what’s wrong with speciesism?

Treating humans as special is sometimes decried as ‘speciesism’. After all, the story goes, homo sapiens sapiens is just another species from amongst millions.

It’s a term (of abuse) commonly associated with naturalists with a strong evolutionary/Darwinian bent, criticising more traditional views concerning human dignity and the like. But, if naturalism is true, is there something actually wrong with speciesism, or is just the case that it happens to be distasteful to some people?

Something I might think a bit more about in any case.

chief Rabbi on atheism

“In one respect the new atheists are right. The threat to western freedom in the 21st century is not from fascism or communism but from a religious fundamentalism combining hatred of the other, the pursuit of power and contempt for human rights. But the idea that this can be defeated by individualism and relativism is naive almost beyond belief.”

from this article in the Spectator.

the universe as a joke

No,  really. My new theory, to be elaborated on later:

The universe is an emergent property of the platonic form of the maximally great Pun. 

It explains a lot, and by IBE that means it’s quite probably true. 




new life? new world

The resurrection, in some sense, is not just another instance of the class of ‘miracles’ – not even a ‘super-miracle’ in being just a particularly big miracle; but is instead a window into the future.

The resurrection does not just (like any other genuine case of a miracle) show that naturalism is false – as world-shattering as that is for our society. It’s not just that there’s some supernatural stuff up in here (somewhere). The resurrection shows that the universe is Jesus-shaped. Or, something like that; perhaps better, the resurrection taken in its proper context demonstrates at Jesus is at the heart of God’s plans for the universe. If the resurrection happened, it is no inconsequential trifle.

I take this general thought, extrapolating a little, from a very interesting summary paper [available here] recently published by New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado. (I’m reading around various topics for general interest, but also with an eye towards a debate being planned for later in the year.)

” … Jesus’ resurrection is presented as a unique event, categorically distinguished even from other miraculous demonstrations of divine power. This includes particularly the accounts of dead people being miraculously restored to life, e.g., Lazarus (Jn 11.1-44), Jairus’ daughter (Mk 5.21-24, 35-43), and the widow of Nain’s son (Lk. 7.11-17). In
contrast to the figures in such narratives, Jesus is not pictured as brought back to mortal life, but as catapulted forward into eschatological life, becoming thereby the first to experience this new eschatological embodiment. The claim of the witnesses in the NT is not that Jesus has been restored to them as he was before but that he has been raised to new and glorified life.” [emphasis added]  … “It is not another example in a series of essentially similar events already known, but instead a novum. It is not simply another miracle, or even a grander miracle, but instead sui generis, an exercise of divine power and purpose that comprises a unique manifestation of eschatological reality”

reductionism, determinism and politics

I’m starting to read Alex Rosenberg’s 2006 book “Darwinian Reductionism”. It’s a good read so far, a few pages in. This quote caught my attention, and I hope to write more on it later.

“Thus, the reduction of apparently free choice to fixed and determined behavior will deprive people of the political Right of the premises needed for their argument that inequalities in wealth or income between individuals are morally permissible. For determinism about all human conduct (and its causes) makes it impossible to claim that some outcomes of individual choice are earned or deserved, because there is no such thing as really free choice. Similarly, macromolecular determinism undercuts the classical liberal (contemporary conservative) claim that equality of opportunity is the most society is obliged to provide, that equality of outcome— egalitarianism and redistribu-tion to attain it— immorally deprives those who have earned more than others through their own free choice. If our temperament, habits, abilities, and tastes are all to be fully explained by the macromolecular neurobiology of our brains and the rest of our bodies, and we have no control over any of them, if indeed they can all be adjusted by macromolecular intervention after our conception and/or birth, depending on how much money our parents have and what tastes and preferences they have been determined to bear, then surely the differences of outcome to which talents, tastes, abilities, and capacities lead simply reflect differences in opportunity which were never equalized.

