Univocal language

In recent episodes of his Reasonable Faith podcast, William Lane Craig hits hard at physicist Laurence Krauss’s assertions that the universe came from nothing.  It turns out Krauss’ “nothing” is basically vacuum space filled with a sea of crackling energy.  Among other things, it has properties regarding stability of decay and the potentiality of begetting matter. But anything with properties and states of potentiality, even if devoid of matter, is not nothing! This is not the first time a naturalist has deployed a definitional bait-and-switch in the hope of dispatching the annoyingly transcendent Deity.  Each time Dr. Craig refutes these kind of metaphysical transgressions, he reminds us of the necessity of univocal language; that is, the importance of using words whose meanings do not change from one sentence to the next.

One arena that could benefit from this clarity of meaning is the question of rights.  Last month, Greg Koukl highlighted on his radio show a string of stories illustrating the tragic trajectory of human rights.  First, he reported this BBC this headline: “Dolphins deserve same rights as humans, say scientists.”  And then followed the cetacean saga where PETA sued Sea World under the premise that the 13th amendment, protecting against slavery, applies to killer whales.  The thread linking these stories is the desire to assign legal personhood on the basis of what Koukl called functionalism.  When a living being achieves a certain functionality, say certain brain wave complexity, then it deserves rights and protection.  The flip side is that some beings, like human fetuses, may not attain to the criteria, depending on who assigns them.  Koukl illustrated the case powerfully with reference to the recent Journal of Medical Ethics article on “after-birth abortion.”

Without an objective grounding to our moral values, there is total confusion as to rights.  Are they really human rights, or are protections conferred only when certain experts declare personhood?  Can Flipper and Koko the gorilla come along for the ride?  It’s complicated enough just in the realm of Homo sapiens.  Justice Ginsberg, much to her discredit, isn’t on the same page as the rest of us when it comes to human rights.  It seems on her view that the year your constitution was written has considerable bearing on how good it is.  And then, there is the obfuscation that comes from sensational media train-wrecks, as we’ve seen with the privileged, 30-year-old Georgetown law student and rising victimhood star Sandra Fluke.  Fortunately, there are still those who can elucidate the absurdity of when rights go too far.

Whether we’re talking about the origin of the cosmos or the foundation of human rights, or just wondering if “quinoa is good,” our debates and discussions will be much smoother when we use our terms univocally.


The problem with the problem of evil

The Problem with the Problem of Evil

While the pepper spray controversy was causing much consternation, there was a brighter side to last weekend: the 10th annual Evangelical Philosophical Society Apologetics Conference in Berkeley.  Imagine that I went to that shining city on a hill to escape the hotbed of political activism that was Davis!

This was the first apologetics conference I ever attended.  My wife and I were very excited to see Dr. William Lane Craig speak on Hawking and Mlodinow’s book The Grand Design.  But Dr. Craig was only one of many noteworthy speakers, most of whom I might have heard of but was not too familiar with.  Dallas Willard set the right tone for the weekend, reminding us of the spiritual context in which we pursue knowledge.  J.P. Moreland gave us a good historical sketch of the recent intellectual life of the Church, consistent with what I have read in Love Your God with All Your Mind.  Craig Hazen was very personable as the conference emcee and plenary speaker.  And to cap it off, Greg Koukl managed to speak pointedly yet uphold the value of civility in expounding on “The Intolerance of Tolerance.”  All the speakers were winsome, thoughtful, and inspiring.

The conference theme, “To everyone an answer,” hints at the fact that outside (and within) the Christian faith are people in different states of mind, each needing to hear a different reason for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15).  Some people are genuinely seeking, and some people are just angry with God.  And it was one speaker’s amusing and thoughtful flourish to ponder indeed why some atheists are angry with God.  Unicorns may be imaginary, but no one is really upset with them in their nonexistence.  So why are atheists angry with God?  Repeatedly from each speaker’s experience, I could see that despite what you can show with clear thinking and clean routines of logic, the recalcitrance of skeptics sometimes just boils down to them being hurt, broken, and emotionally unwilling.

While there are earnest seekers and angry engagers, another group that apologists can seek to address are the apathetic, or maybe what we can call the unimaginative.  My wife managed to attend a session on literature as a mode of apologetic.  And while I opted instead to sit in on a tangy session on the doctrine of Hell, I was heartened to be reminded of the role that narratives play in engaging our imaginations to receive God’s kingdom.

All told, the conference was a very encouraging and positive experience.  I will be keeping an eye out for similar opportunities in the future.

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