Hold Fast to the Good: Fahrenheit 451, the Love of Books, and the Value of People

Photo by  Paul Bulai  on  Unsplash

Photo by Paul Bulai on Unsplash

The recent HBO adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 attempts to update the classic story of censorship and entertainment run amok in light of new technology and our ubiquitous social media culture. It’s a laudable effort, and Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon put a memorable twist on Guy Montag and Captain John Beatty. I’ve always been a bit skeptical, however, about the wisdom of adapting this particular book to film, given its overt critiques on the logic and deficiencies of a spectacle-driven society. There’s just something odd about using a screen—big or small—to bemoan the decline of the written word’s cultural primacy of place. Even still, Bradbury himself approved of François Truffaut’s 1966 version, and critics have made a compelling case that the film’s visuals pay homage to the book’s role in shaping an inviting and hospitable world, one much more attractive and life-giving than the mechanical world of the firemen charged with burning them.

My reservations about the film versions notwithstanding, I have to admit that one scene, powerful in the book and brilliantly captured by each adaptation, dramatically and memorably depicts the central conflict of the story. It is a scene that has stuck with me from my first encounter with Bradbury’s story and that readily comes to mind when I think of what it means to take one’s commitments seriously. When one has recognized the value of a thing or person, what obligations does that recognition entail? As Bradbury’s story suggests, the greater the value, the higher the price.

Montag’s crew raid a house on an anonymous tip. There they find it overflowing with books—illegal all. As they enter the house, they find one lone woman sitting at a desk; in the recent version she reads John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, unmoved by her unexpected visitors. The firemen search the house, and room after room is overrun with books. They are stacked floor to ceiling in piles that crowd tables, bookshelves, and chairs. This “regular Tower of Babel”—as Beatty calls it—is so jam-packed that the banned materials leave only a small path for the men to walk through.

These books—any books—are an offense to the futuristic America Bradbury has imagined. They require too much time, provoke too much thought, and unsettle easy answers. True-believer Beatty expounds on the dangers inherent in making these writings freely available: “Do you want to know what’s inside all these books? Insanity. . . . One expert screaming down another expert’s throat. . . . Each one says the opposite, and a man comes away lost, feeling more bestial and lonely than before.” This forbidden fruit—Beatty suggests—dazzles with promises to unlock the secrets of the universe but leaves readers more disoriented and confused than before. Happiness, on this worldview, comes from being spoon-fed the knowledge needed to get along: “If you don’t want a person unhappy, you don’t give them two sides of a question.” In fact, you don’t give them a question at all.  

The stronger Beatty makes his case against books, the more intrigued about them Montag becomes; he snags one and tucks it into his coat before the others are doused with kerosene. As the house is readied to burn, Montag tries to get the occupant to leave. But she remains steadfast, defiant in the face of the firemen’s destruction. Montag’s conscience has been pricked: “Are we just going to leave her?” he asks as Beatty says to let her be. Coldly, the captain gives her one last chance to avoid the fate destined for her books: “Look, miss, do what you like, but you know as well as I do that these books are gonna burn.”

And then comes one of the most memorable scenes of the story: the woman stands atop a pile of kerosene-soaked books, opens her jacket to reveal additional books strapped to her waist, pulls out a single match, which she strikes and drops to the floor. She has done the firemen’s job for them, willing to die for the books she cherishes. Bradbury elevates this sacrifice, making it akin to religious devotion, by having her allude to the apocryphal last words of Protestant martyr Hugh Latimer (Oxford, 1563): “Play the man,” she says, a line concluded by Latimer with the hope that his present suffering will one day be rewarded: “We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

What makes this scene so memorable is the deep conviction readers and viewers sense in the woman’s commitment to her books. She values them so highly that, for her, they are worth her very life. Coming after Beatty’s denigration of books as societal troublemakers, responsible for all manner of unrest, the woman’s sacrifice is all the more poignant; clearly she thinks otherwise and hopes her immolation will convince viewers of the raid’s livestream to challenge the status quo, to give books a chance. And of course if someone is willing to give her life for the cause, anything so intuitively significant and sacrificial certainly merits close attention. Even if her strategy doesn’t seal the deal for those watching the fire, it might at least give them pause to reconsider the party line. It does just that for Montag and sets him on a rebellious course.  

