There it was again!
I whirled around, scanning the empty streets in the direction of the sound. There—on the cathedral steps! Was that a man beating at the locked door? And why was he holding a broken lantern?
“I seek God!” he shouted, his voice surprisingly clear.
Lantern Dude’s head snapped around, wide eyes locking on mine.
“Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?” he demanded.
“What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun?” he continued, “Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down?”
I started backing away. Sure, the guy sounded poetic, but he was freaking me out.
“Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?”1
“Sorry,” I responded in polite Canadian fashion, “have we met?”
He wore the pout of a celebrity mistaken for the plumber. “You’ve never heard Nietzsche’s parable of the madman?”
“Sorry. Not a Nietzsche fan.”
“Oh. Well it’s about a guy who lights a lantern midmorning and runs around yelling about how society killed—or abandoned—God, leaving all the decision-making up to humans. Nietzsche, an atheist, called the guy a madman. But he recognized the societal consequences of humans rejecting their Creator, or he wouldn’t have told that story.”
“Let me guess,” I said, “you’re the ‘madman’?’”
“In the flesh!” he beamed, putting down his lantern shards. “Now if you have a moment, I’ll tell you five of those consequences. Then you can judge for yourself whether I’m sane.”
I walked over, joining him on the cathedral steps.
- We lose our foundation for truth
“Just ask John Dewey,” Lantern Dude began, “the profoundly influential atheistic philosopher, educational reformer and co-signer of the Humanist Manifesto I. He wrote:
“There is no God and no soul. Hence, there are no needs for props of traditional religion. With dogma and creed excluded, then immutable truth is also dead and buried. There is no room for fixed, natural law or permanent absolutes.”2
Humanism leaves us in a state of relativism, which is a bummer for several reasons. Namely, we need absolutes to function as a society. Living as a perfectly consistent postmodernist would be extraordinarily impressive because everybody, on some level, must live as though absolutes exist. Pondering things like traffic lights, air strips, scalpels and so on is probably enough to make us happy that most people—drivers, pilots and brain surgeons, for instance—exercise absolutist reasoning. And if they didn’t, you could always steal their cat and see if they morally object. As Dr. William Gairdner pointed out,
[Relativism] helps us to dismiss all sorts of rules and absolutes for ourselves, without altogether denying the need to apply them to others. We resort to relativism when it suits our purposes, but keep whatever we know of absolutes and standards at hand to win an argument, discipline our children, or protest an abuse.3
Top among the 12 objections to relativism he lists are the points that relativism is self-refuting, requires absolutes, and ignores conflicting “truths.” For instance, John Dewey’s statement “there is no room for…absolutes” is itself absolute. Moreover, we can’t accept his statement as being true, because if his statement is true, then nothing is true—including his statement.”
Time out, called my reeling mind. But Lantern Dude was on a roll.
“If relativism is right in that all truth claims are true,” he continued, “then so is the claim that relativism is false. Everything, in fact, can be at once both true and false. Without God as the ultimate Absolute, all is absurd.”
“But wait,” I interrupted, “I’ve heard people suggest that we can still understand objective absolutes without God just by comparing notes on our subjective experiences of things. By piecing together many individual perspectives and measurements, they say we can be confident of the true nature of things. Isn’t that how science works?”
“Whoa,” he raised his hands, “Existential tangent! You’re suggesting that enough subjective statements could eventually equal an objective statement? You want to accept absolutes. But how can you absolutely know whether those subjective statements—our personal observations, perspectives or measurements—are right? Masses of people are often wrong together, as both history and social psychology well know. If everyone were wrong, would those many wrong perspectives still equal truth?”
I blinked. The guy had a point.
“Please,” I said, “go on.”
- We lose our foundation for morality
“By dismissing our Foundation for truth,” he continued, “we lose the basis for morality along with it. We may still choose to behave in a way that seems moral to us, but we have no objective standard for what that is. Take the International Humanist and Ethical Union. It states that morality is a human construct which has “evolved” with time and, like language,
‘varies significantly from place to place but is near-universal in some of its broadest features. Nevertheless, there are still better or worse expressions of language: expressions that are well-formed or badly formed, expressions that communicate as intended or which miscommunicate, some that are true, some that are false. Morality, too, is a complex, evolved set of thoughts and behaviours, but particular actions can be just or unjust, fair or unfair, beneficial or detrimental, ethical or unethical, moral or immoral.4′
This is a thoughtful analogy,” Lantern Dude mused, “Languages and morals, it states, are both useful phenomena which make sense because humans agree on their meanings.
While it sounds great, this argument has some important issues. First, consider its absolute claims, which recognize that there are true and false expressions, moral and immoral actions. What is the basis for these absolutes? Who decides whether expressions are badly-formed, or whether actions are unethical? And if language and morals are both products of naturalistically-evolved human minds, which are themselves products of meaningless chemistry, then aren’t both language and morals ultimately meaningless too? Break today’s conventions and we might break a few hearts, but none of that is existentially significant.
