Posted by: Jim | February 25, 2009

A Rebuttal

Here is a link to a video by an old friend of mine. Warning: the video is about 45-minutes long, and aimed at showing that stem cell research is morally wrong because it kills humans.


I went to church with Scott for years back when I was a Christian, and I will attest that he is genuinely a good guy. He and I have exchanged e-mail recently, so he knows where I stand. He is one of the few Christians I know who can debate intelligently without resorting to name-calling, anger, silly reasoning, etc. For that reason I have a lot of respect for him, although I am a little peeved that he still has great hair.


Scott is now a well-known anti-abortion advocate. I myself am technically against abortion. So Scott and I are in agreement on some things, but some elements his argument made me cringe.


At the crux of his talk is a scientific argument  that explains why a fetus is a human. This is the strongest part of his argument. He then couples that definition with a philosophical reasoning that since a fetus is human, it deserves all the same rights that all humans deserve. This is still a very strong argument.


But then, to give his argument “teeth,” he begins to vilify the morals of “other” people. He doesn’t single out atheists, per se, but he outlines a specter of the ambiguous “they” who are ostensibly those not aligned with the Christian faith. He also points to a slippery slope where we are all headed if abortion is allowed to continue. Here is where his argument sputters, dies, flies into the mountain, and bursts into flames.


Scott implies that the dangerous trend of stem cell research will ultimately lead to Nazi-like human experimentation. He uses the ethics of a quack at Princeton named Peter Singer to scare his audience into thinking that science, if allowed to go unchecked, would gladly kill babies. Singer, who suggested we should be able to kill a baby up to 30 days after they are born, does not represent the ethics of Atheists, rationalists, materialists, or humanists. That is a stigma that is easily applied to us when speaking to a Christian ethics convention, but Scott is not doing himself any favors by using this kind of hate speech.


He also uses “Transhumanism” to drive this point home. Transhumanism is a movement to mix human DNA with animal DNA, and is wild, extremist science that does not have a foothold in any ongoing rational scientific dialog. This is where Scott’s argument to veers into sensationalism. (On the internet we call that “dumpster diving” where you pick the strangest extreme and hold it up as an example of the norm.) Then, he transitions straight into Nazi scientific atrocities, and puts the capstone on the shrillness of his message. He is trying to imply that science—when left alone—will become an amoral monster.


But this usage of “definition through example” could just as easily condemn religion as it does science. It’s easy to find Christian wackos and hold THEM up as an example of the norm. I have done this myself (in error) and realized it’s a terrible argument, and unfair. Sure there are bad scientists! And there are bad religious people too. Religion—when left alone—becomes an amoral monster as well. Just examine any country where religion has been given free reign to determine public policy. Whatever example you will find will be a country where oppression, fear, and tyranny rule.


Scott is trying to bifurcate society into two groups: those who have morals and those who don’t. Guess which half science falls in? Guess which half Christianity falls in? The fact is, there is no bifurcation, and we are all in this together. And most importantly, we are left alone. We have no one to police us but ourselves. Any time any group is given unchecked rule, they become tyrants. That is human nature. That some scientists might do this should be no surprise.


If Scott is truly interested in reducing abortions, rather than choosing language that vilifies his opponents, (which might be a lucrative way to boost contributions,) he should look for ways to build bridges with the scientific community, strip his “cause” of all irrational nonsense, and focus on the definition of human life and the extension of human rights. Because just as many religious people have become clouded by their own biases, I believe that the secular community may be clouded by its bias for abortion. Scott could help clear these cobwebs by using a purely scientific and secular argument, and insodoing KEEP the ear of the scientific community. Instead, he chooses to say this: “even if we figure out ways to do all this bio-engineering without killing embryos, people will still want to do it.” This is unbridled poppy-cockery! Scott thinks that all of us non-religious people are bent on killing babies? That is just silly. He is alienating the very people he should be trying to persuade.



  1. Jim,
    Thanks for taking time to watch my presentation and for your kind remarks about my speakng skills. Though I appreciate your stated sympathy for the pro-life view, I cannot yield to your critique of my specific case.

    First, my claim about unchecked science was far more modest than you claim it to be. My point was simply this: Pro-lifers do not oppose scientific research provided that research is tied to moral truth. I’m curious why that troubles you. The examples I cited–the Tuskegee Experiments, Nazi experiments on Jews–were not slippery slope arguments, but clear examples of what has already happened when science is cut loose from morality. My point was simply this: If science trumps morality, why is it wrong to use black men for grisily medical experiments if we can gain valuable information by doing so? Far from asserting a slippery slope, I’m asking a grounding question–namely, on what basis can you say these actions are wrong once morality is tossed from the equation?

    Second, you are simply wrong to say Peter Singer is a “quack” in the field of ethics. As anyone familar with the literature knows, Singer is considered the world’s most important ethical thinker, though I find much in his writings to disagree with. My point here is that I did not cite some unknown idiot to make my case, but a leading Ivy League philosopher. I’m surprised that you did not know of Singer’s qualifications, given he is one of the leading thinkers in academia today. And lest you think his views on infanticide are his own and no one else’s, may I suggest you read Michael Tooley, Mary Ann Warren, Joseph Fletcher, John Harris, Jonathan Glover, Jeffrey Reiman, Jim Holt, and Steven Pinker–to name only a few.