But as memorable as the scene is, the question of the source of the value of these books remains unanswered—at least in this latest adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. It’s clear that the filmmakers (and characters like this woman) highly prize the written word, but it’s not clear why—what confers on them their worth? Unmoored from any such anchor, the books take on an almost fetishistic role. In a sharp departure from Bradbury’s original story, director and writer Ramin Bahrani introduces an electronic component to the preservation of literature; while the original story relies on an exiled community to memorialize the words behind the written texts, the HBO film entrusts it to technology—a database called OMNIS encoded in a DNA strand and stored inside a bird. Presumably, no matter what human beings do to each other, this literature will live on; the final scene of the film suggests as much, with the bird soaring high above the embattled city. These precious books have left humanity behind and are no longer subjected to their depraved machinations.

In Bradbury’s version, the opposite is true: the written word itself falls away, and is now imprinted in the memories of the “book people” who have each undertaken to memorize whole books in a throwback to the world of oral culture. The books have been more deeply internalized than before, and community is essential to their survival. While Bradbury never explores any locus of value beyond this human community, he seems to recognize what the filmmakers do not: that these texts cannot stand on their own and absorb any significant amount of devotion without something inherently valuable to underwrite them. For Bradbury, books themselves are primarily a vehicle for human creativity and an extension of the mind of the creator him or herself.

To censor or otherwise destroy them means more than physical annihilation of the material text: it’s to dishonor and degrade the people behind the writings. It’s also to stamp out the good these reflections on the human condition and our world can offer readers now. The figure of Faber, who is notably absent in the newest version, beautifully articulates the connection: “It's not books you need, it's some of the things that once were in books. . . . The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us. . . . This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You'd find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion.” Admittedly, Bradbury’s framework needs expanding a bit, undergirding the temporal human community with an eternal source of ultimate value—something that classical theism readily provides I should note, but he at least gestures in that direction.

 

God and Cosmos, Chapter 4, Part II (Moral Value)

Baggett and Walls next consider a more Platonic effort to account for intrinsic human value. Such a view is advanced by those like David Enoch and Erik Wielenberg. They focus on Wielenberg's book, Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism. Wielenberg's view (known as robust normative realism) is that there are response-independent, non-natural, irreducibly normative truths, objective ones, that when successful in our normative inquiries we discover rather than create or construct. He thinks moral properties supervene on nonmoral properties. Because of issues over supervenience, he distinguishes three types of supervenience.

Let M stand for a moral property. The first variant of supervenience he calls R-supervenience (R for reductive). The way M supervenes on the base properties here is by being reduced to them. Here, M is identical or entirely constituted by the base properties. The second form is A-supervenience (A for Adams). The instantiation of M might be entailed by the instantiation of the base properties together with the instantiation of certain non-base but necessarily instantiated properties. This comes from Robert Adams’ view of finite goodness. His view is that the property of being finitely good is the property of faithfully resembling God's nature. The third variety is called D-supervenience (D for DePaul). M is not identical, or reducible to, or entirely constituted by the base properties, on this view. Rather, the instantiation of the base properties makes (or explains) the instantiation of M. He thinks the most plausible of these is D-supervenience.

He offers a few ways of construing such a making relation. The first is a grounding relation. Morality on this view concerns a sui generis domain (its own unique domain) that can be reduced to, or consist in, facts that might be formulated in other terms. Wielenberg worries that there isn't a well-understood and useful grounding relation that is distinct from other metaphysical relations like identity and constitution.

The second way, which Wielenberg favors, is construing making as causation. He acknowledges various worries. One concern is that causation requires the existence of laws of nature connecting causes and effects, but it seems implausible to suppose there are laws of nature that connect nonmoral and moral properties. Another concern is that causal connections are usually thought to be contingent, but Wielenberg posits a necessary casual connection. Lastly, it is sometimes thought that causes must precede their effects. Wielenberg thinks the answer to these objections is by understanding causation in a particularly robust fashion, the same causal relation many theists take to hold between a state of affairs being divinely willed and the obtaining of that state of affairs. So, when asked why does being an instance of torturing someone just for fun entail moral wrongness, he says it is because being an instance of torturing someone just for fun makes an act wrong. He thinks no further explanation is available (since all explanations must stop somewhere).

