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A Beginners’ Guide to the Argument from Human Value and Dignity

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In 1884, three English sailors were charged with murder. Their yacht, Mignonette, had sunk leaving them stranded in a tiny wooden lifeboat. Starving to death, they had killed and eaten the cabin boy. Their defence was that it was a necessity for survival.[1]

Their argument was purely utilitarian: one person was killed, but three people survived. And the cabin boy, unlike the older sailors, had no dependents and his death left no grieving children. However, I suspect very few people would agree with them. Rather I suspect most of us have a more visceral reaction: what those three sailors did was wrong—fundamentally wrong—because they violated the cabin boy’s rights, his dignity, his value.

HUMAN DIGNITY

Whether it’s a single murder in desperate circumstances, or a mass genocide, most of us would have the same reaction: it is wrong, evil even, to violate the dignity of another human being. This powerful belief is enshrined in the words of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR):

Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world … All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.[2]

We’re passionate about human rights, but these rights, this dignity that human beings are claimed to have—where is it located? Are the noble words of the UDHR actually true?

THE CIRCLE OF RIGHTS

Imagine we draw a circle that represents the genomes of every living thing on planet earth—everything from ants to aardvarks to human beings. Now, when we talk of human rights, what we are doing is drawing a smaller circle inside the larger circle and saying “If you live in the smaller circle, you have special dignity that anything outside doesn’t.” But here’s the problem: what’s to stop the white supremacist drawing a smaller circle inside your circle and saying, “No, dignity and rights only belong to a subset of the human family”. Both of you have arbitrarily drawn circles: why is one admirable and the other condemnable?

There are limited number of options here. The first option is just to bluntly assert that rights exist. When I debated one of the world’s leading secular human rights campaigners, Peter Tatchell, this was his approach: Peter basically said rights exist because they exist.[3] The problem is not merely that his argument is circular, but that a racist could employ it too. He can claim superiority to other races and when we ask why, reply, “because I am”.

Maybe we can locate rights by finding something special about human beings. Maybe it’s the fact we have speech, or consciousness, or moral agency, or folk music, or something. Well, this fails for a reason that atheist Sam Harris identifies:

The problem is that whatever attribute we use to differentiate between humans and animals—intelligence, language-use, moral sentiments, and so on—will equally differentiate between human beings themselves. If people are more important to us than orangutans because they can articulate their interests, why aren’t more articulate people more important still? And what about those poor men and women with aphasia? It would seem that we have just excluded them.[4]

Or maybe we can say that human rights and dignity exist because they matter to me; because they’re personally important to us. The problem, of course, is that when Martin Luther King cries “I have a dream!” how do we answer the person who says “I’m glad you care; but personally I don’t”. Isn’t the point about rights and dignity that we should all care? We need more than mere personal preference.

The last option is to appeal to the state. Human rights exist because the government grants them. The problem here is that if rights are something the state gives, the state can equally take them away. In 1857, an African-American slave named Dred Scott sued his owner for his freedom. The US Supreme Court ruled against Scott, the Justices stating that as a “negro”, he did not possess rights.[5]

One hears a story like that, 150 years on, and winces with embarrassment at how our ancestors behaved. Yet all the Justices did in that ruling was to draw a circle: simply a smaller circle than the one that most of us today would draw. But they are both arbitrary circles nonetheless.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMAN RIGHTS

How do we solve this problem? Many of us are committed to human rights but we can’t ground human rights? Perhaps history can help us here.

Father Francisco de Vitoria, is considered by many to be “the father of international law”. In response to Spanish colonial mistreatment of South Americans, Vitoria argued that all men were equally free and had the right to life, culture and property. Likewise Francisco Suárez, whose 1610 essay, ‘On The Laws’, argued that human beings have rights because they have been endowed with them by their Creator, using language later picked up by America’s founding fathers.[6]

These thinkers, who laid the first foundations of human rights, were not moralising in a vacuum. Rather they rooted their idea in the uniquely biblical belief that human beings bear the image of God.

One of the most influential atheist philosophers writing today, Luc Ferry, agrees. In, A Brief History of Thought, Ferry writes that in the Greco-Roman world, it was assumed that some people were inferior to others: slaves, women, and children, for example. He writes:

Christianity.. introduce[d] the notion … that men were equal in dignity—an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance.[7]

As one of the most influential atheists of all time, Friedrich Nietzsche remarked:

The masses blink and say ‘We are all equal—Man is but man, before God we are equal.’ Before God! But now this God has died.”[8]

So, there is a stark choice: one can adopt a Christian understanding of humanity—that we have real value and real dignity, because we are made in God’s image.[9] Or you can reject that narrative, ignore the consequences, refuse to answer Nietzsche and pretend everything is okay.

RESPONSIBILITY AND THE QUESTION OF PURPOSE

The well-known Harvard University political philosopher Michael Sandel argues that we can’t discuss human rights while avoiding the question of human purpose.[10] Sandel’s observation gets to the heart of what it means to be a human being. Are we creatures designed to seek justice, goodness, and fairness, or are we just primates that got lucky in the evolutionary lottery and whose genes are purely directed at reproductive success? As atheist philosopher John Gray memorably put it:

Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth—and so be free. But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible. The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth. To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals.[11]

Only if Gray is wrong and we are made for something can we talk about things like responsibility, about a way we should live.

If the Christian story is true, then we were made with a purpose, we were made for something. We were made to discover God’s love, to love God in return, and to love our neighbour. If Christianity is true, love is the supreme ethic—that’s what it means to be human and it gives an oughtness to human life.

Raymond Gaita, the Australian atheist, recognised this. He writes that all talk of human rights and dignity:

[Is best] derived from the unashamedly anthropomorphic character of the claim that we are sacred because God loves us, his children.[12]

As a Christian, I believe that human rights can only be grounded if love is the supreme ethic, built into the fundamental fabric of the universe by the God who created us in his image.

