If you have been reading this blog much, you probably know that while I am not smart enough to be one, I play at being a philosopher. As a result, I read a lot of philosophy, and I discuss it from time to time on this blog. If you have bothered to plow through what I have written on the subject, you might also know that I think the Argument From Morality is one of the worst arguments for the existence of God. Nevertheless, as any scientist should be, I am willing to change my mind on the subject, if I am presented with evidence that challenges my position. Recently, I stumbled across some of that evidence, and while it is not enough to change my mind on the subject, it makes me less certain of my derision for the argument from morality.
The evidence comes from Dr. John H. Evans, Professor & Associate Dean of Social Sciences at the University of California, San Diego. He wrote an article for New Scientist in which he summarizes his original research, published in an Oxford University Press book entitled, What is a Human? What the Answers Mean for Human Rights. In this research, he surveyed 3,500 adults in the United States, asking their opinions on humans and human rights.
He started by asking them how much they agreed with three different definitions for human beings:
I. The Biological Definition: Humans are defined (and differentiated from the animals) by their DNA.
II. The Philosophical Definition: Humans are defined by specific traits, like self-awareness and rationality.
III. The Theological Definition: Humans are created beings that have been given the image of God.
Here is how he describes the questions that followed:
I also asked them how much they agreed with four statements about humans: that they are like machines; special compared with animals; unique; and all of equal value. These questions were designed to assess whether any of the three competing definitions are associated with ideas that could have a negative effect on how we treat one another.
I finished with a series of direct questions about human rights: whether we should risk soldiers to stop a genocide in a foreign country; be allowed to buy kidneys from poor people; have terminally ill people die by suicide to save money; take blood from prisoners without their consent; or torture terror suspects to potentially save lives.
His results were quite surprising to me, but not to those who promote the Argument From Morality.
He found that only 25% of the public agreed with what he called the “biological” definition of a human being. That’s good news, since I think it is the worst possible definition of a human being. Scientifically, it is quite clear that we are much, much more than our DNA. Nevertheless, I would think that anyone who is a materialist (a person who thinks that life on earth, and human beings in particular, are just the result of natural processes) would have to agree with that definition. Such a person might also agree with the philosophical definition, but in the end, he or she would have to agree that at best, the traits that define human beings in the philosophical definition are solely the product of the human being’s DNA and environment. Ultimately, then, they are back to the biological definition for human beings.
The bad news is that for those 25%, their views on human rights are more likely to be immoral. The more the respondents agreed with the biological definition of life, the more likely they were to think of people as machines, the less likely they were to see humans as unique, and the less likely they were to agree that all people are of equal worth! As the italics indicate, I find that last statement to be the most shocking. Even from a purely materialist point of view, one should be able to see that all people are of equal worth. After all, to the materialist, we are all products of the same evolutionary process and have essentially the same DNA. Thus, from a logical point of view, we should all be of equal worth, even to the materialist. Dr. Evans’s research seems to indicate that isn’t true.
When it comes to human rights, the results are even more shocking. The more the respondents agreed with the biological definition of life, the less likely they were to say that we should risk soldiers to stop genocide. They were also more likely to say that we should be able to buy kidneys from poor people, have terminally ill people commit suicide to save money, and take blood from prisoners against their will. As Dr. Evans concludes:
People who agree with the biological definition of a human are also more likely to hold views inconsistent with human rights.
Now, of course, Dr. Evans indicates that his study is not the last word on the topic, and that’s clearly true. Also, he makes the important point that his study was about what people think, not what they actually do. It’s possible that when it comes to the actions they take, people’s view on the definition of a human being doesn’t play nearly as important a role. Nevertheless, his results are striking.
While I am way, way, way behind on my reading, I do plan to read his book and see if I can gain any more insight. For example, I am curious if there is any trend in the beliefs of those who are more likely to agree with the philosophical definition of a human being, which is at least a step closer to the truth than the biological definition. Nevertheless, I do think that this study gives weight to the idea that without a God concept, most people are less likely to have a good moral sense.
122 thoughts on “Does science undermine human rights? No, But Materialism Might.”
This is very interesting! I don’t think the result for all people being equal is all that surprising, though, since from an evolutionary standpoint, some races of people are more “highly evolved” than others. That would likely cause subscribers to such a worldview to assign greater value to the “higher” forms. In any case, this is definitely worthy of some serious philosophical attention. And you are absolutely right about the groundlessness of morality apart from God.
By the way…I know you get a lot of testimonials, but I just have to say your textbooks are probably the next best thing that has ever happened to me. I still love reading them. Both your physics books have prepared me extremely well for college level physics (I’m two thirds of the way through my first semester of it with a 99%). I had basically decided I wanted to major in physics after I took Exploring Creation with Physical Science in middle school, and that enthusiasm has continued to this day. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Thanks for using your gift for His glory!
I am so glad that my books meant that much to you, E. Aaron! It means a lot, especially the enthusiasm part!
Schoolkids will probably never learn about the important medieval scientists from Philoponus to Oresme in any other book besides Science in the Ancient World.
Even by the “biological definition” that humans are identified by their DNA, unborn babies are still fully human and should have human rights.
That’s certainly true, David. In addition, babies behave human in the womb (see here and here). To support abortion, one must totally ignore science.
The smartest thing I’ve heard on the issue from my pro-abortion friends and colleagues in the physics department here is that they get that fetuses are people, and that killing them is murder, but that the extenuating circumstances make it okay anyway. That they bite the bullet is intellectually honest at least. (One even brought up the culturally-approved infanticide that occurred in Sparta.) I’m not sure what they’d say about abortion with no “extenuating circumstances”; I can only think that they’ve just abandoned the idea that we’re all equal.
As someone who likes the argument from morality, I’m not surprised by these results at all. Also, you said that, “Scientifically, it is quite clear that we are much, much more than our DNA.” To what are you referring – our environments? (I’m being very loose with the definition of environment here.)
I have never heard that from those who support abortion. As you say, at least they are being intellectually honest.
In reference to DNA, I was really just thinking of the scientific evidence that shows we are more than our DNA. For example, lots of studies on identical twins show that despite having identical DNA, their lifestyles, personalities, beliefs, and morality can be radically different. They even end up dying from different diseases. If were were just our DNA, identical twins would be, well, identical.
As far as the causes go, environment is certainly a factor, but I would go well beyond that. I think that our consciousness and rationality defy genetics. They are not the result of something biological. Instead, they are a part of the Imago Dei that we were given by God. Of course, I am not saying that science demonstrates that. However, it is very, very clear that science demonstrates we are much more than our DNA.
One of the major things I notice with the secular moral system is how subjective it is. It’s a situational system that bends and flexes. However, I think this bothers true philosophers. Like mathematicians and physicists, they look for absolutes (laws). This is very obvious in the ideas of Kant. But I think it’s fairly self evident, that without God, there can be no absolutes. Tribal law is the alternative – and tribal law evolves.
This leaves the secular system extremely vulnerable to slippery slope type arguments. Approved actions establish moral precedent. In the recent gay marriage dabacle, Ted Cruz was vilified for suggesting that it may open the door to “Man on Dog.” However, there are many recent news articles about polygamists seeking license under the marriage equality act. Their argument is sound – consenting adults should not be prohibited from doing as they please with respect to marriage.
Furthermore, (and please forgive me but it should be known), I recently read an article stating that its not illegal in Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Hungary for sexual intercourse between man and beast. People in these countries take advantage of this – Brothels, support groups, online forums, etc! Slippery slope indeed! As in the days of Noah…..
Interesting article: thank you.
>a materialist (a person who thinks that life on earth, and human >beings in particular, are just the result of natural processes
Materialism is the belief that only matter exists: that there is no ‘super-natural.’ Theistic Evolutionists are not materialists, while believing in some natural processes.
>Moral Argument for God
I might have misunderstood, but does the Moral Argument for God you are refuting go like this: “if we don’t believe in God we will be immoral, therefore God must exist” or (CS Lewis’s argument in Mere Christianity) “morality/right/wrong exists, therefore God must also exist” ?
Of course theistic evolutionists aren’t materialists, Voltaire. The “theistic” part should make that clear.
It’s the Lewis argument (or one of its many variations) that I don’t like. I have never heard anyone make the other moral argument. I can see why, as it is worse than any other one I have heard.
Many years ago, in my youth, I came across an introductory book on Philosophy. There was a very pertinent statement in the introduction – anyone who wants to be can be a philosopher. There were a few simple rules about thinking logically and understanding the underlying assumptions in your process of thinking about a subject.
Hence, if you practice it then you are.
I was going to make a comment on the subject matter but have decided that, at this point, I don’t really have anything to contribute to the discussion.
May the Lord bless you and yours this day and in the days that follow.
I am surprised that you seem to dislike the argument from morality so much. I would not say it is the strongest argument for God’s existence, no. But I would say that it forms part of the argument for presuppositional apologetics. The Christian worldview is one that is highly consistent in ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics.
A materialists worldview has no objective standard for morality. In fact, logically, morality can not exist. I’m NOT saying that materialists are not moral. Rather, to quote someone I know “right and wrong is strange furniture in a materialists universe.” That materialists are often moral, and try to make claims to some kind of absolute morality (like Sam Harris) is INCONSISTENT with their worldview.
So I am not surprised at all by this study. These people ARE being logical. Indeed, I would say that from a strictly materialistic viewpoint, there is no compelling reason NOT to sacrifice the unborn, the elderly, the sick, or those with obviously genetically imperfect.
I’m curious why you don’t see this? Or am I missing something?
I would have to strongly disagree with you, Karen. There are several philosophers who have shown quite clearly that a materialist view can offer an objective standard of morality. Thus, right and wrong are not at all strange furniture in a materialist universe – at least not in a logically-based materialist universe. Read a few atheist philosophers like Daniel Dennett or Anthony Simon Laden. They lay out a very objective morality grounded in thoroughly atheist ideas. Furthermore, they would argue that Christian morality is, in fact, quite subjective, because different Christians interpret Scripture quite differently, leading to different moralities. They suggest that, in fact, an atheist morality is the only truly objective morality. Indeed, as Daniel Dennett has stated:
I disagree with that, of course, but it is quite clear that an objective morality can be constructed in a purely materialistic worldview.
Hi Dr. Wile
I went back and read your post about why you feel the moral argument is so weak. 🙂
Here is where I think the problem lies: you seem to be thinking a bit more like a scientist than a philosopher. No offense, I’m hardly a pro at this either, I’m really, really amateur, so if you see some mistakes here, be honest.
But it seems to me you are putting two separate things together. I’m not sure I’m writing this accurately enough, but from what I know the moral argument for God goes like this:
1. If moral absolutes exist, God exist. (God is necessary for the existence of moral absolutes)
2. Moral absolutes exist.
3. God exists.
I’m really not sure I said that properly, but the idea is that God is contingent for moral absolutes, and I really sure that part is philosophically sound, at least.
But you seem to be thinking like a scientist, and like a lot of other Christians do, extrapolating BEYOND the claims of the argument. In philosophy, I have heard, one should make claims as modest as possible.
So your problems seems to go like this:
1. If atheism has no basis for morality, then atheist will not behave morally.
2. Atheists DO behave morally.
3. Therefore God is not necessary for moral absolutes…
You see? You’ve made a few jumps, I think, and the largest one is a hidden assumption you have made.
Assumption: People always act in a rational manner in accordance with their beliefs.
Assumption: People never hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time.
Thanks for your help, Karen, but you completely misunderstand my objection. As I discussed my previous reply to you, the problem is with your first premise (God is necessary for the existence of moral absolutes). That is simply not true. There are many ways to construct moral absolutes without reference to God at all. Indeed, many atheist philosophers over the years have done just that.
My argument is certainly nothing like you suggest, because I also disagree with the first premise of that argument (If atheism has no basis for morality, then atheist will not behave morally). There is no reason to believe that such a premise is true. People behave based on how they are brought up and what kinds of consequences they have faced for their actions. If they live in a society that values morals, they are likely to behave morally, regardless of their actual views.
Now…what I do say is that IF the moral argument is true, then those who believe in God should be, on average, more moral than those who don’t. After all, those who believe in God are more likely to follow the dictates of this “only” source of morality, while those who do not believe in God should be less likely to follow those same dictates. Thus, on average, those who believe in God should be more moral than those who do not. As far as I can see, that isn’t true at all.
Thank you so much for your reply, Dr. Wile!
I just want to say that we use your science for my son in Grade 4, and we love it.
That aside, I’m going to disagree with you right back! First of all, no, I don’t think if we take Christians and atheists and try and see who is more moral, that atheists will come as close to winning as you believe. But again, I think you greatly underestimate the ability of people to live happily while holding inconsistent beliefs. I just don’t have time or space to do these things justice though. I just want to put you on notice, that I quite heartily disagree with your assessment that Atheists general are just as moral as Christians, and I disagree with you that people act consistently with their philosophy or even that their philosophy of metaphysics and epistemology will be consistent with their morality.
But what I really want to disagree with is when you say that atheism has a coherent way to ABSOLUTE values. I have not read Dennet, and I confess I’d be hard pressed to find the time at this moment. I am, however, a bit familiar with the notion that you can find some sort of consistent (good) morality in seeking “the good” of the majority. The “greatest good” argument, if you will.
You do my atheist debates a disservice if you think that they were not attempt to rationalize this. Instead, it just shows one of the many weaknesses of this value system. You say that somehow my son’s live WAS the greatest good, instead of the monkey? Why? Where does that value come from? Why do you say my son, who is going to die anyway, who takes up TONS of $$ of resources is better for society? How do you even know what “good” is? Financial good? Feelings good?
You are surprised by the survey, where people were making decision FOR euthanasia of terminal people, but this is EXACTLY ‘greatest good’ thinking in action. Or how can you even judge them for this, since “greatest good” hinges only on societies opinion of what that means.
Second of all, yes, Christians sometimes disagree about how to interpret the Bible in areas of morality. But that is because THEY are imperfect. There is still a standard of good found in God. The argument is not whether Christianity gives Christians a clear moral guideline they will follow. It is whether values have some unshakeable place found in the existence of God. If that makes sense.
Thanks for your time and for listening. I appreciate the practice you have given me in a “friendly” and courteous setting. I have a great respect for you, even as I disagree.
If I get a chance, I’ll try and check in on Dennett’s argument, to see if it is truly unique, or something I’ve sort of already come across. Let me make clear, though, it’s not that atheists can’t come up with some sort of rationale for morality, the question is: Is it consistent with their metaphysics, and also, is it ABSOLUTE, as opposed to relativistic…
Whew. God bless!
I am glad that my courses have been so good for your family, Karen, but I have to wholeheartedly disagree with you. I certainly haven’t done a study on the matter, but in my experience, atheists are just as moral as Christians (on average). Certainly there are Christians who are more moral than some atheists, but there are also atheists who are more moral than Christians. In my experience, I see no difference on average. You might have different experiences, but I am just noting what I have observed.
I have to say that it seems presumptuous to say that absolute morals can’t exist in an atheistic framework when you haven’t read the atheists who show that it can. If you read them, you would know what it means to have the “greatest good” for the society, and it has nothing to do with the opinions of the society. In an atheist universe, it has to do with the cold, hard need for survival. The fact is that a person, no matter his or her abilities, how much he or she is loved, or how much money he or she costs society is rational, which is automatically more valuable to society’s survival than any animal, which is not rational. Rational entities can contribute to society in unforeseeable ways, and those contributions can help the society survive. Since animals aren’t rational, one animal can replace another. Thus, an individual animal does not have as much value for the society as an individual person. Once again, this is independent of society’s opinions.
Once again, euthanasia is not the “greatest good” thinking in action, and you would know that if you read atheists before trying to claim what is possible or impossible in an atheist universe. Since people are rational, killing them is bad for society, because even a terminally ill person can contribute positively to society in an unforeseeable way.
Yes, atheists can (and many have, not just Dennett) come up with a rational for absolute morality. If you read them, you will find that out.
There are lots of nice, kind atheists. I have been on a blog where some very nice atheists were discussing moral issues with a Christian. It was both informative, and chilling. It was both scary and sad to see the atheists trying so hard to rationalize how they could do the right thing.