Even if we do try to set a humanmade standard for what is good—promoting human wellbeing, for instance—issues arise. Namely, who sets that standard? Who decides what “wellbeing” means, or what should happen in cases of conflicting interests? And what prevents the standard, or its interpretations, from changing? After all, if morality is an evolved construct, then it’s open to further evolution. Killing philosophers might be “wrong” today, but the evolutionary tides of ethics could change. Dr. Arthur Leff, atheist and former Yale Law School professor, summarized the chilling philosophical conundrum that we find ourselves in when we seek morality apart from God:
Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us “good,” and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us, could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things now stand, everything is up for grabs. Nevertheless: Napalming babies is bad. Starving the poor is wicked. Buying and selling each other is depraved. …There is in the world such a thing as evil. [All together now:] Sez who?5
Ultimately, then, morality lacks an absolute, consistent, meaningful foundation without an Absolute, Consistent, Meaningful Moral Lawgiver. And that leaves us in trouble when we try to talk about ethics.”
- We lose our foundation for ethics
“Ethics?” I asked, “Like, using our moral judgement to make important decisions?”
“Yep,” Lantern Dude replied, “now listen: the problem of relative truth entailing relative morality led Canadian bioethicist Dr. Eike-Henner Kluge to persuasively argue for objective ethics. He knew we need to judge actions as ethical or unethical according to some absolute standard, rather than personal taste, or ethics becomes a mere shouting match. But without God, what is the basis of these ethics?
One suggestion, according to Kluge, is that ethics is emergent in nature, arising from collective human awareness. He explains that just as the brain’s individual neurons, which are not self-aware, collectively give rise to the self-aware human mind, so individual humans, who themselves cannot establish ethics, are collectively aware of right and wrong. This awareness provides the basis for objective ethics.
Remember though, arguments by analogy can justify anything. The argument is only as powerful as the analogy. In this case, there remains the problem of meaning without God. That is, who is to say whether either a mind’s self-awareness or society’s “collective conscience” means anything, or can generate meaningful ideas about ethics, if both the mind and society are themselves meaningless consequences of physics? Plus, we’re still stuck when it comes to reconciling conflicting views of ethics within human awareness.
Cornell University professor Dr. William Provine recognized the bleak end of ethics without God when he said,
Let me summarize my views loud and clear. There are no gods, no purposes, no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death…no foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life.6
Unfortunately, to detonate our foundation for ethics this way is to blast away the earth from under the feet of human rights.”
- We lose our foundation for rights.
“Whoa, human rights?” I asked. “Humanism is supposed to be all about human rights.”
“But without an absolute foundation for those rights,” Lantern Dude replied, “things get messy. Take what Aurthur Leff of Yale observed:
If total, final normative authority were assigned to each biological individual and he were made morally autonomous, no rules to govern the interaction between those individuals-the Godlets, as I have called them–could be justified under the assumption of moral autonomy. There would be nothing but rights. If, on the other extreme, moral finality were lodged in “the people” as a class, then no claim for moral breathing space could be upheld for any atom out of which the class was constituted. If “the people” decided, by whatever process it validated, what was right, it would be unchallengeably right for each person: there could be no rights.”7
“Pardon?” I asked.
“He means,” said Lantern Dude, “If there is no God, then either humanity itself is ‘god,’ or each individual human is their own ‘god.’ If everybody is a ‘god,’ then everybody has absolute rights. So, nobody can make up rules for anybody else, or expect anybody else to follow those rules. Law and justice go out the window. On the other hand, if you say that humanity is its own collective ‘god,’ then you get totalitarianism.”
“What if there were an intermediate option?” I countered, trying to think critically. “Like if everyone were collectively divine as humanity and partially divine as individuals, or if everybody didn’t have the same degree of power?”
Lantern Dude scanned my face as though concerned I’d sustained a head injury. “There’s no such thing as partial absolute power. Humanity doesn’t agree with itself, and even if ‘the people’ did collectively decide something, you’d still get that totalitarianism in conflict with ‘partial rights’ of hemi-divine individuals. And in a hierarchy of hemi-gods, the strongest would have power over the final word, leaving you again stuck with totalitarianism.
Ultimately, making humanity become its own ‘god’ is logistically impossible. Besides bequeathing humanity with the unfeasible task of establishing objective ethics, writing God out of the human origins equation also requires that human rights be, by definition, a type of animal right. If humans are merely the precocious offspring of stardust, then who is to say whether humans should have more rights than any other highly-evolved animal, and who is to establish what those rights should be?