    You are also wrong about transhumanism. The attempt to alter the biological nature of human beings is hardly a quack movement, but is pressing ahead full steam among academics in respected universities worldwide. For example, Gregory Stock at UCLA believes that all individuals should be free to absolutely alter themselves and their progeny—including inserting animal DNA into human embryos, inserting or removing chromosomes, and inserting artificial chromosomes into a genetically altered embryo. As Wesley J. Smith points out, Stock envisions a time when we will become so genetically diverse that humans will cease to exist as a single species. Lee Silver, a Princeton biology professor and author of “Remaking Eden,” hopes cloning technology will lead to redesigning the human condition. James Hughes of Trinity College (Hartford, CT) writes that “democratic transhumanism” and “morphological freedom” will transform the world into a radically individualistic and utterly materialistic utopia. According to A.M. Chakrabarty of the University of Illinois College of Medicine, “If the species cannot be defined, then, the fear of crossing the evolutionary boundary is irrational.” Thus, our legal system must begin now working out the ramifications of human-animal blending.
    As Smith points out, these ideas have already progressed to the point that they may be influencing government decision making. A 2002 report issued by the national Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Commerce recommends that the government spend billions pursuing some of the very technologies transhumanists crave.

    In what sense, then, is my citing of transhumanist thinking and extreme example?
    As for my claim that even if technology affords us ethical means for obtaining stem cells, people will still want to kill embryos, this, too, can be proven not by looking forward, but by what has already happened. For example, when in 2006 scientists at Stanford University under the direction of Dr. William B. Hurlbut suggested we could develop alternative sources of pluripotent ES cells (using a technology known as Altered Nuclear Transfer) that did not involve killing embryos, the cry from ESCR advocates was not one of rejoicing that the ethical impasse may soon be solved, but that the need for destructive research on human embryos was even more evident than before. The same thing happened when Dr. Thompson’s team successfully reprogrammed skin cells to function like ES ones. So once again, I’m not advancing some slippery slop fallacy—I’m merely pointing out what has already happened. Even a cursory glance at the literature to date would have convinced you of that.

    (For the record, I am not one of those theists who say atheists can’t act morally. That’s silly, and Hitchens, for one, is right to say so. But I don’t think Hitch is off the hook. As my friend Melinda Penner points out, how, as a materialist who believes in a world of only what science can explain and prove in the physical world, he can lay claim to morality? He ignores the grounding problem, the explanatory power of a view of reality to account for the features in it. Morality, the way Hitchens is using it, has no material explanation. How does he account for the prescriptive, universal nature of morality, not merely descriptive? His humanism won’t get him there because that can only offer a descriptive, contingent account – whatever is is morality.)

    Best Regards,

  2. Welcome Scott!

    I felt a little scared when engaging you on this subject, since you get paid to fly around and debate on it. I fear I have been bested on a few points, but I don’t care! I am learning. This is a topic that I think is important, and you definitely know your stuff.

    The reason I’m troubled when you try to tie research to moral truth is that it is YOUR moral truth. The focus of your work presupposes a Biblical definition of morality, and that troubles me a lot. My point is that you could detach your definitions from the Bible, find common ground based on a rational, scientific and humanistic definition of morality, and then start making headway. You could score points for the unborn, while maybe not for Jesus, but I think your goal really is for the unborn primarily.

    Instead, by basing your definition of morality on an arbitrary mystical tradition puts the foundation of your definitions right up there with the “women should wear burkas.” I know that’s an extreme example, but the underpinnings of your ethics are equally solid.

    You are within a hair-breadth of a secular definition—why don’t you just use one? If you do, you will stop alienating your audience, and possibly work toward a resolution. But when your argument says “We are better than the animals because we are made in the image of God” Pro-Choicers will just roll their eyes and write you off as a kook, even though that would be a mistake. If you put it another way by presenting only the idea that a human is fundamentally defined by our DNA, how can they roll their eyes and still be respectable scientists? Every other definition (including Singer’s) is arbitrary and yours is not. If you took the DNA definition further, you could also justify that the biological imperatives proscribed by DNA do not only drive us to replicate ourselves as an individual, but DNA also encourages behavior that helps the group. This is the scientific argument for humanism, and it’s perfectly sound. In other words—I believe you can beat them on their turf. Why do you force them to yours, where you are sure to lose?

    Peter Singer may have impressive credentials, but his line of thinking does not represent that of the mainstream. He is an outlier. The logic of the anti-abortion argument is as follows:

    First premise: It is wrong to take innocent human life.
    Second premise: From conception onwards, the embryo or fetus is innocent, human and alive.
    Conclusion: It is wrong to take the life of the embryo or fetus.