It sprang from an article titled something like this :A dog is a boy is a pig is a monkey. The idea of the lady writing it was that it was absolutely no different to kill any animal than a person. Oh, she wasn’t arguing we could kill people. rather that we shouldn’t kill animals, because they have the same value as people.
This led to a discussion with a scenario. I’ll try and shorten it for space. Let’s say there is a lab with a super smart monkey capable of communication via a computer/symbol system. A child is visiting said monkey when a fire breaks out. You can only take one thing out with you. Which should you take, the child or the monkey? Which is more valuable.
I wish you could have been in the discussion, Dr. Wile. They tried so hard to save that child. They wanted too. They said things like “Well, the child has parents that really love it, and that makes the child worth more, so take the child.” To which we change the situation. An orphan is visiting the monkey, and the monkey’s keeper LOVES that monkey deeply. Now why do you save the child?
Do you see where I am going. These lovely people, really, they were, they WANTED a rationale to take the child. They felt there should be one. But they were failing to find one.
I am the mother of a child born with a genetic disorder which killed him when he was 2 & 1/2. If my son and I were in that lab with that monkey, and I were killed before I could be rescued, do you think my son would make it out alive instead of that monkey?
Because the hard logic of it is, in a purely materialistic world, where the greater good is king (and even that has no true philosophic basis when you examine it) a monkey that is of scientific value and interest is worth more than a severely disable child who is terminally ill.
And that is why I think that the moral argument for God, woven into the ethics part of an examination of presuppositional apologetics where you look at how a world views ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology hold together, it both God honoring and powerful. But it does take time to really explain it. Also, I still like the argument from design as well. 🙂
I will simply have to disagree with you, Karen. The atheists in that discussion are obviously not very well read, as atheists philosophers can give you strong, objective arguments (based only on materialist ideas) as to why the child is of more value than the monkey, regardless of the mental capacities of the child and who loves him or her. This is, of course, specifically because the greater good for the society is the driving factor in an atheist morality. A disabled child has more to offer society than a monkey in a lab. Also, the greater good for society has a strong philosophical basis in an atheistic universe. Once again, there are lots of atheist philosophers who have demonstrated this in many different ways.
This is why I think the argument from morality is so weak. It always goes to the idea that there is no such thing as objective morality in an atheistic universe, and that is demonstrably false.
> objective morality in an atheistic universe, and that is demonstrably false.
Then this would not be an atheistic universe. They would be theists but not admit it, because Augustine and many of the church fathers equated God with Morality: ie they are one and the same thing. God = Goodness/Truth.
I agree that Augustine and many of the church fathers equated God with Morality, Voltaire, but that doesn’t apply in an atheistic universe. Since many atheist philosophers have demonstrated how objective morality can exist without reference to God, then there is objective morality in an atheistic universe.
Sorry, Dr. Wile, still disagree as my comment above. There is morality. But “greatest good” is not an objective standard. Who is objectively measuring this?
Also, sorry for all the typos in previous statement. I’m a mom with 2 kids and I should be in bed right now. When I read my comment back, I was embarrassed. Ooooops!
Once again, read the atheists who spell out quite clearly what the “greatest good” means, and it is definitely the result of an objective standard. I don’t agree with that objective standard, but it is 100% objective.
Dealing with the genetic disorder and the loss of your child had to be extremely difficult. I just wanted to say how sorry I am that you had to experience that difficulty and loss.
Thank you, Bill.
It was very difficult, and extremely sad. I was very grateful, though, to have my son. He was a beautiful blessing to me. God brought us through it, when everything else falls through, He is waiting at the bottom to sustain you. This I can tell you. And I still miss my son very much, though he has been gone on to heaven for over 5 years now.
God bless you, Bill!
I’m glad you were able to appreciate the blessing of having your son even during your times of difficulty. I am also glad you continue to trust the Lord through your journey. May God Bless you as you continue to walk with Him.
Karen I would agree with you on this. I don’t necessarily think moral absolutes prove a god but I don’t think they can be established without a god. Many of my good friends are atheists… they are good people whom I would trust them with my life. However their morals are relativistic. They mirror society very accurately. 100% of them are in favor of gay marriage. Although I know them well enough to say they would not have been trailing blazers and would hold the opposite opinion had they been born in different times. I think Kant got the closest with “Duty” but even that is subjective based on who you ask. I see Dr. Wiles point about Christians appearing subjective due to various interpretation. But I think it is an error to suggest that. The scripture is absolute. We just need to work on understanding God’s law. That in itself is part of the toil promised in Genesis.
I will have to disagree with you as well, John. Many atheists have clearly demonstrated that objective moral values can exist in an atheist universe. They aren’t the same moral values as the ones you and I hold, but they are objective.
All arguments for or against the existence of God, gods or other supernatural influences (including the Moral Argument) have, at their core, a fatal flaw. This flaw is that all such worldviews are personal. While this is a flaw, in terms of arguing a proof, it is the reality of the entire discussion.
There are three and only three possible worldviews as far as the natural and supernatural are concerned. All belief systems fit into one or the other of these three.
1). The universe exists and is entirely materialistic. No supernatural occurs or will ever occur. Anything that appears to be such can be explained in terms of naturally occurring phenomena.
2). The universe exists and the supernatural is a fundamental part of the universe. That is any god or gods or other spiritual qualities are a part and parcel of the universe. In effect, the universe is god or gods.
3). That the universe exists and is wholly separate from God or gods.
Objective morality can arise in all three worldviews. As can any form of moral system, including the various destructive kinds that have been exhibited by different groups over the millennia.
In the Christian narrative, we believe in One God (Father, Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit) who has created the universe and has placed us within it for the purposes or having a relationship with each and everyone of us. I recognise that there are a spectrum of beliefs about the relationship process (the calvinist and armenian dispute, as well as other doctrinal variations). That God is perfectly good and that all evil arose out of the choice of one created individual. We have been given a moral outlook (knowing right from wrong) and have the free choice to choose to accept God’s way or the enemy’s way.
Can we prove any of this. No. Why? Well, our God wants us to build His Faith into us. It is a matter of believing without the seeing first. It is a personal ongoing Him and us relationship, as His sons and daughters in Jesus and through the Holy Spirit. It is a personal experience that we share with others (in whatever way we are given to share). We don’t has absolute proof, because then we would not need faith (in any form). However, we do have much evidence, it is a matter of believing the evidence.
Now, every person has the choice in what worldview he/she ends up choosing. We are all taught some form of worldview. There are those that desire to justify their worldview and so these discussions come about.
Personally, I take the Moral Argument for God as an additional factor in my view of God. But it is not a proof by any means. My personal proof is the personal relationship that He has wrought in my life. My God has intervene in many spectacular ways for me personally. But none of these interventions would be relevant to many people. They would no more take these things as proof of God’s existence than anything else they have not experienced or seen.
I love the personal stories that have been shared with me of God’s intervention and ongoing relationship with people.
What objective moral arguments do is allow the dialogue to start between people in sharing their personal experience and relationship with our Holy and Glorious God. The One who loves and did everything possible to ensure that we all have the option to choose Him above all else (if we take it up).
Always keep in mind that our relationship with the Great Creator God who has saved us is very much a personal relationship. God the Father is Abba, which in our modern vernacular means simply Daddy (as in a small child and his/her beloved father). God’s impact on my life has only been because it is personal. I am a frail man but He is my Mighty God able in every way to overcome every frailty and failure I have.
He is my daddy, my papa, my dada in every possible way from correction to cuddles (in the figurative sense).
May the Lord’s peace and mercy cover you all this wonderful day.
Thanks for your thoughts, Bruce. They have definitely added to this discussion!
Good Morning, Dr. Wile, yes, here I am writing you AGIAN. Truth is, I couldn’t fall asleep last night thinking about this, and then at 6 am I turned over and thought once again about this, totally awake…
So, let me explain why this is important to me, and then do a (hopefully) clearer attempt to explain the inconsistencies.
Firstly, why am I making such a big deal of this? It’s just one argument for God’s existence, right? There are others, right?
But you see, though I know that you personally do not mean this, saying that there can be a basis for moral absolutes (or goodness) without God is an affront to God, in the same way that saying that there can be a beautiful diverse creation without God is an affront to Him. When we say that there is nothing but matter and somehow out of it arose everything we see, we are denying God’s omnipotence and omniscience, we are belittling it. And when we say that we can be good, moral people, we don’t need any God for that, we are belittling His goodness and holiness. You may disagree, but I am sure of this. Do you not see the insult to His nature? “We don’t need GOD to tell us right from wrong. Just look around at nature, you’ll see it there, or just look at autonomous human reasoning, that is enough.” I just can’t let it go… sorry. (though if this attempt fails, I may give up on convincing you personally, that’s ok. I just want to do my best job in case someone comes along and read this. I want to make sure I’ve laid it out clearly for them.)
So, to sum up: If, as you say, atheists are just as moral as Christians, and if as you say, we don’t need God to have some sort of standard of right and wrong…
…. then you undermine one of the reasons Jesus came (because apparently in a general sense His new nature in us makes no difference, we are just like atheists)
And you insult the very nature of God by putting autonomous human reason as able to give ABSOLUTE moral obligations.
Thanks for being kind enough to post my disagreements.
Part 2 coming up.
I am sorry you lost sleep over this Karen, but I think it is the result of you not really understanding atheist philosophy and not understanding what I am saying. I am certainly not saying that we can be good without God, because the objective moral systems that are developed by atheists aren’t good. They each fall short of the proper moral system, which comes from God. In addition, atheists have no power to actually hold to their moral systems, because they don’t have the Holy Spirit. However, atheist morality can be objective and absolute.
Thus, to claim that objective, absolute moral truths aren’t possible in an atheist universe is demonstrably false. However, you can say that the objective, absolute moral systems developed by atheists are not the proper moral systems. You can also say that all people will fall short of their moral standard, but as Christians, we can use the power of the Holy Spirit to keep that from happening as often. That is the proper Christian response.
Good morning Karen,
Firstly, all sin is an “affront” to God. But, in saying that, He is so far above that “affront” that He has made the perfect way for each one of us to come to Him. That way is Jesus Christ. In terms of the discussion on an objective atheist morality, jay hit it on the head with his comment that though it can be objective, it is both not the best nor is it possible to live by it (or with any objective or absolute morality) without the Holy Spirit.
Just keep in mind that even the best of Christians are in and of themselves filthy rags compared to the purity of Jesus Christ. Without Him, we are no better than anyone else on this planet (no better than the most depraved person). When we live in Jesus and He in us, the Father sees Jesus and not us.
My wife holds me up to those around her as an exemplary man and husband, someone to emulate by our young men and women. However, I am no more a perfect man than the next fellow on the train. It is only Jesus who makes the difference.
I ask you to recognise that discussions like what is going on are opportunities to share Jesus with others, particularly in how He has made a difference in your life. Without him, we have no hope (real hope for the future) but with Him, we have a hope that supersedes all that happens to us on a day by day basis.
Bluntly put, I like arguing with people to prove them wrong. But my very merciful Father has shown me that that is not only contrary to His ways but leads me away from Him and where He is at and where is wants to take me.
I have a friend who is been long in the ministry that God has called him and is a very strong biblical scholar. He is from Iraq and has been involved in translating the bible for the Kurdish people. He is multilingual and has a perspective on the language and times of the bible that few have. In all that, he and I disagree about various areas in the bible. This does not mean that we are at odds, we are family and brothers in Christ. We just have some differences in how we interpret the bible. In a number of these, his view is based on certain cultural aspects of his. But our disagreements do not in any way negate the simple fact that he and I are both sons of the living God. We both recognise that we do not have all the facts and that God has not directly revealed to either of us the full story.
God is big enough to handle any affront and He is certainly big enough to deal with anything that anyone can come up with.
Please don’t allow the differences that have been expressed here to be a means that the enemy uses to drive a wedge between brothers and sisters in Christ. We can use what has been raised as a means of sharing our story, our relationship with Jesus with those we come across as He leads us.
May the Lord our God bring blessing to His family and to those we come in contact with this day.
So, I’m going to try and be clearer and more logically coherent than I was earlier, and my apologies for that. I like to think, but I never said I was good at thinking or good at presenting my thoughts. If this attempt is lacking, it is not due to the insufficiency of the moral argument, but me. 🙂
The Christian Worldview
1. There is a God.
2. Because He exists and created everything we have a MORAL obligation to live as He set out.
3. His nature is absolutely good and holy, which means His standard for us is both good and just.
4. If there is horizontal tension between Christians, (disagreement) it does not ultimately matter. The standard is with GOD, not us. We call each other back to HIS STANDARD, and ultimately, if we disagree one of us is wrong and accountable TO GOD.
The Atheist worldview.
1. There are only impersonal, random processes from which everything came.
2. We still feel a moral obligation, we still want one, somehow it’s ‘good’ to have one.
3. This must be because a moral sense is good for us to in a survival sense. (in a materialist view, there can only be materialistic explanations.
4. Our survival is good, therefore moral obligations are desirable.
Inconsistency. Here we go.
1. It doesn’t answer the question of WHY. This is a blind, pitiless universe of chance. There is no purpose here. Plenty of atheists will tell you this.
So why is it good to survive in the first place? If the entire human race dies off, other animals evolve and take our niche. So? Why is a beetle better than I? It’s just a material machine. It’s kind of ridiculous to value the purely physical machine I am over a beautiful bird, or am insect, whose much less fragile when it comes to fitness or survival. I am a cosmic accident. How can you even say that my existence is ‘good?’ Good to whom? Just me.
2. It leaves the definition of “goodness” as of material good. You are a materialist. Ergo everything must be explained in physical terms. So if something is ultimately good in the material sense, that is ultimate. How can it be any different. The questions in the survey were very telling and the findings should be expected. Note, the question was not “Is it wrong to just smash in the skull of my neighbour for no reason?” for which I can guarantee Christian and atheist alike will generally agree (though, if you are truly materialist, again, you still do not have a why for that, see #1) The questions are all one for which the “greater good” can be the reason for an immoral answer. Which begs the question “Immoral to WHO?” (see point 3, coming up shortly) It makes absolutely perfect sense to say if it is better financially to kill the terminally ill, then survival of the fittest, nature does not waste, etc.. you see..? Here, how about a concrete example.
Have you read the book “Freakonomics?” The authors apply economic study to some interesting questions. One of them is why did the predicted huge crime increase for the 80’s not happen? Answer: because of Roe vs Wade. All the potential criminals who would have been born to poor, unwed mothers were aborted in the womb. And you can not tell me that on atheism you can argue that this was a bad thing. Those babies were just bags of meat. And that they did not get a chance to exist was for the greater good, it’s obvious, isn’t it?
You know I disagree with this and it even pains me to argue from that side. But I can not see any possible, logical argument against this, on atheism. And I can give you more examples from the one above or the ones listed in the questions of the survey.
Not surprisingly, Karen, your description of the atheist worldview is not correct. Here is the proper way to characterize the atheist worldview in this context:
1. There are only impersonal, random processes from which everything came.
2. Those processes produced humans, the only rational beings on the planet.
3. Since humans are the only rational beings, they must survive.
4. Humans survive well when society functions well, so humans must work for the good of society.
This, of course, answers all of your questions. When you ask, “So why is it good to survive in the first place? If the entire human race dies off, other animals evolve and take our niche. So? Why is a beetle better than I?” Because humans are rational, and there is no other organism that is rational. You ask, “How can you even say that my existence is ‘good?’ Good to whom? Just me.” No. It is good for society, because you can contribute to society to make humans more survivable. You ask “Immoral to WHO?” Immoral to the survivability of society.
As a side note, you are not using the phrase “Which begs the question” properly. Begging the question involves assuming your conclusion. Thus, the phrase you should be using is “Which brings up the question.”