Kyle Munkittrick of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies offered one suggestion:
Using a scaled system based on traits like sentience, empathy, self-awareness, tool use, problem solving, social behaviors, language use, and abstract reasoning, animals (including humans) will be granted rights based on varying degrees of personhood. Personhood-based rights will protect against Gattaca scenarios while ensuring the rights of new forms of intelligence, be they alien, artificial, or animal, are protected. When African grey parrots, gorillas, and dolphins have the same rights as a human toddler, a transhuman friendly rights system will be in place.8
This answer, however, only sets the problem of establishing human rights back a step to the problem of determining personhood—of answering, What does it mean to be human?” Lantern Dude summarized, “And that’s where things go downhill even faster.
- We lose our foundation for being human.
Without God as our Creator, as Munkittrick’s solution illustrates, we have to set the ethical value of a human or animal life by some arbitrary human-approved standard: intelligence, neurological development, social complexity, or some other supposed evolutionary blessing. You can see the dangers of this approach in Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer’s recent remarks regarding disability:
“Disability” is a very broad term, and I would not say that, in general, “a life with disability” is of less value than one without disability. Much will depend on the nature of the disability. But let’s turn the question around, and ask why someone would deny that the life of a profoundly intellectually disabled human being is of less value than the life of a normal human being. Most people think that the life of a dog or a pig is of less value than the life of a normal human being. On what basis, then, could they hold that the life of a profoundly intellectually disabled human being with intellectual capacities inferior to those of a dog or a pig is of equal value to the life of a normal human being? This sounds like speciesism to me, and as I said earlier, I have yet to see a plausible defence of speciesism.9
“You see?” said Lantern Dude. “Without God, humanity is left to define itself—to determine its own worth.”
Yikes, I realized, that certainly opposes a Scriptural worldview of humanity, our absolute basis for human rights: every human is created in the image of God.
But Lantern Dude continued, “If humanity, its truths and its morals are all evolved constructs, subject to change, then standards of what it means to be human can change too. Personhood, human life, human meaning—it’s all up to us to decide, and what counts as ‘human’ today may not be human tomorrow. Humanity is subject to reinterpretation. Everything about humanity, in fact, is open to continuous reinterpretation if we are not created beings. Human relationships, family, life, death, sexuality—all is open ended.
Even the human body itself is fair game for revision, as the Transhumanism movement shows. Transhumanism is an attempt to make humans become like God, raising humanity to a higher evolutionary state through technology. Dreams of biotechnological superhumans, cyborgs and chimeras are gaining so much momentum, in fact, that bioethicist John Harris has argued, ‘It is time to take the ‘human’ out of human rights.’10 When being human is passé and there’s no foundation for rights anyway—where does that leave us?”
Silently, we gazed out upon the empty streets.
“There’s so much more I could say…” he spoke at last.
“Thank you,” I said as he rose. “Remember, though, that nothing—neither popular opinion, nor the voice of a thousand lies, nor those lies’ consequences—could kill reality. ‘Heaven and earth will pass away,’ said Jesus, ‘but My words will never pass away.’11 And one of those words is ‘Know that the Lord, He is God; It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people and the sheep of His pasture.’12 There is no sponge to wipe away the horizon. Whether we accept reality or not, it remains unspeakably assuring to know that God is alive; there is a basis for truth, justice, meaning—and hope.”
Lantern Dude turned, a nameless expression in his eyes.
Then, he picked up his broken lantern and walked away.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, para. 125, 1882, 1887; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), p. 181–82. historyguide.org/europe/madman.html.
- John Dewey, “Soul-Searching,” Teacher Magazine, September 1933, p. 33
- William D. Gairdner, The Book of Absolutes (Montreal, Canada: McGill University Press, 2008), p. xvi.
- International Humanist and Ethical Union. Aspects of Humanism. https://iheu.org/humanism/aspects-of-humanism/
- Arthur A. Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” Duke Law Journal 6 (1979): p. 1249. http://bit.ly/leff
- William Provine, U-Turn, 4, (1997), cited in William D. Gairdner, The Book of Absolutes (Montreal, Canada: McGill University Press, 2008), p. 337
- Arthur A. Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” Duke Law Journal 6 (1979): p. 1246. http://bit.ly/leff
- Kyle Munkittrick, “When Will We Be Transhuman? Seven Conditions for Attaining Transhumanism,” Discover, July 16, 2011. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/sciencenotfiction/2011/07/16/when-will-we-be-transhuman-seven-conditions-for-attaining-transhumanism/#.WlgpMqinE2w
- Peter Singer, “Twenty Questions.” Journal of Practical Ethics 4, no. 2. (2016): 74.
- John Harris, “Taking the “human” out of human rights,” Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 20, no. 1 (2011): 9-20.
- Mathew 10:35, NIV.
- Psalms 100:3, NKJV
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