Saturday, December 09, 2006

"The Human Difference"; or "Connecting the Dots from Intelligent Design to Regensburg"

I have just read a great article from Commentary called "The Human Difference" by Eric Cohen. This article connects the dots between a number of issues that I have been blogging about already. It articulates what I had already felt in my philosophical "gut", namely that there is a strong connection between:

1) The Intelligent Design/Creationist/Evolutionist debate
2) Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists
3) The ethics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research and abortion
4) The Pope's Regensburg Address
5) Inter-religious Dialogue

At the centre of all these debates/issues/events is the question "What is Man?"

In response to the New Atheists, he writes:
What is especially striking is the zeal with which contemporary scientists defend the theory of evolution against its skeptics and detractors even as they often fail to acknowledge or understand its limitations. ...[I]n the conversion of each new child in Pennsylvania or Kansas to a belief in evolution, they see an intellectual and moral victory. For radical neo-Darwinians like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, evolution is indeed a kind of liberation: proof that God is dead, proof that we are free to make our own gods, proof that we can impose our own moral order on a world governed only by amoral chance.
And the relevance of this to stem cell research?
"With this absolute licence comes, in the scientists’ perception, an absolute and exclusive responsibility to ameliorate the physical misery of humankind, heeding the cry of the sick that falls on heaven’s deaf ears. ...For what science says about human origins has become the ground for claiming an uninhibited scientific freedom, aimed at correcting the broken life that nature so callously gives us. The Darwinian metaphysic—-man as the product of blind chance-—becomes a basis for Baconian science—-man as the redeemer of blind nature.

This is why stem-cell research is, along with evolution, the other great scientific issue of the age, where godlike responsibility for human suffering supposedly justifies the godlike destruction of nascent human life (and where scientists regularly complain of being “under siege”). For many scientists, this is also the ground for conducting man-animal experiments with virtually no moral limits: because such research will help the sick, and because there is nothing all that special about man in the first place.
The "Intelligent Design" project is, in the face of this, quite understandable:
Describing what motivates him, William Dembski, perhaps the most prominent ID theorist, once declared:
"I think God’s glory is being robbed by these naturalistic approaches to biological evolution, creation, the origin of the world, the origin of biological complexity and diversity. When you are attributing the wonders of nature to these mindless material mechanisms, God’s glory is getting robbed."

And if God’s glory is robbed, man’s glory is diminished. The elevation of man that once came from being created “in God’s image” is replaced by the will of the robbers, who believe that man is a beast answerable to no god, and hence a god who can remake human life as he sees fit.
Not that he lets the ID guys off lightly:
Yet whatever the merits (and limits) of ID as an explanation of human origins, it too offers little as a theory of man’s being. Saying that humans are designed says nothing about what they are designed for, or how they are different from the other animals that are also, presumably, products of design. Conversely, to celebrate the orderliness of nature as a reason to believe in divine creation ignores the gross disorderliness of nature that relentlessly afflicts us. Inexplicable natural misery is what often awakens a longing for the divine in the first place, or a desire for perfect justice that will transcend the crookedness of nature with its mad epidemics and childhood cancers. Without a theory of man’s fall—an inescapably religious idea—the theory of design seems like a half-truth, if not an absurdity.

The irony is that by focusing relentlessly on man’s origin, not man’s being, ID theorists ultimately make the same error as orthodox Darwinians. In an age when biotechnology may soon allow us to redraw the biological boundaries between man and the other animals, what we need to understand is not the human beginning but the human difference. Who we are, not where we came from, is the question that matters most.
I highlighted that last bit, because it seems to say something along the lines of my blog "But is it true?" about the Genesis Creation narratives wanting to say something about who we are now, not what happened back then.

So what about the other bits, about the Regensburg address and Inter-religious dialogue. Well, actually, Cohen says nothing directly about these, but the two fit into his picture rather well. First, like the Holy Father, he notes a certain congruence between the Greek philosophical understanding of "the human difference" (Aristotle) and the Hebrew Scriptures affirmation of human beings as "the image of God. At the end of the essay, Cohen makes the comment that "we need to be mindful of the human animal who is at stake in our experiments: the only rational, moral, God-seeking being." That seems to align fairly well with the Holy Father's emphasis on the compatibility of Reason and Faith in the Regensburg lecture. Moreover, the Pope's rejection, at Regensburg, of any religion that sanctions violence, is on the basis, not only that violence is against reason, but that it is an offence against dignity of human beings--that is, a failure to recognise "the human difference".

And that is where inter-religious dialogue comes in. For any religion that desires to have a place in human society--and any ideology for that matter--must repudiate violence against each and every human person and embrace the innate human dignity of all people from conception till death. That is, religions and ideologies must embrace the "absolute truth" of "the human difference". Religions and ideologies that refuse to recognise these sanctions are a real threat to humanity, and society must not--DARE NOT--tolerate them. Killing in the name of God or the name of Science or even in the name of Humanity itself cannot be tolerated, because on each count it denies the human being as a "rational, moral, God-seeking being".


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