Your example is a perfect illustration of how you don’t seem to understand this argument. Of course Roe vs Wade was a good thing in the atheist view. It was a perfect example of how their absolute, objective moral system is wrong, but it is still absolute and objective. As a Christian, you know abortion is murder. However, to an atheist, abortion is not murder, because to an atheist, a fetus isn’t rational. Thus, its value to society is zero. As a result, the objective, absolute moral system of an atheist would say that it is okay to kill a fetus, because it is like killing an animal. That’s wrong, of course, but it is still the result of an objective, absolute moral standard.
in your point 2 about a MORAL obligation, one salient point has not been stated. We cannot do this without Him. The problem with your point as it stands is that there is no requirement for Him to do this in us.
Keep in mind that it is impossible to please God or live up to His standards without Jesus, without the Holy Spirit. The OT is a testimony to the fact that even with the MORAL law explicitly stated in detail, none were able to live by it. It requires much more that just having it explicitly stated.
I have various materials in my library that were written by non-Christians (including atheists) that recognise the validity of the OT MORAL law and physical law. They have used this to good effect in their own lives. But all have missed the simple fact of why Jesus.
I have (unfortunately) former friends who are caught up in living by the MORAL law of the OT and have completely missed Jesus. Because I left that behind and followed HIM, they have distanced themselves from me and mine. I do not regret following Him, I am however saddened that for all the uprightness of my former friends that do not have Him.
The fact that there is an absolute Moral standard of a Holy God in no way negates that simple fact that all of us fall short of it (every day). Don’t let anything get in the way of your relationship with Jesus (including getting upset over the behaviour and beliefs of others). He wants each of us to be His ambassador to those around us, making disciples, showing others that Jesus is real and lives in us and that Jesus is worth everything, including our very lives.
Many years ago, I was given an opportunity to make a disciple. I had a work colleague that was a buddhist and he wanted to discuss the various things within the bible. I made a serious mistake in my approach. Insterad oh showing him Jesus Christ, we started at Genisis 1:1 and at the end of 2 hours (our lunch break) we were still there.
I have just been reminded by the Lord of that event and how I failed to show Jesus to my colleague. I got caught up in the logical debate without ever getting into the real relationship that was being built between Jesus and me.
It is good to discuss such topics but don’t get caught on the merry-go-round and forget the real reason is that we share Jesus.
Blessings on your family. I remember what it was like when my children were small and what it is like with my grandchildren who only left living with in the last week. May the Lord greatly bless you and give you all the grace needed.
3. Hinted at in #2, let me be more clear. It leaves only horizontal tension with regards to morals. So, Hitchens was pro-life. Many other atheists are pro-choice. Who is right? To whose moral authority do we take these questions? I am an eco-warrior. I say that the entire earth will be better off if 1/3 of the human population dies off to stop polluting and destroying nature. We are driving animals extinct, and throwing garbage everywhere. Clearly, it is time for us to experience a die-off, like rabbits. And it is so easy to do so. Just don’t make any more vaccines, so nature can do it’s job and balance the population.
Along comes another atheist who disagrees. No, human suffering is too terrible in that scenario. We need compassion for the good of our species.
The eco-warrior replies “What are you talking about? Who says the good of OUR species has ultimate value? That is totally arbitrary. You only feel that way cause you love humans more. I don’t. I love nature. That seems more consistent to me in a blind, pitiless universe. After all, nature created me.
Now, that is a lot of horizontal tension. And that is all you have. No matter how much you wish that “greater good” will fill that vacuum of moral authority, it can not. No one will agree with what that means, and there is no one to appeal to (rightly or wrongly) as the ultimate authority.
#4. In fact, if nature and science are truly your guide, it makes much more sense in many instances, to act immorally (in the Christian sense, because on atheism, who says it is immoral?). Islam, the fastest growing religion, is doing so by demographic means primarily. Yet the majority of Muslim countries say child marriage, polygamy, and locking women up are all ok. That seems to work awfully well from an evolutionary standpoint. So why is it wrong? The ultimate purpose, on a purely materialistic view, is the propagation of our DNA (says Richard Dawkins amongst many). I’d say that polygamy, and child marriage, work quite well in this. And if you look at nature, why not? Animals engage in this behavior, many species mate with multiple partners, or the ‘top’ ape has his harem.
Same with abortion. Plenty of animals will either dessert their young, or sometimes even eat them, when they feel threatened. Of course. Nature doesn’t waste anything. So, on a naturalist morality where “good” means merely the best survival possible, if people can not feed their children, why not kill them?
Finally Dr. Wile, if you think that atheist and Christian behavior is the same on average, and you don’t agree that the 20th century has been the bloodiest in general due to atheism, ok.
But let me tell you, in Winnipeg, where I lived for 20 years, you can go down to the inner city. Now I know that there are still more Christians by number than atheists, though the atheists are really catching up. But even so…
If you go to the inner city you will find: Siloam mission, The Salvation Army, and Union Gospel Mission, and Youth for Christ. That is just the big ones. Do you know how many atheists organizations (though I am sure that atheists also do work at soup kitchens) there are in the inner city? None.
I’m not saying that it is not possible that there are some somewhere. Just as I’d never say that an atheist COULDN’T be as nice, kind or good as your average Christian.
But I can give you William Wilberforce, and Amy Carmichael, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Corrie ten Boom, and many, many others. How long is the list of atheists? (on the negative side, a few come to mind, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot)
Sorry, I don’t really like listing off like that on both sides, because I feel bad for the truly nice, kind atheists, but on the other hand, you make it sound, to me, unfair to the average Christian. As if Christianity in general has not done waaaaaaaay more good in the world then atheism. I don’t think that is fair to good Christian people, laying down their lives to serve Jesus..
Thank you so much for hearing me out. Again, I truly respect you, and that is partly why I couldn’t sleep. I know you have so much influence on people, and many will really take what you say to heart (with some good reasons!) and I just couldn’t leave that unanswered.
All the glory to God, who gives us a REASON to live, a purpose, a meaning, and a value and anchors for us moral absolutes. He is awesome, I love Him and worship Him so grateful for what His existence means.
Once again, Karen, you aren’t correct on this at all. Consider your point #3. When two atheists disagree on some point of morality, they can each state that the science agrees with them. Thus, the atheists are referring to an objective moral standard. This is quite similar to what happens when two Christians disagree on some point of morality. They each claim God agrees with them. Both the atheists and the Christians are referring to two different objective, absolute moral standards. Obviously, I think the Christians are referring to the correct one, but that doesn’t mean the atheists aren’t referring to an objective, absolute moral standard. Thus, there is no more “horizontal tension” in an atheist moral discussion than there is in a Christian moral discussion.
Your point #4 is even worse. First, you are actually making Dennett’s point really well here. Islam uses its god as the objective, moral standard, and the result is anything but moral. As I quoted Dennett before, this is a good example of where belief in God produces worse morality than an atheist view. Second, the things Islam is doing are not best for survival. The survival of human genes is a long-term imperative. Polygamy and child marriage do not work well for that purpose, as many scientific studies have shown that the best society is based on well-adjusted, long-term, monogamous family relationships. Polygamy and child marriage do not produce well-adjusted, long-term, monogamous family relationships, so they are not good for the long-term survival of human genes.
You ask, “if people can not feed their children, why not kill them?” Once again, if you would read atheist philosophers, you would find the obvious answer to that question. Children are rational beings who can contribute to the long-term surivability of society. Thus, they must be fed.
I think you also need to read some history, because the 20th century was not the bloodiest ever. In fact, it was probably the least bloody. Consider, for example, the 8th century. 36 million people died as a result of the An Shi Rebellion (a single war in China). On a per capita basis that’s nearly twice as many as all the people killed in the entire 20th century. If you look at the percentage of human beings killed by violence, it has (on average) decreased throughout history. Atheists would point to this trend and say that atheism has risen steadily throughout history, indicating that atheism is a strong force for good in the world. Indeed, when I was an atheist, I believed that.
I agree that Christians do a lot of good in the world. However, that doesn’t tell me anything about the average morality of Christians. It tells me that there are some real Christian luminaries who are taking Christ’s teaching very seriously. Indeed, my favorite current example of such a Christian is Katie Davis. However, this tells me nothing about Christians and atheists on average. Having been an atheist, and having lots of friends who are atheists, my experience has led me to see that, on average, there is no difference in the morality of Christians and atheists. I could be wrong, of course, but since I know of no studies on actual actions (only the one discussed in this post, and it is not on actions), I am left to rely on my observations.
I am not sure how much influence I have on people, but if I do have influence on them, I want them to discuss things properly. It is simply wrong to state that atheism has no objective, moral standards, and I will continue to argue against that wrong accusation, since it ultimately hurts the cause of Christ.
All the glory to God, indeed!
Dr. Wile, I’m going to partially alter my stance. I would say that an atheist might be able to construct an objective moral code for themselves – but that code CANNOT be universally applied to society. I would agree that there are some constructs which MIGHT work objectively in society – such as Parfits suggestion of a numerically based solution. However I’m not sure how those numeric values could be objectively ascribed to things like greater good and suffering. Anyway, let’s assume we could, after all we do see it in nature – if you look at an ant colony you know those values are second nature. A handful of ants will sacrifice their lives to make a living bridge so that the entire colony may survive by crossing it. Greater good indeed. The problem I see with this goes back to your article and is also clearly illustrated in these comments. Ants don’t disagree… But people do. If any tenets of an atheistic moral construct are challenged then who ultimately is judge over the disagreement? Someone must be granted infallible / deity status to settle disagreements that cannot be settled by other means. It’s true that on this earth we will never see reconciliation between Christian disagreements on morals, Canon, matters of salvation, etc…But we rest knowing that God is ultimate judge.
But that’s exactly the point, John. In the atheistic universe, there is an ultimate judge: science. Science is the arbitrator of all atheistic disputes when it comes to anything, including morality, at least among the atheists I know and read.
This is why I told Karen there is no more horizontal tension among atheists in a moral discussion than there is among Christians. When two Christians disagree on a point of morality, they each refer to Scripture, pointing to it as the ultimate authority. If they interpret Scripture differently, they have different morals. However, they both agree that Scripture is the ultimate authority. When two atheists disagree on a point of morality, they each refer to science, pointing to it as the ultimate authority. If they interpret the data differently, they have different morals. However, they both agree that science is the ultimate authority.
Don’t give up your thinking yet, John. You are right that God a moral obligator in a way that science can not be.
Also, I believe Dr. Wile is wrong in saying that science can help us with values. But I don’t have time right now to do this justice. I will try and come back later on next week (or sooner if I can manage it) with a better response then this.
Sorry, Dr. Wile, I know at times we are speaking past one another, but none of your answers dealt with the heart of the problem. I apologize that I am not better at explaining this. Yes, I am a beginner at this stuff.
At the same time, while maybe I didn’t set up the “begging the question” correctly, I did MEAN it correctly. When you say that “rational beings” are more valuable than non rational ones, you are begging the question. You did not answer “More valuable to WHOM?” You are assuming that rational beings are more valuable.
Now, I want to be fair to you. This is your blog, after all. But it’s YOUR blog. Not Mr. Dennett’s blog, or any other atheist. Yes, particularly if I were to go on Mr. Dennett’s site and start commenting, it is only good manners to at least have read some things he has written.
But this is YOUR blog. YOU are the one who said the moral argument was not good. Which means you have a good understanding of at least ONE argument for moral absolutes working in an atheist universe.
You gave me what you felt was an absolute. Rational beings are valuable. Why? Why are they valuable? I value non-rational beings. Why am I wrong, and you right? Why is the good of society valuable? Why? Can you see the heart of the problem now?
And yes, there is horizontal tension between different atheists and between different Christians, but only God can answer that. Science can not. Dr. Wile, you don’t really believe that science can answer the question of why human life is valuable… do you?
You have been very patient, and I am sure I am quite annoying. I will stop for now. I will go and try and read something by Dennett. Do you have any other suggestions? I can’t promise a long book read, I will try. Still please don’t assume I’ve never read or heard anything like this. I’m far from an expert, but I’ve listened to a few debates, read a few articles. I will brush up though.
I am going to try to get back to you on this but because John may go away from here thinking I’ve conceded, I have not, because you have not answered the heart of the objection, I want him to know that I’ll get back with what I’ve gotten.
In the meantime, one of us must be wrong. The good news is that God holds the truth.
Thank you for the discussion.
Karen, you seem to be misunderstanding me more and more. I am sorry I am not being clear. I never suggested that science can help us with our morals. What I said is that atheists use science as their reference for objective, absolute morality. Of course, I think they are quite wrong to do that, but my point is that just like we use God as our ultimate authority for moral absolutes, they use science. Thus, they have objective, absolute morality. That’s my point.
I am sorry, but I most certainly did answer the question “More valuable to WHOM?” According to the atheist, they are more valuable to society, and since society is necessary for the survival of people, that is important. I am not assuming rational beings are valuable. I am simply telling you how an atheist arrives at objective, absolute morality. They say that rational beings are valuable because of their objective, absolute standard – they contribute to the survival of humans.
There is no problem, because an atheist can answer all of your questions. You ask, “Rational beings are valuable. Why?” Because they contribute to the survival of the human species. “I value non-rational beings. Why am I wrong, and you right?” You can value non-rational beings (like animals) if you like, and many atheists do. But atheists who operate with objective, absolute morality that comes from their atheist worldview would say that rational beings (humans) are more valuable than non-rational beings, because they can contribute more to the survival of humans. You seem to agree with them, because you were for saving the baby (the rational being) over the monkey (the non-rational being). You ask, “Why is the good of society valuable?” Because humans have evolved to survive in society. Since the survival of humans is an evolutionary imperative, then the good of the society is the most valuable thing in an atheist view.
Yes, I have answered every one of your questions, and I have answered the heart of your objection.
I do hope you educate yourself on atheist morality if you want to keep using the moral argument, since it is quite false to claim that atheists can’t have objective moral values. Of course, history is filled with atheist philosophers who have shown otherwise. Dennett is probably the most easy to read on the subject, because he is current. Here is a nice overview of evolutionary-based morality, which explores many of the issues as well.
It doesn’t matter to me whether or not you “concede.” I am simply trying to educate you on what atheists actually believe. If this discussion can get you to read atheist moralities so that you learn what they believe, that’s good enough for me.
I agree that God holds the truth.
I would appreciate a clarification of atheist beliefs from Dr. Wile. Do your atheist friends believe they are basically stardust, as many atheists apparently believe, or do they have a different understanding of what or who they are at the very basic level of their being or existence?
My atheist friends wouldn’t use that term, because it has several different meanings (a cluster of stars that appear as dust in the sky, the dust in between stars, and a romantic feeling). However, they would agree that they are simply collections of elements that are arranged together in a very specific way, and those elements were originally formed in stars. The elements (and the molecules they form) interact in such as way as to produce an emergent property, which is best described as rationality.
Sorry, Dr. Wile, I really am going now, but I did want to say that some people do use the moral argument as a sort of hammer to hit people with. Though I am defending the argument itself, I don’t agree with doing that. The best use for it is as a screw driver, to take things apart and examine them together. Presuppositional apologetics is meant to be two people examining each other’s world view.
And it’s surely not meant to attack atheists and point fingers at them as being inferior. As I said, there are some very nice atheists out there. I just think a lot of their ethics are inconsistent with their worldview. It’s ok, some of them think I believe in a flying spaghetti monster. 😉
I just wanted to make sure that even if you think I’m a bit ignorant, and a my arguments are “harmful” to Christianity, you at least don’t think that of me.
I never got the impression that you were suggesting we should use the moral argument in those ways, Karen. I simply want you to realize how faulty the moral argument is, since it rests on the false premise that there can’t be objective, absolute morality in an atheist worldview.
Dr. Wile I feel like I am understanding a little more where you’re coming from. You’ve done a commendable job rephrasing things so they are clearer. But I still see a slight problem with an atheistic moral system which claims to have absolute laws. To me it seems morals are unique to humans. In a way you could say it’s what sets us apart from the auto determination of the rest of the universe. The point of morality seems to be to divest us of the pure materialistic descision making that would see another mammal eat it’s young or a male kill another male to win a mate. So if we need morals to free us from the confines of operating within a pure science / naturalist frame then it would seem contrary to also expect science to be the ultimate arbitrator. Now I did take a peek at Dennett (Thank you by the way… new to me) and it seems he and Harris see the human condition as little more than a cog in the universal clockwork. However I did find it very interesting that they disagree about whether or not free will exists in this system. In a strictly determinist system this discussion does not matter, nor does the idea of of morals – the wheels will simply turn as they will. In this case everything is absolute – we are the ants already. However if you want to salvage free will then it would seem to me that you need an arbitrator besides science or you need to accept that all actions have equal merit.
