The Transcendent Foundation of Humanism (Or Why Human Rights Are not Arbitrary)
Recently and before that I have argued here that without a transcendent, “supernatural” foundation, humanism is simply speciesism. Again, as always, someone objected that even if there were a transcendent, supernatural foundation for humanism (such as God), humanism would be “arbitrary.” Here I set out, as concisely as possible, to explain why that is not the case.
First, however, please bear with me and exercise patience as I define my terms. If there is one thing I have learned from blogging these past several years it is that I must define terms. (Do not debate with me about definitions; I am telling you here what I mean by words.)
By “humanism” here I mean belief that, even if all life is to be respected (Schweitzer), human life has special value and worth, dignity and rights, above other life—not merely as a matter of degree but also of kind. In other words, for one example, according to humanism in all its varieties, humans have rights other species do not have. In this sense, humanism is basic to Western civilization. (No doubt there are many forms of non- or even anti-humanism even in Western civilization and no doubt there are many forms of humanism in non-Western civilizations. My claim about humanism as here defined and Western civilization as a whole stands nevertheless.) Generally speaking, “humanism” says more than this, but this is basic to all forms of humanism.
By “transcendent, ‘supernatural’” I mean something or someone that is, or who is, “above” (metaphorically, not spatially) nature, the cosmos, not part of nature, the cosmos. This being, however understood in specifics and details, is the Creator, however understood in specifics and details. This being is personal in some sense but not human. (Although Christians believe he became human through the process called “incarnation” in Jesus Christ.) In Western civilization generally, this transcendent, supernatural (above nature) Creator-being, has been understood in many different ways from Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover to Thomas Aquinas’s Being Itself to Deism’s “Nature’s God” to Hegel’s Absolute Spirit to Karl Barth’s The One Who Loves in Freedom to Tillich’s Ground of Being to…. I could go on, but my point is made. There is variety and diversity in how the Creator is understood, but Western Civilization has always, with some exceptions, understood humanism, as defined above, as based on the will of a transcendent, supernatural Creator. Belief in such is called theism.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Atheism is, of course, the denial of anything or anyone transcendent to nature, the cosmos. It is the denial of anyone or anything supernatural. It is usually, if not always, belief that nature, however understood, the cosmos, the field of study assigned by Western civilization to science, is all there is. It is, in other words, always some type of naturalism—belief that nature, the cosmos, is all there is and that all of it is somehow governed by laws built into nature that require no appeal to a transcendent, supernatural Creator being. (Note: Not all scientists believe in naturalism and science itself, by its own means and methods, cannot prove naturalism true.)
My argument, and not mine alone, is that humanism and naturalism stand in logical conflict, incoherence, contradiction. My argument is that a true naturalist must admit that humanism, as defined above, is a form of speciesism—the self-assigning of special value, worth, dignity and rights to homo sapiens unjustified by naturalism. It is always a “left-over,” a byproduct, of theism or else an arbitrary choice without metaphysical foundation. It may be, as Catholic theologian Hans Küng has so eloquently argued in Does God Exist: An Answer for Today, a “rational choice,” but in order to be such it has to adopt nihilism with it and nihilism and humanism are inconsistent except as humanism is admitted to be speciesism and nothing more.
This is my argument in a nutshell; I am convinced of it for philosophical and theological reasons. I believe that true, consistent humanism is always theistic humanism—however the “theistic” adjective is understood in detail. On my side in this are numerous non-Christian philosophers including nearly all until the rise of public naturalism and atheism in the nineteenth century. (Yes, of course, there were atheists and naturalists before that, but they were covert with their atheism. An example is David Hume. Open, public atheism in Western civilization can probably best be dated to Ludwig Feuerbach [1804-1872]).
Now, whenever I put forth this argument, or one like it, someone attempts to point out a flaw in the argument without explaining logically how humanism is not speciesism. Usually some appeal is made to reason or capacity for reason to ground—give foundation to—secular humanism. But, of course, that does not escape the argument unless one is willing to say that humans without reason or capacity for reason (e.g., imbeciles [here clinically meant]) are of less value, worth, dignity and possessing lesser rights than others. Few secular humanists are willing to say it. Logically, secular humanists ought to agree with, for example, philosopher Peter Singer, that it is right and good to put infants to death, within a certain brief time after birth, insofar as doctors and parents agree they are not likely ever to possess intellectual powers—even if they are likely to grow up and mature physically in good health otherwise. And, of course, so far as I can tell from what I have read of him, even Singer does not extend that “right to kill” to advanced Alzheimer patients and other clinical imbeciles. But why not?
