Monday, July 11, 2011

Have You Heard the One About People and Animals? [Jay]

The idea behind Commonsense Corner segments of our podcasts (they can be found here) was that our commonsense intuitions matter. How we perceive things and how the world presents itself are legitimate points to be made in discussing issues like “Do objective moral values and duties exist?” or “Do human beings have intrinsic value?” Philosophy degrees are not necessary to observe that it is wrong to torture and murder a toddler or that human rights violations, even in nations that condone brutality, violate objective and basic human rights. Those points are legitimately made by anyone. We are not saying that our intuitions are infallible and are the end of the conversation, but as my friend Scott Klusendorf said, “We have to start the conversation somewhere.”

It is true that there are very sophisticated arguments in favor of a worldview that reduces human life to a mere byproduct of blind evolutionary processes. We cannot simply dismiss those arguments on the basis that they disagree with our commonsense intuitions. That said, it is also a mistake to believe that all arguments begin on equal footing. If there are features in our worldview that are problematic, it is dishonest to ignore those features. And it seems to me that the more obvious one of those features appears to be then the greater burden we have to explain it away. This simple observation is the basis of complex academic arguments like the Arguments from Consciousness by Dr. JP Moreland or the Kalam Cosmological Argument by Dr. William Lane Craig and many others. In their full glory, these academic arguments are dense with sophistication and display the remarkable erudition of their authors, but when I am standing in front of a class of lay people explaining them I focus on the simple foundations. We seem to have a conscious mind and the ability to make choices as free agents. Anything that begins to exist has a cause and the universe appears to have begun to exist. These are simple observations that require good reasons to abandon them.

Why revisit all of this? Because in our work it can become very easy to lose sight of what is commonsense. When you read argument after argument from the other side and realize that many (certainly not all) of those that oppose the full humanity of the unborn or the concept of human exceptionalism are highly intelligent individuals it can become easy to lose sight of where all of this arguing begins. The conversation can take some strange turns and before you know it you have forgotten where it all started.

I had a fascinating reminder recently of where it starts. I was in the mountains of Central Java in Indonesia giving my testimony at a gospel rally to more than 600 people from some 20 small villages near the Wonosari area. I concentrated this presentation on my transformation from a surly atheist that made it my life's goal to be intimidating and unapproachable to working in Christian ministry trying to be the light of the world and the city on the hill that God called me to be. As I talked about my former beliefs I mentioned in passing that as an atheist I did not believe that there was any real difference between man and other animals. As products of evolution, no animal enjoyed a privileged position in any metaphysical sense and that ultimately we were no more valuable than monkeys or sharks. I have made this point hundreds of times in the US especially at universities to student groups. It is not a remarkable or novel point and it is generally met with knowing nods of the head to assure me they have heard this before. That is not the reaction I got from this crowd, though.

How did this crowd of simple villagers in the mountains of Indonesia respond when I told them I once thought human beings were no different than animals like monkeys and sharks? They laughed. They laughed loudly. It wasn't meant to be a funny line and yet it was easily the biggest laugh I got all night, and suddenly I laughed along with them. For these people that work with animals intimately every day the idea that we were the same as their cows and chickens was a joke and a good one to boot.

Their commonsense intuitions tell them that people are different in easily observable ways from other animals. They are not yet learned enough to dismiss those intuitions easily. And though this anecdote admittedly proves nothing in the greater arguments, it was a reminder for me where those arguments ought to start. It also reminded me how clear some truths are to those who do not spend their time trying to convince themselves to deny what they know.