Thanks, John. I think you have hit on one of the many problems with atheist morality. It’s not that it doesn’t exist or isn’t based on an absolute standard. One problem is the absolute on which it is based. As you say, science is based on determinism. Now, there are those who say quantum mechanics can be an “escape hatch” for science, because it is based on probabilities, not determined outcomes. However, the range of probabilities are limited, so at best, quantum mechanics can only give science a limited escape from determinism. Also, quantum mechanics is hard to apply to large systems, so it’s not clear how that would apply to free will in people. Thus, I agree with you that science is not a good judge when it comes to what you do with your free will. I think there are other weaknesses in atheist morality as well. I just think that it is fruitless to deny the obvious fact that atheists can have objective, absolute morality without any reference to God. It is not the correct morality, of course, but it is one based on objective absolutes.
Based on your answer Dr. Wile, I have a follow up question. Since they are suggesting something rational “emerges” from something completely lacking in intelligence and without any initial rationality, what is their logical basis for arriving at that conclusion?
Well, we know that emergent properties exist in nature, Bill. Individual elements have their own properties, for example, but when they combine to make a molecule, the molecule has completely different properties from its constituent elements. There are many other examples. Thus, to some, it might be logical to assume that intelligence is another emergent property.
Thank you for your reply to my questions Dr wile. Of the examples that you gave, I would see the emergence of consciousness as the closest example to the emergence of rationality from the non rational equivalent of cosmic debris containing no basic intelligence of any kind.
Both the emergence of consciousness and the emergence of rationality from materials with the properties (zero intelligence and zero rationality) of what is essentially cosmic debris seem like faith positions rather than scientifically supported claims to me. I can’t see the logic or rationality for either claim.
Perhaps you already answered the question I’m about to ask, but I couldn’t tell; there are a lot of comments above. Independently of whether the argument from morality is a good argument, I don’t agree with your opinion on atheistic morality, Dr. Wile:
The answer you keep giving to Karen is that atheistic morality is consistent and absolute because its goal is the survival of the human species. Hence preserving rational beings and society. But that is not absolute, because why should anyone believe that the survival of the human species is good? There’s nothing in the universe that says humanity should survive. I suppose humans are the most complicated physical systems we’ve encountered, which seems pretty good to scientists, but complexity isn’t morality. I could make symmetry my highest ideal, in which case the best universe would be one that has already undergone heat death. So why should anyone listen to a bunch of scientists who want to preserve humanity? I bet that’d keep people from having a lot of fun; Dostoyevsky makes basically this argument in Notes from Underground, which he wrote in 1864. And then there are the various philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer and David Benatar who argue for antinatalism – that the pain of human existence outweighs its good, so that it’s better for humanity to end itself.
To convince me that atheistic morality is objective, you’ve got to show me it proves that human survival is an absolute good. I feel like the very existence of antinatalist thinking demonstrates that’s impossible. Why should anyone choose one over the other?
Thinking further, evolution is just a physical process; why is it good for it to succeed in producing ever more complicated life? For it to just fail, and for humanity to go extinct, seems perfectly compatible with evolution. I disagree that “the survival of humans is an evolutionary imperative.” Really it’s just how species function in the evolutionary paradigmdoes, not what evolution demands. We have to make it into an imperative for some kind of atheistic morality; it’s not automatically one.
And I think antinatalism can be perfectly compatible with science. Science can tell us what’s good if we want to achieve certain goals, but I don’t think it tells us what those goals have to be. The goal could be extinction just as well as survival.
Jake, I think you are missing a few things. First and foremost, asking “Why should anyone believe that the survival of the human species is good?” is equivalent to asking, “Why should anyone believe that doing what God says is good?” Dawkins claims, for example, that God “…is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction.” He would say that doing what God says is the opposite of good. Thus, your question doesn’t argue against the existence of objective, absolute atheist morality. It just indicates that you don’t like the objective, absolute standard on which it is based. I don’t like it, either, but I can’t deny that it exists.
Second, ask yourself why Christians try to be good people. It’s because we recognize our debt to our Creator. Well, to most atheists, evolution is their creator, so by following its imperatives, they are simply recognizing their debt to their creator. The antinatalists say that responding to evolution’s imperative is painful, but from an evolutionary point of view, pain is part of the process of survival.
Third, it can’t be denied that humans are unique in all of nature. That indicates they should be preserved. It’s not that we are the most complex. We are the only rational beings on the planet. That alone indicates the importance of this evolutionary imperative.
We define God as the source of good – that’s part of the point of appealing to God: having an external standard. There’s no way in which we can do that for a group of scientists. We have to listen to God; I’d almost be willing to say that it’s no different from having to listen to gravity. The only reason I might have to listen to Richard Dawkins is if he somehow has political power. This makes the two questions different.
You haven’t told me why we must survive; you’ve only said that humans are special. Sure, fine. The biggest black hole in the universe is also special. Who gets to decide what’s special? As far as I can tell, you’re defining survival as good, and humans as special. This is begging the question.
Science doesn’t know what good is. It only knows what’s good for a certain purpose.
I certainly agree, Jake, but the atheists I know and read would strongly disagree. They see science as the only way to find truth, so it definitely knows what good is. Indeed, to them, it is the only way to know what good is.
But many atheists define science as good. Indeed, they say it is the only way to know what truth is. Thus, it is the only possible standard for moral absolutes. And please note that these atheists don’t use scientists as their standard for moral absolutes. They use science. As you well know, the two are definitely not synonymous.
And yes, I have told you why humans must survive in an atheist worldview. It is an evolutionary imperative. Since evolution is the creator in an atheist worldview, the atheist has just as much motivation to follow that imperative as the Christian has to follow God’s moral imperative. This isn’t begging the question at all. It is recognizing the obvious objective, absolute moral standard in an atheist view.
I notice that Karen kind of brought this up earlier, but you didn’t really address it. You basically said the atheist morality would say rational beings must be preserved. But there has to be a reason for that if this morality is going to be absolute.
I don’t see why that’s the case, Jake. An objective, absolute morality simply must be based on objective standards that are absolute. Whether or not there is a reason for the absolute doesn’t affect whether or not it exists. Now, of course, if there is no reason for it, that’s a good argument why you shouldn’t follow it. But that’s not at issue here. The issue is whether or not it exists, and it clearly does.
I didn’t want to say anything until the next day, because I wanted to make sure I was understanding this correctly: I think this blows it. Because what you’re saying above is that I just have to choose some standard to be absolute (as in, to be absolutely followed), and then objectively reason from it. But if I’m to create an objective morality, that standard itself needs to be absolute independent of my choosing it to be so – it has to jump out as obviously right. That’s what makes it a morality: we can judge the standards themselves as moral or not.
Say it as much as you will, the survival of rational beings isn’t an evolutionary imperative. Evolution is the name we’ve given to a class of physical phenomena. And as you know – and I think have argued elsewhere – it doesn’t have a purpose. The best you can say is that such a purpose might seem to emerge out of evolution. I’ve heard (from whom I don’t remember) the argument that, in multiverse theory, the universes that dominate are the ones that can produce the most black holes, because somehow those universes can then produce even more universes (maybe because each black hole is a new universe or something). Would that make the “purpose” of the multiverse to generate universes with black holes? I suppose you have to be careful with what you mean by purpose here. But why does it matter that there are more or fewer universes in the first place?
I also agree that rational life forms seem pretty “special”: we seem to be able to do a lot of things that no other physical systems we’ve seen in the universe can do. But this is no reason to consider rationality the goal: there could be a whole class of phenomena evolution produces that are somehow equally as interesting, for a different definition of interesting. Like the most bacteria, the biggest organism, nuclear winter, totalitarian regimes. Perhaps you need rationality for the last two, so that you could start creating classes of goals and subsume some under others.
Further, being a little more careful, sentience (the particular self-awareness and intelligence humans have) doesn’t always imply rationality (the ability to reason logically from principles towards a noncontradictory goal). As you’ve mentioned more recently, it’s possible to frame the thinking of a particular moral system as contradictory (the “mean” God of the Old Testament vs. the “nice” one of the New). I bet you could find some humanities paper that says the goal of evolution is destruction through capitalism, and thus that rationality actually tells us to oppose that goal.
I think that’s all I wanted to say about that for now. But I’m confused when you say that, “And please note that these atheists don’t use scientists as their standard for moral absolutes. They use science. As you well know, the two are definitely not synonymous.” Because atheists that think scientists – or even science – have access to objective reality just don’t know philosophy. If this is what they think, they’re doing bad philosophy from the very beginning. I don’t care if people can say that they have an objective atheist morality; they have to prove it for me. If they base it on thinking they have an objective reading of the universe unfiltered through scientists’ human prejudices, they’ve already lost, because real philosophers know better than that.
How about this; I think it is another answer to what you said Dawkins would say about morality coming from God: Though we don’t know the details, let’s say that Satan rebelled against God because he has some other morality than God’s. Would Satan’s morality be objective, or absolute? This doesn’t just show that there can be only one absolute morality in Christianity; it also shows that we don’t think of absoluteness as allowing a choice.
Perhaps you don’t understand the terms. In the moral argument, the statement is simply that objective, absolute moral truths exist. It doesn’t lay out the specifics. Indeed, you couldn’t get theists and atheists to agree on the specifics. Thus, from the standpoint of the moral argument, the only issue is that there are objective, absolute moral truths. Thus, in this context, Satan’s morality would be objective and absolute. It wouldn’t be correct, of course, but it would be objective and absolute.
Jake, I think your problem is that you aren’t willing to think like an atheist. This is understandable, but if you want to explore what is possible in an atheist worldview, you have to think like an atheist. If you think like an atheist, then yes, the survival of rational beings is an absolute imperative. After all, the only thing that makes us different from all the other organisms evolution has produced is our rationality. In fact, it is the only thing that gives an atheist’s life any meaning. Thus, rationality must be preserved at all costs. It is the ultimate absolute in the atheist universe.
I agree that evolution has no purpose, and every atheist would agree with that. In fact, that’s why it’s so important for rational creatures to survive. Indeed, this is why one of my atheist friends says that he has more of an imperative to preserve rational beings than I do. After all, if he is right and all rational beings die out, there will probably never be any again. The chance of purposeless evolution producing rational beings on earth again is near zero. However, if I am right and all rational beings die out, God can just create more.
I think you need to review your terminology. Sentience does not imply rationality at all. A sentient being is simply able to sense things. Thus, most animals are sentient. Humans are sentient, but they are also rational, and that makes them unique in nature. Once again, this makes their survival an imperative in the atheist universe.
I would agree with you that those who think science is the only means of understanding reality are wrong. However, it is a common view among atheists, and it is one standard that atheists use to develop an objective, absolute morality. They aren’t correct, of course, but neither are the people who deny the obvious fact that atheists can have an objective, absolute morality.
I was going to say that I think we’re confusing each other’s terms – which I think is still the case – but I also think I get it now: you want us to treat evolution as god, and reason from there – just like Christians believe in God.
I can reframe my objections in those terms, but first I want to thank you for the fun and interesting argument. Not only is my thinking about these things better from having listened to you about it; I was able to combine some other things I’ve been thinking recently and crystallize my thoughts. And I think the way to do it is to write a little story. I want to make it good, so it might take a week, but it’s the creation story – about the Vacuum Azathoth and its emergent children.
Yes. That is exactly right. If you want to use the moral argument, you must show that objective, absolute moral truths can’t exist in an atheist worldview. However, if you treat evolution as the creator, such truths certainly can exist. As Christians, our absolute standard is the Word of God. For atheists, the absolute standard is science in the context of evolution. Both worldviews have objective, absolute moral truths. Many of those truths are the same, but some are different. Nevertheless, objective, absolute moral truths exist in both worlds.
I look forward to reading your story! In fact, if you would like, you could send it to me via email and I could publish it as a guest piece. If you don’t want it to be that “front and center,” feel free to post it as a comment.
I want to preface these comments by saying that God’s word in Romans chapter one, especially verses 18-20, tells me that there is no such thing as an atheist. Everyone knows God exists because He has made Himself clear to all of us through His creation. Those who claim to be atheists are simply suppressing the truth of His existence according to Romans. For the sake of the discussion I will use the term atheist when I am referring to those who profess that belief because of their suppression of the truth of God’s existence.
Based on what Dr. Wile has said about the underpinnings of the atheist beliefs, I have difficulty understanding how atheism can develop an objective standard of morality. I cannot see how anyone who thinks they are essentially composed of insignificant cosmic debris can think they have enough worth to assign a value to anything. Morality is a value judgment that one thing is better than another. How can one biologically encapsulated sack of cosmic debris have any more value than another. Worm, mouse, monkey, human – all are the same. Simply sacks of biologically encapsulated cosmic debris with no intrinsic value other than what intellectually more advanced sacks biologically encapsulated cosmic debris assign to them. An intellectually advanced sack of biologically encapsulated cosmic debris is still a sack of cosmic debris. Even if some inconceivably improbable process produced some higher form of rationality, the rational forms would still essentially be insignificant cosmic debris with a delusional belief that they actually have an ability to assign value to other biologically encapsulated cosmic debris or to themselves.
I am not saying those who profess to be atheists have no value and I am not saying they are actually biologically encapsulated sacks of cosmic debris. As a Christian I believe each individual has great intrinsic worth or value as a child of God. I am simply saying that the logical conclusion of the atheist world view results in valueless individuals who are trying to assign value to either their own existence or to other valueless sacks of biologically encapsulated cosmic debris. Any moral system constructed with an atheistic basis is inherently self refuting in my opinion. Morality requires some kind of worth or value which the atheistic world view cannot provide when followed logically to its most basic underlying presuppositions.
From a Christian perspective, the reason I am of the opinion that no person who calls him or herself an atheist can be moral is based on the words of Jesus in Matthew 22.
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[c] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment.
No one who professes atheism can keep that first and greatest commandment from the greatest moral teacher we know about. None of us keep the commandment fully, but the atheist who claims a lack of belief in God cannot even begin to claim any moral high ground while denying a belief in God.
You might have difficulty understanding how atheists can have an objective, absolute morality, Bill, but it is clear that they do. You ask, “How can one biologically encapsulated sack of cosmic debris have any more value than another.” From an atheist point of view, that’s an easy one. When it comes to humans, we have worth because we are the only rational beings on the planet. The cosmic accidents that created us over billions of years have produced something unique, and if we die out, it might never happen again, since it is all based on random chance. Thus, humans are of more worth than any other products of evolution, because they have an emergent property that no other known sack of cosmic debris has.
You say, “An intellectually advanced sack of biologically encapsulated cosmic debris is still a sack of cosmic debris.” Yes, but it is a sack of cosmic debris that has been through just the right steps to have an emergent property called rationality. Since this is obviously a rare event, it is clearly very special. You say, “As a Christian I believe each individual has great intrinsic worth or value as a child of God.” Just as you can’t understand how a sack of cosmic debris has value, an atheist can’t understand how a “child of God” has value, since to the atheist, God doesn’t exist. How can the child of a fictional character have any value? An atheist can say, “As an atheist I believe each individual has great intrinsic worth or value as a rare product of evolution.” This makes much more sense to the atheist than your statement of worth.
Another thing an atheist might say is that in his worldview, people are much more valuable than they are in a Christian worldview. After all, if God is the Creator, then if all the people on earth die, more can be created. If evolution is the creator and all the people on earth die, humanity will be gone forever, because there is no way that evolution will go through all the right steps again to produce them. Thus, an atheist would say that people are more value in his worldview, because they cannot be replaced.
You might be right that an atheist morality is self-refuting. However, that’s not what is at question here. What’s at question here is whether or not atheists can have an objective, absolute morality, and they clearly can.