    While most pro-choicers battle the second point, Singer battles the first! In the marketplace of ideas, where your battle will be won or lost (i.e. the floor of Congress), Singer’s viewpoint will be irrelevant. It won’t even be voiced by the pro-abortion side, because the idea of killing a newborn baby is anathema to everyone in the world (except maybe the few names you’ve listed.) My usage of the word “quack” may have been excessive. Rather, he is a tenured professor who does not care what people think. Politicians do. Professors do not determine public policy or allocate public funds; politicians do. Of all the people you named who ascribe to Singer’s belief, are any of them politicians? No. What percentage of people in the world ascribe to Singer? I doubt you could scrounge up .3%. So by presenting Singer’s point to a Christian Ethics Convention, you are implying that the viewpoint of this extremist actually matters. I don’t see how it does.

    What Singer’s viewpoint does do, is scare people. And fear sells.

    My argument re: Transhumanism is the same. Let’s quantify it. What percentage of dollars that go to scientific research are going to R&D for Transhumanism? I don’t know the answer but I bet it is miniscule. Just because you can list a lot of names of people who are proponents of Transhumanism does not mean that the notion has any wheels. I think you present this point to your audience to turn up the heat on their fear. If transhumanists are destroying human embryos for their cause, then what they do is just a tangent. If you focus on the legal definition of a human, then the transhumanists (all 47 of them) will have to fall in line. Outside of that, I believe you are using this to sensationalize your argument. It is a small transgression, but why it bothers me is that it continues to paint the picture that the secular world is a bunch of mad scientists who want to kill babies. You don’t say that outright, but the implication is made, and it fuels fear among your audience. I don’t like that.

    On the last point … after hearing your response regarding pro-choicers opting out of using non-embryo-destroying alternatives, I am afraid you are right. You didn’t cite the reactions in your talk (or did I miss it?) so I was unaware of the history there. If the ESCR advocates reacted as you say they did, they are way too steeped in their own biases, and should be reprimanded. Seriously … if a path around stem cell research can be found—we should take it. Why not? That is patently obvious to anyone who cares. Can you point me to some references of these reactions? Anyway, their reaction is sad, and points to the need for broad-based ethical definitions. I believe that people worked toward a secular definition of these important ethical issues, you will be making headway.

  3. Okay, Jim, I’m all ears. Tell me why you think anything has value and a right to life.

    Any answer you give, I’m afraid, will inevitably is grounded in metaphysics, some comprehensive doctrine about the nature of human beings and their place in the world which can’t be proved empirically. Thus, while pro-life views on the proper use of science and the status of the unborn (that is, are the unborn valuable human beings) are implicitly religious, they are no more religious than alternative explanations about human value and human rights. Everyone is asking the same exact question: What makes humans valuable in the first place? Science can’t answer that question because science deals only with things we can measure empirically through the senses. If you want an answer, you’ll have to do metaphysics.

    But back to my original question, can a thoroughly materialistic (secular) worldview tell us why anything has value or a right to life? According to materialism, everything in the universe—including human beings and their capacity for rational inquiry—came about by blind physical processes and random chance. The universe came from nothing and was caused by nothing. At best, human beings are cosmic accidents. In the face of this devastating news, secularists simply presuppose the dignity of human beings, human rights, and moral obligations. But on what naturalistic basis can human rights and human dignity be affirmed?

  4. Scott and Jim,
    Thank you for your time and thought in these matters. Scott, you put into words so eloquently what I feel in my own mind but cannot express as well. I’m very interested in your conversation and am excited that you are part of the discussion.

    Jim, thank you for the open forum and the general respect that you give to all of your bloggers. It is not necessarily common.

  5. (Ted–thank you!!)

    “Okay, Jim, I’m all ears. Tell me why you think anything has value and a right to life.”

    Science does not grant humans a *right* to life any more than crabgrass. However, the coding we get from our DNA not only gives us each the biological imperative to sustain ourselves, find a mate, reproduce, and raise our children to adulthood. DNA also gives us the inclination to save each other from peril. If you see a baby drowning, it is a natural human response to save that baby. It is an atheist’s inclination to do the same. I would argue that this is almost entirely genetic. Monkeys do it too (not as much as humans, but they do.) So as a species, we should do what we can to save ourselves and our species. I would also argue that as we get smarter, we should use science to indicate which actions we should take (or not take) to preserve and protect ourselves as a species. I think that your mission fundamentally fits in with that model. So I’ll reiterate that we really do agree on the thing that is important to you. What we’re really debating about here is just the methodology (or maybe the rationale we use to arrive at the same conclusion.)

    If I were a type of existentialist, I might say there is no meaning to humanity, that the universe is empty, absurd, and that we are just a pile of atoms that is a little more complex than empty space. But I’m not an existentialist; I’m a humanist. Humans do have the ability to find awe and inspiration in all life in general and in the beauty of human life in specific. We might just be a complex bunch of atoms but WOW! We’re amazing! It’s totally amazing to me that we happened by chance. And so we should treat this accidental beauty as frail and precious.

    I am hard pressed to find anything metaphysical about that argument. Is the appreciation of beauty metaphysical? You are right that “beauty” can’t be proven empirically, but it can be proven that most people see beauty in life. As an atheist, that’s all I need to shore up my model.

    Besides, it is the governmental application of the term “human rights” that you must work with to accomplish your goal of ending the destruction of fetuses. Their definition possibly does cross over into the metaphysical in some ways, but I don’t think the governmental definition of human rights (primarily secular) is offensive to your opponents. But if the definition becomes religious, more opponents will crawl out of the woodwork to ensure that you don’t succeed, including me.

