If Humans Were Really Just Robots

breakfast of championsSkeptical humanist writer Kurt Vonnegut wrote an experimental novel, Breakfast of Champions, in which he told one of his characters, Dwayne Hoover, that “everybody on Earth was a robot, with one exception—Dwayne Hoover.” When Dwayne finds out that he lives in a mechanistic universe, his morality goes haywire. He explains his wife’s suicide to himself (she drank Drano) by saying, “She was [just] that kind of machine!” He violently attacks two women because “he honestly believed that they were unfeeling machines.” Dwayne says, “I used to think the electric chair was a shame. I used to think war was a shame—and automobile accidents and cancer.” But not after finding out that other people were entirely physical: “Why should I care what happens to machines?”

This the Christian moral critique of naturalism, too. And in my experience, naturalists deny strenuously that their position leads to amorality or violence. And I’m glad, for their sake and mine, that they appear to be sincere in their belief. It’s hard to find someone who will own the label “social Darwinist.” The Christian apologetic is not that all atheists and scientific naturalists are as wicked as they could be. No human is; we all have the image of God, and God’s common grace restrains fallen people from sin (Gen. 20:6). I don’t know anyone, personally or professionally, who self-consciously and consistently operates according to a naturalistic framework.

But if even a atheistic/agnostic/freethinker/skeptic/curmudgeon writer like Vonnegut sees naturalism pointing in an amoral direction, Christians have a leading fifth columnist within liberal secularism to whom they may appeal. We may stand on the Western Areopagus and say, “As one of your own poets hath said…” (This is precisely why I love Stanley Fish so much—that and, like Vonnegut, the guy can write.)

I also insist that ideas have consequences. Living in a world with no meaning other than what I create can and must lead to malaise, despair, and nihilism. I think it’s impossible for humans to consistently live as if their lives—and other lives—have as much meaning as the life of a robot or a rock. And that is the angle to use for Christian apologetics: say to people who talk as if matter is all there is, “You don’t live as if you really believe that. Why?”

HT: Josh Privett

Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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