On Naturalism, Human Dignity Disappears

Charles Darwin at age 51, just after publishin...

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This isn’t too surprising, since matter and laws of nature are incapable of generating value, regardless of how they interact or what levels of complexity they achieve.  Value or worth is never the product of a chemical reaction or the movement of particles, or the conclusion of an equation.

On naturalism, man is simply one animal among many, with no special moral status, as philosopher James Rachels articulates:

The traditional supports for the idea of human dignity are gone.  They have not survived the colossal shift of perspective brought about by Darwin’s theory.  It might be thought that this result need not be devastating for the idea of human dignity, because even if the traditional supports are gone, the idea might still be defended on some other grounds.

Once again, though, an evolutionary perspective is bound to make one skeptical.  The doctrine of human dignity says that humans merit a level of moral concern wholly different from that accorded to mere animals; for this to be true, there would have to be some big, morally significant difference between them.  Therefore, any adequate defense of human dignity would require some conception of human beings as radically different from other animals.

But that is precisely what evolutionary theory calls into question.  It makes us suspicious of any doctrine that sees large gaps of any sort between humans and all other creatures.  This being so, a Darwinian may conclude that a successful defense of human dignity is most unlikely.

– James Rachels, Created from Animals (Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 171-172.

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33 thoughts on “On Naturalism, Human Dignity Disappears

  1. fleance, your arguments are full of shit. you are basicaly saying: i believe in what i want to believe – even if there is no proof that its truth – and it is the reality. for exemple you say to yourself: oh well, i think murder is wrong and most people i ask say the same thing. so yes, murder is wrong. this is what we call generalizing: its not because every one likes, per exemple, chocolate, that chocolate is something that is good and every one should like. and u know what, i cant proove you are wrong but i believe in something too: science. i believe in what i see, in what is real, in matter, in observations… in reality. i mean come on were in 21st century and people like you still believe in god and spiritual shit that doesnt even make sense, AT ALL. and yes, i used vulgar words… im sorry if that goes agaisnt the moral you, and most of people, think is good… and yes, call me immature… i might be, i might not be. human though = cell activity. thanks, good night. email me.

    • Hi Adam,

      Thanks for your comments. I hope it’s not the case that I tend to believe in things without any proof or evidence, or just because I want them to be true. As humans, it’s a challenge for all of us to submit our beliefs to tests of reason and evidence, and that’s one reason I believe philosophy is important–because it helps us do that.

      Now about morality, I don’t think it’s analogous to your example of
      liking or disliking chocolate, which is clearly a personal preference. But I don’t think you’d want to claim that the rightness or wrongness of murder is a personal preference–or rape, or racial discrimination, or hurting someone for the fun of it. I think we can all agree that these acts are objectively wrong. We know this innately, and there’s no more reason to deny it than to deny what we see with our visual or tactile faculties. Even most leading atheists, like Sam Harris, agree that morality is objective (meaning that right and wrong exist regardless of any person or group’s opinion).

      I’m glad you’re a fan of science because I am too. Science is great, and I’m all for it. The mistake, though, is to think that science can explain all of reality. Science is very good at explaining how physical stuff behaves. But it can’t tell us what is right and wrong, what is beautiful, what our purpose is, or even how we should define the term “science” itself. Some of these questions are answered only by philosophy, and some only by theology. It’s a great myth in our culture that science is the only means to knowing truth.

      The good news is, there is a God, and He wants you to know Him.

      Thanks,
      Chris

  2. Pingback: Top Posts of 2010 « Cloud of Witnesses

  3. Dan,
    Actually, what I was asking made no direct reference to my beliefs. Since their was confusion, I’ll rephrase: Chris believes it is a good thing to help people out of error because he believes each person has objective dignity and value.

    Why do you want to help people out of their error?

  4. Dan,
    Actually, what I was asking really made no direct reference to my beliefs. I’ll rephrase: Chris believes it is a good thing to help people out of error because he believes each person has objective dignity and value.
    Why do you want to help people out of error?

  5. Also Fleance,
    “Deep within our nature, we have a desire for real purpose and meaning, and to adopt existentialism or naturalism is to abandon that inherent part of our makeup.”

    I hate to be the one to point this out to you, but wanting something (or moving on from that desire) does not change the status of whether that something is real or not.

    Moreover, your desire for some external meaning is just as subjective as my contentment with some internal meaning, sorry to break it to you.

