Evolution and Human Dignity

July 23, 2012

* This post was originally published in June of 2010*

Writing on his blog, evolutionary psychologist Steve Stewart-Williams discusses forthrightly the implications of evolutionary theory on our view of human dignity:

Evolutionary theory does not directly contradict the doctrine of human dignity. It does something else, though: It undermines the foundations upon which it rests, and the worldview within which it makes any sense. I’ll explain how. The doctrine of human dignity is supported by two main ideological pillars: the image-of-God thesis and the rationality thesis. The image-of-God thesis is the idea that we and we alone were created in the image of God and have an immortal soul, and that this is a fundamental difference between all humans and all other animals that justifies a fundamental difference in how we treat all humans vs. all other animals. The rationality thesis is the idea that we and we alone possess rationality – the spark of reason – and that this is the difference that justifies privileging members of our species above all others.

Evolutionary theory undermines both these theses.

Three thoughts about that – first I appreciate Stewart-William’s honesty here – contrary to the view of many Christians, I find atheists to be refreshingly honest when it comes to the implications of their own beliefs. They may be uncivil, ignorant of history and theology and given to logical fallacies, but when it comes to what impact their beliefs will have on our culture, they are fairly straight shooters.

The second point here is that the author has correctly identified the primary basis of human dignity in Western culture, that being the Christian belief that we were created in the image of God and are eternal creatures with eternal value. Whatever discrepancies skeptics imagine there is in Scripture on certain questions, this fundamental belief is clear throughout Scripture and in Christian theology. It is the basis for the idea that we are endowed with certain rights and liberties, the most important of course the right to life itself.

And Stewart-Williams rightly claims that evolutionary theory undermines these basis for human dignity. There is in fact no basis to believe humans are particularly special via a naturalistic understanding of the world. Whatever characteristics distinguish us evolutionarily, they are a matter of degree, not particular qualities.

And he doesn’t stop there. After correctly identifying the basis for human dignity, he properly ascertains its central role in our Western ethical system, and some specific issues abandoning it will impact – namely suicide and euthanasia:

By undermining both the rationality thesis and the image-of-God thesis, the Darwinian worldview undermines the doctrine of human dignity. It leaves it without intellectual foundations. This has important implications for many key issues in ethics. The idea that human life, and human life alone, is infinitely valuable has impregnated the ethical systems of the world, especially those of the West. Although the doctrine of human dignity has its origins in the religious conception of humankind, it has woven its tendrils into our secular codes of ethics. It is implicit in the ethical beliefs of many who doubt or even reject the various religious accounts of human origins, and who believe that right and wrong exist independently of religion. Thus, even though we in the West live in a semi-post-Christian world, in which the image-of-God thesis and the rationality thesis are widely dismissed, the ethical attitudes they inspired linger on. But what happens to these attitudes when we really get to grips with the fact that the foundations of our traditional morality have eroded? This is the question I’ll address in my next few posts. In the next, I’ll discuss the contentious topics of suicide and euthanasia.

Over the course of his next post, he does indeed show how the application of evolutionary theory modifies our views of suicide and euthanasia:

With the corrective lens of evolutionary theory, the view that human life is infinitely valuable suddenly seems like a vast and unjustified over-valuation of human life. This is because Darwin’s theory undermines the traditional reasons for thinking human life might have infinite value: the image-of-God thesis and the rationality thesis (see my last post). But if human life is not supremely valuable after all, then there is no longer any reason to think that suicide or voluntary euthanasia is necessarily wrong under any or all circumstances. In fact, it starts to seem decidedly odd that we have elevated human life – i.e., pure biological continuation – so far above the quality of the life in question for the person living it. Why should life be considered valuable in and of itself, independently of the happiness of the individual living that life?

Of course none of this is new – though he decries the eugenics of the last century, there is nothing he offers to distinguish this current incarnation of Darwinist ethics from previous versions except to sound more sophisticated. The reality is that as much as we see evolution as the basis for human existence it invariably leads us back to the same place, a place where we human life is de-valued if it doesn’t prove itself useful or productive to society, or if caring for a life becomes too burdensome. The implications of the application evolutionary theory to ethics goes much farther than that of course, but this is far enough to remind us of what we lose as Darwin’s theory plays a central role in our society.