Ironically, those, typically on the Right, who attach greatest weight to human agency, free choice, and individual responsibility make common cause with public intellectuals on the Left in opposing reductionism in biology. These philosophers, scientists, and others on the Left oppose a stronger doctrine distinct from mere physical determinism. They reject the view known as genetic determinism, according to which human traits, such as a disposition toward violence, or the division of gender roles which characterize most societies; or xenophobia, racism, alcoholism, and mental illness; or intelligence and industriousness, are fixed by genetic inheritance and impervious to environmental changes, that is, to social intervention, learning, reform, treatment. (Classic statements of the view are to be found in Gould 1981; Lewontin and Levins 1985, for example.) The doctrine of genetic determinism is morally nefarious in their view especially because it encourages complacency about inequalities, both social and natural, by attributing the former to the latter, and suggesting that natural, that is, genetic, inequalities are ineradicable. Genetic determinism not only encourages complacency about the status quo, it discourages attempts at reform or revolution by its suggestion that the status quo reflects strategies and institutions adapted by eons of evolution through natural selection. Opponents of genetic determinism view the success of genomics and molecular biology generally as providing a halo around these morally repugnant claims by relentlessly uncovering the gene for this and the gene for that, or at least alleging to do so. Opponents of genetic determinism do not wish merely to show that the scientific evidence is against it; they would like to pull the conceptual rug out from under it altogether by showing that genetic determinism is incoherent, conceptually confused, and resting on a logical as well as a moral mistake. And they believe that the falsity of reductionism in biology would provide that demonstration.”

Rosenberg, Alexander (Author). Darwinian Reductionism : Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology.
Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago Press, (date). p 9.

Why Academics should be Christians, or at least should want to be

If you believe that Jesus was just one more religious figure among many, you are grossly misinformed. His life was different, his claims were different, his death was different, and his impact has been different to that of any other religious leader, prophet, miracle worker, preacher or teacher.

Well, that might be controversial enough to get some peoples’ attention. Here follow some thoughts on why academics should be Christians; I’ve wandered around this question in quite a few posts, but there’s new stuff here too, so bear with…

I came to writing this after having been fortunate enough to have breakfast with a few pastors and a prominent UK-based evangelist this morning. I only got a few minutes with the person in question, but he asked me an interesting question: if I was to come and do a mission week for students, what would you like me to know about them? I didn’t have a good answer ready, but in hindsight, perhaps the main thing I’d want to say is “they think Christianity is stupid and false, and therefore irrelevant”. Thinking this somehow led to this blog post, which tries to express a thought that has occurred to me quite a bit over the last couple of years. I hope to be able to do more reading in related issues in philosophy to flesh this out more at some point.

In science, an important element of a good theory is commonly thought to be that it makes correct predictions; i.e. it makes claims which later turn out to be true, or nearly so. A related concept is that a theory is more strongly confirmed when it explains evidence which it was not originally invented to explain; perhaps think of it as the ability to sync effortlessly with new data. As a fictional example, if a theory is designed to account for the motion of the earth and moon relative to the sun, it will be more credible as a scientific explanation if it turns out afterwards to also account for the motion of other planets or other objects.

There are many myths around concerning the invention of the Christian story, and I cannot deal with them all here. The most plausible account of why there are Christians around, and likewise why the Jewish religion started and had its particular form, is that communities believed they had experienced and heard from God in a particular, concrete, way. In other words, Judaic or Christian faith, while supplemented by various other things, is founded centrally on historical claims. Christian doctrine was developed in response to the ‘Christ event’.  Perhaps it was all in the early Christians’ head, but they believed that they had good evidence for thinking that Christ was unique.

And now on to the substantive point. Christian faith is a remarkably fruitful source of academic reflection on the nature of the world. The modern consensus is of course that we can easily get past the minor blips of religiosity in our culture’s history and move on victoriously in the real work of understanding, but I emphatically challenge this. In my view, the main intellectual opponent to Christianity is naturalism, and after some consideration this view seems to me a poor foundation for research, learning, and teaching. For a side note on naturalism, see the end of this post.