Frank Jackson objects that there is always a purely descriptive claim that is necessarily coextensive with an ethical predicate, so there are no sui generis ethical properties. Using his making relation, Wielenberg argues that moral properties have a feature natural properties lack, namely, the former are resultant. Tristram McPherson objects to Wielenberg's account by saying that commitment to brute necessary connections between discontinuous properties counts significantly against a view. Wielenberg admits there is some intuitive force to this objection, but argues that such a principle is self-undermining. Lastly, Wielenberg shows that both theists and his own view are committed to metaphysically necessary brute facts. They come from nowhere and nothing external to them grounds their existence. He thinks ethical facts are such facts.

What about the narrower issue of the intrinsic value of human beings? Wielenberg thinks that his account better explains such value than at least certain theistic explanations. He insists that makes something good must lie entirely within its own nature. It is good in and of itself. He strikes off Mark Murphy's, Adams', Linda Zagzebski's, and Mark Linville's accounts because he thinks that human value is extrinsic on such views. Baggett and Walls will address such concerns in a later chapter.

They now turn their attention to reservations they have about Wielenberg’s account. First, Wielenberg thinks human dignity and worth D-supervene on the property of being human (or some specific features of being human). Baggett and Walls think that such a making relation underdetermines why this causation relation holds. Second, it is question-begging to assume that this supervenience story is consistent with secularism because, if humans are created in the image of God, then being human would have for one of its essential features a relational property of which God is a part. Third, Wielenberg is committed to the causal closure of the physical. This limits him to material and efficient causes, leaving little to no room for formal or final causes. The first person needs to be left out in any final theory. There is no room for mental causation in the context of casual closure. This arguably eliminates the means of treating persons as ends-in-themselves because the attitude of respect for a person presupposes mental causation. Fourth, there is a huge qualitative gap between natural and non-natural, between fact and value, between value and disvalue. Fifth, Wielenberg seems to dismiss the historical relevance of theism to the conviction about intrinsic human value, yet it is not clear that his worldview has the metaphysical resources to ground such truths. Sixth, it is not obvious that his explanatory stopping point is a good one. It is not clear what explanatory work is done by saying that an act of deliberate cruelty simply makes something wrong. He seems to be simply stating a moral fact that is in need of explanation. His explanatory stopping point amounts more to an assertion than argument. So, with these worries, Baggett and Walls do not think that Wielenberg's account sufficiently accounts for intrinsic human dignity and value.

Summary of Chapter 4 of God and Cosmos: “Moral Value,” Part I

In chapter 4, Baggett and Walls focus specifically on intrinsic human value. Historically, religious perspectives played a role in forming convictions about human rights. On the Judeo-Christian view, human beings are not only creatures of God, but are made in the image of God. Nicholas Wolterstorff claims that there is no plausible alternative to this religious framework to ground natural human rights. For example, some ground human rights in capacities like the power of reason, but this ends up excluding infants and those with mental disabilities who are often thought of as also having the same rights. Baggett and Walls do not want to say that respect-for-persons is supportable only on religious grounds. They make a more modest claim that respect-for-persons is best explained by theism compared to competing theories.

First they consider egoism. Kai Nielsen's proposal is that a respect-for-persons may be derivable from egoism (the view that one ought to act in one's own self-interest). Based on this, he thinks that one ought to treat others well in order to be treated well himself. The first problem is that this fails to account for the moral standing of others; it is just a strategy to be treated well. As Baggett and Walls put it, "What does my acting in my interest have to do with you possessing intrinsic worth?" A second problem is that this fails to account for cases where not respecting others does not affect one's self-interests. For example, one may be powerful and need not fear repercussions for treating people poorly. This results in having no reason for respecting others since it does not affect one's self-interests. Hence egoism by itself cannot account for intrinsic human value.