But if we say “human rights only works if God exists” that raises the question: which God are we talking about? In Jesus, we have a God who looks very different. Economic theory tells us that something’s value is determined by what somebody is willing to pay for it. Christianity says that God was willing to pay an incredible price for each one of us, the price of his son, Jesus Christ. That’s why we have value.

If the Christian story is true, humans have dignity, they have worth, and on that basis, you can talk meaningfully about rights and about responsibilities. Otherwise what you have are noble sounding words, but ultimately just hot air.


Andy Bannister Short Answers 13Andy Bannister is the Director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity

Further Reading

 

[1]        The story is told in Michael J. Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2010) 32.

[2]        ‘The Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ (http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/, accessed 9 November 2019). Quotations from the Preamble and Article 1 (emphasis mine).

[3]        ‘Unbelievable? Can atheists believe in human rights? Peter Tatchell vs. Andy Bannister’, Premier Radio, Saturday 1 April 2017 (online at https://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable/Episodes/Unbelievable-Can-atheists-believe-in-human-rights-Peter-Tatchell-vs-Andy-Bannister)

[4] Sam Harris, The End of Faith (London: The Free Press, 2006) 177-178. (Aphasia is the inability to speak, for medical reasons, typically having had a stroke)

[5]        Scott v. Sandford – 60 U.S. 393 (1856), available online at http://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/60/393/case.html “Negro” was the terminology used in that case, and is quoted here in its historic context.

[6]        See the discussion in Thomas E. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2005) 133-150.

[7]        Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living (New York: Harper Perennial, 2011 [2010]) 72.

[8]        Cited in Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008) 154.

[9]        Genesis 1:26-27.

[10]       Sandel, Justice,  207.

[11]       John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2003) 26.

[12]       Michael J. Perry, Toward a Theory of Human Rights (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 7.

Sharing the Gospel of Jesus with Muslim Friends

Solas’s Andy Bannister was a guest on the C.S. Lewis Institute podcast recently, presented by our old friend Dr Randy Newman. Andy talks about his research into the history of the Qu’ran, his concern for Muslims, the importance or friendship and hospitality. They discuss the differences between religions, and the objections Muslims have to Christianity such as their rejection of the Trinity; as well as the issue of family rejection when they embrace Christian faith.

The original broadcast is online here.

Why Isn’t God More Obvious?

If God exists, why isn’t it more obvious? In this Short Answers film, Solas speaker Gareth Black explores this common question, inviting us to consider what we have done with the evidence for God that might be available, and why God might not provide us with the kind of evidence that we might expect.

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Book: Dominion by Tom Holland

CHRISTIANITY STILL SHAPES WESTERN MORALITY, WRITES BARNEY ZWARTZ

In his history of ideas, How the West Won, sociologist Rodney Stark provocatively insists that the Roman empire (as opposed to the earlier republic) gave the world nothing but concrete and Christianity. Historian Tom Holland, in his equally provocative Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, is even more insistent about the transformative and disruptive influence of the world’s biggest faith.

This huge and sweeping account of the past 2500 years has a similarly large-scale ambition: “to explore how we in the West came to be what we are and to think the way that we do.” And his argument is compelling: even those who reject religion – those who hold to atheism, humanism, scientism, secularism – find their beliefs ineradicably shaped by Christian presuppositions.

Holland writes that Christianity continues to infuse people’s morals and presumptions “so utterly that many failed even to detect their presence. Like dust particles so fine as to be invisible to the naked eye, they were breathed in equally by everyone: believers, atheists and those who never paused so much as to think about religion.”

Holland, an atheist … is honest enough to acknowledge that his values and world view emerged from Christianity.

Holland manages to traverse Western history from the Persian invasion of Greece in 480BC to Donald Trump by the technique of taking some often obscure figure or event and expanding from that to social transformation. So he leaps from the Apostle Paul, herald of a new beginning, to church fathers Irenaeus and the development of the canon, Origen and the invention of theology, the council of Nicaea, Martin of Tours and the exaltation of poverty, and Bede and a calendar based on the birth of Christ.

Perhaps Holland’s most important contribution is to lay waste the secularist founding myth that reason, empiricism, evidence, humanism and the like emerged in the Enlightenment fully formed like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, not only owing nothing to the preceding centuries but indeed in contrast to them.

Holland, an atheist, is no apologist for Christianity but is honest enough to acknowledge that his values and world view emerged from Christianity rather than pagan antiquity.

Take human rights, a key concept in modern law and ethics. Rights are by no means self-evident or inalienable, as the US Declaration of Independence states, and would have attracted contempt in pre-Christian societies such as ancient Rome or China.

Rights’ essential precondition is the Genesis teaching of humans made in God’s image, and therefore endowed with dignity and worth. It led Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century to rail against slavery and abandoning unwanted infants on rubbish heaps, and was made explicit by 11th-century canon lawyer Gratian, who pronounced that everyone was equal in the sight of God. Anything in the legal system obstructing this idea had to go.

“Much flowed from this formulation that earlier ages would have struggled to comprehend. Age-old presumptions were being decisively overturned: that custom was the ultimate authority; that the great were owed a different justice from the humble; that inequality was something natural, to be taken for granted,” Holland writes. In 1550 Bartolome de las Casas demanded justice for South American Indians, using the term “derechos humanos”, human rights. The genius of the authors of the US Constitution 200 years later was to garb in the robes of the Enlightenment the radical Protestantism that shaped the fledgling nation.

Darwin, in contrast, pointed out how unnatural such a concept is in the light of evolution, observing that “philanthropy and care for the poor must be highly injurious to the race of man”.

And today the insistence of the United Nations and others on the antiquity and broad acceptance of human rights is a fiction to allow it to be a global rather than merely a Western understanding. Secularism, in an identical manner, depended on the care with which it covered its tracks, Holland says.