    “Thus, while pro-life views on the proper use of science and the status of the unborn (that is, are the unborn valuable human beings) are implicitly religious, they are no more religious than alternative explanations about human value and human rights.“

    I don’t agree. In your talk you said that the woman who had no legs had intrinsic value because she was made in the image of God. I don’t agree! That is not why! The Constitution says that every man has the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I do agree! There is nothing there I can argue with! It includes the woman with no legs—and you can make a very scientific argument that it includes the unborn. You have to admit that if a man used an entirely scientific argument to include a fetus in human rights, he might get his case to the Supreme Court. But if you made a religious argument, saying “a fetus is made in the image of God” you would not likely get to the Supreme Court today. Furthermore, I would personally oppose your argument if you presented it that way. You know why? Because I do not want religious principles determining public policy. And I think that is more important than the protection of fetuses. I don’t think that abortion could lead to the total destruction of the human race. I think religious influence in our public policy can.

    “Everyone is asking the same exact question: What makes humans valuable in the first place? Science can’t answer that question because science deals only with things we can measure empirically through the senses. If you want an answer, you’ll have to do metaphysics.”

    That is funny you should say that Scott because I just watched a 45-minute video where you spent most of the time using science to establish the value of humans. You did a pretty damn fine job of it too! I don’t think it’s perfect, but if you stripped away the few religious buzzwords and phrases you used, and stopped alienating the secular world, you would have an argument that would get legs in today’s marketplace of ideas. In that marketplace, you are right–we can only use arguments that can be empirically measured through the senses. That is not a problem.

    “According to materialism, everything in the universe—including human beings and their capacity for rational inquiry—came about by blind physical processes and random chance.”

    Totally agree.

    “The universe came from nothing and was caused by nothing. At best, human beings are cosmic accidents.”

    Not 100% sure that’s true (matter probably always existed) but for purposes of this argument, I can go with that.

    “In the face of this devastating news,”

    That news does not devastate me at all. It’s actually a relief in some ways.

    “… secularists simply presuppose the dignity of human beings, human rights, and moral obligations. But on what naturalistic basis can human rights and human dignity be affirmed?”

    I don’t need to affirm it, and it is not a presupposition. Dignity exists! Human Rights exist! Moral obligations exist! You are presupposing that religion is the impetus for these things. Whether or not there is a scientific basis for them, we somehow manage to treat each other (sometimes) with dignity. The dignity you see present in the world today is not a result of religion—it is the result of our nature. Apes treat each other with dignity (sometimes) too. Do they have religion? Do they have metaphysics? I can show you a YouTube video where a herd of water buffalo risk their lives to save a calf from a pride of lions. (Actually Google it—it is AMAZING and inspiring!) The dignity that that herd of water buffalo shows that calf is more than you would find among some humans. Do the water buffalo do that out of some religious unction? Of course not. Neither do we. We treat each other with dignity because that’s just what we do. It’s in our DNA.

  6. Jim,
    A reply that begins with “humans have no more a right to life than crabgrass” and later concedes that everything in the universe is the product of blind random chance will have great difficulty explaining 1) why anything should have value and a right to life, and 2) why we should trust our minds in the first place.

    To borrow from my friend Paul Copan, you move from purposeless, impersonal, and amoral materialistic or naturalistic processes to—viola!—the emergence of intrinsically valuable, personal, and moral beings. Again, I simply do not see how your worldview has the ontological resources to bring about this remarkable transformation.

    You reply that science can explain morality and human dignity—that the coding found in our DNA gives us a biological imperative to sustain ourselves, meaning our intuitions about moral behavior are almost entirely genetic. Theists, atheists, indeed, even monkeys—recognize and act on these moral inclinations. For you, that’s enough. We can be good without God!

    Yes, you can be. But your task is not done. Just because an atheist can recognize moral obligations and human worth epistemologically (a point I fully concede) does not mean he can ground them ontologically within an atheistic framework. That is to say, merely being aware of the content of morality and the dignity of human beings does not furnish you with a basis for saying why we are beholden to them. Atheist Simon Blackburn, for example, confesses a preference for human dignity and objective moral values, but finds that nature offers no grounds whatsoever for either. “Nature has no concern for good or bad, right or wrong…We cannot get behind ethics.” In short, if we are the products of mindless and valueless processes, it’s difficult to see how value could emerge. Why shouldn’t we live selfishly (with a nod to Ayn Rand) and subject weaker people to our whims?

    Sure, I realize that you, Michael Shermer, and others try to get around this problem by reducing morality to biological drives. Morality rides on the genes, as it were. Thus, Shermer writes that asking “Why should we be moral?” is like asking “Why should we be hungry or horny?” But if this is true, all he can do is describe how humans presently function; he can’t prescribe how they ought to behave in the future since both morality and hunger are products of evolutionary hard-wiring.

    To press the point further, suppose I’m told I should not be selfish because it hurts the group. But that answer itself presumes another moral value or rule, namely, that we ought to be concerned about the health of the group. My reply: Why ought I care about the health of the group? Suppose I’m told that if the group is harmed, the species is harmed. To which I could reply (and I think you can see where this is going): Why the heck should I care about the health of the species? The problem with all of these evolutionary responses that purport to justify or explain morality is that they depend on prior moral rules. Therefore, they cannot be adequate explanations for morality.

