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.

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