Obviously, no atheist can have a morality based on the words of Jesus, since His words have little meaning to an atheist. However, they can have an objective, absolute moral system, regardless of its quality.
Thanks for the reply Dr. Wile. This has been a very interesting discussion. There have been a lot of good comments on both sides.
Based on your comment,”You might be right that an atheist morality is self-refuting”, it sounds like you are saying that atheists can construct an objective moral system that is self refuting. Does that make sense to you?
Your example, “As an atheist I believe each individual has great intrinsic worth or value as a rare product of evolution.” could be changed to what the atheist really believes. Simply substitute sack of insignificant cosmic debris for individual. The atheist would then be saying the following. As an atheist I believe each sack of insignificant cosmic debris has great intrinsic worth or value as a rare product of evolution. That doesn’t make any sense to me.
Of course it makes sense that someone can construct an objective, absolute moral system that is self-refuting. Indeed, many atheists would say that Christians do that by using an evil, fictional character’s words to construct a moral system. Since that fictional character regularly commits moral atrocities, his words are, in fact, the worst possible basis for a moral system.
You didn’t reword the atheist’s statement properly. It should read, “As an atheist, I believe that each sack of cosmic debris that has evolved rationality has great intrinsic worth or value as a rare product of evolution.” I would also remind you that while this might not make any sense to you, your statement that each person has intrinsic worth or value as a child of God makes no sense to an atheist. Thus, whether or not a moral system makes sense to you has no bearing on whether or not it exists.
Thanks once again for your reply Dr Wile. I know you are trying to represent the atheist position fairly and that is admirable. On the other hand, your defense of that position has been reduced to defending cosmic debris. Even though I suspect you will still try to defend that position, I think it is a stretch to try to defend cosmic debris no matter how hard you try to characterize it as something with value.
I am not defending the position, Bill. I am simply trying to make people see that it exists. Denying the fact that absolute, objective morals can exist in an atheist worldview doesn’t help us communicate Truth to those who hold that worldview.
Haha.. you are definitely playing a great Devil’s advocate in this, and pardon the insult Dr. Wile – But you’d certainly make a great atheist! I did once : )
I think much of the confusion here lies in the fact that an atheistic objective moral system still has to rely on “givens” as do all constructs – even mathematics. If we take group fitness as a given then we can construct a system based on that. I think what cleared it up for me is when you said they mayn’t look anything like our morals. I thought of that short story “The Lottery” – by Shirley Jackson. I think as Christians we find it extremely hard to imagine any other system working because we know the Gods law is written on the heart. In my head I was trying to devise an atheistic moral system that would somehow come to the same conclusions of “good” that we have in our Christian value system (10 commandments, 7 deadly sins, etc). This is obviously why I brought up the slippery slope earlier.
There is another thought that occurred to me regarding a possible litmus test for an absolute system – Universality. What are the odds that a atheistic system could ever achieve it ? Living in Christ we know in the end that “every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will confess and give praise to God.” The truth shall be undeniably revealed.
I wonder if atheists see this possibility for science – a master formula that reveals all. Something so convincing that “every knee will bend.” Or do they ultimately know the most they can ever hope for is societal majority?
Certainly most scientists hope to find a “theory of everything,” which is a scientific framework that explains every aspect of the world, including behavior. However, most probably think that no matter how compelling the theory is, it won’t convince everyone.
Thank you once again for your reply Dr. Wile. Even as we disagree, I appreciate your concern and that you are trying to represent the atheist position as fairly as possible.
I just wanted to clarify what I meant when I said your position has been reduced to defending cosmic debris. In an earlier comment I mentioned that some value system was needed for morality. Hopefully you will agree that cosmic debris has no intrinsic value. What you have tried to show is that through emergence something with no initial value now has become valuable. The problem is that you still end up with cosmic debris. In the case of your example value has been given to the cosmic debris by other allegedly “rational” cosmic debris. In spite of this, you seemed to agree that it is still cosmic debris.
In my opinion you are dealing with a garbage in garbage out problem. You start with cosmic debris and end up with cosmic debris. The only value to the cosmic debris is the value that has been assigned by other cosmic debris. Again, no real value system, no objective morality.
The other problem with your magic wand of emergence is that it doesn’t work scientifically in the real world. Your prior blog post about Dr. Tour clearly showed that there is no scientific evidence to show that DNA or any life form is going to “emerge” from cosmic debris. In my opinion the system you have constructed for the atheist position is both philosophically and scientifically bankrupt of any value and therefore cannot produce objective morality.
Once again, I expect you to disagree and continue to defend your position that absolute, objective morals can exist in an atheist worldview. If that is the case, I think you need a different system than the one you have constructed for the atheist position in order to justify your position.
Bill, you need to think a bit more deeply about this, because I am not defending the value of cosmic debris. I am defending the value of cosmic debris that has developed rationality, and that is completely different. Consider, for example, a pile of metal. It has little value. However, if the metal is worked properly, it can become various parts, and when those various parts are then put together properly, it can become an Aston Martin, one of the most valuable automobiles on the planet. Why? Because the metal went through various processes that ended up giving it an emergent property. As a result, it became very, very valuable.
The same can be true of cosmic debris that, when shaped by evolution, has the emergent property of rationality. It is now much, much more than cosmic debris. It is something that might not ever be formed again, so it is of infinite value.
You claim that emergence doesn’t work in the real world, but it certainly does. I work with the phenomenon in my lab all the time. Indeed, in a previous reply to you, I gave you a link to several examples of emergence. So not only does it work in the real world, it works quite often. Do I think that it can produce life? Of course not. However, an atheist does. Since we are discussing whether or not something is possible in an atheistic worldview, we must grant that worldview its premises for the purpose of deciding whether or not something can exist in it.
Thus, it is painfully obvious that in an atheist worldview, absolute, objective morality can exist.
Thanks once again Dr Wile for your reply. My comment about emergence was intended to apply only to the emergence of DNA or a life form from cosmic debris. If that was not clear, I apologize. My example of why that could not happen was your prior blog about Dr. Tour.
You say you are defending the value of cosmic debris that has developed rationally. I am saying cosmic debris cannot developed rationally based on the overwhelming scientific evidence Dr. Tour has provided.
Your example using metal as a starting point for the development of an Aston Martin doesn’t work for me. First of all, we are talking about morality. The Aston Martin, even though very valuable, has no morality. another problem with your example is that you are starting with something that has some value -metal. Cosmic debris is valueless economically and it has absolutely no morality. Additionally, how is the Aston Martin is assembled? What put it together? Did it assemble itself somewhere and suddenly appear? You have basically given a design argument to defend what you have said is a random process. Once again, it doesn’t work for me.
I don’t think you understand the point of the discussion, Bill. The point is that in an atheist worldview, objective absolute morality can exist. Thus, whether or not you think that DNA or rationality can come from cosmic debris is irrelevant. Atheists think it can, so we have to grant that premise to decide what is possible in an atheist worldview. Obviously, I don’t think DNA or rationality can come from cosmic debris, but that is an entirely different discussion which simply does not apply here.
My point about the metal and the Aston Martin is simply that when something is processed it gains value. Indeed, a car has no moral value, and indeed, metal starts out with some small amount of value, while cosmic debris does not. However, by processing the metal, it gains value. In the same way, the atheist would say that cosmic debris gains value when processed by evolution. You say that I have given a design argument. I have not. I have simply said that something can be processed (by a designer OR by evolution) to gain value. Once again, we are discussing an atheist worldview, and atheists agree that evolution can make things infinitely more complex than an Aston Martin. If we are discussing what is possible in an atheist worldview, we must grant that premise for the purpose of the discussion.
Good Morning, Dr. Wile,
I hope that you are not getting frustrated, when you say that it is “painfully obvious” that on atheism, objective moral values can exist. Because it is not at all obvious to me still.
I’m not done looking at the material you linked me too, though I will say I was disappointed with the fact that it is hardly a layperson’s article and at the start, at any rate, it is not arguing for the existence of object moral values in an atheist universe, but rather how we came to have them. Yes, eventually it I think it’s starts to deal with the subject of whether morality is a function of rationality (I think that is what it is saying) but I’m just going to be honest and say that it is so dense and difficult so that I will have a hard time spotting any errors, let alone grasping well what it says. Never the less, I will try to do some more of my own research to see if Dennett has something for the layman. Surely atheists want all laymen, not just scientists, to have a grasp on absolute morals, so there must be something more for everyday people on this. 🙂
In the meantime, I still disagree with your own arguments… sorry. And I think I have been using absolute and objective interchangeable, which is an error on my part. I wasn’t trying to argue whether the values were absolute, but whether they were objective.
Can you help me out with your position by clarifying for me? I don’t mean to misunderstand you, but I want to be certain, because I have had various understandings of where you are trying to say the object standard resides, and I want to make sure I’ve got it right, this time.
An object moral value must reside outside of subjects. It thus can not reside in scientist themselves (agreeing with you here, because you’ve said somewhere that they do not reside in scientists). You seem to be suggesting that they somehow reside in Science itself? That object values come out of science in some way? I just want to make sure that is the position you have, because I feel some of our discussion seems to indicate something different, like maybe it’s evolution itself where this objective standard lies…
Further, I’m assuming that when you object to this argument, you feel like a Christian apologist has not ably defended it, compared to an atheist… so I am wondering if you could point me to the person? I’d like to see if there are any debates between them and Dennett that I could listen to and see for myself the two side by side. I know that William Lane Craig has debated Sam Harris, and commented in articles on Sam Harris’ argument for object moral values AND DUTIES (because I forgot that part of the argument which really breaks the strength of the argument in half) and I think that Craig does a good job of showing Harris’ error. I know too he has debated Dennett, but I didn’t find the transcript on his site, so I’ll have to do some looking.
I think there are other solid apologists who use the MAFG (Moral Argument for God to shorten it) too, like Copan? I’m wondering whom you’ve looked at so I can compare what they have said with what I’ve heard.
Now, I’m taking some time to unpack your statement that “the survival of humans is an evolutionary imperative.” (Yes, I still realize that is not YOU, but on atheism.) I need to think about why this does not seem to me to be coherent as part of the argument for O.M. on Atheism.
I can say, though, that though you keep saying that “rationality” is an something valued objectively, it seems to me you’ve failed to show how science (not scientists) holds this value…? Or “uniqueness.” How can science, itself, hold the value of uniqueness and rationality? You said (for the atheist) that “it can’t be denied that humans are unique,” and that “since human beings are the only rational beings they must survive.” Now that sounds like a moral imperative, but I still don’t see how science provides that… What observable repeatable experiment can you do that shows “rational” or “unique” is valuable? You can show that left alone, things tend towards a more probable (usually random) state. But what scientific law shows ‘rational’ as a value?
I can’t help thinking maybe it’s actually that you mean atheists believe evolution values rationality? But when it comes to ‘uniqueness” I’m going to have to tell you that I don’t see how that value can be anything but from a human source. I can’t see how you can say that even evolution values ‘uniqueness’…?? This all sounds to me like subject values of people…?
You spoke of a pile of metal, which didn’t have value, until it was made into something more complex… and then HUMANS value it… “Science” could not value a car, over a pile of metal, though. Or, how does science measure the value of a car, over a pile of metal? Without a human being around, I don’t see how you can argue anything like the value of a car over a pile of metal…
I confess, I have a hard time with science in this role, even more than when someone says it’s nature. I’ve heard people say that nature values certain things, or evolution, but not science…
I’m also going to agree with Craig that only a person can obligate us to a moral duty, I don’t see how science can do that. Sorry to add this newly to the discussion.
Now I hope that you will not mind my attempt to continue this discussion, and especially because I disagree with you… I can’t agree at this point about the MAFG. In the same way I’ve been told that I should not use or even discuss my beliefs about direct creation over evolution when I talk to non-believers. They’ve told me that it is very dubious, from a scientific position, that evolution didn’t happen as scientists claim it did, and that I should stick to Jesus and leave Genesis out of it. I disagree with them. And I respectfully state that I’ve not found your arguments that atheists have a coherent basis for objective morals sound as of yet.
So to sum up:
1. What Christian apologists who use the MAFG have you read/heard and disagreed with?
2. Did you mean that a coherent position can be made for objective moral values and duties residing in science itself?
or where you meaning to say that OMV&D can be found in “the survival of humans is an evolutionary imperative?”
I am sorry that you don’t see what is painfully obvious, Karen. I hope I can help make this more clear. There is something for more “everyday people” on this subject. That’s why I suggested that you read Dennett. As I told you before, I think he is more readable. I agree that the link I gave you is dense, but please realize that you are discussing a subject that has been discussed for a long time, and atheists have dealt with it quite well. That’s why the discussion is dense – atheists have clearly put a lot more thought into this argument than theists have. It has been discussed and debated for a long, long time, and serious thinkers have offered serious objections to the moral argument, to the point that I think it is worthless.
I agree that an object’s moral value cannot be subjective, at least not in this discussion. Thus, the value must be objective. In this case, that value is painfully obvious: it’s rationality. One can easily distinguish a rational being (a human) from a nonrational being (an animal). Thus, rationality is an objective standard that can determine an organism’s moral value. Since rationality is unique (as far as we know – and even if it’s not unique, the human version probably is), it is obviously something of infinite value. Gold is valuable because it is rare. Diamonds are even more valuable, because they are even more rare. Rationality is unique; thus, it is of infinite value. It also cannot be replaced in the atheist universe. In a theistic universe, God can always create more people if we all die out. In an atheist universe, evolution will probably never produce rationality again, so it is infinitely more precious (in the atheist’s mind) in an atheist universe than in a theistic universe.
I haven’t really listened to any debates on this issue. I read much more than I listen to debates. I have read Christian apologists like C.S. Lewis, William Lane Craig, and J. P. Moreland on the subject, and none of them can adequately argue that God is required for objective morality. I have read atheists like Dennett, Anthony Simon Laden, and Raymond D. Bradley (a scientist), and they make a strong case for objective, absolute morality in an atheist worldview.
I am not sure why you think science needs to demonstrate that uniqueness provides value. As I mentioned before, rare things are inherently more valuable than common things, and unique things are priceless. An atheist would suggest that you cannot use “child of God” as an indicator of value, either. After all, an atheist thinks that God is a fictional character, so there is no value to the child of a fictional character. Also, since God can always create more people, they have no real value in a theistic universe (at least from the atheist’s perspective). My point here is that you cannot demonstrate your measure of value to an atheist, so saying that you don’t understand why rationality makes something valuable is simply not relevant, as the atheist cannot understand why being a “child of God” makes something valuable.
Of all the arguments Craig makes, the idea that only a person can obligate us to a moral duty is his worst. Of course that isn’t true. Indeed, there can be any number of motivations for a moral action. A person can act morally out of love (and not just love for a person – environmentalists act out of love for the planet). A person can act morally out of appreciation (and once again, not just appreciation for a person’s actions). A person can act morally for purely intellectual reasons, etc., etc.
In answer to your “sum up” questions:
1. C.S. Lewis, William Lane Craig, and J. P. Moreland
2. In the atheist universe, science can be used as an objective measure for whether or not an action is moral. However, value doesn’t reside in science itself. Value resides in the rarity of the phenomenon.
The survival of humans is an objective, absolute that can be used to construct a moral system. There are other ways as well, as other atheist philosophers have discussed, however, I am not dealing with them. Science can be used to judge whether any action promotes that objective. As a result, an objective, absolute moral system can be constructed in an atheist worldview. Once again, whether or not you agree with the moral system (or the reasoning behind it) is irrelevant. The argument from morality depends on the inability of an atheist to construct an objective, absolute morality, and that is obviously false.
Thanks, Dr. Wile,
I really do appreciate that you have not given up and kept attempting to help me understand your position. I hope you do not think I am giving up on you…because I’m not. 🙂 I just realize my own limitations, in that, if William Lane Craig can not convince, I surely can’t. I know that the MAFG is not his biggest area, I know he refers to Paul Copan (I think I got that right, off the cuff) and so maybe some of those thinkers who focus on it may do it better or more clearly. I haven’t checked them out, so I will do so myself.
