Tuesday, May 22, 2007

10 Questions for Secular Critics [SK]

In today's Boston Globe, Dean Barnett makes a laudable attempt to defend his pro-life views with strict secularism, but his piece, while making some good points, ultimately gives up too much ground to his own secular critics.

Barnett writes:
I'm proudly Jewish, but not at all religious. Quite frankly, I'm the very picture of the Chinese food-eating secular Jew who drives some of my more devout co-religionists batty. But I'm pro-life, and adamantly so. Unlike the often erroneous stereotype of the pro-life citizen, I didn't arrive at my position as a matter of religious faith. Rather, my conclusions flow strictly from logical inquiry. The big moral question regarding abortion is, "When does life begin?"
That last sentence is a category mistake. The question of when life begins is not a moral inquiry, but an empirical one. That is, science, not morality, tells us when human life comes to be while morality (metaphysics) tells us how we should value it.

Barnett continues:

You might expect that since I'm pro-life, I would argue that life begins at conception. Actually, that's not quite right. In answering the question of when life begins, the best I can do is say "I don't know." Life may begin at conception. It may begin during pregnancy. Or it may begin at childbirth. While I have a feeling that life begins at conception, I certainly can't prove it. The only people who can say with absolute certainty and total conviction when life begins do so as a matter of faith or belief, not as the inevitable result of a logical process.
His skepticism here is unwarranted. Scientifically, pro-lifers contend that from the earliest stages of development, the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings. True, they have yet to grow and mature, but they are whole human beings nonetheless. Leading embryology textbooks affirm this. (See here and here and here.) In short, pro-lifers have much more than personal feelings or blind faith to back up their claims.

Barnett's main point, however, is true as far as it goes: If skeptics don't know when life begins, the only reasonable default position is the pro-life one:

Because we don't know where life begins, the only logical thing to do is to err on the side of caution -- the side of life. In other words, because an abortion might take an innocent life, it should be avoided. It should also be illegal in most cases.
Yes, but can a truly secular ethic say why human life has value in the first place such that we should err on the side of caution? Can it say why unjustly killing the innocent is evil and not good? And if it truly is evil, doesn't that imply the existence of objective moral rules--rules which, if they are to have any moral force at all, must come from a moral-law giver? Barnett never tells us. Indeed, that's the gaping hole in his argument: While he arrives at the correct moral conclusion, he must cheat to get there.

If I were to revise Dean's piece, here are the 10 questions I'd use to provoke thoughtful, abortion-related discussions with secular critics:

1) What counts as real knowledge? Suppose the pro-life view was inherently a matter of theology, or, as some say, "faith." Why should anyone suppose that religious truth claims don't count as real knowledge? What's the argument for that metaphysical claim? There is none. It's simply presupposed. (For more on theology as real knowledge, see my post here.) Moreover, note that "faith" in the context of secular thinking counts only as an irrational leap into subjective experience. But do informed Christians really think that? As my friend Greg Koukl points out, true biblical faith is not belief in spite of evidence, but knowledge (trust) based on evidence. Greg cites many scriptures to support this very point. (Go here to see examples.)

It is true, of course, there are many secularists who do not accept the arguments for rational theism. So what? As Ed Feser points out, "all that shows is that arguments for the existence of God are no different from every other argument in philosophy, including arguments for atheism, or arguments for abortion and same-sex marriage for that matter: they are controversial, matters about which intelligent people can and do disagree. Do secularists demand that those in favor of legalized abortion and same-sex marriage refrain from advocating their positions in the public square simply because their arguments are nowhere near universally accepted?"

2) What is the pro-life case and why, exactly, is that case mistaken? The secular atheist is just plain wrong that pro-life advocates provide no reasonable defense for their views. Sure they do. Problem is, many secularists take no time to actually engage pro-life arguments; they simply dismiss them as "religious ideology." However, this dismissal does not constitute an argument and it ignores the sophisticated case pro-life philosophers present in support of their position. Scientifically, as noted above, pro-lifers contend the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human organisms. "Human development begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm ... unites with a female gamete or oocyte ... to form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual." (Keith L. Moore, Ph.D. & T.V.N. Persaud, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 6th ed.)