Some examples of the (at least potential) fruitfulness of Christian faith as a foundation for theorising across a wide range of disciplines; some of these overlap:

Forgiveness, humility, and relationship are real and profound aspects of the universe given the Christian trinitarian world picture. The Christian faith provides a depth of ethical resources on forgiveness and humility, and makes relationship and personhood central to the universe’s metaphysical foundations rather than mere contingently emerging properties.

Political theory can benefit from considering the relational nature of ‘the Ultimate’ (God), and from the fact that human persons are endowed with real dignity, as God’s image-bearers and the object of God’s love and purposeful action.

History, on Christian theism, is not just ‘one damned event after another’, but instead has a focal point, a beginning and an expected end. The sovereignty and faithfulness/consistency of God gives us some reason to hope for the possibility of drawing coherent narratives and lessons on what is normative out of events in the past.

Ethics has a source and a standard in Jesus.

The desire for justice in law and economics is legitimated by the person and work of Jesus. Justice is no pipe-dream or comforting fantasy, but a reality expressed in part in flourishing human communities now and in full in the eschaton.

Science is considered a trustworthy, though fallible, source of true claims in light of God’s lawful sustaining of the universe, God’s functional role as the common source of all of physical reality, and our place in the universe as God’s image-bearers and stewards of His creation.

Mathematics is not a mere human invention or contrivance, but an internally consistent system of true statements, and reflection of the rational mind of the Creator.

Art is not just a quaint evolutionary artifact but carries the potential to be a window into viewing some of the splendour and majesty of the Creator, and is made possible by our nature as creative beings made in His image.

Psychology, sociology and other human sciences deal with the complexities of instantiations of the divine image, made for relationship, reasoning/understanding, and responsibility but broken in each of these aspects.

The Christian faith was not invented to explain any of these things, but there are many natural consequences of accepting it as true, which combine together in interesting ways to give a rich view of the world, human flourishing, what constitutes realistic hope, and other things. If we are drawn to accept many or all of these consequences (and academics working in the fields mentioned should be), we have good reason to consider whether the core historical claims on which they are based really do stack up, and we have reason to assign some initial plausibility to the entire network of Christian claims, given the coherency and explanatory scope seen in the consequences discussed.

While naturalism leaves us building castles in the clouds and provides only a diminished, piecemeal and sceptical view of reality, the Christ event, if genuine, helps to make sense of some things which many of us already suspect to be true and provides a framework for fruitful research, motivation to pursue understanding, and a duty of care for those working alongside us.

To end, here is a good quote from Augustine.

‎”I have read Plato and Cicero sayings that are very wise and beautiful; but I never read in either of them: ‘Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give thee rest'” (Augustine).

And now, for something completely different … or actually quite similar – a thought on naturalism. It may be said “no, dude – as a non-believer concerning your imaginary sky fairy, I’m not nearly as restricted as you seem to think – I can believe pretty much whatever I want about political theory, ethics, the metaphysical foundations of science, or whatever else you might want to ramble on about”. To this I say “well yes – and no.” Firstly, as difficult as it may be to accept, someone who does not believe in the core claims of Christianity does not thereby escape having beliefs which should be justified. In our society, most such people who’ve thought much about it and tried to sign up to a coherent worldview fit somewhere within the spectrum of ‘naturalism’, i.e. they believe that all that actually exists is natural, of the kind dealt with by everyday science, and therefore they deny that supernatural persons or other entities exist. While in a sense this is quite a thin belief system, it is also substantive, in that – if true – it rules out a lot of possible claims about the universe and makes others considerably more likely. Naturalism offers a very different picture of the world to theism, including the relationship between the world’s constitutive parts – in short, rather than being derived from a single common source, a number of facts about the world become, to the best of our knowledge, ‘brute facts’. Naturalism lacks the explanatory power and scope of Christian theism, and is therefore less satisfying. That the view is unsatisfying does not show it to be false, or less probably true – but that it is explanatorily deficient is a reason to reconsider it.