Next, they consider utilitarianism/consequentialism. On this view, one ought to maximize utility. For example, some utilitarians say that one ought to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Jeremy Bentham, a proponent of utilitarianism, infamously said that the notion of intrinsic natural rights is nonsensical. Rights exist based on what is advantageous to society. Whether rights are protected or not is determined by social utility.

John Stuart Mill, another proponent of utilitarianism, likewise thinks that the sole reason for according rights to people is based on social utility. As Mark Linville notes, there is no necessary connection between an action's maximizing utility and its being fair or just. On utilitarianism, in a case where someone is raped, the wrongness of rape is not because their right is violated, but is because of the generally injurious consequences for the community. So utilitarianism fails to safeguard individual human dignity and worth.

Utilitarians offer many responses. One reply is that we tend to be unreliable calculators of consequences, so it is better to always safeguard individual rights than not to. Still, the problem persists that no individual's rights or dignity is beyond sacrificing if, by doing so, utility is maximized. A rule-utilitarian may say that one should follow the rules which maximizes utility. But still, this is far from saying that certain acts are categorically wrong. All that can be said regarding an act is that it is at most merely consequentially wrong. Angus Menuge has said that on utilitarianism, if a tyrant was more effective in brainwashing people or slaughtering those who disagreed, genocide would have been right. Hence utilitarianism has problems accounting for human value.

Next, Baggett and Walls consider Philippa Foot's virtue ethics that is based on a natural law theory. Foot's book called Natural Goodness is an account of virtues based on how human beings are normatively structured, how we typically behave when it comes to those teleological aspects of our human functioning. Her book has three distinct parts. First is her argument against non-cognitivism (the view that moral statements do not express propositions that can be true or false). Second is her defense of naturalistic moral objectivity. Last, she handles objections from utilitarians and from Nietzschian nihilists.

Baggett and Walls focus on the second section. Foot argues that we make judgments of goodness and defect of living things by reference to a teleological account of the life form based on its species. Her account covers evaluative judgments of the characteristics and operations of other living things. What an animal should do depends on the kind of animal it is. Likewise, what we (humans) should do depends on our being humans. This means that moral defect is really just a form of natural defect. Vice is a form of natural defect while virtue is a form of natural goodness, rooted in patterns of natural normativity. Based on the kind of species one is, some behaviors simply conduce better to one's flourishing than others.

Take for example the virtue of promise keeping. In giving a promise one makes use of a special kind of tool invented by humans for the better conduct of their lives, creating an obligation that contains in its nature a prescription that harmlessness in neglecting does not annul. Some accuse her account of being utilitarian. She however says that utilitarianism (and other forms of consequentialism) has its foundation in a proposition linking goodness of action to the goodness of state of affairs. Her theory of natural normativity has no such foundational proposition.

While Baggett and Walls agree with many aspects of Foot's work, such as moral cognitivism and moral realism, they have some significant reservations with her main account. The most significant is that her account does not answer whether human flourishing is of intrinsic value. While she affirms it, her account does not provide a foundation for it. First, Foot has to account for differences between pestilential creatures, animals, and human beings. If she wants to say that biologically adaptive patterns of behavior in cancer cells or tigers do not entail objective moral facts, then how does she go from natural normativity to objective morality in the case of human beings?

Second, there is a problem of smart free riders. Why should one keep their promise if no damage is done? Foot says that there is still a moral duty to keep it to cultivate the sort of character of being trustworthy. But her reply still cannot account for a really smart promise breaker who is able and willing to get over her aversion to breaking promises when doing so is unlikely to detract from optimal species-flourishing.

Third is the problem of a deflationary analysis. Foot's account is characterized as neo-Aristotelian, but Aristotle's worldview was far from naturalistic. While Aristotle placed great emphasize on being human, his view wasn't content with our being merely human.

Fourth is a transition problem. While she affirms good and noble human characteristics, she departs from a naturalistic, biologically grounded account of moral virtues. Furthermore, by limiting her resources to human flourishing, it seems unlikely she will have enough for the sort of thick account that virtue approaches to ethics tend to have as their distinctive strength.