In any case, I’m very amateur, I study this because of the laypeople I may come in contact with, not because I think I’d ever be up to debate a real philosopher. Which is to say, I doubt my abilities to do this justice, if Craig was not convincing to you.
Now having said that, I will say to be fair to Craig, that the “obligate” part does not mean “have a reason.” You gave many good reasons for why one would behave morally. Including obligations to people. But Craig is referring to being obligated, not to having good reasons. That is different. But again, if you couldn’t see what Craig was getting at, I’m not going to be able to better illuminate the matter.
Also, I really am leaving my agreement or disagreement with the morals themselves out of it.
I also agree that you can have a moral system as an atheist that is possibly internally consistent within itself. (although your own defense that born children who are disabled are more valuable that fetuses because of their potential help to society is inconsistent, to me) I’m saying that it is not consistent in the three fold framework of a worldview: ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics.
I can’t help myself pointing out that you haven’t gotten the thrust of the argument that saying “uniqueness” or “rareness” is not something that is intrinsically valuable. You’d do better to argue that LOVE is intrinsically valuable, rather than ‘rarity.’ For example, my son’s genetic disorder is thankfully very rare, but it really is not valuable.
And I’d say that you can’t assume the value of rationality in an objective sense. That is just arbitrary. I think it doesn’t work to fall back to it is rare, so it has value. Not all rare things have value. The value of rare things resides, not in themselves, but in the subject. So gold is a valuable rare thing because humans like it. Gold is rare, but not valuable to rabbits. I’d have an easier time getting gold, then I would white rhino dung, white rhino dung is very rare, but it’s not valuable to me, though I’m sure someone somewhere values it for some medicinal purpose… Rareness is a subjective value.
So, choosing rational over non-rational or even irrational beings is a personal (though widespread!) value determination.
When it comes to saying that an atheist will argue that Christianity could make people less valuable because God could just make more of them, you’ve misplaced where the value of the people resides. It’s not that it resides in the Christian. It resides with God. God values everything He creates, and specifically people. We are valuable because our value issues from Him, and His nature…
So, with presuppositional apolgetics, one is not to examine and critique from one’s own view, but go inside the other’s view and examine it for coherence and consistency.
I’m not sure I made this plain, but I am arguing specifically that a materialistic, atheistic viewpoint is inconsistent in saying moral values can be objective. Because atheists can technically not be materialists. I just thought I’d better clarify that point. In the title of this, it says “materialism” but I wanted to make sure everyone knew that was the specifically what I was addressing.
I truly will not post again on this Dr. Wile, because it is your blog, and I think that makes it fair for you to have the last word. As I said, I’m definitely a ‘few’ steps down the ladder from Craig, Lewis, or Moreland. Thanks for letting me do my best, and allowing me to be free to disagree even though I’m sure you are a busy man with other things to attend to.
I’ll be satisfied having done my best. Since I’m more familiar with Harris, not with Dennett, I’ve been pointed to something further to study, so thank you for that. And, for others who are interested, they too can look over the atheists you’ve mentioned, and the Christian apologists I’ve mentioned, think about all the arguments and decide for themselves. I’m happy with that too.
Again, that you Dr. Wile. I’ve read disagreements here before, and you always seem to be kind and try to be fair to people. I appreciate an environment like this to discuss things in. And though it is difficult (for me personally, anyway), it is the places we disagree that are very worth discussing.
All the best!
May God bless you.
I am glad that you feel relatively comfortable discussing things on this blog, Karen, and I agree that it is worth discussing things upon which we don’t agree. Of course, I completely understand what Craig means by “obligate,” and if you speak to any “eco-warrior” for any length of time, you will find that he or she feels completely obligated by the earth to do what he or she is doing. Thus, the idea that only a person can obligate you is simply incorrect.
Yes, an atheist morality is consistent in the three-fold framework of a worldview. The problem you are having is you don’t like it. As a result, you don’t want to accept it. However, you can’t reject something just because you don’t like it. As I said before, the atheist doesn’t think you can base morality on God, since God doesn’t exist. Furthermore, if you are talking about the Christian God, many atheists will content that according to the Scriptures, the Christian God himself is very immoral. As a result, many atheists won’t accept your moral system. However, that’s irrelevant in the moral argument. The moral argument simply queries whether or not an objective, absolute moral system can be constructed in a particular worldview. Despite the fact that atheists don’t like it, an objective, absolute moral system can be constructed in the Christian worldview. Despite the fact that Christians don’t like it, an objective, absolute moral system can be constructed in the atheist worldview.
I agree that rarity isn’t the only issue when it comes to assigning value, but it is a big one. There are certainly some things that are rare and not good, but rationality is not one of those. In fact, rationality is what gives most atheists’ lives meaning. Thus, not only is it rare, it is quite wonderful. Thus, it is infinitely valuable. Once again, however, that’s irrelevant in the moral argument. Whether or not you think rationality is valuable doesn’t affect whether or not it can be the basis of an objective, absolute moral system. The fact is that it can, so one of the premises of the moral argument is demonstrably false. If you claim that rationality can’t be used to construct an objective, absolute moral system, the atheist can just as easily claim that God cannot be used to construct an objective, absolute moral system.
I do hope you spend more time reading the moral argument. At first glance, it seems persuasive. With just a little bit of study, however, you can see that it is not.
God bless you!
Thanks again Dr. Wile for your reply to my prior comments. I thought atheists were people who claim to make arguments based on science and good sound logic. In my opinion there is neither one in your argument for the atheist position. If you think it is even reasonably possible to get morality from cosmic debris, then I think you have been reading too much atheist material.
Of course anything is possible. I thought we were discussing things that were reasonably possible. That is where I clearly disagree with your argument. If you want to say that an atheist can make an unreasonable, unscientific, illogical argument for morality from cosmic debris, then you are free to say that. Anyone can make that kind of an argument. If you are trying to say that the argument you put forth as an atheist position is a good, reasonable, scientifically based argument for atheist morality, I will have to strongly disagree.
The reason I said your metal to machine example was a design argument is because it requires intelligent agents to supply, construct and assemble the parts. Cosmic debris had to self assemble into what eventually became a rational individual. Without even considering Dr. Tour’s argument against self assembly of molecules, you and I both know how astronomically improbable it is that rationality would come from cosmic debris based on current neuroscience. When you look at the neuronal and synaptic structures of the human brain and the real numbers and possible synaptic connections available to develop a human brain, it is stretching the limits of credibility to suggest that the human brain developed from cosmic debris with no external agent to assist in the development of a functional, biological, information processing system that is as complex as the human brain.
Of course it is reasonable to get morality from cosmic debris, Bill, as long as you grant the premises of an atheist worldview when it comes to the origin of species, and that’s the point. The moral argument says nothing about whether or not it is possible for cosmic debris to become rational. It simply claims that an objective, absolute moral system is impossible in an atheist worldview. To evaluate that claim, one must grant the premises of an atheist worldview in order to determine what can exist in that worldview. In the atheist worldview, reason is an emergent property of properly-processed cosmic debris. Given that premise, it is clear that an objective, absolute moral system can exist.
In the same way, you can’t object to the metal-to-machine analogy because it involves intelligent agents. In the atheist worldview, evolution does work that is similar to that of intelligent agents, albeit by a completely different process. Once again, to evaluate whether or not objective, absolute morality can exist in that worldview, you must grant that assumption, even though it is clearly false.
In the end, you are making my point for me. Rather than basing your argument on morality (which is futile), you are basing it on design. While the argument from design isn’t perfect, it is significantly more reasonable than the argument from morality, as your own statements clearly show.
Just to make sure I understand you correctly Dr. Wile, please explain more fully what you mean by, “Once again, to evaluate whether or not objective, absolute morality can exist in that worldview, you must grant that assumption, even though it is clearly false”. Please explain to me more fully why I must grant a clearly false assumption and more specifically what exactly the assumption is to which you are referring.
You say I am not arguing based on morality. The point I have been trying to get across is that you can’t get morality from cosmic debris unless you offer an extremely poor philosophical argument that is refuted by real science. Is that something I have not made clear?
Bill, we are discussing the argument from morality. We are not discussing the origin of life, the origin of rationality, etc., etc. We are only discussing whether or not it is possible for an objective, absolute morality to exist in an atheist worldview. To do that, we must assume an atheist worldview. That means assuming that life can spring from non-life, rationality is an emergent property of matter, etc., etc. Those assumptions are not correct, but they are necessary in order to investigate the moral argument’s premise. When we do that, we see that the moral argument’s premise is false. Thus, the moral argument is wrong. That doesn’t negate other arguments for God’s existence, such as the argument from design, which is what you are making.
You haven’t been arguing based on morality. You have been arguing based on design. Your claim is that cosmic debris cannot have the qualities that are required for morality. In other words, you are saying that cosmic debris cannot be anything but cosmic debris. That’s a design argument. I agree with it, but it is not relevant in this discussion, because we are evaluating the moral argument here.
William Lane Craig seems to have made a strong case in the paper, The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality, and response to a questioner about this paper. Although many countless atheist debaters have had a chance to prepare, they never seem to be able to defeat him, according to this atheist.
If that were not enough, the late William Provine proclaimed that under his atheistic evolutionary world view, “There is no ultimate foundation for ethics ….” And Dawkins wrote:
“But doesn’t a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused’s physiology, heredity and environment. Don’t judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a Fawlty car?
Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions? Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing? Presumably because mental constructs like blame and responsibility, indeed evil and good, are built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution. Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world in which we have to live. My dangerous idea is that we shall eventually grow out of all this and even learn to laugh at it, just as we laugh at Basil Fawlty when he beats his car. But I fear it is unlikely that I shall ever reach that level of enlightenment.”
The article you link from William Lane Craig is one of the first versions of the argument from morality that I read carefully, Dr. Sarfati. It has several minor flaws and one major flaw. I will just point out the major flaw, which is where he essentially admits that the argument from morality is incorrect. He states, “Can we formulate a system of ethics without reference to God? If the non-theist grants that human beings do have objective value, then there is no reason to think that he cannot work out a system of ethics with which the theist would also largely agree.” His claim is that the non-theist has no reason to think that human beings have objective value, and of course, he is clearly wrong on that claim. The non-theist has all sorts of reasons to accept that human beings have objective value. Rationality has objective value in the atheist worldview, and people are rational. Thus, they have objective value. Also, as I have stated before, many non-theists believe that humans are a unique result of evolution – one that likely wouldn’t occur again if they died out. Thus, they have objective value because of that. Finally, they have objective value because they form the society that their children and other family members will live in. Since their children and other family members are their only hope for long-term gene survival (an evolutionary imperative in the atheist worldview) it is clear that people have objective value. Since you can develop many reasons for why humans have objective value in the atheist worldview, Craig has admitted that the argument from morality is incorrect.
I agree that there are some atheists (like Dr. Provine, Dr. Dawkins, and some of the atheists Lane quotes) who agree that there is no foundation for morality in the atheist worldview. However, as I have shown above (and Dr. Craig has essentially admitted), they are simply wrong. Atheists make incorrect statements all the time, as do theists. Thus, the question isn’t what do atheists think about this issue. The question is, what does logic say about this issue, and logic says that the argument from morality is simply incorrect.
Also, please note that while the atheist to whom you linked does say that Craig hasn’t lost a debate, it’s not because the atheist thinks his arguments are irrefutable. He says that it’s because the atheists haven’t prepared properly. In addition, he clearly thinks that Craig’s argument from morality is wrong, because he says of one Dacey debate, “Dacey does a better job of responding to Craig’s arguments from morality and the Resurrection, but he doesn’t have enough time to more fully rebut them.” Now once again, I don’t care what a specific atheist says about any argument. I care what logic says, and logic says the argument from morality is wrong.
Your point about Provide and Ruse and Dawkins undermines your earlier argument. If those thinkers claim that atheism has no foundation for morality, while you claim that atheism does have such a foundation, then this means that must be rejecting one of your reasons for moral realism above. Which one do you think they reject? Does Ruse reject that humans are *unique* in the sense you articulate? Does Dawkins deny that humans are *rational* in the broad sense that you employ? Does Provine deny that humans form families and act so as to propogate the species? They don’t reject any of those claims, of course, and yet they still reject the *inference* you make from them to the existence of objective morality. This means that your arguments above are incapable of adjudicating the debate since one can infer contradictory conclusions from the same premises. You need a further premise that links your facts with your conclusion. You claim that this is a matter of logic, but what logic then shows that the facts support your conclusion rather than their conclusion? You haven’t provided any such justification, so your arguments are prima facie unsound. With that said, perhaps it would do good to better examine your arguments to see just why they are unsound.
You offer three arguments for the objective value of persons given naturalism: an argument from rationality, and argument from human uniqueness, and an argument from family/survival. None of them even addresses the argument that Craig and his ilk are making, much less succeed in refuting them.
1. The argument from Rationality.
The defender of the moral argument denies that rationality has objective value in a naturalistic worldview. Indeed, even some atheists, such as the philosopher Joel Marks, explicitly accept that because God does not exist, epistemic norms no more exist than do moral norms, so it is not merely the proponent of the moral argument who make these sorts of claims but some atheists as well. Craig and Marks make this claim because they believe that if naturalism is true, there is no adequate basis for meta-ethical realism *at all.* Rationality for instance has subjective value for creatures insofar as it is a tool for realizing their desires and interests, but to claim that rationality itself is objectively “valuable” merely begs the question in favor of moral realism by asserting that there is some fact about “value” over and above the physical and psychological facts that constitute a robust naturalism. If anything is valuable in an atheistic worldview, then perhaps rationality is valuable, but whether anything is valuable is precisely what Craig and his ilk deny. Your reason then is just a bald assertion that amounts to little more than a restatement of your conclusion. The issue is not that some particular action is wrong or right under naturalism, but rather than the very concepts of “right” and “wrong” survive the naturalistic worldview.
2. The argument from uniqueness
On its face, your argument commits a blatant non-sequiter. The fact that something is unique does not even appear to have prima facie relevance to whether it is objectively valuable (as opposed to being subjectively valuable for someone with a given psychological constitution). Once again, the moral argument operates at a much deeper and more abstract level than you seem to realize: the question is not over *what* things are intrinsically valuable provided that at least some things are; rather, the question is whether *anything* can be objectively valuable in a naturalistic universe given its materialistic and scientistic orientation towards the world and towards knowledge. As such, how do facts about uniqueness come close to answering that question or closing that gap? If anything, the fact that humans were produced by a random, unplanned process make humans less valuable rather than more valuable.
Even beyond that, your claim does not follow. Everything—every living creature and every inanimate object—is unique in the sense that it possesses a unique, contingent causal story for its existence. If the tape were rewound, the planet Jupiter (or any planets at all) may not have existed; if the tape were rewound, mosquitos and cockroaches may not have existed, so if that is what gives humans value, then it seems to me to be a veritable reductio of your argument as it equalizes the value of everything.
3. The argument from the drive towards survival
Your conclusion only follows if you assume that families and societies and survival are objectively valuable, but survival is only objectively valuable if the thing surviving is valuable; hence, your reasoning is blatantly circular: you are assuming that humans are valuable under naturalism, only to then determine that their survival is valuable, only to then use that “reason” to support your conclusion that humans are valuable.
Craig denies that anything is objectively valuable if naturalism is true because he does not think that the *category* itself is satisfied in a naturalistic account of reality. Then question then, which none of your reasons answers, is why one should believe that anything—whether survival or families or rationality or people or leeches—has objective value if naturalism is true? If that is the case, merely pointing out instances of things that you think have value doesn’t show that the moral argument is false. The two are different projects, the former is one of determining what things are valuable in themselves, while the latter concerns whether anything is valuable in the first place.
I thus conclude that your attempt at providing a basis for atheistic moral realism has not succeeded.
Once again, Jaegwon, I am sorry you do not understand, because there is a clear basis for moral realism in the atheist worldview. Let me see if I can clear up your confusion on the issues.
My point about Dawkins and Ruse doesn’t affect my argument in the slightest. People believe false things all the time. Dawkins and Ruse simply don’t accept the fact that rationality is objectively valuable to the point that it can be the basis of an objective morality. What they believe, however, is irrelevant. The fact is that it can, as I have demonstrated time and time again.
