The Death of Tomas Tranströmer

Tomas Transtromer

Tomas Tranströmer (c. 1980)

I was saddened to read about the death of Tomas Tranströmer, the Swedish Nobel Prize-winning poet. Perhaps like so many others, I’d discovered Tranströmer late, and in fact, when he’d won the prize in 2011, it was my first exposure to him. Unfortunately, as this was around the time I’d decided to to become a Serious Writer, my hands were full and so I filed him away, thinking about the growing list of books I’ll read in retirement.

It wasn’t until a few years later, while attending the release party for Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer (2013) that I really began to read and develop an impression of Tranströmer. (As a side note: For anyone interested in the relationship between literary friends, poet and translator, it’s an interesting case study). Shortly thereafter, I purchased a used copy of The Half-Finished Heaven (2001) and read each poem again and again, slowly and quickly, trying to grasp at the layers hidden beneath the surface. (This layering is not uncommon to a Tranströmer poem). Because of this, I could only read the book in small doses.

While such a slow grazing may be anathema for most books, for others it’s a tribute to their quality. This is not to dismiss books that can be read cover-to-cover in one sitting, but there are just some works that are so emotionally draining, so taxing, that it has to be put down. It’s like a rich, chocolate cake — It’s delicious, but please, no more. Not now. 

Today I spent the afternoon re-reading Tranströmer’s poems, and given the news from Sweden, thought the following was appropriate. Though we eventually wear the suit death sews for us, fortunately, what is buried or burned is just a body and not the spirit. Poets live on.

Black Postcards
Translated by Robert Bly


The calendar all booked up, the future unknown.

The cable silently hums some folk song

but lacks a country. Snow falls in the gray sea. Shadows

fight out on the dock.


Halfway through your life, death turns up

and takes your pertinent measurements. We forget

the visit. Life goes on. But someone is sewing

the suit in the silence.

Writing advice from Bly, Merwin, and Pound: “It’s always good to learn another language and translate”


Letter from Robert Bly (August 9, 2013)

A few years ago I corresponded with poet Robert Bly, and I asked him what advice he had for young writers. In his late-eighties and ill, I did not expect an answer, and so I was surprised (even more: nervous) when a few weeks later a familiar cream-colored envelope arrived. Opening it, he’d written,

“You’re wondering what advice I would have. I would say reach out beyond the poets that you know already and see if you can find some poets from other cultures that touch you. It’s always good to learn another language and translate. We get a broader perspective that way than we do in going to school.” (August 9, 2013)

Now, the truth is that even though we ask for advice, we don’t really want it, especially if it means changing what we’re used to. (The only advice we’re really open to is that which least inconveniences us). So, reading his letter, I became despondent, wishing I’d taken my Spanish courses more seriously. But even as I tried to reason my way out, I knew encouraging young poets to translate was not unconventional. In fact, I recalled an interview with W.S. Merwin in which he talks about meeting Ezra Pound, who offered the following:

“If you want to be a poet, you have to take it seriously. You have to work on it the way you work on anything else, and you have to do it every day.” He said, “You should write about 75 lines a day,” (Pound was great at laying down the law on how to do anything), “but you don’t have anything to write 75 lines about a day. You don’t really have anything to write about. At the age of 18 you think you do, but you don’t.

“The way to do it is to learn a language and translate it — that way you can practice and find out what you can do with your language – your language. You can learn a foreign language, but translation is a way of learning your own language.”

Having spent years staring at the page, worried about my silence, Pound’s logic made sense to me. To be a writer, one has to write. Too often artists expect manuscripts to fall from the Heavens without realizing that writing, like anything else, is a craft. Writers are wordsmiths. To draw an analogy: it’d be absurd to expect a blacksmith to make a broadsword without first making a pile of broken shards and twisted metal. (As evidence: In front of me is a shelf full of notebooks filled with scrap and shavings).

So for my first project, I translated two poems by Sinclair Lewis, originally written in German while a college studen. With no choice but to start from the beginning, I relied heavily on a German-English dictionary. As I began to uncover certain phrases and thoughts, line-by-line I struggled to decipher what Lewis was actually saying — and when I was stuck, I wasn’t afraid to reach out to native-speakers and ask for help. In the end, the two pieces took just as many months and were published in the Sinclair Lewis Society Newsletter.

