November 2008

Pro-life apologist extraordinaire, Scott Klusendorf, has written an excellent post today on the topic of why so many Americans have a hard time grasping the humanity and moral quality of human embryos.  In brief, it is because they see human beings as things that are constructed rather than formed.  To quote Klusendorf:

Most people think an embryo is constructed piece by piece rather than something that develops from within. Consider a car, for example. When does the car come to be? Some might say it’s when the body is welded to the frame, giving the appearance of a vehicle. Others insist there can be no car until the engine and transmission are installed, thus enabling the car to move. Others still point to the addition of wheels, without which a vehicle cannot make functional contact with the road.

But no one argues the car is there from the very beginning, as, for example, when the first two metal plates are welded together. After all, those same metal plates can be used to construct some other object like a boat or plane. Only gradually does the assemblage of random parts result in the construction of a car.

…[M]ost Americans see the fetus exactly the same way-as something that’s constructed part by part. It’s precisely this understanding…that renders pro-life arguments absurd to so many people. As they see it, embryos are no more human beings in early stages of their construction than metal plates are cars in the early stages of theirs.

[T]he construction analogy is deeply flawed. Embryos aren’t constructed piece by piece from the outside; they develop themselves from within. That is to say, they do something no constructed thing could ever do: They direct their own internal growth and maturation-and this entails continuity of being. Unlike cars, developing embryos have no outside builder. They’re all there just as soon as growth begins from within. In short, living organisms define and form themselves.

Unlike cars, then, human embryos are human from the onset of development, not at the terminus of development (or any other point along the way).  In fact, if they weren’t human at the beginning, they could not develop themselves in a human fashion throughout the process.  I think this distinction between construction and development is a powerful and important point to incorporate into our pro-life apologetic.

big-bangFor millennia philosophers maintained that the universe is eternal.  The philosophical payoff of this view was that it avoided the God question.  If the universe has always been, it did not need a creator.  The emergence of the Big Bang theory in the early part of the 20th century, however, changed all of that.  The Big Bang model successfully predicted that the universe–including all spatio-temporal-material reality–had an absolute origin at a point in the finite past, from which it expanded, and continues to expand today.

The theistic implications of this model were recognized instantly.  If the universe began to exist, it seemed to require a supernatural cause (one outside the confines of the natural world).  That’s why it was met with fierce opposition, and why it took several decades and many lines of empirical confirmation to become the reigning paradigm it is today.  Even now, cosmogenists continue to put forth alternative models in hopes of averting the beginning of the universe, many of which are little more than exercises in metaphysical speculation, incapable of both verification and falsification.

While not friendly to an atheistic worldview, many atheists eventually made their peace with the empirical evidence, and accepted the theory.  But the theistic implications of a temporally finite universe have not gone away.  Anything that begins to exist requires a cause.  If the universe began to exist, what caused it to exist?  It could not be a natural law, because natural laws originated with the universe.  It could not be self-caused, because this is incoherent.  Something cannot bring itself into existence, for that would entail its existence prior to its existence.

The atheist has two options.  He can either admit to the existence of an external cause of the universe, or affirm that the universe is uncaused.  For most atheists the first option is out of the question.  An external cause of the universe looks too much like God: immaterial, eternal, non-spatial, intelligent, and personal.  That leaves them the second option.  But this won’t do either.  The causal principle is one of the most basic intuitions we have.  Things don’t just pop into existence uncaused from nothing, so why think the universe did?  If everything that begins to exist has a sufficient cause, on what grounds is the origin of the universe excepted?  If one excepts it on the basis that it is impossible to have a cause prior to the first event, they are guilty of begging the question in favor of atheism, for they are assuming that physical reality is the only reality, and thus the only possible cause of the Big Bang must be a physical cause.  But it is entirely plausible that the external cause of the Big Bang was an eternal, non-physical reality.  The only way to demonstrate that the universe cannot have a cause, then, is to demonstrate that the existence of an eternal, non-physical reality like God is impossible.  But the very beginning of the universe is an argument for such a being’s existence!