It is notable the Stewart-Williams is writing in a very mainstream journal, Psychology Today. It is also interesting to note that this is not the only suggested application of evolutionary theory to our treatment of human maladies – I detailed earlier the suggestion in a psychiatry journal that the ‘evolutionary lens’ be applied to our view of depression. It is clear that evolution goes far beyond a mere biological theory – it has clear implication in ethics, sociology, and policy, as admitted by its own adherents. To the degree we adopt this evolutionary lens, we abandon the Scriptural mandate to care for the least of humanity.

Atheism and the Value of an Eternal Soul

July 18, 2012

* This post was originally published in April of 2010*

In a recent post, former scientist cum New Atheist apostle P.Z. Myers makes an oft heard naturalist claim that the human soul doesn’t exist. Not only do they not exist, it is good that it souls don’t exist as it frees us to enjoy the moment, find hope in an earthly future, and lay claim to all advancements as solely ours.

As is often the case with such claims by atheists, it ignores history, human nature, and is an inherently self-contradictory claim.

To take the last first and understand why the claim is self-contradictory we must start with P.Z.’s description of what humans essentially are, a description necessitated by atheistic beliefs:

“There is no immortal, constant part of any of us that will survive after death — our minds are the product of a material brain. We are literally soulless machines made of meat, honed by millions of years of ruthless, pitiless evolution. And so is everyone else.”

It’s important to dissect this for a moment. The description there creates a biological equivalence between humans and every other living organism on earth, or are least every animal. A mosquito, leech or rat would all be aptly described as “soulless machines made of meat” – and their worth would be ascribed accordingly. For the most part in human history human worth has been measured on a separate scale, particularly in the Christian Era. Humans were thought to be made in the image of the Divine and have been accorded eternal value – that the worth of their lives goes far beyond their biology. Atheism cannot find such inherent worth in humans and so it inevitably diminishes humanity.

Despite this reality Myer’s tries to conjure up a hopeful future, an imagined future, where imaginary progeny will enjoy the happiness of temporal pleasures:

“We do have hope for the future, too. Think for a moment about your community a century from now. Does it make you feel good to think that there will still be people living there then? That they will be talking about things that you find interesting, that they will be doing activities you also enjoy? Do you hope that life will be better for them? Even though we will be gone, we can still aspire to perpetuate our culture, and find satisfaction while we are alive in advancing that cause.”

This is where the contradiction comes in – having reduced humans to ‘meat machines’ he then wants us to delight in the possibility that future ‘meat machines’ will while away their time, perpetuating the ideas that give us joy now, perhaps even improving on our current lot. In this statement we see the derivative nature of atheism, the inherent assumption that our culture ‘just happened’ or that it could have happened absent the very sets of beliefs that brought us to where we are today. The reality is that we stand as a society on a foundation of beliefs that were by in large informed by the very things Myer’s is seeking to eliminate – that humans have inherent worth that goes beyond their physical existence, that are motivated by eternal realities.

It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about great universities like Harvard, Yale or Princeton or great charitable works like the Red Cross or Salvation Army, or the thousands of hospitals and research facilities that Christians brought into existence. Or if we consider the great works of art, literature and music that have been created the last several centuries or even the foundational principles that inform Western nations, all of these exist in part or in whole because of the activity of believers who were informed by eternal considerations.

So history demonstrates that not only is the idea of a soul or eternal existence enticing, it is in fact a critical component of the civilization we enjoy and hope future generations enjoy. And the history of societies that have attempted to deny the existence of the eternal human soul isn’t very promising. Whether we are talking about the French Revolution, the Soviet Union, Maoist China or present day North Korea, the reality of societies that categorically deny the existence of the human soul does not give us hope.

And this is what many atheists (and a surprising number of Christians) seem to miss – the value of eternal security is not just in that it gives us comfort for the future; although that is certainly true, in a way atheism never can. The value of the eternal human soul is that it gives weight and worth to human existence today – and it informs how we will treat each other in this life. This truth is contained in one of the most widely read prayers of Jesus, commonly known as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’:

“Thy kingdom come; thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.”