    Again, I’m not the only one to point this out. Atheist J.L. Mackie once said, “moral properties constitute so odd a cluster of properties and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events without an all-powerful god to create them.” True, one could say that I should care about the species because if it dies, I die. But as Greg Koukl points out, this only makes matters worse. The argument now is that I ought to be unselfish because it is better for the group, which is better for the species, which is better for me. So what’s my ultimate reason for thinking I ought to be unselfish? Because it’s better for me. But, writes Koukl, “looking at what is better for me is selfishness. We’re left with ‘I morally ought to be unselfish so that I can be more thoroughly selfish.”’ Odd indeed.

    Your claim for monkey morality fares no better. One cannot infer actual moral obligations by merely observing a chimp’s actions. That is to say, morality cannot be reduced to behavior. You must factor in motive and intent. For example, stealing and borrowing look the same, but no one thinks they’re morally equivalent. To the contrary, we judge these acts according to the intent and motive of the actor. (For that matter, surgery and mugging both involve cutting, but no one thinks they’re the same. A boy who trips an old lady provokes our rage, until we learn he did it to keep her from getting hit by a bus.) Thus, one can talk descriptively about a monkey’s behavior, but you can’t conclude from this that he ought to share his bananas.

    There are epistemic problems with your view as well. Moral choices, by their very nature, depend on free moral agents. Yet according to materialism, man is nothing more than a machine programmed by blind natural forces. He’s hardwired to think a certain way, meaning his thoughts and beliefs—including his thoughts and beliefs about morality, religion, and evolution—are strictly predetermined. How can rationality exist in such a world? Thus, there’s no point in Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Shermer, et al, trying to convince religious people they’re wrong, since none of us are free to think any differently than we do. Moreover, if our minds are the result of blind and irrational forces of nature, why trust them to give us the truth about the world? Dawkins concedes in “The God Delusion” that since we are the product of natural selection, we can’t completely trust our own senses. Evolution, in other words, is concerned with preserving adaptive behavior, not giving us an accurate picture of the world. Patricia Churchland (atheist) puts it this way: “The principle chore of [brains] is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive….Truth, whatever that is, takes the hindmost.” (So, is her own view true or just a trick of biology to prolong the species?) Darwin himself writes: “With me, the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind which has been developed from the mind of lower animals are of any value or are even trustworthy.” In short, if our cognitive faculties only tell us what we need to survive, not what is true, why trust them about anything at all?

    So again, what’s the evidence that purposeless, impersonal, and amoral materialistic or naturalistic processes can give rise to the emergence of intrinsically valuable, personal, and moral beings? Seriously, is the fundamental difference between Mother Theresa and Joseph Stalin one of chromosomal makeup? If so, how can we praise the former and damn the latter? Yet our moral intuitions scream that we must do that. Indeed, our entire legal system assumes that genes and environment do not excuse criminal behavior. But if genes and culture determine what we think and do, why think we’re morally responsible for our actions? Atheist Thomas Nagel sees this: “There is no room for agency in a world of neural impulses, chemical reactions, and bone and muscle movements.” Nevertheless, we do hold people accountable. We do cast blame. We do offer praise for a job well done. As atheist Theodore Dalrymple points out, “metaphysics is like nature: though you throw it out with a pitchfork, yet it always returns.”

    And return it does, with a roar, when you make this claim: “In your talk you said the woman who had no legs had intrinsic value because she was made in the image of God. I don’t agree. That is not why! The Constitution says that every man has the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I do agree! There is nothing there I can argue with!”

    Are you sure?

    First, it’s Declaration of Independence that recognizes these basic human (or natural) rights, not the Constitution. Funny, you forgot to mention how the founders grounded these basic rights to which you appeal. One thing they didn’t do is pluck them out of thin air. Jefferson and company write: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” So where do basic human rights come from? According to our founders, they don’t originate with government, whose job it is to simply recognize the rights we already have in virtue of our humanity. Rather, these basic rights come from our creator.

    Can we say metaphysics, anyone?

    I’m also unclear about this statement of yours: “I don’t want religious principles determining public policy.”

    What do you mean by that?

    Do you mean the federal government should not establish a state church (denomination) or do you mean that believers have no right to bring their values to the public square and argue for them, like everyone else does? If the former, I agree. If the latter, what’s your constitutional support such a claim? Consider this: The Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail all have their metaphysical roots in the biblical concept of imagio dei (i.e., humans bearing the image of God). If pro-lifers are irrational and unconstitutional for grounding basic human rights in the concept of a transcendent creator, these important historical documents—all of which advanced our national understanding of equality—are irrational and unconstitutional as well. Absurd.