Some atheists, recognizing the problem the principle of causal sufficiency makes for the atheistic worldview, cling to an eternal universe despite the scientific and philosophic evidence to the contrary.  They recognize that it is nonsense to think something can come from nothing, uncaused.  Something can only come from something.  From nothing, nothing comes.  If there was ever a time when nothing existed (as the Big Bang model predicts), then of necessity there would be nothing still, because nothing has no potential to become something.  And yet there is something, so there could not have been a time when nothing existed.  As a matter of historical fact, there can’t ever be a time when there was nothing.  Something must exist eternally.  If something must exist eternally, and the universe is not that something, then something resembling the God of theism must exist.  Rather than admit the obvious-that this is evidence for the existence of God-these atheists reject the scientific and philosophical evidence for a finite universe, and assert that the universe must exist eternally.

What’s important to see, here, is that this sort of atheist is not being intellectually honest with the evidence.  He has an a priori philosophical and volitional commitment to atheism, and that commitment biases him to such an extent that he will not accept the destination to which the rational evidence leads.  Only theism is consistent with the evidence, and consistent with reason.  While I commend atheists who reject the notion that the universe could come into being from nothing totally uncaused as an irrational leap of faith, I admonish them to go one step further, and recognize that the principle that something only comes from something, combined with the scientific an philosophical evidence for the finitude of the universe, supports theism, not atheism.  To be consistent and honest with the data, they should accept the finitude of the universe, and admit that its existence requires a personal and supernatural cause.

Here is my thought for the day: You can generally judge the depth of a thinker and the value of his/her thoughts by how familiar s/he is with the thoughts of others. 

There is a difference between a person who has formed ideas, and a person who has formed ideas in the context of other thinkers’ ideas.  Generally speaking, those who are ignorant of the insights and developments of others in the past and present, have a very limited, and often skewed perspective.  They are likely to miss the big picture, repeat the mistakes of others in the past, or fail to account for something simply because they have yet to consider it. 

Those who form their thoughts in a vacuum from other thinkers tend toward error.  I often hear preachers preface some remark by saying, “I didn’t get this from no man.  The Lord revealed to me straight from the Good Book.”  Whenever I hear that, I know chances are that what I’m about to hear is probably off-base.  And it usually is.  As Charles Spurgeon said, “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.”  Those who try to reinvent the wheel without knowledge of past wheel makers, never do a very good job at it. 

Those who have conversed with the thinkers of today and yesteryear, however, will tend to have a much better, more informed perspective.  They tend to be more balanced, and aware of their intellectual limitations.  When I read something someone wrote on the topic of theology or philosophy, I’m looking at the footnotes to see what sources, if any, the author has used.  It’s usually a good indication of the quality of work I’m about to read.

When it comes to theology and philosophy, we would be stupid not to pay attention to what others have said before us.  It is the epitome of hubris to think others (particularly those in the past) have little or nothing to offer us.  99.99% of what we know is inherited from the intellectual labor of those who came before us.  If we ignore them, we are only left with 0.01% of true knowledge.  Woe to us if we attempt to think in an intellectual vacuum.

Same-sex marriage advocates gain a lot of support for their position by painting the opposing side as anti-gay homophobes.  Nobody wants to be thought of as anti-gay, a homophobe, or discriminatory.  To avoid such labels and associations, they acquiesce to the cause of same-sex marriage.  Much could be said in response to this tactic, but I will limit my response to four related points. 

First, as Dennis Prager recently observed, opposition to same-sex marriage is no more anti-gay than opposition to incestual marriage is anti-family.  What one thinks about the union of parts cannot be extrapolated to reflect their thoughts on each component of that union when considered apart from the union.  In the same way that opposition to incestual marriages does not mean one hates brothers and sisters, opposition to same-sex marriage does not mean one hates gays.  One can be opposed to social recognition of same-sex relationships as “marriage,” while fully supportive of gay individuals. 

Secondly, this claim ignores the fact that an argument can be made against same-sex marriage independent of any moral assessment of homosex or sexual orientation.  I have made such a case in “I Now Pronounce You Man and Husband?”: An Argument Against Same-Sex Marriage.

