The Argument from Dignity

The Argument from Dignity May 23, 2015

SMBC argument from dignity

This Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoon (HT Hemant Mehta) makes a good point that can be taken even further. One could object to any number of things, including things that young-earth creationists claim to be true, on the basis of it supposedly detracting from the value or dignity of human beings. “I didn’t come from a mere fertilized egg.” “I’m not modified dirt.” “I’m not a collection of chemicals.” I’m not a bunch of cells.”

But we are a bunch of cells, and a collection of chemicals, developed each and every one of us via natural processes from a fertilized egg. Those are verified and verifiable facts. And if those facts do not detract from human dignity, than neither does the evolutionary history of our species.

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  • Andrew Dowling

    The idea that I’m an animal has never bothered me. Anyone who doesn’t believe their actions and behavior is not determined in large part by evolutionary psychology is delusional.

    • Stewart

      I think that there are two problems with your statement.

      Firstly, evolutionary psychology is a research programme – not something that determines people’s actions. I assume that you intend something like “evolved pyschological traits”.

      Secondly, there is an alternative to innate behaviour patterns – learned behaviour patterns. I find that it is a plausible hypothesis that the human genome has evolved to exploit the flexibility of learned behaviour patterns, and innate behaviour patterns are relatively few.

      • Andrew Dowling

        I’m not denying learned behavior patterns or human adaptability, but in the larger debate of “nature vs nurture” . . .research has shown nature to have the firm upper hand (however partially disturbing that may seem to some people)

        • Nick G

          No, it really hasn’t. What it has shown is that the interactions between nature and nurture are overwhelmingly important. To take one example: the genome does not contain, by orders of magnitude, enough information to specify the neural connections in the human brain. In development, huge numbers of connections are made, the majority of which then disappear as interaction with the environment selects among them. To take another, have a look at the Flynn effect.

  • TomS

    If one is concerned about science intruding on the status as one has as an individual, the personal relationship one has with one’s Creator and Redeemer, then it is mostly about a matter of things like genetics, reproduction and development. Does genetics involve random events?
    Evolution is a process in populations and species, and is more distant.

    • Cardunculus

      I would say that our current knowledge about evolution does have significant theological consequences, though: I do not think that we can get away with simply denying the overwhelming evidence in it, but I don’t really understand the “who cares, that’s only science – it’s all about the what, we are talking about the why” crowd.

      Like it or not, much of traditional Christian theology has made a big deal of the distinction between humankind and “lower” animal species. We were created in the image of God, they were not; we are to rule the Earth, they are to serve us; we have immortal souls, their consciousnesses (insofar as they even have them) end with their deaths, and so on. Sure, the similarities between humans and other animals have not escaped our forefathers’ attention (Ecclesiastes 3:19 comes to mind, for example), but for the most part we took for granted that we humans are different and metaphysically superior to non-human animals (perhaps also because of influence from the Neoplatonic Great Chain of Being).

      So if – as it is now proved beyond reasonable doubt – our species arose gradually from non-human ancestors, and there never was a moment in our evolutionary history in which an indisputably human being sprung out from indisputably non-human parents; and if furthermore – as we are seeing again and again – our most prized intellectual abilities are all shared to some degree with other animals, so that the differences between them and us appear more and more ones of degree and not of kind, then it seems to me that we have some serious rethinking to do.

      I think that Christian theology can be reconciled with this; and I am confident that there’s actually plenty of work on this already, although to be honest I am not terribly familiar with it. But I don’t think that we should allow ourselves to ignore the issue, either by denying the evidence (the YEC route) or by denying the difficulties they pose to us (the Non-Overlapping Magisteria route).

      • TomS

        What I am trying to point out is that standard Christian theology is concerned with the individual, not the collective (population, species, “kind”, genus, …).

  • Cardunculus

    I (very mildly) disagree: I am not a “collection of chemicals”, no more than a poem is a “bunch of ink blots on cellulose pulp” or a symphony is “vibrating air”.

    I am a self-sustaining dance of chemical reactions, one of such dazzling complexity and elegance that the very best of our investigations have so far only barely succeeded in deciphering its broad outlines (and what a monumental achievement that was!).

    The identities of the individual molecules which compose my body at this moment are, I think, entirely irrelevant to my personal identity: they are but the dancers, while I am the dance itself.

    • I think I would agree with everything you wrote, if you added the word “just” or “merely.” A symphony does not have to cease to be vibrations in the air in order to be, at the same time, so much more than that. We can claim to be more than the description of our physical components and processes, without ceasing to consist of those things.

      • Cardunculus

        I think that the main issue is the distinction between substrate and structure, or perhaps (to co-opt terms from medieval and ancient philosophy, I am not sure how faithfully) between Matter and Form.

        For instance, I would say that a symphony can be expressed through vibrations in the air; but that it actually is a pattern of information, one that could be just as easily represented in some entirely different way (as a sequence of bits, for example, or through some kind of graphical representation). Some representations may be easier for us to appreciate than others, sure; but the symphony-in-itself is information, not matter.

        Similarly, I would say (not that I am particularly sure about these matters) that not only the identities of my molecules, but the very fact that “I” am made of molecules to begin with is not actually relevant to my personal identity. I am the dance, not the dancers; and even if the show was interrupted for some reason (as Strawinsky’s Rite of Spring allegedly was during its premiere), that would not affect the composition itself.

        At least, this is one of the thoughts that allow me to hope that the possibility of life after death might not be just wishful thinking. As I said, I’m not particularly sure about these matters at all.

        In any case, thanks for your interesting and thought-provoking blog!

        • You put the point very well. I view these as different levels of description of the same reality, and in terms of emergent properties.