how narratives ground human value

Most of us agree that human life has intrinsic value. But how are we to explain this fact? What is it about human beings that grant them greater worth than slugs, or rocks? And if this fact can be given a true explanation, would that explanation be able to fit with just any worldview?

Some people believe that naturalism has a hard time accounting for the intrinsic worth of human beings – that it lacks some important metaphysical resource for getting the job done. Indeed given that the ‘decline of religion’ is often cited as the cause of a widespread existential uncertainty in regards to one’s own value and purpose, it might be safe to say that this view of a dischord between naturalism and human value is intuitively felt on some level by many. But what is the lack in naturalism supposed to be?

Consider the following from William Lane Craig;

“If theism is false, why think that human beings have objective moral value? After all, on the naturalistic view, there’s nothing special about human beings. They’re just accidental byproducts of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe, and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time (Reasonable Faith, third edition, page 173).”

I’ll lay my cards on the table and say that I also think that naturalism cannot adequately account for the value of human beings, and that Craig has given the correct explanation as to why. That said, I’ve very sympathetic to the naturalist who is unconvinced that her worldview harbours such an unattractive failing. After all, Craig’s explanation is hardly a sustained and carefully laid out argument. There’s no clearly structured argument demonstrating this poverty within naturalism. Craig’s comments will ring true with those who share his intuitions on the matter, but he hasn’t given much to persuade anyone else. If we can more carefully explore the issue it will be good to do so.

As it happens I think that given the standard philosophical methodology, anyone who wants to subject claims like Craig’s above to caferul critical scrunity will find that it’s very hard to pin-point where the alleged problem with naturalism is supposed to be. Or at least, it’s hard to pin-point why the problem is uniquely a problem for the naturalist. This is something I myself found; although I had a strong intuition that there was a problem, when I set about analysing what it was, I struggled to make sense of it. Now, however, I think I understand why it seems so hard to explain the problem with naturalism. It’s because we have been trained to approach the problem ontologically.

What advantage is Christianity supposed to have over naturalism? Our instinctive response is to compare the different accounts of what human beings are in terms of their composing substance on these two worldviews. Traditionally Christian theists have viewed human persons as embodied souls, whereas on naturalism humans are purely physical entities, or at least emergent on physical entities. Is this supposed to be where the significant difference lay? Certainly it would be easy to read that kind of thinking into the sorts of things Christians might say on the matter. After all it’s common to hear people say that the problem with naturalism is that humans “are just a bunch of chemicals.” But I think that would be the wrong way to read those sentiments.

It’s incredibly hard to make sense of human worth as a matter of what sort of stuff humans are made of. How exactly is it supposed to make a difference in terms of worth whether human persons are immaterial beings or material beings? Would a jellotine being be of more value than a being made of rock? There doesn’t seem to be any sensible way of judging things in this manner. Of course, some might argue that unless human beings are immaterial souls, then we could not possess rationality or freedom of the will. But that would be to argue that human worth is down to human capacities, and not really the substance of our existence after all.

To view the issue in terms of capacities is another tempting move, one that again thinks fundamentally in terms of the features of what humans are, or have, as features of their being. But this too is problematic. If we think that human worth boils down to our rationality, then how do we avoid saying that the worth of a person is determined by their IQ, or something equivalent? Humans are not equal in terms of their mental ability, but they are surely equal in terms of worth. Additionally, why would rationality of all things give humans worth? The brain is surely impressive, but why favour that organ over any other? On what grounds? Freedom of the will is just as inexplicable as a foundation of worth. How does the proposition “humans have freedom of the will” entail “humans have instrinsic moral worth”? That logical jump there is inexplicable. Moreover the intuitive sense of the problem with naturalism doesn’t seem to focus on these aspects. No doubt there are many folk who think that naturalism also struggles to explain human rationality and free will, but these are surely distinct topics from the question of value. Certainly I don’t think these factors feature in my intuition on the matter.

So then, what is the answer?

Narratives.

The advantage Christianity has over naturalism is that Christianity provides a narrative which gives human beings an important role. On Christian theism the world is created and given to humans to rule over, the creator takes a special interest in their affairs and even steps into their history to rescue them from their sin. On Christian theism creation is to a certain extent about human beings. The significance of being made in the image of God for human value is not in its signifying that humans have particular capacities, or are made from certain materials, but that humans have an important role in the great cosmic drama that God has penned. Caparably, on naturalism humans have no such special role. The universe isn’t about human beings in any sense. If anything, humans are a sort of after-thought of an unintentional process. Go back and read’s Craig’s quote again in these terms and see if it doesn’t make more sense.

This, then, is the first problem of human value for naturalists: naturalism cannot provide a plausible narrative which gives human beings any prominence. This I think correctly drives the intuition that naturalism is at odds with human value.

But there is also a second problem for the naturalist. Obviously, the fact that we can tell a narrative about human beings does not entail that such a narrative is true. And the second problem for the naturalist is that no naturalistic cosmic-narrative could ever be true, simply because on naturalism there is no cosmic story-teller. Sure, it’s possible that naturalism as a mere metaphysical doctrie could be true: it could be true that there are no supernatural beings or anything of the like. But it’s impossible for a naturalistic narrative of the universe to be true. Stories are about things, but a naturalistic universe cannot be about anything because there is no intentional narrator behind it.

Naturalism, then, doubly fails to account for human value. Human value requires a true cosmic narrative that is to a great degree about human beings, but naturalism cannot have any true cosmic narratives, and even the false ones we could make fail to give human beings any prominence.