Thirdly, some homosexuals have publicly argued for homosexual rights, but oppose same-sex marriage because they believe it would be bad for society.  This proves that opposition to same-sex marriage cannot be equated with opposition to homosexuality.

Finally, few people who oppose homosexuality, yet alone same-sex marriage, are homophobic.  A homophobe is someone who fears homosexuals.  I have never met such an individual.  I have met a multitude of people, however, who object to homosex on moral and social grounds.  So the next time someone wants to equate your opposition to same-sex marriage with being anti-gay, challenge them on it.

I was reading the San Francisco Examiner the other day, when I ran across a “Viewpoints” article by Wayne State University professor of philosophy, John Corvino (the November 10th edition, page 13).  Mr. Covino was opining on the passage of Proposition 8, a proposition in California that amended the state’s constitution to define marriage as being between a man and woman only (and overturning the state Supreme Court’s recent decision to extend the institution of marriage to same-sex couples).  

In essence, his viewpoint was that this was only a temporary setback.  The tide is on the side of those who favor same-sex marriage, and they will ride that tide in due time.  I hate to admit it, but he is probably right.  Prop 8 passed by a mere 2%.  That’s hardly a safe margin of victory.  What’s worse, popular support for traditional marriage dropped 10% from 2000, when California voters passed a similar proposition (it passed by 62%).  Given the fact that opposition to same-sex marriage is fading by an average of 1.25% each year, and given the fact that those who oppose same-sex marriage tend to be older and more religious, there is good reason to believe same-sex marriage would be approved by the electorate if put to a vote four years from now.  Why?  Older people die at higher rates than younger people, so the anti-same-sex marriage voting block will lose supporters at a faster rate than the pro-same-sex marriage voting block, even if no one in either camp changes their position in the future.  Furthermore, religious conviction is a major reason people oppose same-sex marriage.  Given the fact that religion plays a less significant role in the political views of younger Americans, and it is the largely the young who become new voters, it is unlikely that those who age-in to the social debate will object to same-sex marriage.  Only a major public education campaign and/or religious revival can stop the eventual legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States.  

Given the length of the above paragraph, one might think my purpose in writing this post was to evaluate the future of marriage in California.  It’s not.  What I found particularly interesting about Corvino’s article was the following statement: 

A bare majority of California voters sent a discriminatory message: You are not good enough for marriage.  Your relationships-no matter how loving, how committed, how exemplary-are not “real” marriage.  But “real” marriage transcends state recognition of it.  And that’s another reason why this debate will continue.  Because it’s not just about what California should or should not legally recognize.  It’s also about what sort of relationships are morally valuable, and why.  And that’s a debate that, slowly but surely, gay-rights advocates are winning.

Corvino’s claim could not be more clear: same-sex marriage is a right that transcends human law.  This is quite a claim.  Rights have to be grounded in something.  Rights come in two forms: those belonging to us by nature, and those given to us by those in power.  The right to drive is an example of the latter, while the right to life is an example of the former.  To say homosexuals have the right to marry someone of the same gender, even if the political powers that be do not wish to extend them that right is to say the right to same-sex marriage is a natural right that transcends human law, and to which human law has an obligation to conform (i.e. if human law denies homosexuals the right to marry, a moral injustice is being done).  But from whence cometh this right?  What is it grounded in?

It cannot be a natural right, like the right to life, the right to procreate, or the right to believe what one chooses to believe.  Why?  Because marriage is not a fundamental right.  Civil marriage is just society’s way of managing procreation for the good of, and in the interest of society.  But society is under no moral obligation to formally recognize and regulate anybody’s relationships.  They do so only in their own self-interest.  In fact, if they got out of the marriage business tomorrow, people would continue to fall in love, make relational commitments to one another, and continue to have children just as before.  Nothing would stop them from doing so.  If marriage itself is not a fundamental right, then by no means can one argue that same-sex marriage in particular is a fundamental right.