    • Dan,
      Or, on the other hand, maybe this deep desire for meaning most human beings seem to share is an indication that we were made for this kind of purpose. Everything I can think of that I have a desire for, has some way of being met. I desire food, water, rest, social interaction, freedom to determine my own course of action, and many other things. If all of our other desires have a way to be met, why not this desire for objective purpose and significance?

      You’re right, of course, that wishing something to be true doesn’t make it true. But, I’d argue that this desire for purpose is hardwired into our nature by our Creator. We all have a void in our lives that only God can fill.

  6. This is the objective moral value that Sean McDowell was talking about as being only grounded in reality because God grounds it. Isn’t it amazing that James Rachels agrees with McDowell on the point.

    • Hi Knight,
      Yes, it’s always refreshing when someone who adopts naturalism will follow the logical consequences of that worldview and admit that humans can’t be special on it. I’m glad they’re wrong about that!

  7. With normal background knowledge of the world,
    “Where do I go from here?” is a answerable
    question. There is my meaning of life.

    • Hi P. K.,
      That’s a good question to ask, but to answer it, you’ll need to know what life means, and what its purpose is. If there is no objective meaning or purpose, the answer to the question would be “wherever” or “anywhere.” But, if we’ve been created for a purpose, the answer will be an actual answer — pointing you to the place you ought to go . . . where your Creator wants you to be.

  8. Chris,
    You are using the ‘the argument from personal incredulity’ . It goes
    – i can’t imagine any way how X could happen without god.
    – therefore god
    It is never a strong argument, but in areas when no one has been able to come up for an explanation for X, one can see why it is beguiling.
    In the case of evolution that was the case for many years, until Darwin hit on natural selection.

    • Hi botogol,

      It seems to me that the argument, as you listed it in your first comment, is a deductive argument, so that if the premises are correct, the argument is sound. I would just add an additional premise, 1.5: There is a morally significant difference between humans and animals. All of the premises are convincing, so it looks like the argument stands.

      To make the case that humans do have some special value — in an objective sense — on evolution (as Rachels says), one would have to show there is some significant difference between humans and other animals. Many naturalists believe humans do have a special status, but philosopher Peter Singer has famously called this “species-ism” — an irrational preference for one’s own species above others. If there’s nothing outside of nature to grant us dignity (worth, value), we’re just relatively advanced primates in a valueless, purposeless world.

      • Chris
        – the theory of evolution does not dismiss human as simply a ‘relatively advanced primate’ any more than it dismisses a primate as simply relatively advanced banana.
        – bananas, fish, primates, humans: between these there is a difference in kind, not just a difference in complexity. The astonishing thing about the theory of evolution by natural selection is that is provides an explanation of how that could have come about.

        We have a special value because we consider ourselves to have a special value. There’s no need to hypothesise a God .

        • Hi botogol,

          Well, according to Richard Dawkins, we’re really just machines for replicating genes. And, that view makes perfect sense on naturalism.

          Let me share this quote of his from River out of Eden (which I mentioned in my conversation with Dan as well): “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

          If we follow this atheistic naturalism to its logical consequences, this is what we’re left with. Naturally, if there’s no evil, no good, and no purpose, there can’t be any value — including human value. Yes, a group of humans can “make up” some values. But those are social conventions that can easily change if certain groups of people take power and decide to change the rules. Since the rules really aren’t rules, they can be easily changed (on this view). That’s a fairly dreadful outcome, but inevitable on naturalism.

          On theism, however, there are objective moral values that are grounded in God’s nature, and they are binding on us regardless of what any person or group of people happen to think.

          Chris

          • Chris you said

            “On theism, however, there are objective moral values that are grounded in God’s nature, and they are binding on us regardless of what any person or group of people happen to think”

            It’s a nice idea, but the trouble is: different groups of theists, at different times don’t actually agree what these ‘objective’ moral values are. On contrary: their objective moral values seem to reflect their times education and culture, just the same as secular values.

            The big difference being: nowadays the values of the religious world tend to lag those of the secular by about 20-30 years.

            • I think there is pretty strong agreement on the basics that almost any theist would agree with, which you find captured in the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and in the command to love your neighbor as yourself.

              On theism, these values have an ontological grounding and there are real consequences (both good and bad) for doing them or failing to do them. On atheism, we don’t have either a grounding, or any ultimate moral accountability. In the end, the moral saint and the brutal serial killer will encounter the same fate — extinction of their being, so that their choices in this life have no lasting significance.