The idea of the secular, contrasted with the religious, is an important theme of the great fourth-century theologian Augustine, in The City of God, and reaches fulfilment in the humiliation of Henry IV before Pope Gregory in 1076, which divided the religious and secular realms (giving the Church great power in both).

So embedded is it that nearly a millennium later German chancellor Angela Merkel appealed to it in 2014 to claim that Islam belongs as much as Christianity in modern Germany. So it may, but not because traditional Islam admits the idea of the secular, a notion born purely from Christian history. To Islam, it is an artificial divide. But, as Holland notes, the West has become skilled in repackaging Christian concepts for non-Christian audiences.

The idea that science needed to set itself free of dogma and superstition, possible only in the Enlightenment, is another fiction that can be believed only by those ignorant of history. Holland turns to Abelard – the ill-fated lover of Heloise – who devoted his post-castration life to promoting the idea that God’s order was rational and governed by rules that humans could seek to comprehend. His conviction that identifying the laws that governed nature would honour the God who made them led to the founding of universities in the 12th century.

Similarly, humanism has smuggled in Christian assumptions unacknowledged. Without the biblical story of creation in God’s image, the reverence of humanists for their own species “risks seeming mawkish and shallow”. Indeed, philosophers such as Peter Singer have attacked such notions as “speciesism”.

And the claim in the Humanist Manifesto that morals can be developed from science is another fantasy. “The primary dogma of humanism – that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others – found no more corroboration in science than did the dogma of the Nazis that anyone not fit for life should be exterminated,” Holland writes. “The wellspring of humanist values lay not in reason, not in evidence-based thinking, but in history.”

An interesting thesis is that those who most truly understood Christianity’s radical role were those who most despised it, and here Holland cites Nietzsche, the Marquis de Sade, Thomas Huxley and Heinrich Himmler. Nietzsche thought Christianity a slave morality, a way for the weak to bind the strong, but also recognised its values could not survive without the God who sanctioned them. Himmler, who had a 50-year plan to eradicate Christianity, believed the strong had both a duty and obligation to eliminate the weak.

Holland acknowledges that the course of Christianity has been a mixed blessing. Christians have indeed been oppressors and exploiters, although the backlash against that has also been Christian. He details many embarrassing aspects, from crusades to corruption, and especially the totalitarian idea of truth that justifies persecuting those who differ. The heresy hunters of the inquisition survive today in the self-righteous “woke” fanatics, who no longer have the power to burn people at the stake but try to end careers, ruin reputations and close down discussions.

This is an astounding book, not only for its scope – cultural, political, social, intellectual, historical – and its originality, but for its masterly writing. Holland has a knack for the colourful twist. Writing of the summer of love, 1967, he notes: “Preachers, seen through the marijuana haze of a squat in San Francisco, had the look of bigots. Where was the love in short-haired men jabbing their fingers and going puce?”

He also has an eye for fascinating detail. For example, we owe capital letters and question marks to the abbot Alcuin of Tours, adviser to Charlemagne in the eighth century, who did a vast amount to popularise the Bible as a single source of revelation.

Perhaps the most compelling point is the way Christianity defines even its opponents.

But sometimes Holland is a bit too graphic to be comfortable. His detailed discussion of death by crucifixion is stomach-churning; still more so the Persian punishment of the scaphe, in which the victim is trapped inside a log but for his extremities, covered in honey, and devoured over days by insects and maggots from within. Believe me, Holland’s account is horrifically more detailed.

In an enterprise as vast as Dominion, there are inevitably lacunae. Critics have observed that Holland underplays the role of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the rise of trade, but the book is already nearly 600 pages. Another occasional weakness is that Holland’s narrative style means that he may pass over contested aspects of history to stick with his main line, though footnotes can redeem him.

For me, perhaps the most compelling point is the way Christianity defines even its opponents. Even as the woke generation condemns Christian history as oppressive, patriarchal, racist and all the other now-standard derelictions, the standards of justice and equality by which they judge these shortcomings remain ineradicably Christian. In that sense, Holland concludes, Christendom will remain with us a while yet.


Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity in Australia. This article first appeared in The Age. and is republished with permission.

Science, God and the Gospel – Andy Bannister in Inverness

I was invited by Highland International Church to come up to Inverness to take part in their “Under the Spotlight” event which they do several times a year in a recreation hall. They are deliberately doing these meetings out in the community in neutral space where non-Christian people feel more comfortable then they perhaps would be if they came to a church service. They invited lots of people and welcomed them all with coffee and loads of cake!

They invited me to speak on the whole question of ‘science and God’, and amongst the 40-45 people who came there were non-Christians, who were willing to come and consider these things. I addressed the topic (as I had done at Glasgow University recently) and then threw it open for questions – and people asked some great ones. It was good to see a good number of young people there too, including some younger teenagers who got involved with the Q&A.

The highlight of the meeting for me was meeting an older gentleman who was clearly not a Christian – judging by the way he phrased his question. He sought me out afterwards to ask more questions, and he had lots of really significant ones. He asked, for example, about what Christians mean when we say that humans are made “in the image of God”. He realised that we obviously don’t think that means that God looks like us physically; but he didn’t know what we do think.

I was able to explain that the core of it is that God is ‘relational’. As God is the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, He didn’t need to create anything in order to love, rather He is love. Therefore when He creates us in His image, we are also relational creatures. As such relationships are a core part of what it means to be human because we are personal creatures who are designed to love. Then of course, we have to reflect on what has gone wrong. The Bible’s account is that sin has come into the world because we have tried to make ourselves the centre of the universe, displacing God. As a result, all these relationships have become fractured, we have become disconnected both from God and from each other and capable not just of love, but also of hate. That’s why God stepped into the world in the person of Jesus, to do something about this.

I had the wonderful opportunity to talk about all of this with that man in Inverness. It was a really significant conversation, and we’re still praying for him as he is really searching. Just one conversation like that makes all the travel worthwhile.