The only other source in which to ground a transcendent right is God.  The problem with this is that no major religion claims God approves of homosex, yet alone same-sex marriage.  It’s kind of hard to ground the right to same-sex marriage in God, when God doesn’t recognize the right! 

If same-sex marriage is not a right that can be grounded in God or nature, then it is not a transcendent right.  It is a legal right, and a legal right depends entirely on the will of the people to grant it.

Many argue for abortion on the grounds that no one knows when life begins.  Unfortunately this is patently false.  We do know when life begins (even if we didn’t, this is good grounds for outlawing abortion, not permitting it).  Embryologists are clear in their affirmation that a new human being comes into being at fertilization.  That’s why informed pro-abortion apologists do not argue for abortion in this way.  Instead, they argue that pre-born human beings are not of equal worth to those of us on this side of the womb, because they are developmentally inferior to us (the emphasis is usually placed on their psychological inferiority).  The real debate over abortion, then, is whether we should consider unborn human beings to be of equal moral worth to human beings who have been born.  The renowned bioethicist and legal scholar, Robert George, conveyed this beautifully in a recent article of his:

When we debate questions of abortion, assisted reproductive technologies, human embryonic stem cell research and human cloning, we are not really disagreeing about whether human embryos are human beings. The scientific evidence is simply too overwhelming for there to be any real debate on this point. What is at issue in these debates is the question of whether we ought to respect and defend human beings in the earliest stages of their lives. In other words, the question is not about scientific facts; it is about the nature of human dignity and the equality of human beings.

On one side are those who believe that human beings have dignity and rights by virtue of their humanity. They believe that all human beings, irrespective not only of race, ethnicity, and sex, but also irrespective of age, size, and stage of development, are equal in fundamental worth and dignity. The right to life is a human right – therefore all human beings, from the point at which they come into being (conception) to the point at which they cease to be (death), possess it.

On the other side are those who believe that those human beings who have worth and dignity have them in virtue of having achieved a certain level of development. They deny that all human beings have worth and dignity and hold that a distinction should be drawn between those human beings who have achieved the status of “personhood” and those (such as embryos, fetuses, and, according to some, infants and severely retarded or demented individuals) whose status is that of human non-persons.

When the charge of “forgery” was brought against the James Ossuary, many wrote it off.  The judge who is presiding over the trial, however, has apparently recommended to the prosecution that they drop the case based on a lack of evidence.  The James Ossuary may be genuine after all.

Election results did not favor the pro-life cause, but they did favor the traditional marriage cause.  Here is a brief survey of the most important issues:


California’s Prop 4 sought to require parental notification prior to a minor receiving an abortion.  It was defeated (52% to 48%).

Colorado’s Colorado Definition of Person Initiative of 2008 (aka Amendment 48) sought to define all human beings from the moment of fertilization as “persons.”  It was defeated (73% to 27%).

Obama was elected President of the United States.  If he does what he says he will do given the chance, he will repeal virtually every restriction on abortion (including partial birth abortion), will repeal the ban on using federal tax dollars to fund abortion, will repeal the ban on funding abortions outside the U.S., and will nominate liberal justices to the Supreme Court (ensuring that Roe v Wade will not be overturned for at least another 20-30 years).  This is probably the greatest setback to the pro-life cause since the Supreme Court re-affirmed Roe in 1992 (Planned Parenthood v Casey).  Not only does he stand

Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Michigan passed a constitutional amendment authorizing the use of “leftover” embryos for stem cell research by a margin of 53% to 47%.

Assisted Suicide

The voters in Washington passed Washington Initiative 1000, a bill legalizing assisted suicide.  It passed with a 59% to 41% margin.  Washington is now the second state to pass such a law (Oregon is the other).

Same-Sex Marriage

Voters in California, Arizona and Florida approved constitutional amendments defining marriage only as the union of a man and woman.

California’s Prop 8 passed 52% to 48%
Arizona’s Prop 102 passed 56% to 44%
Florida’s Amendment 2 passed 62% to 38%

California’s win was particularly important, because the state Supreme Court had just forced same-sex marriage on the state by judicial fiat earlier this year.  California is the first state to rescind the right to same-sex marriage once it has been created by a judiciary.