Since Christmas I’ve worked on more translations, this time of poet Julius Baumann’s Fra Vidda (1915) and the short stories of Danish writer Ernesto Dalgas (1871-1899). Engaging these more seriously than I did Lewis’ work, they’ve made me more conscious of the philosophy of translation: It’s led me to ask, What does it mean to translate a poem? and Why do we do it? How one answers these will necessarily guide what appears on the page, which is why it is possible for many versions of a poem to exist, each honest and true yet incomplete.

I’m too new at this to have a fully-developed ethic (let alone whole philosophy), but I will note the first lessons I learned: art is not literal and transliteration is murder. Merely substituting each word for its English equivalent is a butchering of the body that allows the spirit to escape. To put it differently, when studying a person’s features, one finds that a human face is made of movement, emotion; it’s these same things that make a poem. In my little time translating, that is the analogy that’s guided me. That’s what distinguishes the final draft from my first.

Although it’s been a year and a half since I received Bly’s letter, I’ve tried my best to follow his advice. Some of my translations are better than others, but the process has been its own reward — I’ve “broadened my perspective” and “learned my language” in ways I otherwise wouldn’t have. It’s not easy, but then again why should it be? Like anything else it’s work, but it’s good work.

It’s the kind of work Bly, Merwin, and Pound would recommend.

Read my review of “Ivy League Bohemians” on Empty Mirror

Ivy League Bohemians (2015)

As part of our “research” for an upcoming trip, my friend Elliot and I decided to read Alison Winfield Burns’ Ivy League Bohemians (2015), a self-published memoir of her time at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. While failing to deliver, it is a book I think ought to be on every Beat aficionados’ radar (even if it’s only on the periphery). So to this end, I reviewed it for Empty Mirror:

It is an irony of the Beat Generation and New York Schools that little is written about the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Founded at Naropa University in 1974 by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, the school aspires to cultivate “contemplative and experimental approaches to writing,” and to this end, for the last forty years the school’s been the gathering grounds for the serious avant-garde. Yet the number of memoirs written about the place can be counted on two thumbs. That is, there is Sam Kashner’s When I Was Cool: My Life at the Kerouac School (2004), which is about his time as the school’s first student, and now his fiancé Alison Winfield Burns’ Ivy League Bohemians (2015).

You can read the rest here.

The racial breakdown of police involved shootings in Dallas, TX

Map of Police Involved Shootings in Dallas, TX (2013-2014). Source.

Following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, there was renewed focus on the prevalence of police shootings in the United States. Yet, as was discovered by The Washington Post and scholars everywhere: No federal agency keeps track of this information, and everything the FBI does maintain is limited to raw numbers on “justifiable homicides.” In addition to being self-reported by police (red flag!), this purposely excludes instances when suspects were non-fatally injured or simply shot at and missed. This severely undercounts all instances of police involved shootings (PIS).

Yet, in a highly commendable move, the Dallas Police Department (DPD) released its self-monitored spreadsheets on all PIS incidents from 2003 to 2014 as part of an effort to improve police-community relations. Amazingly, the data includes demographics not only on the victim but also the officer(s) involved. Rightfully so, it was picked up by local and national media with calls that more departments follow the DPD’s lead.

When this release was brought to my attention, the first thing I noticed is that for as rare and rich the DPD’s dataset is, few journalists have actually played with it. The three visuals that exist, which have been copied and shared widely, were made by the DPD themselves — and they’re each pretty similar. Here’s the one that tracks the disposition/outcome of all PIS.

Dallas Police Department - Officer involved Shootings - DIsposition of Suspects

Disposition of Suspects in Police Involved Shootings (Dallas, TX: 2003-2014). Source.

By itself, this is a step forward in that it highlights the deficiencies of monitoring only those instances when the suspect is killed (via “justifiable homicide”). In Dallas, ignoring all cases of injury or shoot and misses would eliminate nearly 2/3 of the data. The fact that this is done elsewhere is egregious and unacceptable.