If you are someone who is reading because you pray for Solas. Please pray that these events we do with local churches go well, and for me as I speak. Please also pray for the Q&A’s that these spontaneous impromptu sessions will be helpful and that I will have God’s wisdom as I field questions. But also, please pray for these personal conversations at the end of meetings with people who are really searching, and need to hear something specific. Pray that they will find and receive Christ and everything he offers.


Editor’s note: Host pastor James Torrens adds, “Andy Bannister spoke at one of our regular ‘Under the Spotlight’ meetings, held in a public hall in the grounds of the local hospital. His subject was “Examining the Evidence: Is Christianity anti-Science?” Andy gave a 20 minute presentation, then those who were present – which included some children as well as adults – were able to ask questions, which Andy answered ably and engagingly. The format was a public meeting and though most people present were Christians, there was at least one non-Christian man there who asked a question and spoke with Andy at the end. The meeting ran for an hour but people were free to stay on over coffee, tea and cakes if they wanted to talk further.”

 


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PEP Talk Podcast With Gareth Black

New Solas Speaker Gareth Black joins the podcast for a wide-ranging discussion. Touching on his own experience growing up in Northern Ireland, Gareth explains to Andy and Kristi how he moved from an insular faith in a divided society to one that embraces questions and seeks to connect deeply with others.

Listen on Spotify – Listen on Apple Podcasts – Listen on Google Podcasts

Our Guest

Formerly a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, Gareth Black holds an MTh from the University of Oxford and an MSc in Bioethics from Kings College London. In autumn 2020, he will commence a PhD in end-of-life ethics at the University of Oxford.  He speaks regularly in university and local church settings, and has pioneered several initiatives aimed at training students and teenagers in the intellectual defence of Christianity. Gareth is married to Amy and they live in Northern Ireland. In his spare time he enjoys playing sport, scenic walks with his Labrador ‘Murphy’, and volunteering with the Northern Ireland Hospice.

About PEP Talk

The Persuasive Evangelism Podcast aims to equip listeners to share their faith more effectively in a sceptical world. Each episode, Andy Bannister (Solas) and Kristi Mair (Oak Hill College) chat to a guest who has a great story, a useful resource, or some other expertise that helps equip you to talk persuasively, winsomely, and engagingly with your friends, colleagues and neighbours about Jesus.

A Beginner’s Guide to the Argument from Language

If you ever visit Paris, it’s worth stopping by the art gallery in the Louvre.  There you can see Wikipedia calls “the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world”.  But why do vast crowds of people stand in awe before a framed wooden board with a variety of oil colours brushed all over it?  Because that’s basically what the ‘Mona Lisa’ is… isn’t it?

You don’t have to consider yourself a cultured person to know that my description fails to capture the beauty, artistry and mystery represented by this famous portrait by Leonardo DaVinci!  This illustrates the danger when we reduce something down to its parts, then we risk missing or failing to do justice to its overall significance.

That’s not just the case with art, but with language.  What is language?  Some of the sceptical philosophers would tell us that it describes specific sounds produced by our vibrating vocal chords, directed by electrical impulses from the brain, carried by sound waves to another person’s ear-drum, which people in a given society recognise and have given specific meaning.  For example, we associate the phonic sounds “ch-air” with a four legged piece of furniture on which people sit.  Therefore language is a game that we teach our children how to play and its worth playing because it enables us express our desires and co-operate to accomplish our goals.  Again, like with the Mona Lisa, this description is true, at a certain level.  However, it misses so much more.

Have you ever reflected on how surprising it is that everything has come from nothing; that life has arisen from non-life; that mind exists and not just matter?  The world in which we live is full of extravagant beauty and creativity, tastes and textures, colours and sounds – including the voices of children playing, choirs singing, and friends chatting.  Using the gift of language we can tell each other what is going on inside our minds – whether that’s telling a joke, making a complaint, arguing a political point, expressing heart-felt love, or a simply baby telling us why it is crying and what it wants .  Even though there are thousands of different languages in the world, we have learned how to reach across those communication barriers – so that although we use different words we can have a shared understanding of what is the meaning and intention behind those words.

All of these things we take for granted every single day, but the incredible phenomenon of language suggests that we live in a certain kind of universe.  One in which language is not just accidental but intentional.  One which makes better sense if its ultimate reality is not eternal matter but an eternal Mind.  Therefore, it is interesting that the opening words of the Bible announce: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).  How did God do it?  “And God said: Let there be light – and there was light” (Genesis 1:3).  God not only thinks but speaks – and when He does, things happen.  Some of the more colourful Christian writers have even suggested that God sang the words of creation, expressing His joy as a Master Artist producing a masterpiece.  We are speaking creatures who been given the gift of language by a speaking God.

The New Testament echoes these words, but applies them to Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  Through Him all things were made… And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:1-3, 14).

Just as a person expresses themselves through the words they say, revealing who they are, what they are like, how they think – so also God has spoken and revealed Himself to the world through His written word in the Bible and His living word in Jesus.  “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Hebrews 1:1-3).  Although so much separates an infinite God from finite humans – think of the difference between yourself and an ant.  Nevertheless, God has taken the initiative to come down to our level, to become one of us, in order to communicate clearly with us and create understanding in us.

Finally, we sometimes talk about suffering “the silent treatment” – when two people have fallen out.  We also recognise that something has gone wrong in a relationship when the people involved stop talking.  Sadly, there has been a break down in communication and in relationship between heaven and earth, God and humanity.  God not only designed a good world with scientific truths, written in the language of mathematics, but He also designed it with moral truths, communicated to us in our language.  However, the human race has decided to disregard those instructions and instead has sought to devise our own truths, pursuing meaning and happiness without God and in ways God has said are not good.  Nevertheless, rather than giving us the silent treatment, God has continued speaking to this world – raising up His messengers, giving us the Bible, and ultimately in sending Jesus.  Because God is pursuing us, seeking to be reconciled with us – if only we would stop running away and start listening.