Philosophically, pro-lifers argue there is no morally significant difference between the embryo you once were and the adult you are today. Differences of size, development, and location are not relevant in the way that abortion advocates need them to be. For example, everyone agrees that embryos are small—perhaps smaller than the dot at the end of this sentence. But since when do rights depend on how large we are? Men are generally larger than women, but that hardly means they deserve more rights. Size does not equal value. Pro-lifers don't need Scripture to tell them these things. They are truths even atheists and secular libertarians can, and sometimes do, recognize. Yet rarely do strict secularists present principled arguments explaining why pro-life advocates are mistaken on these points.

3) How does it follow that because the pro-life view is consistent with a particular religious viewpoint (such as Christian theism, Conservative Judaism, or Islam) that it can only be defended with arguments exclusive to that viewpoint? Nearly all Americans would agree it’s wrong to kill toddlers for fun and they don’t need a course in church doctrine to apprehend that truth. At the same time, few people can present a completely secular argument detailing why abusing toddlers is wrong. But that hardly stops them from recognizing this moral truth, even if they can’t articulate their reasons in exclusively secular terms.

4) Why is the claim that an embryo has value any more religious than saying a 10-year old has value? Ramesh Ponnuru writes: “The pro-life argument on abortion is that eight-week old fetuses do not differ from ten-day old babies in anyway that would justify killing the former. A lot of people believe that God forbids the killing of ten-day-old babies, and many would be unable, if pressed, to give a persuasive account of non-theological reasons for holding such a killing to be wrong. We do not take the opposition to killing babies to be therefore an essentially religious view.”

5) How can a strictly materialistic (secular) worldview explain why anything has value or a right to life? According to the materialism, everything in the universe—including human beings and their capacity for rational/moral 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? Put simply, I don’t see how materialism can account for the rise of intrinsically valuable moral agents.

6) How can secular materialism account for moral oughtness? Remember, according to materialism, we start from nothing and, through a series of chance happenings, end up with a world of individuals who feel obligated to act a certain way. How did we get from is to ought? And what gives our moral intuitions their oughtness? Gregory Ganssle writes that what’s striking about our universe is not only that it sustains life (which is improbable enough), but that it sustains the sort of life to which moral truths apply. Materialism has no plausible explanations for this. Indeed, if the universe is the product of blind chance, we end up with “a set of necessary moral truths that are, so to speak, waiting around. There is nothing at all to which these truths apply and there is no guarantee that they will ever apply to anything.” Somehow (luckily) a totally accidental process lasting 20 billion years or so produces moral creatures —”creatures that exactly match the moral truths that have been waiting in the wings throughout the whole show.” Such a claim is highly suspect. (See Gregory Ganssle, “Necessary Moral Truths and Their Need for Explanation,” Philosophia Christi, Vol. 2, #1, 2000.)

7) Are you saying religious conservatives should be denied a voice in the public square? If not, what exactly is your point? The “imposing religion” objection is not really an argument, but a ramrod used to silence all opposition to abortion. Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon rightfully asks why citizens should have to withhold their moral views on abortion but not on other issues where they do not hesitate to advance religiously grounded moral viewpoints—such as the Vietnam War, capital punishment, civil rights, and relief of poverty? Strange though it may seem to liberal √©lites, most religious conservatives I know 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 (like Jimmy Carter, yikes!) or an agnostic one who promotes basic human rights for all, including the unborn, religious conservatives should opt in mass for the agnostic. (Yes, that means I don't care a straw if Mitt Romney is Mormon.) In other words, religious conservatives are more concerned about a candidate’s worldview and judicial philosophy than they are his theology and doctrine. Thus, we're not imposing our views on anyone. We're proposing them in hopes our fellow citizens will vote them into law. That's called democracy.