The eternal will of heaven, the intended dwelling of the human soul, informs us in the here and now. Our concerns aren’t only for the future, but for how this reality motivates us to act today. Because we exist not only for a moment in time, and because our value far outweighs the mere tasks we perform in this life, understanding the eternal nature of the human soul compels us to act to care for others. It also moves us to restrict our own immoral activities, which have consequences not only for the moment, but for all eternity. Indeed, nothing in atheism can or does motivate people to live in a similar fashion. We would be as PZ honestly states it merely temporary meat machines.

And many aspects of our equality and liberty only make sense in light of the existence of the human soul. Human do not actually have biological equality – whether we talk about intellect, or physical strength, or even genetics, humans are not at all ‘equal’ in any respect. The only means by which we can make that claim is if humans have equal inherent worth – an aspect which is beyond our physical natures. This has always been understood to be a soul. In the same way we are ascribed certain liberties which are endowed to us by a Creator – if those are not the product of eternal considerations, then they are merely privileges granted us by the state, and the state can remove them without recourse. This is a tragic possibility in a future where the existence of the soul is denied.

The reality is our treatment of others invariably aligns with how we see others. If we see others as property, we treat them as property. If we see them as merely biological organisms, we treat them as such. And if we truly see them as created in the image of God, eternal souls of great worth, then we accord them the appropriate deference. PZ Myers has told us how he and the New Atheists see their fellow humans – as ‘meat machines’. There is every reason to believe if they had the power, that is exactly how they would treat them.

A Primer on Intelligent Design

July 16, 2012

*This post was originally published June 8th, 2006*

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had long been interested in the science of life and its origins and I have spent a number of years exploring the intersection between science and faith. In recent years the conversation has centered primarily on Intelligent Design, a theory much talked about in the media, courts, schools and scientific circles. To that end I wanted to give those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the issue an overview of the discussion to date.

Below are a series of questions and answers about Intelligent Design. I attempted to be as even-handed as possible though I readily acknowledge that in general I support intelligent design as a scientific theory.

What is Intelligent Design (ID)?

Intelligent Design is the scientific theory that states that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause not an undirected process such as mutation and natural selection. It is a theory promulgated to answer this question, posed by William Dembski, an originator of the theory of ID, and one of its primary proponents:

Can objects, even if nothing is known about how they arose, exhibit features that reliably signal the action of an intelligent cause?

That question can be asked by anybody regardless of metaphysical belief; and the answer, presumably, wouldn’t require a particular belief either.

To that end, two main criteria have been proposed to determine the earmarks of intelligent activity in the formation of an object (or organism) – they are irreducible complexity, and specified complexity.

Irreducible complexity is drawn from a statement by Charles Darwin:

“If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”
–Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species: A Facsimile of the First Edition, Harvard University Press, 1964, p. 189

Thus Michael Behe describes an irreducibly complex system this way:

“A single system which is composed of several interacting parts that contribute to the basic function and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning”
–Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box, p. 9

In simpler terms if you have a mechanism (for example, a mousetrap) you can only reduce that mechanism down to a certain number of parts before it ceases to function in any useful way. In biological terms all the parts to a irreducibly complex biological system must be in place at once in order for it to function in any useful way and confer a survival advantage to the organism. Thus, such systems could not be formed by a series of gradual modifications as required by Darwinian evolution.

In the case of specified complexity, developed by William Dembski, the idea really centers on information patterns. If a pattern is both specified (that is fits a defined arrangement) and complex it is a reliable marker of intelligent activity. Thus a mountain side may be complex, that is made up of a variety of materials, but it isn’t specific in its arrangement. A crystalline structure like a diamond might be specific because its structure is organized in uniform a pattern but they aren’t complex.

Intelligence allows for patterns that are both specified (organized in discernible pattern) and complex, like written languages, computers codes and machines. In short, it allows us to discern the degree to which intelligence played a part in the formation of Mount Rushmore versus the natural formation of a cliff wall.

These two criteria form the basis of intelligent design theory.

Does ID disprove evolution?

ID is primarily a criticism of evolution on one specific point; primarily that undirected causes such as mutation and natural selection aren’t sufficient alone to account for the current genetic diversity we see in biological systems. Beyond that it allows for other evolutionary concepts such as common descent, adaptive radiation and natural selection.

Intelligent Design also acts as a critique of the natural origin of life and the universe though this is not a criticism of evolutionary theory per se  because evolutionary theory isn’t an attempt to explain the origin of life and the universe.