            • but fleance
              – catholics and protestants don’t even agree what the 10 commandments are
              – much of the old testament expounds a morality that no one today agrees with

              Even very simple commandments such as ‘do not kill’ are, on closer examination problematic: for instance for many (most?) american christians it is morally right to kill people who are murderers, but in the wicer western/christian world this is no longer seen as acceptable.

              I really don’t observe any greater uniformity in moral values amongst the religious than in the secular. I do observe a stron conviction in both communites that there is such a thing right and wrong.

  9. human dignity is a natural function, having been thought up by natural humans, therefore was a successful adaptation in the evolution of the species, like morality and culture.

    • Hi J,
      Thanks for your comment. One point I wanted to make in the post was to argue that some things important in human experience can’t be explained by evolutionary processes or by mere sociology. One of them, which you mention, is morality. Since I believe morality is objective, it couldn’t have evolved through random processes.

      Nearly every human being has a deep sense of right and wrong that I don’t think natural processes can explain. If our morality just evolved, it would be purely subjective and haphazard. But every sane person believes strongly that things like murder, racism, and genocide are wrong — objectively wrong. That is, wrong even though one person or a million says they are right.

      So, human dignity, like morality, isn’t just an idea or an opinion, but an objective fact. It’s objectively true that human beings should be treated as inherently valuable. If that’s not objectively true, then we should be free to experiment on human beings, use them as slaves, harvest their organs, etc. But we know these things are universally and at all times wrong. Physics and chemistry (and by extension, evolution) can’t explain how we know this. These are transcendent values that go beyond science.

      All the best,
      Chris

  10. Value –

    Value is an entirely human concept, an idea in our minds.

    But we humans natural beings composed of matter and subject to, and in accordance with, the laws of nature; so its plain to behold that our idea of value has, indeed, arisen naturally.

    human dignity –
    Your argument – if I understand it – is full of holes. You say:

    1) the doctrine of human dignity depends upon there being a morally significant difference between humans and animals
    2) evolutionary theory suggests there is no such difference
    3)therefore evolutionationary theory is suspect

    Well
    1) not so much ‘depends on’ but ‘is equivalent to’.
    2) I don’t agree. On the contrary it is plain to see – for the religious and eveloutionary minded alike – that there is an enormously significant gulf between humans and other animals: our minds. It is this gulf that made evolution such a difficult idea to find and for some people to accept. The ingenuity of the theory of evolution by natural selesction is that it was able to explain a mechanism that could have produced this previosuly inexpicable gulf.
    3) is non-sequitor based on mistaken premises.

    • Hi botogol,

      That’s a thoughtful analysis. You’re right, value is an idea, but I’d argue that it has an independent reality, regardless of anyone’s opinion about it. We could say the same thing about math or science or the belief that other people exist — those are all ideas in our minds, but important realities nonetheless.

      Your listing of the premises and conclusion is right on. About premise 2, we could agree that there are important differences between humans and other animals — especially, as you mention, our minds or cognitive abilities. But on a naturalistic evolutionary account, we’re really just talking about a difference in complexity, like the difference between a calculator and a high-end personal computer (maybe we’re comparing a squirrel and a human being in that case). But that difference in complexity doesn’t yield value or worth. These properties are transcendent and can’t evolve or create themselves. If we believe in such a thing as human rights, we have to ask who or what grants those rights.

      Since evolution can only produce more complex arrangements of matter, and matter in itself can’t ground or exemplify value, Rachels argument makes sense, and seems to show that human dignity isn’t possible on naturalism.

      All the best,
      Chris

    • Hi Dan,

      It seems to me that existentialism is a form or species of naturalism. Existentialism (at least the kind made famous by Sartre and Camus) denies God’s existence, and then tries to make sense of life and morality in that light. I’d argue that existentialism is actually an enlightened form of naturalism, because the adherents at least recognize that without God, we’re in a lot of trouble when it comes to establishing meaning and morality.

      But existentialism faces the same criticism of undermining human dignity as naturalism, since existentialism begins with the premise that God doesn’t exist, which means that human beings are only accidental products of chance, and no different (except in complexity) than other animals.

      All the best,
      Chris

      • That’s not quite correct though – Naturalism is not by any means devoid of emotion. Central to naturalism is the observations that emotions are in fact entirely natural. Existentialism starts and ends with the simple observational basis that things exist, without much room for emotion over how you feel about them. Existentialism has it’s place in the cold hard world of facts, but it is a dispassionate philosophy, and it seems that you’re criticizing that and not the view that only natural things occur.

        * I note that you lump the two together solely on the criteria of whether they accept or deny some god’s existence. That’s an extremely narrow way to look at these two philosophies, and I’d urge you to learn more about both of them.

