Friday, 28 November 2008

Human rights and the value of humans

A while ago, in a post to which I link rather often, I argued that atheism can't make sense of human rights. At the time, however, I didn't offer a positive alternative as to how I think Christianity can do just that. Well, recently Jason Pratt of the Christian CADRE blog (bookmark it now) opened a discussion on just this subject, so I commented:

I suggest, tentatively, that human beings have the property "value" in a similar way to how e.g. material bodies have "mass" or certain subatomic particles have "charge". As a Christian, I understand this as following from the fact that human beings are made in God's image.
Then, in response to a request for clarification, I said (lightly edited):

The idea is that God is the being of maximal value (along with power, knowledge and goodness), and we ourselves have some value by virtue of those aspects of God's nature which we share (i.e. have in common) – sharing aspects of God's nature is what I understand by being made "in his image" (exactly which aspects and to what degree is a question which will have to be partially postponed). Further questioning as to how we have this property is probably going to draw a blank from me, I'm afraid. How is it that electrons have negative charge? Er, it belongs to their nature.

There are a couple of important problems with the mass/charge analogy, though. Firstly, value can't be detected in the same way that those properties can. Secondly, treating (e.g.) massive bodies as if they aren’t massive will get you into practical difficulties, while treating beings of intrinsic value as if they’re valueless will get you into normative difficulties*. That’s how I understand "rights": as a set of descriptions of the ways in which human beings must be treated in order to recognise their intrinsic value. To violate someone's rights is therefore to treat someone as if they didn’t have the value they, in fact, have. These rights are inalienable because human beings possess them just by virtue of being human beings – it's no more possible to remove a human being’s human rights than it is to remove an electron's negative charge. An "electron without charge" just isn't an electron, and my proposal is that the same applies for "human being without value" - both descriptions are contradictions in terms.

As conceived here, value is a(n intrinsic) property of human beings - and God. This value is the same for all human beings by virtue of their humanity, and so the rights I'm thinking of are the same for all human beings at all times in history and at all stages of their lives, in the same way that all electrons anywhere and ever have the same charge.

* If God will ultimately judge everyone, then this could get you into practical difficulties as well, of course.
I know some people feel embarrassed about reproducing on their own blog comments they've made elsewhere. Well, not me :). What I would do well to bear in mind, however, is what Ken reminded me of in his response to another post of mine about this issue.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Marcus du Sautoy named new Oxford Public Understanding of Science Professor

New Simonyi Chair appointed (Oxford University Press Office):
Professor Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, has been appointed to the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science. [...] The new appointment will take effect from 1 December 2008. The aim of the professorship is to communicate science to the public, with elements of scholarship that bring true understanding.
I haven't read any of Prof. du Sautoy's books, but I did see his Royal Society lectures the year before last and was quite impressed with them. Let's hope he proves to be more dedicated to his post, and less to ideological crusadeds, than his predecessor.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Barack Obama elected world US President


Time to start making good on that promise to "change [his] country and change the world".

Seriously, though, congratulations to the man. Let's all pray he does a good job and governs justly once he gets into office.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Recent items of interest

Two things making noise on the internet and getting my attention recently:

Firstly, it appears that Richard Dawkins has, shockingly, started softening his anti-theistic line recently. My attention was first drawn to this possibility when I saw Peter S. Williams' piece in the Evangelical Philosophical Society blog about Dawkins' "search for a grander truth". But that was just the tip of the iceberg: according to Spectator writer Melanie Phillips' report on the second Dawkins/Lennox debate a couple of weeks ago, he now accepts that "a serious case could be made for a deistic God". This from the man previously set on attacking "God in all his forms"! Bjørn Are's and William Lane Craig's responses to Phillips' article are also worth your attention.

I wonder if Dawkins' neo-atheist fellow-travellers Dennett, Harris and Hitchens are going to have to have an intervention with him? First Antony Flew, and now this...

Meanwhile, popular science journalism hasn't gotten any less scientistic while I wasn't looking. According to this hatchet job in New Scientist, non-materialist philosophy of mind is part of a "war on science" led by the ever-evil Discovery Institute. Joe Gorra does the job of presenting a response on behalf of the EPS, many of whose members are mentioned in the NS article. Tom Gilson also counted to ten before writing anything about it. For some idea of just what a piece of hackery this article was, though, you should see Merlijn de Smit's blog post about the fiasco, which also gives some of his views on popular science journalism more generally. Reasonable discussion can be found on Dangerous Idea, where Blue Devil Knight plays the role of the naturalist not stricken with chronic dogmatism (leaving that, as usual, to Doctor Logic). I've stuck my oar in in the comments to this post by Paul Wright. Go there (or here) for my views.

Yes, that was really just a collection of links. I hope to be back shortly with something more substantial. Until then, good night and God bless.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Congratulations to Lewis Hamilton

I won't pretend to be a real Formula One fan, but still I have been caught up in the hype surrounding Hamilton this year and I was a very tense person most of this afternoon watching the Brazilian Grand Prix—particularly the final lap! It all came good in the end, though. A thoroughly deserved victory, as everyone is saying.