David lives in Edinburgh, where he is a pastor of a city centre church and engaged in apologetics and public theology ministry.  He is married to Kirsty, a doctor, and they have two little boys: Joel and Daniel (who ask the hardest questions ever!)

Further Reading

Advanced: Is there a Meaning in This Text, Kevin Vanhoozer.

At the Scripture Union Scotland Staff Retreat

Andy Bannister reports

I had the privilege of speaking at the Scripture Union Scotland staff retreat at Lendrick Muir recently. There must have been well over a hundred people there, Lendrick Muir’s main meeting room is this lovely long old room, which was full. They were a really happy crowd of people – great to be with for a few days too. It was quite lively and almost had the atmosphere of a student houseparty! The retreat was for all of SU Scotland’s staff, which included their front line workers in schools and holidays; their back office staff – as well as their many associate workers who with SU too. They came across as a group of people who really like working together. It was also a poignant time to be there, as it was last time that they all met together with Andy Bathgate at the helm of the organisation, where he has been for eighteen years! Andy is a member of Solas’ Council of Reference too – which is another good connection we have with SU.

I did three talks at the retreat. Firstly we looked at “Hope in a Culture of Confusion”, then “Identity in a Culture of Confusion” and “Faithfulness in a Culture of Confusion” in the main sessions. Then there was an optional seminar I did as an ‘extra’ on “How to talk about Jesus without sounding like an idiot!” which is our introduction to the key principles of conversational evangelism.

It was great to be with SU Scotland for a few days – they are a really great bunch of people to work with and be with! And they seemed really enthusiastic about the teaching sessions that we shared together. When he was briefing me before the event; Andy Bathgate reminded me that people often assume that all SU workers are out in the field, engaging with people all the time in their jobs. However, some of the back office staff will say that their evangelistic engagement is with friends and family; because their day job involves doing the accounts or running a website, or administrating holidays.

We have a great relationship with SU Scotland, at Solas, we speak at various events they hold; both for young people and for their staff. We share a similar passion for engaging young people, and really appreciate both their commitment – and their reach, into all kinds of different communities around the country.

Editor’s note: Since Andy wrote this report, Andy Bathgate (SU Scotland’s Chief Executive wrote to say, “It was great to have him. So often the main speaker sets the tone for the conference and Andy’s warmth, humour, passion and friendliness set a great tone for us. He was accessible across the wide range of our staff team and related well outside of the sessions. He really shone in the Q&A sessions after the talks (quite brilliant on his feet) and the seminar was incredibly well received.”

Why Is The Bible Full of Laws?

In a culture whose highest values are often autonomy and liberal democracy, the bible’s many ethical commands – especially Old Testament laws on things like food and clothing – can seem both arbitrary and oppressive. In this Short Answers video, Solas speaker Gareth Black asks us to step back and think about the purpose and function behind any law, not just biblical laws. In doing so, we see how God’s laws are not arbitrary but specifically designed to reveal the Law-Maker’s character, increase our personal and social wellbeing, and show us that, if we truly want to live rightly, we are going to need a power that can change us at the deepest level.

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Short Answers is a viewer-supported video series: if you enjoy them, please help us continue to make them by donating to Solas. Visit our Donate page and choose “Digital Media Fund” under the Campaign/Appeal button.

Genesis, Artificial Intelligence and the Meaning of Humanity

UNCOUPLING INTELLIGENCE FROM CONSCIOUSNESS

One of Yuval Harari’s contentions is that many people researching into AI do not concern themselves with consciousness for the simple reason that their AI systems are allowing them to create intelligence (simulated) that is not conscious – and that is sufficient for their purposes.

It is easy to get some idea of what this means. Suppose I take a taxi journey from the train station to a meeting in Oxford. The taxi driver is conscious – otherwise the journey is rapidly going to run into serious trouble. But if I undertake the journey in an autonomous  vehicle,  the  taxi driver  is  superfluous. All I need to achieve my goal is an AI system that “knows” the route and can guide the car along it, but there is no need for a conscious driver at any stage. Or suppose I need heart surgery. The last surgeon I experienced was a conscious human being; the next, should I need it, may well be a non-conscious robotic AI system.

Genesis tells us that when God created humans in his image, he linked intelligence and consciousness together in one being, for he is himself like that – a conscious intelligent being. However, God, who is Spirit, links consciousness and intelligence together in a non-material being. The fact that God is Spirit shows that neither consciousness nor intelligence necessarily depend on a material substrate – another reason to think that humans will never be able to make a conscious material machine.

Humans were assigned work

Genesis 2:15 informs us that God gave work, in a garden, as part of the human raison d’être before sin entered into the world. That is why people who try but do not succeed in finding work often feel deprived and unwanted. Yet, work, though very important, is not all of life as it was essentially thought to be in the Communist concept of a “worker state.” However, what is happening now is that, as suggested above, by decoupling intelligence from consciousness, AI would seem to be pushing us in the opposite direction to a situation where work becomes a smaller and smaller part of human activity. Even if Ray Kurzweil is overly optimistic in saying that most human tasks will be taken over by robots by 2030, we need to think about what even a partial AI/robot takeover would look like in light of the biblical view that work is part of our God- given significance as human beings.

Yuval Harari writes: “In the twenty-first century we might witness the creation of a massive new unworking class: people devoid of any economic, political or even artistic value, who contribute nothing to the prosperity, power and glory of society. This ‘useless class’ will not be merely unemployed – it will be unemployable.”16 Digital assistants, robots, and the like can  be regarded as slaves, and the world already experienced a slave economy where the very few were served by the many. That very few did little work, and when society collapsed, having forgotten how to work, they had no idea how to rebuild. Some suggest it was for that reason that the Roman Empire eventually collapsed.

