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Christianity with a twist

December 17, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

I kind of like browsing around Christianity Today. There are occasionally strange or interesting articles that stand out in the fundamentalist dreck that floats around the web. For example, this is a rather honest answer to a question about proving Mary gave birth as a virgin. There’s no hand waving to try and provide some kind of evidence, like some try to do with early Christianity history. It’s simply: no, you have to have faith. I hope that remarkably unsatisfying answer fuels the skepticism of the questioner.

In another article we have a Christian advocating tossing out the idea of a soul. He’s even using the dreaded “materialism” to describe it.

I propose that there is a kind a materialism available that accounts for our being animals without being merely animals. First some clarifying remarks. Though we are right to reject the reductionist’s claim that whatever is is physical (we’re theists, after all), it seems to me that the reductionist is at least partly right—we are human animals. However—and this may sound surprising—while we are human animals, we are not identical with human animals.

How does that work? He attempts to explain:

How can one be an animal without being identical with an animal? Think about it this way. I am willing to bet that most of you believe that a particular copper statue is constituted by a particular piece of copper. But I’m also willing to bet that you agree that the piece of copper could conceivably outlast the statue, that is, that the piece of copper could continue in existence even if the statue should not. Suppose, for example, that the piece of copper composing the statue is hammered flat. This would cause the statue to cease to exist but not the piece of copper. Moreover, the piece of copper could have existed for some time before the statue came into existence. The statue is a piece of copper even if it is not identical with the piece of copper. The statue can’t be identical with the piece of copper because the piece of copper can exist without the statue existing.

That…doesn’t seem to explain anything. Is anyone really confused that we could be animals but also have unique qualities that make us different from other animals? Every animal has unique qualities. He apparently wants to think of humans as more than animals. Which, we are, as every species has qualities that aren’t entailed by being classified as an animal. Then he wants us to be more than “human animals.” So, apparently we have some quality that isn’t entailed by being human. Seeing as the definition of human is basically “what we are,” this seems like an odd statement. If we have some material quality that makes us not human, we would simply be a different species, wouldn’t we? Then we’re back to the same problem. We’re identical to “slightly different than human animals.” It’s the equivalent of a dog believing “I’m a dog, but I’m not identical with a dog” on account of it being a German Shepard.

I wonder if the author is trying to argue with a straw man in his readers’ heads. He claims earlier that some secular philosophers revel in the idea that we’re “merely animals.” Perhaps that’s true, but no secular philosopher would claim that we’re not unique from other animals. Most wouldn’t disagree that our unique qualities are something truly astounding. That almost seems like all the author means, but thinks he needs to argue against the standard idea of materialism to support it. That’s clearly not the case. Humans retain a special place in nature in every secular philosophy. Even someone like Peter Singer believes that humans have qualities that give them rights that other animals do not have (voting, for example). Surely he knows this.

It has to be more than that, doesn’t it? Otherwise the not being identical with human animals claim doesn’t make sense. I realize he has a book out and this is just a brief explanation and summary of some of his ideas, but I don’t think his claims make sense. It’s an interesting article, though.

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