    For the record, it may comfort you to know that although most religious conservatives, following Jefferson, ground their claims for human dignity in a transcendent creator, they don’t want a theocracy or “Christian” nation that imposes theological doctrines. What they want is a more just nation, one where no human being regardless of religion, gender, size, level of development, location, or dependency is denied basic human rights. They also want judges who respect the rule of law rather than legislate from the bench. Given a choice between a “Christian” President who works against justice for the unborn or an agnostic one who promotes basic human rights for all, including the unborn, religious conservatives will opt in mass for the agnostic. In other words, religious conservatives care more about a candidate’s worldview and judicial philosophy than they do his specific theology and doctrine.

    In the heat of battle, I once turned the tables a secular critic and said: “Show me an argument for abortion rights that doesn’t assume some transcendent grounding point.” Here’s the problem for the strict secularist: Where does the right to an abortion (or right to life) come from? If it comes from the State, he really can’t cry foul if the State decides to revoke that right. After all, the same government that grants rights can take them away. Predictably, he replied that the right to abortion is fundamental, meaning women have that right even if it’s not respected by the State. Yet how can fundamental rights of any kind exist without a transcendent source of authority that grants them? Thomas Jefferson recognized this problem and promptly grounded basic human rights and human equality in the concept of a transcendent creator, as noted above. Of course, this by itself does not prove that Christianity, Judaism, or any other world religion is true, but it does make them consistent with the idea of human rights.

    Can atheism offer an equally plausible starting point for basic human rights? In the case of my critic, the answer was no. He could not get his own claim for fundamental abortion rights off the ground without borrowing from the very theistic worldview he so despises.

    I’ll end by clarifying a couple of points. First, none of what I say above means that Christians have airtight answers and no mysteries to solve. We could be mistaken. Nevertheless, I’m convinced the biblical worldview best explains human dignity and moral obligations. Instead of emerging from purposeless, impersonal, and naturalistic processes, humans have value because they bear the image of a transcendent creator—one that died for their sins when they rebelled against him.

    Second, I agree with you that not all public presentations of the pro-life view require delving into metaphysical assumptions. Some audiences are satisfied with the syllogism you referenced earlier. But then again, some aren’t. Anecdotally, I can tell you that in a typical abortion debate, the pro-life advocate will be grilled incessantly on every one of his starting points. His critics both in the audience and on stage will demand to know how a right to life can stand apart from fundamental religious underpinnings, why those underpinnings should be allowed to inform public policy, and why anyone should suppose that just because I exist as a human, I have a right to life others are obliged to respect. If you think I’m kidding, consider this chilling example from philosopher David Boonin at the University of Colorado. Boonin argues that although you are identical to the embryo you once were—meaning you are the same being now as you were then—it does not follow you had the same right to life then as you do now. Being human is nothing special, meaning your right to life is strictly accidental. You have it because of some acquired characteristic you have that embryos do not. To make sure we get the point, Boonin includes this chilling passage:

    “On my desk in my office where most of this book was written and revised, there are several pictures of my son, Eli. In one, he is gleefully dancing on the sand along the Gulf of Mexico, the cool ocean breeze wreaking havoc with his wispy hair. In a second, he is tentatively seated in the grass in his grandparents’ backyard, still working to master the feat of sitting up on his own. In a third, he is only a few weeks old, clinging firmly to the arms that are holding him and still wearing the tiny hat for preserving body heat that he wore home from the hospital. Though all of the remarkable changes that these pictures preserve, he remains unmistakably the same little boy. In the top drawer of my desk, I keep another picture of Eli. This picture was taken…24 weeks before he was born. The sonogram image is murky, but it reveals clearly enough a small head titled back slightly, and an arm raised up and bent, with the hand pointing back toward the face and the thumb extended out toward the mouth. There is no doubt in my mind that this picture, too, shows the same little boy at a very early stage in his physical development. And there is no question that the position I defend in this book entails that it would have been morally permissible to end his life at this point.”

    So what makes us equal? Here’s Boonin’s problem: If humans only have value because of some characteristic they possess in varying degrees, those with more of it have greater rights than those with less.

    But science won’t convince Boonin of that because science can’t say why anyone has value and a right to life. (Contrary to what you said, I did not use science in my presentation to establish value for the unborn. I used it to determine the kind of thing the unborn is.) That’s because science only tells us what is, not what should be. If you want to take-on Boonin and a host of others like him, you’ll have to do metaphysics.

    Science, by itself, also won’t convince the Supreme Court to protect fetuses, despite your best wishes to the contrary. Here’s why. In both Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court ignored the scientific evidence for the humanity of the unborn and punted to relativism in the first case and post-modernism in the second. In Roe, the Court simply stated there was no agreement among experts in religion, science, and philosophy as to when life begins. Therefore, abortion, for all practical purposes, must remain legal through all nine months of pregnancy. (Thus, the Court really did decide when life begins in that it decided it didn’t begin before birth.) In Casey, a majority of judges signed onto the infamous “mystery passage” penned by Anthony Kennedy: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” That is, human nature is not fixed, but determined subjectively. But if that is true, there can be no fixed rights that arise from that nature, including a fixed right to an abortion. So why can’t a future Court just arbitrarily decide that women don’t have a right to an abortion? The Court didn’t say.
    So what are left with? The Court has affirmed the right of a person to define his own concept of existence, the meaning of the universe, and the meaning of human life. But, writes Hadley Arkes, “was there any reality or truth attaching to him? And what was there about him that commanded the rest of us to respect these decisions he reached about himself and the universe?” Why can’t we just make him up to be someone who has no rights if that fits our own concept of meaning and human life? In short, the Court’s infamous “mystery passage” assumes the very thing it denies. By demanding that we respect a person’s judgment about human life and the meaning of the universe, the Court assumes that the human being in question actually exists, whether my own concept of the universe admits him or not.