Fifth, Baggett and Walls raise a normativity challenge. While they agree she is right, in one sense, to say that morality depends on our natures, this still leaves out an analysis of what that nature is exactly. Talk of telos (purpose) and human nature in a Godless world is difficult to sustain. Foot thinks that the designs of a Divine Mind are irrelevant to the natural-teleological descriptions of human beings. But if we have been created by God in His image, with his intentions in mind, then this is a relevant consideration.

Sixth is an epistemic challenge. Foot's work does not address the contemporary challenge (in regards to moral knowledge) posed by evolutionary moral psychology.

Attending to the Least of These in the Age of Trump

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally posted at Christ and Pop Culture

"Even if you have this baby, I’m not going to love you.”

Nearly twenty-four years later, despite my having faced and overcome many challenges since that time and finally feeling secure in God’s faithfulness and his plan for me, memory of these words can still easily unsettle me. The cold indifference with which they were spoken, how they foretold the lonely and grueling road ahead, the grievous recognition that I had cast my pearls before this swine who was content to leave them in the mud—all of these hard truths surface in this short statement.

I was twenty, living recklessly and trying desperately to make up for what my childhood had lacked—some affirmation that I was important, a little appreciation for my unique gifts and talents, even just a bit of recognition that I existed.

It’s natural to feel invisible in dysfunctional environments like the one in which I grew up.

So on the precipice of adulthood, quite unconsciously I’m sure, I was determined to get what I had been denied: self-actualization, consideration, admiration. But when you have no internal gauge for authenticity in these matters, anything bearing a superficial resemblance will do, even the paltriest of substitutes—like the attentions of my manager at the restaurant where I worked.

Although it’s difficult now for me to stand in the shoes of that fragile girl, I do remember how flattering it was to garner the interest of someone with a modicum of authority in a position of respectability. In retrospect his flirting sickens me, knowing the self-centered callousness behind it, but at the time it thrilled me to think that I might be special enough to merit his devotion, or at least what I mistook for devotion.

The ironic but simple truth is that those growing up without having their most basic emotional needs met will often debase themselves in their desperate attempts to meet them. So it was with me.

Another simple truth is that many will use their power to exploit these vulnerabilities. This dynamic has been on full display in recent weeks with the latest scandal in Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. The most visceral reactions have been directed toward the leaked audio, and I have to admit, listening to Trump’s boasts gives me vivid flashbacks to the early days of my unmarried pregnancy.

To hear a rich and famous man speak with such casual pride on the license his power gives him to have his way with women—married or not—sparks shame deep within me. Shame because I know he’s right.

My story attests to this reality. Trump’s voice on that tape brings me face to face with the fact that the crisis point of my life, even the conception of my precious son, could so heartlessly be reduced to an emotionally stunted adolescent talking point.

What has been equally troubling is the political aftermath of the Trump tape, the way it has rallied his defenders and accusers alike. His advocates try threading the needle to denounce Trump’s past while embracing his future (Supreme Court in the balance, after all); others emphasize that these were words not deeds (though that’s become a vexed question) and establish a hierarchy of depravity with Trump on the acceptable side of the line. Still more adduce the philandering of Bill Clinton and Hillary’s enabling diatribes against his accusers.

Trump’s critics ostensibly inhabit the moral high ground. They rightly call Trump out for degrading women; they recognize the hostility and abuse of power. While some detractors, such as Beth Moore, predicate their critique on Christian conviction for the dignity and worth of all people and a concern for the vulnerable, others have leveraged their criticism to score political points. Because the tape discloses repulsive statements and attitudes about women, some seize the opportunity to offer Clinton’s platform as a corrective: complete with expansion of abortion access and an unseemly and sanguine acceptance of the practice as normative.

Michelle Obama’s moving speech delivered last week powerfully embodies the attractiveness of embracing a platform like this, one that is supposed to empower women. As many have reported, in that poignant speech Obama articulates the fear countless women have that they matter only as sexual objects and declares—with justification—that Trump’s nomination by a major political party has breathed new life into those fears, even inflamed them.