The concept of a “useless class” is chilling and dehumanising. The New Testament advice for believers is: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2  Thessalonians 3:10).    It does not, however, say, if anyone does not work, let him not eat. It is almost as if Paul envisaged the possibility of unemployment. If certain AGI pundits are right, the prospect of future techno-unemployment is worse than grim.

The University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute has projected the time-scale of AI related job-erosion. It is obvious that there is an urgent need to create many new jobs, and if they are not to dis- appear too rapidly, they will have to be jobs that humans can do better than algorithms. This will mean that many, if not most, people will have to keep learning throughout life, a prospect that many will find either daunting or simply impossible.

The techno-optimists hope that even if such people cannot be employed, there will be enough financial surplus from the new technology that they will be fed, housed, and supported throughout life. But who will be paying for the new technological services – certainly not people who have no work? Where will the financial surplus come from? Such techno-optimism seems extremely naive! The extreme techno-pessimist view is,  as Nick Bostrom warns, that humans will not in fact reach the final stage of unemployability, as an ascendant AI may well simply exterminate them.17

Yet according to Scripture, work is an important ingredient in human flourishing. How can those of us who are convinced of that fact communicate and maintain it in the face of a technological invasion of the workplace? Is our stark choice really between learning to work with robots or being replaced by them?18   Once AI masters the art of horticulture, will there be a job for Adam?

The problem is huge, and it starts not with retraining those that have already been employed, but with the basic education of children. The World Economic Forum reports:

The jobs of the future will require students to have strong cognitive skills in mathematics and literacy, as well as soft skills such as problem-solving and creative thinking, to enable them to adapt to a quickly changing environment.  However, millions of children are not gaining these skillsets, either because they never started school, they have dropped out of school, or their school does not offer a quality education.19

 It would appear that 617 million children and adolescents fall below an acceptable standard in reading and mathematics.20 The tragedy here is that this represents an immense waste of talent and leads to severely reduced potential to escape long- term poverty.

It is a sobering thought that AI may leave millions of children far behind, totally unable to compete with the more privileged.

Humans have the faculty of language

God instructed man to name the animals in Genesis 2:19–20. The thought that an AI system might be able to name objects does not  sound completely far-fetched since, at the basic level,  a name is to a large extent an arbitrary sound attached to the object and then written down. Human capacities, however, go way beyond naming things. Theologian Keith Ward wrote: “There are here three distinctive capacities of the human person, unique among all organisms on Earth, so far as we  can tell – the capacity to be sensitive to and appreciative of information received, to be creative in responding to it, and to learn and develop such capacities in relation to other persons   in specific historical contexts. Human persons receive information, interpret it, and transmit it in a fully semantic way.”21 This would seem to be in a completely different category from the information-processing ability of computers or the image recognition of AI.

Yet AI systems are already beginning to invade the world of the artist, musician, and writer. At the time of writing (2018), one of the first AI artistic compositions is about to be auctioned at Christie’s. David Cope, former music professor at the University of California in Santa Cruz, who writes about AI and music, has developed impressive computer programs to create classical music in the style of any given composer. Audience response has shown that Cope’s music is indistinguishable from Bach, for example.

Cope has developed an even more sophisticated machine learning system called “Annie” that not only writes music but also various kinds of poetry. This is slightly misleading since what such a system produces is generated by Cope plus AI, not by AI alone. As Paul Ford, who attempted to write an article using machine learning, has said: “At least for now computers need people as much as we need them.”22 The reason is clear: all of these things are being done by unconscious machines that are, in turn, being guided by conscious humans.

GOD CREATED THE MAN/WOMAN RELATIONSHIP

The Genesis 2 account raises the question of a suitable companion for man. Animals have been human companions from time immemorial, and with advances in medicine resulting in ageing populations, the need for companionship is at an all-time high. That need is being increasingly supplied by lifelike companion robots, and it is spawning a huge industry, particularly in countries like Japan. At the other end of the age scale, robotic ducks have been developed to help children with cancer. Also, healthcare robots that combine AI with voice technology are being developed that will, for instance, remind people to take their medicines at the right time.

However, the biblical account indicates that like-for-like companionship cannot be supplied by a subhuman animal, since there is a category difference between humans and animals – as indicated by the information gap on Day 6 of the creation narrative.

According to the Genesis account, woman, the biblical counterpart of man, is built from man by God. What implications does this have for the way we understand the nature of human- to-human relationships as distinct from interactions with companion robots, robotic pets, robotic house helps, and even life-size robotic dolls? Will they, for instance, even enhanced by AI, one day be capable of responding to the complex blend of emotional, social, cultural, and physical needs of people in a way that satisfies the human need for understanding and compassion? Margaret Boden points out that other human beings, of course, don’t always provide these things either. Yet she goes on to say:

In a nutshell,  over-reliance on  computer  “carers,”  none of which can really care, would be a betrayal of the user’s human dignity . . . In the early days of AI, the computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum made himself very unpopular with his MIT colleagues by saying as much. “To substitute a computer system for a human function that involves interpersonal respect, understanding, and love,” he insisted in 1976, is “simply obscene.”23

Boden also issues a warning: “The users and designers  of AI systems – and of a future society in which AI is rampant – should remember the fundamental difference between human and artificial intelligence: one cares, the other does not.” However, in this context we should balance these comments by referring to Rosalind Picard’s positive work in affective computing, mentioned elsewhere, that is very much an expression  of AI care – simulated care, but nonetheless care as far as the patient is concerned.

The humans were told to be “fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) to give life to succeeding generations by the natural process of the sexual transmission of life. Of course, at that stage, there was no question of one generation interfering with the genetic programming of subsequent generations. That would come much later, though thinking about it, as our generation must, will involve the next ingredient in what it means to be human.

Professor John Lennox will be a special guest on a Solas webinar on July 21st 2020, join us live on the day, and put your questions to him; or watch webinar subsequently on catch-up. All details are here.