A cosmological argument for theism looks something like this:

Everyone intuits the causal principle that every effect/event requires a sufficient cause.  What, then, is the cause of the universe?  What is causally sufficient to account for the observed effect?  Since the effect includes time, space, and matter, the cause must be timeless, non-spatial, and immaterial, not to mention intelligent and powerful to account for the specified complexity of the universe.  Only two things fit this description: abstract objects, or an unembodied mind.  Since abstract objects are causally impotent by definition (they do not stand in causal relations with concrete objects), they cannot be the cause of the universe.  That leaves us with an unembodied mind, who is a personal agent.  This makes sense.  Not only are we are intimately acquainted with the idea of immaterial minds causing physical effects, but it also makes sense of the design and order we see in the universe.

In response to this argument, some think we should reject the notion of a disembodied mind on the grounds that it is too abstract; i.e. it is something we are not acquainted with, and hence have no reason to believe is possible.  There are at least three reasons to reject this line of thinking.

First, there is nothing logically incoherent about a disembodied mind.  The notion may not be familiar to us, but we ought not confuse familiarity with plausibility.  A person raised in the remote parts of the jungle has never seen ice, but his lack of familiarity with ice does not mean the existence of ice is implausible.  Neither would it constitute good grounds on which for him to reject evidence being presented to him that ice exists.  Likewise, just because we are not personally acquainted with the idea of an unembodied mind does not mean an unembodied mind does not, or cannot exist.  Neither does it constitute good grounds on which to reject the evidence being presented for the existence of such a mind.  The cosmological argument provides warrant for believing in something we may not have thought probable otherwise.

Second, even if we are not personally familiar with unembodied minds, we are very familiar with the concept of mind (each of us has one), and its causal powers.  In other words, even if the specific form of the mind in question is unfamiliar to us, the function of a mind very familiar to us: minds exercise causal agency.  And I see no reason to think this capacity is dependent on our mind being embodied.  The property of causal agency belongs to the mind, not the body, so there is no reason to think an unembodied mind is too abstract a concept to be the cause of our universe.

One might respond that it would be impossible for an unembodied mind (immaterial) to cause effects in the physical realm.  This must be false.  Why?  Because our minds cause effects in the physical realm all the time, and our minds are an immaterial entity (it may stand in a causal relationship with the brain, but it cannot be reduced to the brain/physicality).  The only difference between our minds and an unembodied mind is embodiment, but I fail to see how embodiment is significant.  The fact remains that human minds, as well as a divine mind, are immaterial in nature, and a source of causation which produces effects in the physical world.

A case could even be made that human minds do not have to be embodied, and indeed, become disembodied upon death.  I am thinking in particular of empirical studies into near-death experiences.  While many of the experiences are unverifiable, a small minority are.  And in these instances, there are examples of continued consciousness, even after brain death.  In fact, in some cases the person is conscious of things happening outside of the room where their body lies (things they could not have possibly known, even if their body were functioning normally).  So I don’t think the idea of an unembodied mind is abstract, or that we are not acquainted with this.  Even if most of us are unacquainted with it experientially, we are acquainted with the concept, and there is nothing incoherent about the concept.  Strange, maybe, but incoherent, no.

Finally, those who wish to reject both abstract objects and an unembodied mind as the cause of the universe need to offer an alternative.  Given the criteria, I cannot fathom what that could be.  If no other alternative is possible, then they must either reject the causal principle and say the universe popped into existence uncaused, or else embrace an eternal universe.  Given the fact that the causal principle is one of our strongest metaphysical intuitions and enjoys undisputed empirical confirmation, and given the fact that the scientific evidence and philosophical arguments against an eternal universe are more than compelling, neither is a good option.  We have good reason, then, to think the cause of the universe was a powerful, intelligent, immaterial, non-spatial, eternal mind.  This is an apt description of what most theists have traditionally meant by the term “God.”