For as much as I’d like to praise the DPD, though, there was something else that stood out to me. You’ll note in the above that race appears nowhere, even though for researchers interested in this topic, it’s a key component. This is also the case for the DPD’s other visuals (not published here). To simply say that X suspects were involved in police shootings obscures patterns important to policy makers. So, to fix this, I’ve taken the disposition information and broken each down by race. (Note: In my own analyses I’ve removed all females and Asians because they are practically nonexistent in the data).


Suspects Killed in Dallas PIS.


Suspects Injured in Dallas PIS.


Suspects Shot At and Missed in Dallas PIS.

Identifying the race of the suspects presents a whole different picture. For each year in each disposition, black males nearly constitute a majority. This is despite the fact that, according to the U.S. Census, blacks make up only 25% of the city’s population. Next, because the data also includes whether the suspect had a weapon (and what type), we can pull out the race and dispositions of those who were unarmed.

Police involved shootings of unarmed suspects in Dallas, TX (2003-2014).

Police involved shootings of unarmed suspects in Dallas, TX (2003-2014).

From 2003 to 2014, nearly half of all unarmed men killed by Dallas police were black. Blacks also formed nearly two-thirds of all unarmed shoot-and-misses and injuries. This clearly is not a coincidence. (And no, I’m not the first person to suggest that police shootings have a disproportionate effect on the black community).

I want to encourage more journalists and scholars to use this data because until the FBI’s reporting system changes and more police departments release PIS data, we have to squeeze as much as possible out of what’s available. As a researcher at the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, I know there are plenty of interesting questions to be asked and answered: What’s the relationship between the disposition and weapon and race of the suspect? What effect does the officer’s race have on the disposition? And lastly, What crimes were these suspects allegedly committing?

So come on, grad students, get moving.

The full DPD dataset can be downloaded from Github (here), though it lacks 2013 data, which will need to be entered manually (or scraped) from the DPD website.

The importance of writing a court opinion well

Joshua Preston Supreme Court

The author outside the Supreme Court (c. January 2009)

This month Texas Monthly published an interview with retiring Texas criminal court judge Cathy Cochran, and in it she discusses the top judiciary reforms of the last twenty years. These include the increased use of DNA evidence, compensation for the wrongfully incarcerated, and policies to curtail false eyewitness identifications. All of these are surprisingly progressive reforms in a state that (often deserved) is criticized for its conservatism.

Yet, legal reforms aside, something in the interview stood out. When Cochran was asked how important a judge’s writing abilities are, Cochran answered:

Oh, very important—if you want to motivate people, if you want to make people pay attention, if you want people to do something, you need to say it well. A good politician rouses the crowd with language that people can understand and appreciate. If you want to be a good writer, you need to read good writers. I love reading Churchill, love reading Shakespeare. You need to make simple analogies that make sense to people who aren’t lawyers. When I started, I had my twelve-year-old grandson read some of my opinions.

Although it’s unlikely many laypeople ever read court opinions, we don’t appreciate their literary value (and even when it involves the Supreme Court, many only read excerpts). Contrary to the John Roberts school that supposes a judge is merely an “umpire” calling what they see, the judiciary is a political entity and its opinions are meant as much to inspire as they are to clarify the law of the land. Lines from Brown v. Board of Education (1954) are carved in marble. Justice Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” has become a pithy punchline. Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) is a rallying cry for gender equality advocates. Now when was the last time someone quoted a bill?

Yet, increasingly, fewer judges are writing their own court opinions. Instead, they rely upon law clerks to write the first draft, which is then edited. The consequence of this is that, according to legal scholar William Domnarski writing in The New York Times,

[M]uch of importance is lost …. Judge-written opinions require greater intellectual rigor, exhibit more personal style and lend themselves to more honest and transparent conclusions. …

It is no coincidence that Judge [Richard A.] Posner, the most influential (and most widely cited) appellate judge of his generation, writes his own opinions. His judicial voice is marked with stylistic touches, to be sure, shunning (and even lampooning) legalese as well as disregarding the traditional five-part structure on which law clerks typically rely. But what most grabs the reader is the voice of a judge thoroughly engaged with a problem in the law and working through it with enthusiasm, almost joy. As Judge Posner himself has written, “I know that only a few of the readers of my opinions are not lawyers, but the exercise of trying to write judicial opinions in a way that makes them accessible to intelligent lay persons contributes to keeping the law in tune with human and social needs and understandings and avoiding the legal professional’s natural tendency to mandarin obscurity and preciosity.”