    To sum up our current legal environment, modern jurists have forgotten two foundational truths understood by their early forefathers. First, the purpose of government is not to create rights, but to secure ones that we already have by nature. Second, one cannot speak seriously of things that are truly rightful or of human rights in general without assuming moral realism, the belief that right and wrong are real things and not merely constructs of human opinion or culture. Put simply, if objective moral truths do not exist as a foundation for law, then law itself becomes merely a system of raw political power accountable to no one.

    But science alone can’t convince anyone of that. If you want to change the Court, you’ll have to do your metaphysics.

    In short, think twice about using that pitchfork.

    Best Regards,

    PS—I’ll give you the last word for now. My busy Spring speaking schedule is kicking into full gear and with my book being released in a couple of weeks, I’m pretty tied up. I’ll certainly read any follow-up posts of yours, but it will be some time before I can reply. Thanks for good exchange of ideas, Jim. I look forward to meeting up with you in L.A. soon.

  7. Scott,

    Once again, thanks for the excellent dialog. These responses are so long that I’m pretty sure you and I are the only ones reading them. Also, I fear that if we were standing at two podiums debating, you would trounce me because some of my responses require quite a lot of time-consuming thought …. Anyway, here we go:

    I don’t think I ever moved completely from purposelessness to intrinsic value, but I do concur that the general vague transition you describe does exist. That Shermer, myself, and others attempt to derive value from our DNA is born out of necessity. That’s the only concrete proof we have to go by. I think the point at which we’re at an impasse is the “standard” of data where we derive our values. People of faith have the distinct societal advantage of having absolute values, but derive it from data that is completely unverifiable. People of science have to “settle” upon values that are vague and obscure (if they exist at all) but derive it from data that is absolutely verifiable.

    So, to recap:

    People of science: absolute data–>vague values
    People of faith: vague data–>absolute values

    You claim our argument is weaker because we cannot find an ontological connection between the data and our values. I say your argument is weaker because there is *never* an ontological connection. The connection is biological. I also think that the outcome of vague values is less dangerous than absolute values when they are derived from vague data.

    I think morality can *only* be explained from prior example because it exists in humans just as it exists in animals (as in the examples I provided earlier.) The very term “morality” probably implies something that isn’t true, as it implies an edict from some higher source. Our “morality” evolved biologically just as our ability to see, hear, and throw a spear did. The environment favored those tribes who treated each other fairly, didn’t eat each other, didn’t have sex with siblings, etc. The deepest taboos in our “morality” are, oddly enough, behaviors that would be favored on an evolutionary level. There might be a good argument (Max Weber makes one in “The Capitalist Spirit and the Protestant Ethic”) that some superfluous mores applied by religion may have inadvertently helped some societies thrive as well. Anyway, the fact that our “selfishness” is inextricably bound with moral behavior is a result of our own complicated relationship with society. We need them because we want to survive, but that relationship is a complicated one. Consequently, there are some societies that have a much different sent of rules regarding how the individual relates to society. You *seem* to be implying that this is an example of irreducible complexity, but it isn’t. I would argue that Asians (who seem to slightly subvert the individual for the good of the group) might have a better model of survival, albeit less enjoyable from a Western perspective. But I digress.

    Your argument about the intent of our actions is a good one. I wish I could pull Ms. Jane Goodall out from behind a curtain to pick up where I lack. I would assume that how monkeys behave is—given their current environment—favorable to the society of the species as a whole. If it isn’t they may be in peril as a species and they may go extinct. Nature doesn’t care. However, let me say that our observation of behaviors is immaterial, and your point that the intent of actions is the important issue. However, I would counter that the intent (stealing v. borrowing) is also part of our genetic makeup, and that our method of determining intent (courts) is simply an overlay we’ve created. I think you may also be assuming that evolution has led to a species that is now perfect and complete. It’s not, nor will it ever be. Humans do steal as a result of genetic behaviors that lead to the survival of the individual at the cost of others. They might always. Another great example of intent v. behavior would be normal love-making and rape. At some level they look the same, but they are vastly different. Men still rape women because there is a remnant of DNA that drives raping behaviors that were—long ago—favored by evolution. That rape has decreased over the millennia does not point to some moral direction of DNA, but rather that society has held rape in great disfavor, and that behavior is getting weeded out by both societal pressures … and by evolution.

    Evolution, once fully understood, becomes the most elegant explanation of life I’ve ever heard. Everything we do as a species will either help our survival, or help our destruction. Your argument about the inability for rationality to exist in a brain that is hard-wired is wrong on a few levels (if I understand you.) Nature has favored species that have a rational approach to interacting with its environment, because irrationality often leads to death. The animal that decides to throw itself off the cliff will not survive. That same animal’s brother who is more rational will live to bear slightly more rational offspring. Thus, rationality exists among animal species and in man.