This extract from “2084: Artifiical Intelligence, The Future of Humanity and the God Question” by John C. Lennox has been published here with kind permission of HarperCollins Publications. 2084 by John Lennox is available here.


John C. Lennox (PhD, DPhil, DSc) is Professor of Mathematics in the University of Oxford (Emeritus), Fellow in Mathematics and the Philosophy of Science, and Pastoral Advisor at Green Templeton College, Oxford. He is author of God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? on the interface between science, philosophy, and theology. He lectures extensively in North America and in Eastern and Western Europe on mathematics, the philosophy of science, and the intellectual defence of Christianity, and he has publicly debated New Atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. John is married to Sally; they have three grown children and ten grandchildren and live near Oxford.


NOTES:

  1. Charles Babbage, The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, 2nd (London: Mur- ray, 1838), ix.
  2. See Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
  3. “Letter to William Graham, July 3, 1881,” University of Cambridge Darwin Correspondence Project, https://goo.gl/Jfyu9Q.
  4. John Polkinghorne, One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology (Lon- don: SPCK, 1986), 92–93.
  5. John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (London: Granta, 2002),
  6. Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 14,
  7. Keith Ward, Why There Almost Certainly Is a God: Doubting Dawkins (Ox- ford: Lion, 2008), 19–20.
  8. This was a comment at the end of a documentary entitled Transcendent Man: The Life and Ideas of Ray Kurzweil (Los Angeles: Ptolemaic Productions, 2009).
  9. Max Tegmark, Life 0 (New York: Knopf, 2017), chapter 2.
  10. See my God’s Undertaker (London: Lion, 2007) or God and Stephen Hawk- ing: Whose Design Is It Anyway? (London: Lion, 2011).
  11. I go into this in much more detail in my Seven Days That Divide the World: The Beginning according to Genesis and Science (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
  12. But see my Seven Days That Divide the World.
  13. James Tour, “Open Letter to My Colleagues,” Inference: International Re- view of Science 3, 2 (August 2017), https://inference-review.com/article/an-open-letter-to-my-colleagues; see also James Tour, “Animadversions of a Synthetic Chemist,” Inference: International Review of Science 2, no. 2 (May 2016), https://inference-review.com/article/animadversions-of-a-synthetic-chemist
  14. Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (New York: Scribner, 1994), 3
  15. David J. Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), xiv.
  16. Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus (New York: HarperCollins, 2017),
  17. See Ross Andersen, “We’re Underestimating the Risk of Human Extinction,” The Atlantic, 6 March 2012, theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/03/were-underestimating-the-risk-of-human-extinction/253821.
  18. See Bill Snyder, “Our Misplaced Fear of Job-Stealing Robots,” Stan- ford Graduate School of Business, 7 March 2019, gsb.stanford.edu/insights/misplaced-fear-job-stealing-robots.
  19. Silvia Montoya, “There Is a Global Learning Crisis Affecting the Lives of Millions in Developing Countries,” World Economic Forum, 27 August 2018, www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/08/global-learning-crisis-millions-without-basic-skills-unesco (emphasis added).
  20. See “The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019: Sustainable Development Goal 4,” United Nations, https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg4.
  21. Keith Ward, “God as the Ultimate Informational Principle,” in Information and the Nature of Reality, Paul Davies and Niels Henrik Gregersen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 375.
  22. Paul Ford, “I Tried to Get an AI to Write This Story,” Bloomberg Businessweek, 17 May 2018, bloomberg.com/news/features/2018-05-17/i-tried-to-get-an-ai-to-write-this-story-paul-ford.
  23. Margaret Boden, “Robot Says: Whatever,” Aeon, 13 August 2018, https:// aeon.co/essays/the-robots-wont-take-over-because-they-couldnt-care-less.

 

 

 

Evangelism Training in The Highlands

Andy Bannister writes

A small team from Solas went up to Kiltarlity, which is just over ten miles west of Inverness. We have good connections with Kiltarlity as two of our Solas board members live there, and attend the village church. In fact, one of them is the pastor of that church. It’s a small village of just a few hundred people, and we were originally going up there for a day of Solas administration with the board members. However Stephen, the pastor there asked if while we were up if we could do an evening meeting, which we thought was great idea. So we did the “How to talk about Jesus without looking like an idiot” session, which is our standard introduction to conversational evangelism, which we do in many places.

Stephen thought that it might be a useful evening for the 15-20 people he thought might be interested in a midweek session on evangelism training; hoping to pitch it primarily at the church’s young adults group. Stephen made 120 tickets available  – and sold them all about a week before the event, and then sold more! On the night, the building was packed to bursting. The audience were incredibly warm, and asked really great, very perceptive questions during the Q&A; they were really engaged and enthusiastic. We were then really encouraged to learn that in the weeks after the event, the group that had travelled up to Kitarlity from Glen Urquhart, took the material back to their church and shared it with everyone there.

At Solas we are deliberately trying to make space to go to places like Kiltarlity, which are somewhat off the beaten track. Some large Christian ministries will only go to the big cities, and do a tour around London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow – but we’re also trying to get out to the towns and villages to serve the local church. The result is that you can have a massive impact in that community, and try and reach some of the places that other ministries don’t.

PEP Talk Podcast With Glen Scrivener

When sharing the gospel, where do you start? Today on PEP Talk, Andy and Kristi speak with Glen Scrivener about his book 3-2-1: The Story of God, the World and You and how he works from the love of the Trinity down to our ultimate goal of union with Christ.

Listen on Spotify – Listen on Apple Podcasts – Listen on Google Podcasts

Our Guest

Glen Scrivener is an evangelist and directs Speak Life, a ministry reaching out with the gospel through preaching and media. They’re recruiting creative evangelists now for an internship called the Speak Life Foundry. Glen has written several books including Long Story Short and Reading Between the Lines. He lives in Eastbourne with his wife Emma, his daughter Ruby and his son JJ.

