson:
Most people are talking about how it’s a terrible argument, but in some sense this misses the point. This is the argument, if we set it out in syllogistic form:
1. A hypothetical situation in which you can only save 1 5 year old or 1000 viable human embryos
2. a human child is worth more than a thousand embryos
∴ no one believes that life begins at conception
None of it has any logical connection to any other part of it, so analyzing it as an argument is, while possibly helpful to people who’ve never studied logic and therefore mistake this for some kind of argument, beside the point. This isn’t an argument, it’s pure rhetoric. So let’s look at it as rhetoric.
The first thing to pay attention to in rhetoric is: to whom is this directed. You might be tempted to say that it’s directed at pro-life people, but that’s only hypothetical. If you pay attention, he’s actually addressing pro-abortion people. You can see that clearly in this later tweet in the thread:
He hasn’t changed who he’s talking to, and is unequivocally talking to fellow pro-abortion people. Rhetoric has two main uses (simplifying, obviously):
- To demoralize your opponent
- To encourage those on your side
And you can tell which object a piece of rhetoric has by the audience to whom it’s address. In this case, he’s trying to bolster the morale of his own side. Why, particularly? Because they are being swayed by the obvious fact that abortion is murder, so he is attempting to counter-act the obvious feeling that their position is unnatural.
His strategy is to then create a narrative in which the pro-abortion people are acting naturally and the anti-abortion people are acting unnaturally. Hence the wildly implausible story he creates which does exactly that, at least if you don’t look too closely. It’s not actually a great story for this purpose and hence this tweet:
He’s got to explicitly tell you that there’s a right answer, because it’s not obviously true. This is a classical rhetorical trick, by the way—state the non-obvious as if it’s just saying the obvious because someone has to.
You can see this in just how much he stacks the deck on his side: In one corner of the room he’s got a crying child. In the other corner of the room you spot a frozen container labeled “1000 viable Human Embryos”. The guy is a sci-fi author and has a decent enough sense of pacing and word-craft to gloss over how absurd this is. Who, looking for a 5 year old child, would take the time to read things inside of the frost-free glass-fronted freezer the fertility clinic presumably bought second-hand when a local grocery store went out of business? No one would, but this implausibility is relevant to the feeling produced. Whatever is inside of this grocery store freezer in a room with a crying child does not register to us as important.
And there are further issues he glosses over to get the desired effect. He never specifies that the box actually has so much as a single embryo inside of it. The very fact that it’s a box inside of a grocery store freezer with a cartoon-sized label on it suggests that the box is incorrectly labeled. We have no knowledge that it in fact remained frozen and the embryos are still viable. By contrast, we know instantly that a 5 year old child is in fact a living 5 year old child.
There’s the even further problem that in our current legal environment, those human lives will almost guaranteedly die regardless of what the hypothetical rescuer does, even apart from the difficulty of getting them to another freezer quickly enough. The child still has legal protections apart from what men like Mr. Tomlinson would likely do if they had the power to change the law to permit infanticide up until the age of legal adulthood.
This is how extremely far he has to stack the deck in order to try to get his desired result. Consider how easily one could present the same scenario—as far as principles go—to produce the opposite effect. Here’s one example:
You’re in a fertility clinic and hear screaming behind a door. You burst it open and see in one corner an ugly man wearing a t-shirt that says “registered sex offender”. He’s screaming racist obscenities about how much he hates black people and that it should be a black Jew being burned to death in this fertility clinic, not someone as important as him. In the other corner there’s a man with a t-shirt that says “all men are brothers” crouching next to a small portable freezer and he shouts, “This freezer contains the frozen embryo of my only child. My leg is broken and I’m pinned beneath this fallen girder and I can’t save her. Please take it to safety so my wife can carry it to term as we planned and my child can live and know that her daddy loves her!”
OK, in this scenario there are 999 fewer human embryos being weighed against the one, but the point stands. It evokes a far different emotional response than the original, though obviously the principles being compared—in so far as there are any—are identical. And this is why Mr. Tomlinson insists on his scenario being exactly the way it is:
An argument can be put in any words that accurately represent the ideas involved, but a magic spell must be said with every syllable pronounced correctly in order to have any effect.
But again, don’t forget that the object of Mr. Tomlinson’s rhetoric is only ostensibly to convince anti-abortion people to become pro-abortion. It’s really directed at pro-abortion people to make them feel like their position is not as anti-natural as it in fact is. That’s why he spends two and a half tweets layout out his hypothetical and five and a half tweets talking about how powerful this hypothetical is to utterly smash the anti-abortion position. The actual hypothetical is of only very minor importance; what really matters to his rhetoric is that he has an invincible weapon which has stood the test of time (ten years!) and slain many opponents.
I will note in passing that Mr. Tomlinson’s tirade may have a slight demoralizing effect on anti-abortion people who read it, but if it does this is not because of any sort of assailing of their position, but rather that hearing the enemy rally himself and raise his moral is in itself demoralizing. Hence the prevalence in the ancient world (where sound had a longer range than weapons) of war chants, hakas, and the like, and in the modern world of psy-ops like radio broadcasts and air-dropping pamphlets. This isn’t an argument, it is men dancing to show their enemy that they’re fierce and united. But this is just one guy, if granted retweeted many times, and it does raise the question of whether “the lady doth protest too much”. He may be doing this merely to gain fame or do due his part, but he may well also see how the intellectual poverty of his side oppressing the spirit of his fellows and seek to raise them because they need raising. Coaches often give pep talks about how the obviously losing team can still win the game before they go on to lose in the second half of the match.
On a related note, Mr. Tomlinson is a science fiction author. Given that he has demonstrated that he is willing to use his talents as a wordsmith to lie for the cause of evil, it would be very imprudent to read anything else he’s written. To read any of his fiction is to gamble that his willingness to abuse his talents in the service of evil didn’t come up by some strange turn of events. This seems at best a very poor gamble. In short, to read a man’s fiction is to trust him, and it is a very poor policy to trust a manifest liar.