Bishop Robert Barron put out an interesting video review of the still-new movie, The Martian, applying (per his vocation) a Roman Catholic spin. His key observation is that the movie takes for granted that Matt Damon’s fellow astronauts would “move Heaven and Earth,” expending hundreds of millions or billions of dollars and investing effort and risk in order to save him. This is something we wouldn’t do, Barron suggests, for some sort of mascot that was left behind. We recognize the intrinsic value of human beings.
In drawing his point, Bishop Barron turns to the ancient Greek philosophers and their emphasis on humanity’s capability for abstract thought, which allows us to leave the material world and enter the world of forms — in which we can see the abstract world as it is, whether the abstraction is theological or even mathematical (like geometry and algebra). I’d go a step farther and argue we bring these abstractions into a more-full existence in the material world, allowing them to have a more profound effect. That is, with human beings as the go-between, the rules of nature don’t just stand as the banks of a river, directing its course; they actually bring about directions that would be unlikely to the point of impossible by simple chance.
An atheist could counter the bishop’s suggestion that we value each other in recognition of this literally supernatural capability with a simple observation: If the reason we save each other is the question, then as a practical consideration, we do well to value each other because it gives us a sense of unity and protection as we venture out. To be sure, every member of an exploratory crew sent to Mars would be putting his or her life on the line, but the burden is lightened by the sense that we’ll be rescued despite the expense. In a practical, material sense, our investment for the rescue isn’t in the single life, but in our future adventurers.
“See,” an atheist might say, “this urge can be explained in terms of a deeply ingrained psychological evolution without reference to anything supernatural at all.” This misses, however, exactly the thing that’s been created.
Abstract thought can bring things that don’t physically exist into existence in the very real sense that they act in the world. Race, for one, may be a social construct, but if the concept affects how people behave, then it’s having as real an effect as the landscape. Watching a scary movie can make one behave as if there may actually be a monster around the corner. But the fact that we can imagine abstractions into existence doesn’t mean that no abstractions exist.
From time to time, one comes across an argument against the existence of God that notes people’s evolved need for purpose and meaning. That is, we created God to fill this need, which arose by chance and evolution through our biology. As much as this might present an alternative for those who choose “no” on the binary question of God’s existence, it doesn’t disprove it, inasmuch as one might expect a deity who designed humanity to include just such a need for purpose and meaning.
Just so, a practical need to value and support each other doesn’t disprove our inherent value. Rather, it creates it and/or affirms it.