    “Thus, there’s no point in Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Shermer, et al, trying to convince religious people they’re wrong, since none of us are free to think any differently than we do.”

    Actually, I would change the word “free” to the word “willing” and then I would agree with you. You are perfectly free, of course, and this freedom of thought is easily explained from an evolutionary standpoint. That people don’t want to change is because humans also have evolved a stubbornness not to move off the status quo. After all, for the most part, the status quo has also helped people survive. And our stubborn adherence to the status quo might, in this case, also lead to our extinction. If it does, nature won’t care a whit. But we do.

    Your argument about our inability to discern truth (due to the imperfection of our senses) is one I agree with entirely, and just as fast turn this argument around on you. Religious “truth” should not be trusted either. In fact, religious truth should be trusted less, because it is based on shoddy evidence.

    Ack! I need to reread the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Good catch. 😛 So while I don’t disagree with my original citation, I might also choose to interpret “Creator” differently than you, and rather lean more on the “Self-evident” part. For what it’s worth, I seem to remember there being a great amount of debate over the wording of that portion. Regardless, I don’t think the DoI or the Constitution are in any way inerrant.

    Regarding the religious influence in public policy: my contention is that all groups have the right to present their case (of course) but the decision should not be founded in religious principles alone, but in legal and constitutional principles that have a scientific basis. Proposition 8 in California is a perfect example of bad policy resulting from the government bowing to irrational religious pressure. Granted, it was the voters who were fooled, but that is still the government. That is what I’m against. I would also oppose–on some level–any legislation that uses irrational religious methods to arrive at a sound principle. (And here is the crux of our discussion) I know that may sound crazy, but the allowance of non-scientific, mystical rationale might result in sound policy this time, but I guarantee that the precedent will ultimately result in extremely unsound policy. I sometimes wonder if that is why your opponents seem to take on an evil visage?

    Regarding the presence of religious sensibilities in Government documents: proximity does not equal causation. There is no contest that religion has permeated our society (and is thus present in government documents). There is also no contest that some level of morality exists in our society. We agree there. Where we disagree is that you believe religion (or metaphysics in some sense) to be the necessary connective tissue between the individual and morality. I believe religion is not only unnecessary for us to arrive at moral conclusion, but that it is also dangerous. I have shown you examples of where morality exists without religion (via animals) and since animal intent is not known, let me use two other human examples: Sweden and Denmark. As outlined in the recent book by Phil Zuckerman called “Society Without God,” these two countries are the closest thing we have on Earth to completely secular societies. Religion does exist there, but as an extreme exception. The permeating culture is one of atheism. Those two countries also enjoy the lowest crimes rates in the world. So here we have an inverse correlation between religion and morality. The last proof I will offer to show that a metaphysical connection between behavior and morality is not necessary is … me! I’m an atheist, and if you ask anyone who knows me, I eschew any metaphysical argument, and yet I am passionately concerned about human dignity. You may respond by claiming my moral leanings are like an itch on a phantom limb since I was once a Christian, but if you do I will point to the myriad of other atheists who were never Christians who hold the same views as I. Somehow, the desire to treat others well has managed to attach itself to atheists. If a metaphysical connection is required, how has this happened?

    “Given a choice between a “Christian” President who works against justice for the unborn or an agnostic one who promotes basic human rights for all, including the unborn, religious conservatives will opt in mass for the agnostic. In other words, religious conservatives care more about a candidate’s worldview and judicial philosophy than they do his specific theology and doctrine.”

    While I wish you were right, I don’t think you are. Christians stood en masse behind George W. Bush even though he consistently exhibited behavior that was antithetical to Biblical morality. They were (I believe) dazzled by the Christian buzzwords he uttered, and then blinded to his abhorrent actions. You can challenge me on this point, but I don’t recommend it. I can contrast Bush’s words and actions with Jesus’s words and actions over and over and over …. I’ve done it. Yet Christians still think he was their guy! Absurd! And therein lies the rub, Scott! Religion can opiate people and blind them to the evil they are doing: case in point Proposition 8.

    Boonin’s definitions of life is absurd and arbitrary. He does not have a good argument. I believe abortion is wrong because that is the most scientific, least arbitrary, and most humanistic conclusion. I have yet to meet anyone who can give me a scientific argument otherwise. Yes, a woman has, at some level, rights over her own body, but do these rights trump the value of an entire human life? I would say … not usually, but maybe in some cases. Anthony’s relative argument is also absurd. Murder is legalized wholesale if everyone has the right to determine the definition of human life. Unfortunately, that decision is now a legal precedent, which is a high hurdle indeed.

    I think the key to the fight lies in Roe V. Wade: “no agreement among experts in religion, science, and philosophy as to when life begins.” I think that 36-year old decision may have since been trumped by science. I think there is a clear definition. While I don’t think you have an easy fight to legalize that definition, I still say that using a secular argument will get you further than a mystical one. Although, if things keep going the way they are in this country … maybe it won’t. But if you win with a mystical argument, we might have worse problems than legalized abortion. That is my point.

    Waaaay too long of a response. I look forward to a beer and cigar with you when you are in town!

  8. Excellent post Scott.

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