Recently, again, someone who tolls here, violating my clearly stated “Note to commenters,” objected that even with the existence of God special human rights would be “arbitrary.” That assumes, of course, that the God in question, assigning special rights to humans, is God as understood by “voluntarism” which is theistic nominalism. Again, I understand, somewhat reluctantly, because I assume my readers are capable of looking up definitions for themselves and should, that I must define these terms. “Nominalism” is the denial of transcendental ideals with ontological reality; it is, to put it negatively, belief that transcendental ideals such as “truth, beauty and goodness,” are nothing more than names or concepts. (Nominalism that emphasizes transcendental ideals as concepts is often called by philosophers “conceptualism.” Here I collapse it into the category “nominalism” for ease of description. In my opinion, conceptualism is simply a form of nominalism unless the concepts are believe to be eternally implanted in the mind and character of God as part of his very being.) Voluntarism is belief that God, however else understood, has no eternal, immutable nature or character except power and freedom; it is belief that God can literally do whatever God wants to do without any internal or external constraint. Many theistic voluntarists will admit that we cannot attribute to God actions that are logically incoherent such as creating a square circle.
A theistic voluntarist will have to admit that transcendental ideals such as truth, beauty and goodness, as well as human worth, value, dignity and rights above other species, are arbitrary in the sense that God simply will them and has that right as the Creator. So the claim, made here, that even in a theistic worldview special human rights—above other species—are arbitrary only affects voluntaristic theism if that. (I say “if that” because a true voluntaristic theist will argue that what God commands may be arbitrary for him insofar as he simply chooses them, instills them in creation, and commands them, but not arbitrary for us insofar as our Creator has the right to choose and command them as our ultimate source and ground of being.)
But most theist philosopher and theologians in the Judeo-Christian tradition, even the Deists, have not been theistic voluntarists. We are what philosophers call “realists” with regard to universals, transcendental ideals such as truth, beauty and goodness and believe that special human worth, value, dignity and rights are not merely “assigned” arbitrarily by God but are rooted in God’s own eternal nature and character. Furthermore, we theistic realists believe that true transcendental ideals, the foundations of ethics generally, are imbedded in ultimate reality itself/himself. In other words, things that are truly good for everyone, everywhere and at all times (e.g., respecting life and acknowledging the special rights of human beings—even imbeciles) are not good merely because God says so (divine command ethics) but God says so because they are truly good.
Next, of course, the question inevitably arises whether this theistic realism places God himself under and beholden to some law outside of himself, in which case his “goodness” is put into question. Theistic realists say that is not the case; transcendental ideals and all that really derives from and depends on them, “exist” (a metaphor) within God himself eternally as part of God’s own immutable nature and character.
A skeptic and critic might still ask how theistic realism, as I have describe it here, would make human rights more than arbitrary. Well, it seems obvious to me, but I will patiently attempt to explain it anyway. Human beings are created, we believe, in God’s own “image and likeness” (metaphors) meaning that there is a bond between us and the Creator of all, built into reality, that is not merely arbitrary. Some Catholic theologians call that bond the “analogia entis” (analogy of being) and I agree with them. (Here, for Protestants who might object I will mention Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar who ably defended the proper meaning of analogia entis against Karl Barth’s harsh critique.)
So, in brief, special human rights are based on homo sapiens’ special worth, value, and dignity, based on the imago dei, based on the analogia entis, based on God’s own being including transcendental ideals such as truth, beauty and goodness.
The philosophical basis of all this is, of course, the idea that “being” and “goodness” are inseparable, that goodness and being go ontologically together and actually are, in some sense, the same (as two sides of one coin are “the same”).
Now here I will stop because going further would require a book and such have already been written.
My main point here is that people who simply assume that even God’s commands are arbitrary are assuming a nominalist, voluntarist view of God which has not been the majority view of Christian philosophers and theologians. All these issues have been addressed long ago by, among others, Christian “church fathers” Origen and Augustine. Unfortunately, most skeptic and critics have not read them and won’t read them—or their modern equivalents (viz., highly intellectual and philosophically-minded theistic realists). They will go on blithely blathering out of sheer ignorance as if all humanism is secular and as if even special human rights assigned by God are “arbitrary.” Such is not the case in the majority tradition of Western, classical theism.
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