Domnarski then adds that in addition to his political and social value, writing is a necessary part of the legal process. It is imperative for understanding the fine details of a case.

Unlike lawyers who are paid to argue for just one side in a case, judges are paid to pursue the truth. The bench is free from the limitations of advocacy; judges get to test arguments and follow a line of reasoning wherever it might take them. They get to explore the law. The opinion, properly done, reveals the judge sorting through the problem, thinking on the page. For similar reasons, judge-written opinions are also less vulnerable to a judge’s reflexive political and ideological leanings. The act of writing brings judges closer to the specific details and relevant issues of a case, forcing them to reckon with the case at hand in all its particulars, rather than seeing it as an instance of some more general theory or problem. [Emphasis mine].

Being able to fully engage with an idea and then clearly articulate one’s conclusions is a fundamental part of the democratic process. When the writing’s bad or judge’s skip out on their duty, everyone loses. So kudos to both Judges Cochran and Posner for recognizing this.

Neuromodulation, Or “Every Science Lab Needs a Philosopher”

In the fall 2012, I briefly left the University of Minnesota Morris to do a series of directed studies in Houston, TX. One of these included attending Dr. David Eagleman’s “Neuroscience and Law” course at Rice University, which required that we write for the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law’s blog. This was originally published October 17, 2012.

If a fundamental question in neurolaw is how the legal system should move forward with the specific brain on trial, then the major role neuroscience can play in the courtroom is in the sentencing process. In fact, after identifying the biology that may have predisposed an individual to criminal behavior, attention must be paid to how sentencing – the rehabilitation process – can effectively be carried out. For example, if it was a malformed frontal lobe that unfairly led an individual to give in to an irresistable impulse, neuroscience plays the dual role of identifying this malformity and how best to correct it.

This can take many forms (including basic conditioning) but one promising field is neuromodulation.

As we are still living in a period where our understanding of the brain is in its infancy, neuromodulation still has ways to go but is promising in its ambitions. Much of it is focused on the treatment of disease such as depression, eating disorders, and damage to one’s motor control, but if we are able to produce devices that can effectively give Parkinson’s patients a new lease on life (like the example of this man who was diagnosed in 1998 and now feels “like a newborn baby”), what else could we do? As the author Douglas Coupland once famously remarked, “Where does personality end and brain damage begin?” why could we not develop a piece of technology that, when attached to those parts of the prefrontal cortex responsible for decision making, maintains a steady stimulation that allows us to, say, rationally assess the relationship between our long- and short-term self-interests? After all, why would we ever let the better angels of our nature flitter away?

Of course, I understand this could be the fodder for a Huxleyan dystopian novel but this is not science fiction and these are the major ethical and social questions we will soon need to answer. It’s clear that neuromodulation opens many doors in the medical world, but it does the same for both the legal world (rehabilitation) while opening hundreds more in the socio-political world (for example, what constitutes “neural rights”?). These are issues that we cannot avoid, and even though I cannot claim to have any answers it’s about time every science lab hired a philosopher.

Reading Rana Dasgupta’s “Tokyo Cancelled” (2005).


Tokyo Cancelled (2005) by Rana Dasgupta

After being recommended to me by a friend, I just finished reading Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled (Black Cat Press, 2005). Checking out the reviews online, though, there seems to be contention as to whether it fits the standard definition of “magical realism” or (something I’ve only now discovered) “irrealism.” Of course, a distinction like this means nothing to most readers, but it’s the difference between Calvino and Kafka. Both engage in fantasy, but Calvino allows the reader to attach themselves to the story according to an internal logic; Kafka allows as much only to undermine it. The short stories of Tokyo Cancelled drift between both.