Is ID Creationism?

No – ID and Creationism have fundamentally different goals; creationism attempts to reconcile the narrative of Genesis with scientific theory while ID simply attempts to answer this simple question – Can objects, even if nothing is known about how they arose, exhibit features that reliably signal the action of an intelligent cause? Of course, creationists often find the information ID provides as useful (just as they sometimes find the information provided by other sciences as useful) but this doesn’t make ID and creationism the same thing.

Is ID science?

This depends how one defines science. If the standard definition is used that science is any idea arrived at through hypothesis, repatable observation, investigation and testing  then yes, ID qualifies as science.

If one adds the current addendum that all explanations must be the product of wholly natural phenomenon (that is, non-intelligent, or non-directed forces) as does methodological naturalism, then ID wouldn’t qualify as science. If methodological naturalism is a required assumption of science, then science itself conceivably prevents us from answering fundamental questions about the origin of the universe, life and the origin of species by dismissing viable explanations.

Didn’t the court rule ID wasn’t science?

In the Kitzmiller v. Dover case Judge John E. Jones III ruled that ID was not science and as such could not be taught in the science classroom. If one holds that courtrooms are where science is conducted, then yes, at least in the Middle District of Pennsylvania ID is not science,; though of course the court also ruled ID may be true.

It should be noted that to this day, evolution is the only scientific theory which requires court protection from detractors in order to maintain viability.

Aren’t all supporters of intelligent design Christians?

No, actually a number of them aren’t; among non-Christian ID supporters we have Anthony Flew (Agnostic), Michael Denton (agnostic), Mustafa Akyol (Muslim), Slade Gorton (Jewish). Of course, whether or not they are Christian is rather irrelevant; one could safely say 95% of atheists are evolutionists of one stripe or another, but that doesn’t really say anything about whether or not evolution is the best explanation for the existence and variety of life on earth.

Does ID hurt science or science education?

I have always been perplexed by this idea; that somehow if ID were accepted as a viable alternative to evolution that all critical thinking would end. This runs counter to two obvious facts, the first being that historically science in large part is the product of a Christian culture that had no problem reconciling the existence of a Creator with natural exploration. In fact many great scientists among them Newton, Kepler, Bacon, and Pascal were notable commentators on theology as well as scientific icons.

The second obvious fact is that the debate between evolution and intelligent design is perhaps one of the most vibrant scientific discussions of the twenty-first century. It has driven an interest and exploration into origins and genetic capability, and the very structure of life. There is really only one side who wants to shut down discussion in the debate, and that side isn’t supporters of intelligent design.

I hope this helps further the discussion now going on about Intelligent Design both for supporters, critics and the casual observer.

July 11, 2012

*In keeping with my ‘no media month’ I am re-blogging a number of posts. This post was originally published Nov. 11th 2009 in the midst of the Healthcare bill debate. The points it makes are still significant to the debate over Obamacare today.*

Wide as the Waters

I am certainly no healthcare expert, nor am I a noted economist (or even an ignored economist), so I don’t feel adequate to delve into the nitty gritty of the current House bill. However, it doesn’t take an expert to observe that over the course of the debate about health care from the current administration, there have been numerous contradictions, both in terms of logic and fact. Many of these get short shrift in the 30 second analysis we get from the media.

 One of the first logical contradictions one notes has to do with the ‘Healthcare System wastes 800 billion dollars’ vs. ‘Insurers regularly deny care’ claims. On one hand we presented with a picture of stingy health insurers, who routinely deny care in order to line the pockets of their greedy CEO’s. Meant to elicit support for healthcare legislation by generating hatred for the imaginary rich, this…

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Fides Scientia

July 9, 2012

*  This month is our yearly ‘No Media Month’ where our family gives up television, the internet, video games and the like to devote out time to spending time together, reading, travelling and generally enjoying the brief warmth of a Minnesota summer. As a result I won’t be writing this month, but decided to republish some previous posts that I think have stood the test of time. This one first appeared May 5, 2006*

I have been, for as long as I can remember, a science geek.