        ** There’ve been a lot of studies in ethology, philosophy, and psychology over the years illustrating that religion is by no means necessary for meaning or morality. Regarding meaning (and as an atheist), I personally get pretty offended by people who insist that w/o a god there is no meaning. I get all the meaning I need from my wife and daughter, just for starters. So please don’t insult me with that lie.

        • Hi Dan,
          If you look at the work of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, you’ll find that the absence of God is at the very heart of their philosophy (see, for example, this quote by Sartre). In a nutshell, the idea is that since God doesn’t exist (on their view), neither do objective meaning or morality. Thus, we are all left with the project of creating our own and being “authentic” to ourselves in the choices we make. Nietzsche said essentially the same thing.

          And, I agree with them 100 percent. If God doesn’t exist, then they’re exactly right that we have no objective meaning, value, or purpose. Yes, as you mention, as individuals we have subjective purposes, meanings, and morality, but nothing that makes any difference outside of our own minds. To me, that’s a pretty bleak picture of reality, and one that I reject. Since God does exist, there is an objective purpose for our existence, and we can find it by knowing our Creator. Deep within our nature, we have a desire for real purpose and meaning, and to adopt existentialism or naturalism is to abandon that inherent part of our makeup.

          • Fleance,
            1) By focusing on Sartre and Camus only, you’re ignoring a lot of other philosophers, including most contemporarily Dennett.

            2) “…as individuals we have subjective purposes, meanings, and morality, but nothing that makes any difference outside of our own minds. To me, that’s a pretty bleak picture of reality, and one that I reject. ”

            Why is it a bleak picture of reality to concede that what gives me meaning does not necessarily give you meaning?

            • Dan,
              Thanks for the thoughtful responses. Yes, there are other existentialist philosophers, but I wasn’t aware that Daniel Dennett claimed to be one. He seems to fall into the category of “scientific naturalist.”

              About your point 2, this goes back to a distinction between subjective and objective meaning. On a subjective level, it’s fine and normal that we all find meaning in different things in this world. For example, I find lots of meaning in my job, and my next door neighbor finds great meaning in baking cookies. But if our existence has no purpose or destiny, I think we can say “so what?” to those activities and any others. I think Sartre and Camus and Nietzsche got this exactly right: without a transcendent purpose for our existence, we’re left adrift on a sea of meaningless activity. The best solution they could come up with is, Do your best to create your own meaning, since there’s none “out there” to discover.

              If they’re consistent, the new atheists will have to admit the same thing. Here’s a quote by Richard Dawkins I often point to from River Out of Eden (p. 133): “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

              That’s why I call naturalism (and existentialism) a bleak view of reality.

              On Christian theism, on the other hand, there is purpose and value and meaning — all grounded in a transcendent Creator and Ground of all being.

            • Fleance,
              No, Dennett most definitely isn’t an existentialist, he’s a naturalist. I thought that since you don’t understand the distinction and are short-sightedly lumping them together, Dennett would be a good read for you.

              “I think Sartre and Camus and Nietzsche got this exactly right: without a transcendent purpose for our existence, we’re left adrift on a sea of meaningless activity.”

              And I think differently. It’s a subjective difference… and incidentally, I find it odd that someone with much self-esteem would feel inadequate with themselves enough to need external validation. But what do I know, right?

              Also you said above: “Or, on the other hand, maybe this deep desire for meaning most human beings seem to share is an indication that we were made for this kind of purpose. Everything I can think of that I have a desire for, has some way of being met. I desire food, water, rest, social interaction, freedom to determine my own course of action, and many other things. If all of our other desires have a way to be met, why not this desire for objective purpose and significance?” Voltaire satirized that point of view well. Should I call you Professor Pangloss now?

            • Dan,
              I understand where Chris is coming from. It makes sense to me that in his worldview sharing what he believes is important to him. He believes there is objective human value and consequently wants people to come to believe what he understands to be the truth.
              Can you help me understand what motivates you to leave responses on his blog? How does that motivation fit in with your view of Chris’s lack of objective value as a person?

            • Adam,
              So you’re saying that there’s no point in discussing the topic with him (and you), because you’re defending your worldview (not discussing philosophy for the sake of discussing philosophy), and thus I should just save everyone time and discontinue replying? Okay. Bye.

            • Dan,
              I don’t think that’s what Adam was getting at. You’re always welcome to stop by and share your opinions.
              Best,
              Chris

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