8) Can you show me an argument for abortion rights that doesn't assume some transcendent grounding point? Here's the problem for the strict atheist: Where does the right to an abortion come from? If it comes from the State, he really can't complain if the State decides to revoke that right. After all, the same government that grants rights can take them away. However, most abortion advocates think the right to abortion is fundamental, meaning it's grounded in something that transcends the workings of human government. Yet how can transcendent rights of any kind exist without a transcendent source of authority that grants them? (Jefferson recognized this problem and promptly grounded human rights and human equality in the concept of a transcendent creator.) Of course, this by itself does not prove that Christianity, Judaism, or any other world religion is true, but it does seem to rule out atheism as an adequate starting point for basic human rights. In short, I don't see how my secular critic can get his own claim for fundamental abortion rights off the ground without borrowing from the very theistic worldview he so despises.

9) Why is it okay for you to do metaphysics but when I do, you scream foul? The abortion-choicer's own position, like the pro-lifer’s, is grounded in prior metaphysical commitments. As Francis J. Beckwith explains, the nature of the abortion debate is such that all positions presuppose a metaphysical view of human value, and for this reason, the abortion-choice position is not entitled to win by default. At issue is not which view has metaphysical underpinnings and which does not, but which metaphysical view of human value does a better job of accounting for human rights and human dignity, pro-life or abortion-choice? The pro-life view is that humans are intrinsically valuable in virtue of the kind of thing they are. True, they differ immensely with respect to talents, accomplishments, and degrees of development, but they are nonetheless equal because they share a common human nature. Their right to life comes to be when they come to be, either at conception or at the completion of a cloning process. The abortion-choice view is that humans have value (and hence, rights) not in virtue of the kind of thing they are, members of a natural kind, but only because of an acquired property that comes to be later in the life of the human organism. Because the early embryo does not appear (to them) as a human being with rights, destroying embryos or fetuses through abortion or medical research is perfectly fine.

Notice that the abortion-choicer is doing the abstract work of metaphysics. That is, he is using philosophical reflection to defend a disputed view of human value in his quest to defend elective abortion. In short, the attempt to disqualify the pro-life view from public policy based on its alleged metaphysical underpinnings works equally well to disqualify his own view.

10) How can secular materialism account for minds and ideas? Put simply, atheists have difficulty explaining the emergence of non-material minds from purely physical processes. That is to say, they must show how consciousness arises from unconscious brain matter. John Searle writes that the leading problem in the biological sciences is the problem of explaining how neurobiological processes cause conscious experience. If that were not bad enough, materialism must also explain how these non-material minds cohere with the physical states of the brain. The interaction between non-material minds and physical bodies suggests design.

At the same time, materialism cannot account for rational oughtnesss. It suffers from an idea problem that renders it self-refuting. Writes Stephen Barr in his book “Modern Physics and Ancient Faith” (University of Notre Dame Press, 2003): “If ideas are just patterns of nerve impulses, then how can one say that any idea (including the idea of materialism itself) is superior to any other? One pattern of nerve impulses cannot be truer or less true than another pattern, any more than a toothache can be truer or less true than another toothache.” Robin Collins underscores the significance of this, namely, that human judgement and evaluation—needed to determine truth and error—(including the truth or error of materialism) presuppose a world of moral meaning that transcends the physical-material world. In short, the very effort to argue for materialism ends up refuting it.

To sum up, a theistic universe better explains human rights and human dignity. For the theist, humans have value in virtue of the kind of thing they are, creatures who bear the image of their maker. At the same time, objective morals make sense because they are grounded in the character of an objective moral law giver. Secular atheists, meanwhile, have difficulty offering a substantive ontological foundation for human dignity, human rights, or moral obligations. As Paul Copan points out, they can certainly recognize moral truth epistemologically, but they can’t ground their moral claims ontologically. In short, they can’t really tell us why we ought to behave rightly on abortion or any other moral issue. Nor can they plausibly account for basic human rights, like the right to life or even the alleged right to an abortion.

These questions deserve wider discussion and hopefully Mr. Barnett will consider them in a future post.

HT: Real Clear Politics

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