Made up of thirteen tales, the book is named for the frame story that holds them together. The premise is that, in a nondescript airport, a connecting flight to Tokyo is cancelled due to extreme weather. Unable to make accommodations at nearby hotels, thirteen gather and decide to entertain one another through stories. Called a modern Arabian Nights, Dasgupta’s work is contemporary and global yet draws upon the tropes of folktales and myth. Here a trapped sailor coughs up a dove that wanders off to inform his waiting maiden, an old man in quarantined Paris has a garden growing inside of him, poking through his flesh. Magical oreos turn a woman into a clothing boutique that threatens the local Chinese cartel. These stories are weird, but they’re also (surprisingly) moving.

Searching for interviews with Dasgupta, I came across the following from The Guardian (published when the book came out). His explanation on why he staged his story in a common airport with common people is thoughtful and worth sharing.

… “I think it stages the production of “literature” as something that normal people do. If it seems fantastical that a collection of travellers might tell such stories then this raises the question of why it is so much easier to stomach the idea that Chaucerian illiterates might do so. One reason is the creeping institutionalisation of culture: only “writers” write, only “artists” make art, and everyone else can only consume. These stories aren’t presented as non-negotiable outpourings from on high, but in a setting of people who are both artists and audience. By embedding them in life, by leading readers into a world that is rather like our own but where everyone tells stories, the book issues a challenge: for more storytelling.”

Additionally, here’s his defense of merging folktales and fantasy with the every-day and modern. Perhaps this is how we all ought to engage with reality. (I see here glimmers of Adorno and Horkheimer’s “disenchantment of nature”).

“The infantilisation of folktales is a recent thing, contemporary with the emergence of modern ideas of childhood,” he points out. “Now, children get their quick fix of everything that is uncanny, irrational and enchanted then cast it off in favour of a ‘rational’ adult self. How is such an astonishing division sustained? One commentator said about Disney World that its patent unreality helps us to believe that what we step into when we leave is ‘reality’ – yet sometimes we find ourselves glimpsing something in this outside world that is remarkably similar to the inside. When Alan Greenspan pronounces on the future of the US economy and sends people scuttling to prepare themselves for ill times, don’t we also remember the witch doctor, the shaman, the prophet who descends from solemn communion and tells the masses that the harvest will be bad? I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Tokyo Cancelled isn’t about ‘updating’ old stories – it’s about a search for a language to describe my own reality. In the process of this search, folktales jumped out at me.”

If you’re looking for a good book the next time you’re stranded in the airport, pick up Tokyo Cancelled. Either do that, or tell stories.

A Letter on “Hope.”

Joshua Preston Hope

A Letter on Hope

Recently on Fiverr, I was asked to write a letter, which being a (militant) advocate for written-correspondence I was glad to do. The only problem, though, was that I was asked to talk about “Hope.” Where does one even begin?

Deciding not to focus on my own experiences, I wanted to investigate what Hope actually is — and I wanted it to be more practical and philosophical than merely (and often unfulfillingly) poetic. You’ll find here no allusions to spring or sunrise. For such a nebulous but necessary emotion, I think it requires more seriousness than that.

For anyone interested in my letters, in September 2013 I posted a series called “Four Men in May,” in which I included one about the last week of my undergraduate career. If you’d like me to send you your own letter, visit my Fiverr page here.

February 7, 2015
Houston, TX

Dear _______,

Walking home from work the other day, I gave a lot of thought to your message, thinking about what I could possibly write that is unmistakably “hopeful.” It’s a challenge (I type with an insuppressible grin on my face) but for being such a fundamental part of the human experience, it is a necessary exercise and I’m thankful for the opportunity you’ve given me. I think you should try it, too, and I’d love if you sent me a copy of your thoughts. Because even if we are not always as hopeful as we’d like, Hope is imperative. As I’m sure I’m not the first to say: Without it, What’s the point?

So, already, we know that Hope is a guide: It guides us to what “the point” is. By this I mean it is the quickest way to identify those things that matter most to us. What are you hopeful for? Why? Ask yourself these questions the next time the feeling swells inside of you. Within your answer you’ll discover the aspirations and relationships you cherish most.