I don’t know if I was born that way or if I am just the product of  some unique environmental factors but I am certain it was a tendency encouraged by my parents. One of my earliest memories is of my father calling excitedly for my mother so she could hear me spell zoology. Another time, when I was still quite young, our wonderful neighbor Mrs. Schaeffer had a party for the neighborhood kids (she was known for having fun little parties for no particular reason) where kids could come dressed according to what they wanted to be when they grew up. I came as a pterodactyl.

Of particular interest to me was paleontology and biology. I was an avid reader early on and my parents fed my habit with sets of encyclopedias – first the popular World Book Encyclopedia, then later a 20 volume set of the Encyclopedia of Animal life (written, interestingly, in the King’s English – which to this day will still occasionally causes me to give certain words their British spelling like colour and labour), as well as the entire Time-Life Nature library. 

One of my particular favorites in the Time-Life set was the volume Early Man. The volume included the obligatory multi-page centerfold timeline of the march of human evolution from a small ape-like ancestor to modern humans, as well as numerous illustrations of the same ancestors struggling for survival against hyenas, other proto-humans and starvation causing them to develop tools to hunt mammoths and protect themselves against predators. It was all so…convincing.

I think it was around that time science, in particular, the study of evolution became something more to me than a science theory; it became a faith. By faith I mean it became something that I held to be fundamentally and inherently true about life. It became more to me than a mere biological process; it was a worldview that explained why mankind was here and where we might be going.

As I got older, and increasingly discouraged about the state of humanity – the destruction of the environment, the potential for cataclysmic war and the greed and hatred I saw around me evolution also gave me hope. Buoyed by science popularizers like SaganAsimov and Clarke, as well as the science fiction they wrote like Childhood’s End and the movie that shared it’s themes, 2001 a Space Odyssey, I began to see evolutionary theory as the great hope of mankind. Just as we were once primordial ooze and became human so to we might overcome our earthly troubles and inherit the stars.

As a result what little faith I might have had in God was relegated to agnosticism; I wasn’t particularly hostile to the idea a god might exist, it just didn’t seem to matter all that much.

Occasionally I would run into a backward thinking person who still held to the idea that God created the world and that some evidence for this existed; if I didn’t automatically dismiss the person as uneducated or hopelessly wedded to some outlandish religious notions, I might attempt to dialogue. It usually wasn’t long before it became a debate – and I loved to debate; particularly when my faith was being called into question. I rarely found it difficult however to knock down most of their ideas.

In 1982 I began my University career as a biology major, with plans to go on to veterinary school. It just so happened that around the same time a rather radical proposal had been made on campus; a professor of engineering, Dr. John Patterson, had proposed at a department meeting that any student who proclaimed a belief that God created the world should be denied a science degree. In addition to his teaching job Prof. Patterson was also a widely known and very outspoken atheist – and his proposal was made in response to what he saw as the threat of creationism invading campus. Of course the proposal, once made public, created a furor on campus with debates going on in the student paper and among the faculty and staff. I was rather amazed that even at the University level some still questioned evolution until I became friends with someone who did, a fact I attributed to his small town upbringing.

But something else was happening that year; I was beginning to realize that whatever faith I had in nature it wasn’t sufficient to satisfy deep personal longings for meaning and purpose and change. While evolution might hold out some hope for the future of mankind it held little hope for me personally. We might grow as a species but I continued to fail even my own standards and expectations. I was as greedy and selfish as anyone else and change seemed beyond me.

The same friend whose science I dismissed had an answer when it came to purpose and change and that answer was Jesus Christ. Though I had early on dismissed Christianity I couldn’t deny my friend’s life – or the joy, love and peace I saw in it. After nearly a year of wrangling with myself and with a growing sense that Christ was real and present I surrendered my life to Him. I transferred my faith from a belief in the power of nature and myself to a faith in Christ.

That surrender while it brought about dramatic changes in me, didn’t alleviate all the questions I had. I still had a niggling feeling about the accuracy of Scripture, at least as much as it seemed to contradict my understanding of science. Thus, a lot of my twenty-plus years as a Christian has been involved with considering the intersection of science and Scripture and as a result, a lot of what I consider here concerns that as well – my science geekdom remains unabated, so my apologies to those whose interests lie elsewhere; you will have to endure the occasional technical discussion.

Observations – 4th of July Edition

July 4, 2012

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Concluding Paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776