About PEP Talk

The Persuasive Evangelism Podcast aims to equip listeners to share their faith more effectively in a sceptical world. Each episode, Andy Bannister (Solas) and Kristi Mair (Oak Hill College) chat to a guest who has a great story, a useful resource, or some other expertise that helps equip you to talk persuasively, winsomely, and engagingly with your friends, colleagues and neighbours about Jesus.

A Beginner’s Guide to The Argument from Mathematics

by Dr Mark Mccartney
Does mathematics have anything to do with God?

‘Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them’ (Psalm 111v2)

These are the words which James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79) had carved into the doors of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge when it was built in the 1870s. Well actually they were carved in Latin, but still you get the point.

Maxwell, now regarded as one of the greatest physicists of all time, was a man who saw ‘pondering’ the workings of God’s creation as a delightful thing to do. And certainly in my own mind, looking around at the shear grandeur, complexity and beauty of the natural world leaves me with the distinct impression that I am looking at one enormous Divine calling card.

The beauty of creation goes all the way down to the equations of physics.

Interestingly when as scientists we drill below the surface to produce mathematical theories to represent the world (chiefly in the area of theoretical physics) it turns out that beauty is also to be found in the equations we write down. More than that, some theoretical physicists see mathematical beauty as a requirement of a good theory.

For those readers who cannot conceive of what mathematical beauty might look like, and still find quadratic equations one of the more stressful parts of their teenage life, I can assure you that mathematical beauty is visible to those versed in the subject. Perhaps it is best described as a combination of concision and breadth of explanatory power.

I have pondered on the beauty of creation at the level of night skies and butterflies, and thought ‘Great are the works of the Lord’. But this particular applied mathematician has found himself thinking the same thing when he looks at the Schrodinger equation (describing things on the atomic scale) or Maxwell’s equations (describing all of electromagnetism).

For me the calling card of creation still has the marks of the divine when it is translated into the language of mathematics.

Whose equations are they anyway?

One of the odd things that many mathematicians experience is the sense of ‘discovery’ they feel when they prove a theorem, or solve an equation. Indeed some mathematicians insist that they are making discoveries. From this perspective mathematics is not a creation of human minds, but rather, as Roger Penrose (a very eminent British mathematical physicist) puts it, ‘mathematical truth is absolute, external and eternal, and not based on manmade criteria and…mathematical objects have a timeless existence of their own’. Now I hasten to add that not all mathematicians take this position (called mathematical Platonism), and furthermore Roger Penrose is an atheist. But, mathematical Platonism is a respectable position, held by  more than a few mathematicians.

Now, if we ask the question whether mathematical Platonism sits more comfortably with atheism or theism, it seems that atheism (which I will equate to materialism – ie there are no things in the universe which are not physical) is in real trouble. Where do these ‘absolute, external and eternal’ mathematical truths exist? In the materialist world there is simply nowhere to put them.

However, for the theist, the answer is quite straightforward. They are thoughts in the mind of God. Thus, if you are inclined towards the idea of mathematics as ‘discovery’ of independently existing truth, then it seems to me it sits more comfortably with theism than atheism.

Of course if you are an atheist you may simply be inclined to say ‘well OK, I wasn’t to fussed on mathematical Platonism anyway’. And that, of course, is absolutely fine. But there remains one other puzzle when it comes to mathematics…

How come the maths in my head describes the universe outside it?

This is not quite as silly as it sounds. The Nobel prize winning physicist Eugene Wigner (1902-95) describes it as the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences’.

Let’s say that mathematical Platonism is false. This means that all the mathematics we have is a free creation of the human mind. Well, how come all this mathematical abstraction of complex numbers, partial differential equations, infinite dimensional vector spaces and non-Euclidean geometry turns out to be just the set of things that describe – really well– how the universe ticks?

An atheist response will be that much of the mathematics which humans have created has been done in a ‘co-evolutionary’ way along with our understanding of the natural world. In some cases that is indeed true. However, this is not true in all cases.

A theistic response is to say that we are made in the image of God. Broadly speaking theologians have thought of the image of God as a combination of ‘the three Rs’: Reason, Relationship and Regency. Relationship, in terms of our ability to have deep relationships with others and with God. Regency, in terms of our stewardship of the world we live in. And Reason, in terms of the fact that we can reason deeply about both God, His creation, and our place within it.

Thus, for the theist, the mathematics we create describes the physical world because both our mind and the created order were made by God.

Conclusion

You may have come to the end of this short article positively disappointed with its lack of strong arguments for theism from mathematics. That, in my view, is just how it is. Some perspectives on mathematics (such as mathematical Platonism and mathematics ‘unreasonable effectiveness’) certainly sit more comfortably with theism than atheism, but such perspectives are not universally held, nor are they bound tightly to mathematics.

The beauty and richness of the mathematical description of nature is, however, analogous to the beauty and richness of the nature it describes, and as such to me it a pointer to the existence of a God in the same way that the created order is.

Of course the careful reader will have noted that I have talked generically about ‘God’ and ‘theism’. From the huge grandeur of nature, and the beauty of its laws, we can gather that God is a great and powerful artist. But to find out anything more…well He would have to step into history and reveal Himself, wouldn’t he?


Mark McCartney teaches mathematics at the University of Ulster. His research interests are in the areas of nonlinear systems and the history of mathematics and natural philosophy in the nineteenth century. He is married to a wonderful wife, and has two wonderful children.

 

Further reading:

A good introductory read from an explicitly Christian perspective is:

Bradley & R Howell, Mathematics through the eyes of faith (HarperOne, 2011).

Two slightly more advanced books, which are made up of collections of essays from a range of scholars are:

S Lawrence & M McCartney (eds.), Mathematicians and their gods (OUP,2015).

J Polkinghorne (ed.), Meaning in mathematics (OUP, 2011).

In particular Chapter 1 of Lawrence & McCartney gives an extended form of this article.