Yes, my argument directly demonstrates that the moral argument ala Craig and the like is wrong.
1. My statement is not “just a bald assertion that amounts to little more than a restatement of your conclusion.” It is a demonstrable fact. Things that are rare and beneficial are valuable. We can see that at work in the economy every day, for example. Rationality is unique and very valuable; thus, it can be the basis of an objective morality. The fact that some atheists don’t see this is irrelevant to whether or not it is true.
2. Yes, of course, uniqueness gives value. In fact, it gives infinite value. And no, every rock, animal, etc. is not unique in the sense that rationality is unique. If the tape of the universe were rewound, all sorts of non-rational animals would be produced again. Their distinct shapes and behaviors notwithstanding. It is not at all clear that rationality would evolve again (in the atheist view). Thus, it is objectively valuable.
3. As I have demonstrated, the survival of rational beings is objectively valuable, so it can be used as the basis of an objective morality.
I have already answered the question (repeatedly) why one should believe that anything—whether survival or families or rationality or people—has objective value if naturalism is true. Rationality is, as far as we know, unique. It is also beneficial. This makes it infinitely valuable in any worldview.
I therefore conclude that your objections have no value, as is the case with the moral argument.
I am unsure how much meta-ethics you have actually read, but there are a number of confusions that you continue to show that leave me nonplussed.
1. The point about Dawkins and Ruse shows that citing the facts is not sufficient to entail your conclusion. You need to supply a further premise linking the facts you cite with the conclusion you want to draw. Since Dawkins and Ruse and others accept all the facts you list but reject your conclusion, you need to explain how they went wrong, and that does not mean merely asserting over and over again that this is the case.
2. Craig’s moral argument is an argument aimed at the meta-ethical debate over the very existence of *any* objective axiological or deontological facts within a naturalistic worldview. Craig is claiming that terms like “goodness” or “badness” or “ought,” to the extent that they are meant to describe objective features beyond our own mind, have no more existence under naturalism then does phlogiston or spirits or anything else incompatible with present day naturalism. Thus, merely citing *instances* of supposedly good things as evidence for objective morality does nothing to refute his argument because it does not even engage it. Survival, for instance, is only “good” if one already believes that goodness as an ontological category exists. If one does not, then survival is not “good” in any objective sense but at best desirable to most people or ingrained by evolution into most of our striving. Neither one of those things is equivalent to showing that survival is objectively and intrinsically a good thing that we all ought to strive to achieve.
3. If things that are rare and beneficial are valuable, that is a claim about what we as humans *value.* But that is a subjective concept of value that no one—certainly not Craig—is disputing. He is disputing that anything has objective value in a naturalistic worldview, not that people or societies can’t subjectively choose to value some things in an act of social construction (as in money). That does not show that rare things are somehow intrinsically valuable such that humans *discovery* this value and adjust their subjective valuations accordingly. Gold is just a clump of atoms in a naturalistic worldview that has nothing in its chemical structure corresponding to something called “intrinsic value.”
4. Once again, it might be a psychological fact that humans tend to value unique things more than others, but that is a subjective claim about human psychology and not an objective claim about the ontological constitution of the objects themselves. If sentient life died off, then why should anyone believe that in a naturalistic worldview, a unique object would still retain some intrinsic property of “infinite value?” That doesn’t even make sense given their materialistic understanding of the universe.
By the way, your point about rational animals would only work if one presupposed that “rational uniqueness is more valuable than other forms of uniqueness. After all, every creature is unique in *some* way, so it is arbitrary for you to single out rationality just because atheists want that to be the sine qua none of value. I don’t think the universe supports that sort of anthropocentrism if naturalism is true. Hence, without some prior standard of value, uniqueness by itself would entail that every form of uniqueness is equally valuable. I don’t see how you can avoid that conclusion.
5. Once again, the survival of rational beings is only valuable if rational beings are valuable, but rational beings are only valuable if you assume that the universe contains a moral order with objective moral properties, but since that is the very thing that proponents of the moral argument deny is possible under naturalism, you need to supply an argument showing that naturalism can accommodate such things and not merely assert that values exist. Your claim is like a defender of mathematical Platonism who keeps pointing to different mathematical theorems as “evidence” for his mathematical Platonism when the question is whether *any* mathematical truths are made true by a supposed realm of abstract objects.
6. You are just shifting your basis of value from one thing to another without answering the fundamental question: why is *anything,* including uniqueness or rationality or people or survival, *objectively *valuable in themselves and not merely in relation to our interest and subjective states. Rationality is beneficial to us, but one does not need to believe in objective value in order to believe *that.* Your argument can’t possibly work until you realize that your understanding of “value” is not what other people mean in this discussion.
7. You erroneously move from a psychological fact about humans—humans tend to value unique things (if it is indeed a psychological fact, which you have not shown)—to a normative claim about the intrinsic value of things outside our mind. Furthermore, whether something is beneficial is merely a claim about instrumental rationality. Your problem once again is that you simply don’t grasp how abstract this debate is being conducted. One does not—and not ethicist believes—that something’s being beneficial makes it valuable in the realist sense. If you disagree, you don’t understand what moral realism even means, much less how the argument is supposed to work.
Pretend I am a moral nihilist. I don’t believe that the very category of “intrinsic value” has any reality. How precisely does the existence of “uniqueness” or things “beneficial” to me show that objective value exists in reality? If you can answer that question—answer it by providing an *argument* and not a mere restatement that those things somehow by magic entail objective value—then perhaps you might make progress in actually showing that the moral argument is defective. As it stands, your understanding of atheistic morality is what is erroneous and not representative of what actual atheistic ethicists believe or think.
I am not sure how much metaethics you have read, Jaegwon, but you do still seem confused on many issues here.
1. As I have already said in this thread, Dawkins and Ruse simply don’t recognize that rationality is objectively good, even though it is easily demonstrated to be so. This is not at all surprising, especially when it comes to Dawkins, as he is quite adept at ignoring any facts that don’t support his views.
2. I have shown, repeatedly, that rationality is objectively good. Indeed, this is why I have stated in this thread that Craig has already admitted that the moral argument fails, since he says, “Can we formulate a system of ethics without reference to God? If the non-theist grants that human beings do have objective value, then there is no reason to think that he cannot work out a system of ethics with which the theist would also largely agree.” Since the non-theist can demonstrate that people have objective value (since they are rational), we know that an objective system of ethics can be worked out. Thus, objective morality can exist in an atheist view.
3. Of course gold is just a clump of atoms in a naturalist worldview. However, the fact is that it is valued because it is rare. Rationality (in the atheist view) is an emergent properly of a collection of biomolecules that ends up allowing humanity to do all sorts of things, which I have detailed previously. Thus, it can be recognized as categorically good. Since it is also rare, that gives each instance of it objective value.
4. Once again, I don’t think you understand the atheist worldview. In the atheist worldview, evolution has shaped matter to give it emergent properties. The most valuable of those emergent properties is rationality. Indeed, if all humans died out, there would be nothing to value all that evolution has produced. That, of course, would be categorically bad. As a result, preservation of humans is objectively good. You might not “think” naturalism supports that sort of anthropocentrism, but it clearly does. Remember, we are having this conversation because of rationality. If it were to die out, there would be no more understanding. No more intellectual exploration. No more art. No more discussions like this. That is objectively bad.
5. Once again, rationality can be shown to be objectively good, as I have already done. As a result, it produces a moral order.
6. Certainly, one does not have to believe in objective value to believe that rationality is good for us. However, one does not have to believe in objective value to believe that 1 + 1 = 2. Whether or not one can believe some truths without understanding other truths is irrelevant. The fact is that rationality can be shown to be objectively good. As a result, its preservation can be the basis of an objective morality.
7. You can try to argue against my position by claiming I don’t understand, but that doesn’t work. I do understand. I understand that in an atheist universe, rationality is objectively good.
Rationality is objectively good, because without it, there would be no love, no art, no intellectual discussions, etc., etc. Thus, it has intrinsic value, regardless of whether or not a moral nihilist recognizes this. That’s the whole point of emergent properties. Matter can be organized in such a way as to produce properties that are unlike the individual components that make it up. Rationality is one of those emergent properties. It is inherently good, because it makes possible a host of things that otherwise would not be possible. A moral nihilist might not understand this, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is true.
As I mentionedin my other reply, I will no longer be responding to this post but will confine any future discussion under my own post below. This way that eliminates a lot of pointless redundency and waste.
I have read a lot of meta-ethics. I studied philosophy at a high level, even thinking of getting my doctorate in philosophy, before eventually abandoning it and entering another field, so I am hardly a novice in this area if that is what you are wondering. It is also why I only smile when you continue to insist that I don’t understand this or that when, I assure you, I understand the issues quite well.
1. I agree that Dawkins is inept, but it is not easily demonstrable that rationality is objectively good. If it were, the field of meta-ethics would not be so controversial with no clear way to settle the issue. There are many competent philosophers and ethicists who believe what Dawkins does on this topic, and it is they who give his opinion some legitimacy. With that said, my point is merely that rationality by itself does not establish that anything is good, nor does it show that it fits into a naturalistic worldview.
2. You just continue to assert that rationality is intrinsically good; you have not ”shown” any such thing. Furthermore, your point about Craig is based on a misunderstanding. Craig obviously is not admitting that an argument that he uses is faulty. Craig is claiming that an atheist does not need to believe in God in order to formulate a coherent moral system; he believes this because he is making a meta-ethical argument about the ontology of our moral claims themselves and not a claim about the actual moral beliefs and practices of atheists themselves. One does not need to know the true nature of something in order to believe in it.
3. We do indeed subjectively value certain things, such as gold, but that does not show that gold (or unique things in general) are actually valuable in themselves, nor have you produced any reason to think so. You have not explained how you move from subjective value to objective value. Your point about the mind’s being an “emergent property” is just one controversial account of naturalism; many atheists do not accept that strong form of emergence because it is often explanatorily vacuous, amounting to little more than convenient conjuring when you need it. You need a clear theoretical justification for believing that something—such as the mind—could exist in a purely materialistic universe. If you are going to vest matter with powers of producing almost anything by “emergence,” your materialism is not worth anything.
4.Naturalism does not support anthropocentricsm because the universe does not care about people in that worldview. It has no teleology or awareness or concern for human beings. As such, you can’t merely assume that what is important to you is what is in fact valuable; that ignores the possibility that even if things could be objectively valuable in themselves, evolution has distorted our priorities in the same way that it has distorted much of our other thinking away from the truth.
5. There is no moral order under naturalism. That is precisely what you have no shown to be the case.
6. You say, “You can try to argue against my position by claiming I don’t understand, but that doesn’t work. I do understand. I understand that in an atheist universe, rationality is objectively good. “
I claim that you don’t understand the issue because you continually commit various errors that suggest you don’t seem to understand the meta-ethical issues involved here. Why else would you continue to interject obvious red-herrings about the instrumental value of rationality as if they were relevant to the actual issue in dispute? Now you do seem to be getting it, but instead of producing an argument for your conclusion, you merely assert that rationality is intrinsically good, even while you continue to muddy the waters by appealing to its instrumental value (it helps us to love and ratiocinate and create, etc.). Given that, I am well within my rights to infer that you are very confused about this issue.
Right here you make the same error once again. You say, “Rationality is objectively good, because without it, there would be no love, no art, no intellectual discussions, etc., etc. Thus, it has intrinsic value, regardless of whether or not a moral nihilist recognizes this.”
No, it has *instrumental* value; that is what the term means: something is instrumentally valuable if it helps us to acquire something else that we desire or seek. If rationality is good because it helps us to love and produce art and engage in intellectual discussions, it is not intrinsically valuable.
“That’s the whole point of emergent properties. Matter can be organized in such a way as to produce properties that are unlike the individual components that make it up. Rationality is one of those emergent properties. It is inherently good, because it makes possible a host of things that otherwise would not be possible. A moral nihilist might not understand this, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is true.”
Now, we are finally getting the nub of your real reason for thinking that naturalism is compatible with moral realism: you are proposing some form of property dualism in which moral facts are radically distinct from other physical facts and merely popped into existence by some process of strong “emergence.” You are free to believe that if you wish, of course, but that sort of vague hang-waiving hardly makes moral realism a plausible fit with a robust, scientific naturalism. Anyone can just hand-waive whatever they want—consciousness, rationality, morality, persons—into existence without citing a clear mechanism based on established science and materialistic philosophy. In either case, your moral property dualism hardly shows that the moral argument is false since that depends on whether one finds your moral property dualsim and radical emergentism to be more plausible than a theistic metaphysics. I don’t see why someone *must* believe that.
Bill and Karen,
If I may, I would like both of you to take a step back and see what Jay has been doing for you. He is giving you both a very precious lesson in dealing with atheists. A lesson that not only applies to atheists but applies to all people.
Some background first (to hopefully make my point clear). At university, one of my close friends would often take up the contrary argument when specific topics came up. He could do this very well because he was a very able and logical thinker. These arguments were NOT his particular point of view.
What this highlighted to us was that there are topics that exist (in this specific case here – the objective/absolute morality applicable to an atheistic worldview) in which there is little point in arguing, if we wish to demonstrate our views of a particular subject as being the correct view.
Even though I believe that any atheistic morality is flawed and leads to no permanent benefit, I won’t argue this point with any atheist. It only destroys any opportunity to demonstrate the glorious wonderful nature of God and His great love for us and the salvation He has made for us.
Knowing that there are subjects that should not be discussed is just as necessary as knowing what subjects can be discussed to further the making of disciples for Jesus Christ. If we understand that specific points of view shouldn’t be argued then we can find other ways to be the examples we need to be. What I mean here by “shouldn’t” is that it will gain you nothing by approaching these kinds of areas with a rebuttal.
Just as Paul did when talking to the Athenians, he didn’t approach them by saying your views are wrong, he approached them by using a shrine to the Unknown God and used that to preach the good news of Jesus Christ.
It is all good and well to discuss various subjects but one needs to use wisdom in how you approach someone with a strongly held view. The Lord will give you the appropriately line of attack that will be beneficial to the message of the gospel as well as beneficial to the relationships involved.
I have a specific view on a certain aspect of Christian views which I do NOT share with others (at least not anymore unless the Lord so directs). My view is based on the answer I got from the Lord relating to specific details about time (an esoteric subject). This has led me to view various scriptures in a different light which is at odds with most Christians. It is of no real importance in relation to who God is and He plan for salvation and how He deals with each of us. But, if I attempt to discuss this specific viewpoint, it only causes others to be in conflict. This conflict is not worth anything, so I do not discuss this viewpoint.
So too, discussions on refuting any absolute/objective atheist moral viewpoint doesn’t progress showing them the gospel message.
Too often we (as people and I’m no exception) get caught up in defending a viewpoint that doesn’t actually benefit anyone, especially not the gospel of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Just remember that people you come in contact with will hold various views that are anathema to you and anything you say will not change their minds even one wit. However, what you do and how you treat and interact with people can and often does have an impact that is life changing for them. It becomes a case of not hear what I say, but see the reality of what I do.
Our mission is to be a “light on the hill” and to “Pour coals on our neighbour’s head”, to be Jesus to everyone we come in contact with.
I think Jay has aptly shown that atheists who have a absolute/objective morality can do so logically. The simple fact that the basis for their logic is wrong (i.e., no God) is not actually relevant to the logic.
I know that Godel’s Incompleteness theorems may mean nothing to you. But they are a good insight into how some of the very basic premises of any school of thought are not provable but are simply accepted. God proves Himself to us individually. There will come a day when He will prove Himself to all of mankind and yet, there will still be those who will refuse to accept Him and will fight Him with everything that they have.
May the Lord God bless you all this day and may Hos peace rest on you and His Spirit fill every part of you.