I hear her words and watch her passion, and they resonate, but I can join in Obama’s refrain for only so long. Her righteous indignation rings hollow in light of the suffocating internal and external pressure I felt to abort my child—pregnant, scared, and little-more-than-child myself.

The hideous refrain, “Even if you have this baby, I’m not going to love you,” echoes loudly in my ears these days.

This cruel declaration invokes my longing to be known and loved, reminding me how that deepest of human needs was wielded as a weapon. It crystallizes for me the enormous power men have when abortion becomes quotidian, effectively disempowering the women it purports to protect.

“My body, my choice” ultimately entailed that the child I was carrying was fully my responsibility. In the moment of this distancing and dispassionate declaration, I knew that—with conscience intact—my son’s father intended to leave me to bear the consequences alone.

This is the hard truth of our age. A people who pride themselves on “equality for all” has accepted unchecked power as a matter of course—wrongful dominion of men over women, of women over babies. A code of law crafted to defend the defenseless, in reality sacrifices the weakest of us all. And we turn a blind eye to exploited women who refuse the moral calculation of abortion that offers escape through passing on one’s victimhood to another.

Even now, those speaking loudest about the Trump tapes seem to overlook the exploited. They excuse, forgive, and change the subject. Or they condemn, scheme, and flaunt their moral superiority. Few have acknowledged the individual lives at stake. Grievously silent have been Christian voices calling on men and women alike to reject societal and legal allowances to exert illegitimate control over another.

For someone like me, the casualty of another’s entitlement, this silence is deafening.

God is good, and in recounting my experience, I don’t mean to imply that this desolate chapter is the end of my story. I have been blessed beyond measure, and God has indeed shown in and through me his delight in making beauty from ashes. I am no longer that abandoned, desperately needy new mother unprepared for what lay ahead. I am amazed, humbled, and overwhelmed by how far God has brought me, how he redeemed this turning point by transforming me and making me wiser and stronger.

Over the past week, with the two partisan camps warring over Trump’s latest scandal, I can’t help but think of my former self, ill-equipped for the crisis she faced. She would be able to find no refuge in either faction. And I can’t help but look at my female students at the university where I teach and wonder if any of them wrestle with the same inner and outer demons I faced at their age.

It’s to and for them I speak now. I want desperately for them to know that—no matter who has failed them, no matter what they have done, no matter who speaks lies to and about them—they are loved abundantly. They are created for a purpose they will find only in their Maker; they are unique and wonderful and valuable beyond measure. Exploitation of them is an offense to the God who formed us all.

And to men who might be listening in, mistreatment of women degrades you as well. To quote James Baldwin, “It is a terrible, an inexorable law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own.” You are called to something higher, to reject the pervasive cultural message that permits casual objectification and consumption of another.

A corollary with that truth is this one: good and right will prevail; evil begets evil and, left unredeemed, will never participate in good. While we live in a world fraught with sin and temptation, counterfeit satisfactions and fear will lure us to abandon God’s wisdom for our own, to rationalize our rejection of his law, and to enact justice injudiciously. Through abortion and more, our culture offers encouragement and approval for such blameworthy self-reliance. Only a resolute trust in God’s abiding faithfulness delivers us from evil, both inward and outward. Such is the way of hope.

Hope rejects voices that justify, minimize, or turn away from abuses of power. Even still, hope recognizes that abuse of power is not a zero-sum game and that such abuse, if left unchecked by grace, can quickly turn victim into perpetrator, all in the name of empowerment. Faustian bargains net no profit, no matter whose dignity is used as collateral.

Hope speaks truth about injustice, holds the wicked to account, but resists the creed that all’s fair play for the wronged. Hope, instead, knows you can entrust yourself to the one who judges justly. Through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, hope proves that it need neither compromise nor collude with corruption to effect victory.

Do not be fooled by rhetoric that claims accumulation of power is our purpose, no matter the source of those claims. Embrace instead Christ’s heart for the “least of these,” even if you find yourself in that category.