Yet, I don’t know if we encounter Hope or if it encounters us. For every instance when Hope takes hold, ensnaring us without warning, there are others when it’s discovered by engaging with our aspirations. When we know the obstacles to be overcome, sometimes we must search for Hope by breaking them into smaller, more-manageable components. For example, let’s say one is committed to but hopeless about passing an “impossible” class. Instead of focusing on the class as one giant, single problem, one ought to focus on the number of tests and ask What must I do to pass each one? Suddenly, the class ceases being “impossible,” and in that moment we feel in our chests a rush of relief: Hope.

Fearing that I may not have much to say about “Hope,” I reached out to a friend of mine, a young philosopher-poet named Andreana S., and asked what her thoughts were on this subject. Here’s an abridged version of what she sent me:

“Hope is a means of self-preservation in the face of helplessness. … Learning to cultivate hope is not self-deception, as some would dismiss it; some would say that hopefulness is fanciful thinking, … and that one would be better off focusing on the aspects of life within one’s control rather than hoping for a different, distant, but seemingly always-possible future. However, hope is self-sustenance – an act of friendship towards the self. It is a gift we give ourselves when we do not have anywhere else to turn for support.”

This, she added, allows one to “let go of judgment and permit in oneself an emotional investment” in what we aspire for. “Only with that emotional connection, that hope, can one then build upon that foundation by channeling the hopeful energy” into action. That cannot be stressed enough: Hope without action is mere faith. We cannot expect our problems to change for us; instead, Hope grants us the power to know that there is more in our control than instinct suggests — and for what we can control, we can change.

These are all the thoughts I have right now and I’d like to get this letter in the mail sooner rather than later.

Joshua Preston

Writing Advice from Sinclair Lewis on His 130th Birthday

Sinclair Lewis Yale University Honorary Degree

Professor Sinclair Lewis accepting an honorary degree from Yale University (1936). Minnesota Historical Society.

On this day in 1885, writer Sinclair Lewis was born. Author of Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), and Elmer Gantry (1927), Lewis was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1930). So to celebrate his 130th birthday, I’m sharing his writing advice from when he taught briefly at the University of Wisconsin (1940) and University of Minnesota (1942).

[Quotes are from Richard Lingeman’s biography, Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street, 2002].

Although he’d held workshops and lectures across the country, in the fall of 1940, Lewis took his first step into academia by accepting a nonpaying position at the University of Wisconsin. Attracted to the city of Madison, he enjoyed teaching and so, once a week for two hours, he’d pace the room listing everything he’d ever learned about writing. One student, theater critic Frances Benn Hall, recorded one of Lewis’ lectures:

When you write don’t worry about whether or not it’ll sell …. Don’t want success at twenty-two. If you want fame, be a prize fighter or a movie star. If you write, write because you must write. Because you can’t help it. Write what you believe, what you know, what moves you. And always write the best you can. Be self-proud. You can fool the critics but never yourself. Remember you’re competing with the best that’s ever been written. Try to be better than the best. There’s no limit for you and there can be no writing but great writing. Possess a divine egotism. . . . And never forget that you’re competing with Shakespeare (451).

Lewis’ time in Madison was short as, after six classes, he abruptly returned to New York, telling his students, “I’ve taught you all I know. From here on in, all would be repetition” (452).

Two years later, returning to Minnesota to gather material for his next novel (Gideon Planish, 1943), Lewis joined the University of Minnesota where he taught another writing course. Though there for only one semester, Lewis was uncomfortable socializing with his peers:

The novelist Robert Penn Warren was on the faculty there, but Lewis was wary of him because he was friendly with the critics Allen Tate and John Peale Bishop, also teaching at the university, whom Lewis felt looked down on him — which they did (468).

Presumably Lewis taught his course very similarly to that at Wisconsin, but when the semester ended he left with these last words for his students: “In writing as in life, righteousness is permissible” (469).

That’s advice that could be used today.

The natural sciences can inform rather than dictate our public policy

In the fall 2012, I briefly left the University of Minnesota Morris to do a series of directed studies in Houston, TX. One of these included attending Dr. David Eagleman’s “Neuroscience and Law” course at Rice University, which required that we write for the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law’s blog. This was originally published October 30, 2012.

In an article titled “Can Neuroscience Challenge Roe v. Wade?” William Egginton, professor in the Humanities at John Hopkins University, cautions us to be careful in how we use the natural sciences to shape public policy. In this case, abortion rights. Egginton writes about attorney Rick Hearn’s suits against Idaho’s Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act “and others like it that cite neuroscientific findings of pain sentience on the part of fetuses as a basis for prohibiting abortions even prior to viability.” The reason for this is because Hearn believes that the government is using results from the natural sciences “as a basis for expanding or contracting the rights of its citizens.” The logic goes like this: if it can be proven that fetuses are capable of pain then they are conscious and thus a person deserving of their full rights under the constitution. This clearly has political overtones.

The turn to legislation based on alleged neuroscientific findings in search of an end-run around the protections provided by Roe v. Wade is popular among Republicans. Mitt Romney voiced his strong support for such legislation in 2011, when he wrote in a piece in National Review, “I will advocate for and support a Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act to protect unborn children who are capable of feeling pain from abortion.” Since viability is, according to Roe v. Wade, the point at which the state’s interest in protecting “the potentiality of human life” becomes compelling enough to override its interest in protecting the right of a woman to make decisions regarding her body and its reproductive organs, Idaho’s statute and others like it would either be found unconstitutional or, if upheld, entail overturning a fundamental aspect of Roe v. Wade.

This is reasonable enough since the Republicans are simply trying to reinforce their philosophical arguments with evidence. If it is true that the fetus experiences pain (as we would conceive of it), that is a pretty strong argument in their corner. Unfortunately, when the Republicans refer to pain sentience there is the implication that these feelings arise from a primitive form of consciousness, which is debatable.

Current neuroscience distinguishes a spectrum of degrees of “consciousness” among organisms, ranging from basic perception of external stimuli to fully developed self-consciousness. … The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, for instance, distinguishes degrees of consciousness in terms of the kind of “self” wielding it: while nonhuman animals may exhibit the levels he calls proto-self and core-self, both necessary for conscious experience, he considers the autobiographical self, which provides the foundations of personal identity, to be an attribute largely limited to humans.

… For a fetus to be conscious in a sense that would establish it as a fully actualized human life, according both to current neuroscientific standards and to the philosophical tradition from which the concept stems, it would have to be capable of self-perception as well as simple perception of stimuli. … By turning to consciousness in an attempt to push Roe’s line-in-the-sand back toward conception, in other words, abortion opponents would in effect be pushing it forward, toward the sort of self-differentiation that only occurs well after birth and the emergence of what the phenomenological tradition has called “world” [Emphasis mine].

Fortunately for infants everywhere, though, philosophy is always evolving and we can change our views in light of the evidence. Acknowledging neuroscience’s views on consciousness does not suddenly mean that we need to allow abortions in the fourth trimester. Social policy is not strictly beholden to science. Instead, what we often do is use our experiences, intuitions, and philosophies to guide our research in a way that either reinforces or invalidates said experiences, intuitions, and philosophies, the latter of which we then amend accordingly. If our ideas on consciousness could, in theory, allow for the killing of babies, then let us change our philosophies to fit our intuition that killing babies is wrong. It is as simple as that. What our understanding of consciousness simply means (in this case) is that if the anti-abortion movement hopes to gain any traction it must discard the “pain sentience”/”consciousness” argument otherwise maybe we couldjustify abortion after-birth.

I am sure there are other arguments that can be made against abortion but citing pain sentience is not one of them.

Lastly, in this article I think Egginton places too much emphasis on what he calls the “hubris” of science to overreach into those fields he believes to be in the realm of philosophy. At face value I do not disagree but it is misleading for him to blame science’s role in the pain sentience debate rather than the idealogues who are cherry-picking and misusing it to support their ends. It is true that the non-scientific community will often regard SCIENCE! as a beacon of infallibility (except when it challenges their intuitions) but that is not the problem of science it’s the problem of society. This is just another example of how scientific illiteracy pollutes the discourse rather than science being “dictatorial.”