Our fallen state may be homo incurvatus in se, humanity curved in on itself, but hope releases us from bondage to self-gratification and self-centeredness. Through hope, we can and should live differently. My life and the life of my son testify to this possibility and to this hope.

Image: "Good Samaritan"  by David Teniers the Younger. Wiki Commons. 

Morality and The Recalcitrant Imago Dei

By Michael Austin  The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism (SCM Press, 2009) is a concise, deep, challenging, and wide-ranging critique of philosophical naturalism. In it, philosopher J.P. Moreland argues that there are several aspects of reality which naturalism is unable to account for, while theism can: consciousness, free will, rationality, morality, value, and a substantial human soul. The arguments are controversial and many will disagree, but I would urge anyone who has the time and inclination to read and think about this book, if you are interested in comparing the explanatory power of naturalism compared to theism with respect to these issues. If Moreland is right, and I think he is, theism has more explanatory power regarding many central aspects of human persons. I don't agree with everything in the book, of course, but the case is very well made.

Rather than summarizing the entire book, I will focus on the last chapter which is entitled "Naturalism, Objective Morality, Intrinsic Value and Human Persons." Moreland begins the chapter by noting three features of the moral order:

  1. objective, intrinsic value and an objective moral law;

  2. the reality of human moral action; and

  3. intrinsic value and human rights.

His claim is that these features of moral reality fit very well within a theistic worldview. By contrast, some naturalist philosophers believe that naturalism yields defeaters for these aspects of moral reality. Moreland alludes to naturalists John Bishop and Michael Ruse as examples of such philosophers. (As a side note, other philosophical naturalists, such as Erik Wielenberg, disagree, and contend that the foregoing can fit within a naturalistic metaphysical framework. But Moreland's points count against a naturalist view which seeks to accommodate such non-natural properties within its ontology if he's right that these features have better metaphysical fit within a theistic framework.)

Moreland offers an argument that the following features are defeaters for a naturalistic worldview. To fully appreciate and evaluate his argument of course requires reading the chapter in the book, but I'll give a quick summary of his points.

  1. The existence of objective moral value: If the universe starts with the Big Bang, and over its history we find the arrangement of microphysical entities into increasingly complex physical compounds, how does value arise? How can a naturalist, as a naturalist, embrace non-natural, objective values?

  2. The nature of the moral law: The moral order presents itself imperatively, that is, as something which commands action. The sense of guilt one feels for falling short of the moral law is best explained if a good God is the source or ultimate exemplification of that law. As Moreland puts it, "One cannot sense shame and guilt towards a Platonic form" (p. 147).

  3. The instantiation of morally relevant value properties: Even if a naturalist allows for the existence of some Platonic realm of the Forms, the naturalist has no explanation for why these universals were and are instantiated in the physical universe.

  4. The intersection of intrinsic value and human persons: How is it that human beings are able to do as morality requires, and that such obedience to the moral law also happens to contribute to human flourishing? Theism has an obvious answer to such questions related to human nature and the intentions and design of God, but it is not clear, and is far from obvious, how naturalism would account for this.

  5. Knowledge of intrinsic value and the moral law: Given that such values are not empirically detectable and cannot stand in physical causal relations with the brain, how is it that we could know such things? Evolutionary explanations fall short because of what is selected for in evolutionary processes on naturalistic versions of evolutionary theory.

  6. An adequate answer to the question, "Why should I be moral?": Both naturalists and theists can respond, "Because it is the moral thing to do." But beyond this, when thinking about the question outside of the moral point of view, the issue becomes why is it rational to adopt the moral point of view rather than an egoistic one? According to Moreland, this is a problem for the naturalist. But the theist can offer a variety of reasons to adopt the moral point of view--the moral law is true; it is an expression of the non-arbitrary character of a good, loving, wise, and just God; and we were designed to function properly when living a moral life.

The rest of the chapter includes a discussion of the value of human beings and human rights, which I'll leave to the interested reader to explore. The book is worth the price, and I highly recommend it for those inclined to do the work of reading and considering the arguments it contains.

Photo: "creation." by C. Kung. CC License.