I am glad you brought up Godel’s Incompleteness theorems, Bruce. I rarely go that deep into the grass when discussing philosophy. I encourage everyone who has trouble understanding why the argument from morality is wrong to look into them. In essence, they say that in all logical systems, there are fundamental assumptions that cannot be proven or disproven. They are just assumed. If you are going to talk with someone about their worldview, you need to find what those assumptions are, because that’s the only hope you have of understanding their worldview. Since I was an atheist at one time, I think I have a better understanding of those assumptions than many of my Christian brothers and sisters. As a result, I can see why some arguments that are popular among theists (like the moral argument) are incorrect.
I guess it’s also important to note that I am not saying the moral argument can’t change an atheist’s mind. There are atheists who have come to believe based on the moral argument. Indeed, I have written about one. I praise God that He can use anything, even incorrect arguments, to draw people to Him.
This is no longer about the argument for God based on morality. 🙂 I realize that I just am not doing it justice, either, and apparently neither to presuppositional apologetics, which is exactly the argument that EVERY worldview has to have, at the core, presuppositions. So you enter the worldview, and check out how the presuppositions work together to be consistent, or inconsistent. It does, exactly, mean getting inside the worldview and seeing from that point of view.
But it’s obvious I haven’t done well at articulating that. So Bruce, I just want to say that you are doing me a bit of an injustice. I’m discussing this with Dr. Wile, not an atheist, and when I felt that I could not contribute any longer to the discussion, I dropped out. Yes, I’d like to convince Dr. Wile of what I think is true, but there is no rancour here. I also did not think I was in any way disrespectful or unkind, or ? whatever thing it is you feel I was that was detrimental to the conversation.
Not everyone likes to discuss things where we disagree. Some people do though. Some people enjoy a robust disagreement that is cordial. It’s not meant to be with enmity. Often when we think “out loud” with other people, our thinking gets better.
Also, you do not know how I speak with atheists. You have only seen this one conversation, which you may not feel was good or would be beneficial to atheists. But you have never seen me actually talking with one, so you are making some assumptions about me. I think that is not quite fair..?
As well, Dr. Wile has said several times that the problem is that I “don’t like” the ‘truth’ that there is absolute morality apart from God. I think that isn’t really fair either. It implies that the trouble is not that I don’t find the arguments compelling, but that I just don’t want to do so.
I understand the frustration we have when people don’t see our point. It is tempting to think the problem is their own desire to see it. But it’s not the best thing to do, because love believes the best. So I must truly believe that Dr. Wile is NOT being stubborn, but that he genuinely believes that my arguments are faulty and that his are very good and clear.
In other words, you may believe I am foolish in my thinking, but please don’t think I’m just refusing to see it because I don’t want to. 🙂
Thank you, Dr. Sarfati, for joining us. I have one of your excellent books and am looking at buying the one you wrote on Genesis. I appreciate you taking time to add to the discussion.
Bruce, I understand that you have strong opinions that may be in conflict with what I think. That is OK. I think you are a very good, kind, sincere, honest person. I prefer to stick to the original discussion with Dr. Wile. Karen has done a good job of voicing some of my concerns about what you wrote so I will just leave it at that.
Karen, I think you are in good company when you seem to have some agreement with Dr. Sarfati and Dr. Craig. I think you have made some excellent comments during this discussion even though Dr. Wile has disagreed with many of them. You are a refreshing voice on this blog site and I would personally encourage you to continue to comment.
Dr. Wile, For the sake of clarity, please state as clearly and succinctly as possible what you think the moral argument is and says, and very specifically why you disagree with each premise that you feel is incorrect. Also it would be helpful to know what would be needed from your perspective to make it true.
Bill, the moral argument can be presented with this syllogism:
Premise 1: If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
Premise 2: Objective moral values and duties do exist.
Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.
Premise 1 is obviously false. While God provides one means by which objective moral values and duties exist, He is not necessary for the existence of objective moral values and duties. As William Lane Craig admits, objective moral values and duties exist if human beings have objective value, and they clearly do have objective value, independent of whether or not God exists.
In order for the moral argument to be correct, you would have to prove that there is no way for humans to have objective value in an atheist worldview. Thus, you have to start with the atheist worldview and, accepting its assumptions, show that humans have no objective value.
Thank you very much for the clarification Dr. Wile. It helps me a lot to know exactly what you think about the moral argument. Seeing it in one place makes it much easier for me to evaluate my response to your objections.
You have clearly said that cosmic debris is cosmic debris. As an atheist did you think morality could come from cosmic debris? If so, what scientific evidence convinced you of that supposed fact?
I am still not clear on why I have to accept the atheist assumption that morality can develop from cosmic debris. Would you accept that first premise if you were doing a videotaped debate with atheist? Would you allow them that initial premise without challenging their assumption as an unreasonable position at the first available opportunity?
When I was an atheist, I certainly did accept the idea that morality could come from cosmic debris. The scientific evidence was quite straightforward: people are objectively rational. We can repeatedly distinguish between a person and an animal by simply providing tests that measure rationality. Thus, there was a quantitative, measurable difference between people and animals. This tells the atheist that cosmic debris which became human was processed in such a way as to produce rationality, and rationality allows for moral reasoning. Rationality obviously imparts objective value as well, so not only could properly-processed cosmic debris produce morality, it would also have objective value as a result.
You don’t have to believe the atheist assumption that morality can develop from cosmic debris. However, to evaluate the first premise of the moral argument, you must grant that assumption. The first premise in the moral argument says that only God can produce objective moral values. To test that premise, you have to start from the atheist position. Thus, you have to grant the atheist his or her beliefs on natural history. Then, you can see whether or not morality can exist in that kind of universe. It clearly can. Thus, the first premise of the moral argument is false.
If I were in a debate and the atheist started with a premise that said, “If God does not exist, then X,” to evaluate that premise, I would most certainly grant him or her the assumption that cosmic debris can be processed to produce something rational. I would also grant him or her any other assumptions necessary to produce a universe without God. That’s the only way to evaluate the premise. I wouldn’t agree that cosmic debris can be processed to produce something rational, but that’s irrelevant when it comes to whether or not the premise is true.
Hello, Dr. Wile, I hate to intrude into another person’s discussion, but this is too interesting to pass up.
You claim: “When I was an atheist, I certainly did accept the idea that morality could come from cosmic debris.”
Then as an atheist (naturalist?), on pain of making your claim a merely trivial stipulation, you would have to show how a robust moral reality can emerge from a physicalist ontology. Anyone can just assert that this happened in a bit of natural magic, but unless a materialist has a plausible story rooted in their best understanding of science and reality how this can occur, a mere hand-waiving bit of rhetoric isn’t going to cut it. It is hardly remotely evident or plausible to many people that you can move from forces and fields and atoms and space/time to “wrongness” and “rightness” and “goodness” and “badness” and “obligations” and “human rights.” The two are so radically different in kind that the existence of the latter can quite reasonably lead one to question the truth that the former is all there is ultimately to reality. The latter fit naturally into Platonic and supernatural views of the world, but they do not fit at all into a naturalistic worldview, at least one that takes the deliverances of science to be normative with respect to our epistemic practices.
“The scientific evidence was quite straightforward: people are objectively rational. We can repeatedly distinguish between a person and an animal by simply providing tests that measure rationality. Thus, there was a quantitative, measurable difference between people and animals.”
But that of course is completely irrelevant to the issue of moral realism and moral antirealism: everyone—both those who embrace robust moral facts and those who oppose them (moral nihilists and fictionalists and error theorists and non-cognitivists)—accept that humans are “rational” in the sense of being better at instrumental reasoning than many other creatures. At most, that would only generate prudential norms, not moral norms. It would not show that objective moral obligations exist *requiring* us to govern our behavior in various ways because those actions are objectively “morally right” or “morally wrong,” nor does it show that some things, including human beings themselves, are somehow more valuable than other things or creatures in the universe based upon some independent moral standard of value. If moral nihilism is correct, after all, and our physical description (including whatever higher-order properties we can plausibly show to be dependent upon the physical) of reality is *all* that we are entitled to accept, then nothing is “better” than anything else in a categorical sense, for there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” except in a weak, instrumental, and agent-relative sense of that term (e.g., good for some purpose or good for someone).
“This tells the atheist that cosmic debris which became human was processed in such a way as to produce rationality, and rationality allows for moral reasoning.”
But you can only engage in “moral reasoning” if there is such a moral realm in the first place, and that is precisely what the proponent of the moral argument denies is justified in a naturalistic worldview. You don’t need to embrace moral facts in order to accept the legitimacy of instrumental reasoning: given certain desires, which are purely psychological states, a rational person will behave in ways calculated to achieve those desires, but nothing about that account shows that there is some objective standard of “goodness” or “obligation” that humans are required to embrace as a categorical fact. If I am a psychopath, then my rationality allows me to achieve my nefarious aims just as readily as it helps a philanthropist achieve his aims. Perhaps you are merely trying to deflate the concept of “morality” to mean nothing more than what is practically rational given our aims, but then you are obviously equivocating on what most ordinary people mean by those terms: moral obligations are by their very nature categorical and not merely instrumental, and they are material and not merely formal rules. How do these material constraints arise within a materialistic worldview?
Of course, as a chemist, if you are aware of some standard understanding of physics or chemistry or biology or psychology or economics, etc., that does include deontological notions as part of their fundamental stock of ontological concepts, then I would be happy to recant, but until then, the burden is on the naturalist to explain how his vision of the world can actually give rise to something like moral realism without merely stipulating in an ad-hoc manner that this is the case.
“Rationality obviously imparts objective value as well, so not only could properly-processed cosmic debris produce morality, it would also have objective value as a result.”
How so? How *could* rationality, which is just a tool for acting in the world, generate a completely distinct category of facts? I don’t see it at all. Rationality would certainly be useful in doing what is moral *if* moral realism was true, but whether moral realism is true does not depend in anyway upon the existence of rational creatures.
“You don’t have to believe the atheist assumption that morality can develop from cosmic debris. However, to evaluate the first premise of the moral argument, you must grant that assumption.”
To grant that assumption is just another way of saying that one has to reject the first premise of the moral argument; given that this is the very issue in dispute, it would clearly be foolish for a proponent of the moral argument to concede the game right from the start. All the proponent of this argument needs to show is that nothing in the accepted scientific description of the evolution of the universe entails anything about morality; indeed, that it is in tension with a naturalistic ontology.
Furthermore, even if moral argument is unsound, that does not show that the atheist is entitled to believe in moral facts. After all, it could be the case that the moral argument is unsound *and* atheism commits one to moral antirealism. As such, the atheist either way needs to justify the claim that a purely physical cosmos can plausibly give rise to a radically different realm of value and deontic facts. I and many other people, including atheists, just don’t see that at all.
“The first premise in the moral argument says that only God can produce objective moral values. To test that premise, you have to start from the atheist position. Thus, you have to grant the atheist his or her beliefs on natural history. Then, you can see whether or not morality can exist in that kind of universe. It clearly can. Thus, the first premise of the moral argument is false.”
Well, I don’t believe that facts about value, nor facts about obligation, nor facts about human rights, nor facts about cosmic justice, nor an adequate moral epistemology can exist in that worldview, and I don’t see how anything you have said shows otherwise. Of course, an atheist could reject naturalism and believe in something like moral Platonism, but that would be conceding a lot towards a supernatural worldview.
Thanks for your comment Jaegwon, although I will have to completely disagree with it. You claim, “It is hardly remotely evident or plausible to many people that you can move from forces and fields and atoms and space/time to ‘wrongness’ and ‘rightness’ and ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’ and ‘obligations’ and ‘human rights.'” That is simply false. Regardless of where something comes from, it can be objectively determined to be of value or not. If it is objectively valuable and beneficial (as rationality clearly is), then it must be preserved, regardless of where it came from. Anyone can see that, regardless of his or her worldview.
Of course, rationality is not “completely irrelevant to the issue of moral realism and moral antirealism.” Rationality is an objective means of assigning value, so it can be the basis of an objective, absolute morality. I think the heart of your misunderstanding lies in your statement, “But you can only engage in ‘moral reasoning’ if there is such a moral realm in the first place.” Once again, that is utterly false. Of course there need be no other realm but the one in which rationality is found. Once you have rationality, you can engage in any kind of reasoning, including moral reasoning. Once you can objectively assign value, you have objective moral reasoning.
You say, “If I am a psychopath, then my rationality allows me to achieve my nefarious aims just as readily as it helps a philanthropist achieve his aims.” Of course. If I am a religious person, my religion can cause me to do nefarious things (like terrorism), just as it helps another religious person do good things. Thus, this has no bearing about whether or not objective, moral reasoning exists in an atheist worldview. It applies equally to theists.
You ask, “How *could* rationality, which is just a tool for acting in the world, generate a completely distinct category of facts?” It does not generate a completely distinct category of facts. It generates an objective measure of value, which then can be the basis of an objective moral system.
I appreciate you finding the typo in my statement, “You don’t have to believe the atheist assumption that morality can develop from cosmic debris.” The word “morality” should be “rationality.” Since we know rationality exists, we have to grant that it can exist in an atheist worldview, since that is not at issue in the moral argument. Once we grant that, the moral argument is shown to be false.
I can understand your point of view. You can’t understand the atheist view of the universe. However, whether or not you can believe that is irrelevant. The atheist cannot believe in God. Thus, he could say exactly the same thing about the moral argument: “Well, I don’t believe that God can be a source of facts about value, obligation, human rights, cosmic justice, or morality, since God does not exist.”
Thanks for the reply. Let me clarify a few of my points, so that hopefully we can achieve some measure of understanding if not agreement because from where I stand, I think you have completely misunderstood the meta-ethical issues in dispute here, while of course you think the same thing about my stance. I promise I’ll try not to be so long-winded either. No guarantees though. 🙂
1. You claim that “regardless of where something comes from, it can be objectively determined to be of value or not.” That may be true, but one cannot determine whether it has *intrinsic* value unless it in fact has such a property of intrinsic value that we can discover and measure in the first place. If it does not, then you could no more determine the objective and intrinsic value of something than you could measure the midichlorian count of someone. You can’t do so because midichlorians do not exist, and if objective value does not exist, then the same follows for objective value.
2. You are correct of course that rationality is not completely irrelevant, but what I meant to say is that it is not relevant to resolving the dispute between moral realists (those who think that moral claims are truth-claims made true by something in the world) and moral antirealists (those who think that morality either does not make truth-claims or else it vacuously or fictitiously makes them as part of a useful story we tell about the world). It is not relevant because both sides of the dispute agree that we possess the sort of rationality you describe, but neither one believes it is dispositive in solving this issue. That is why I cannot see how it is relevant to this argument or this issue either.
I do think I perhaps understand where the disagreement lies. I don’t think that you are using “morality” in the same way that proponents of this argument are using the term. You seem to be defining morality very generally to denote whatever decision procedure humans use to guide their action; consequently, as long as one is rational, one can engage in “moral reasoning.” This is why you don’t think a realm of moral facts needs to exist in order for moral reasoning to occur. If moral truths are truths about what we are objectively and categorically *obligated* to do but do not exist, then it is impossible—logically impossible—for anyone to reason about a non-existent subject. You can reason about such facts *as* a fiction—i.e., in the same way that we reason about fictitious things like Santa Claus and goblins and superpowers—but you cannot reason about such a subject qua body of timeless truths that we discover and which genuinely impose obligations upon us in virtue of their reality.
3. You misunderstand my example with the psychopath. The question is not whether religious people can be bad people, but how we can justify our ascriptions of “good” and “bad” at all given a naturalistic world (regardless of whom is doing the bad act). The example is meant to refute the idea that morality can be reduced to mere instrumental rationality and the satisfaction of preferences (i.e., the sort of decision-theoretic framework that economists love so well). Rationality can tell us that if we value X, then doing Y is objectively the best way to realize Y, but it cannot tell us whether Y is “good” or “bad” in the first place. The only way that is possible is if there are objective facts outside our own mind that make our value ascriptions true or false, but that is precisely what naturalists have difficulty in explaining when different people hold contradictory aims and desires.
4. I don’t think I misunderstand the atheist view of the universe. For one, most of what I say comes from atheist ethicists who are describing their view of the world. In fact, I would put things in reverse: many atheists are the ones who don’t properly understand the implications of their own worldview. Furthermore, treat carefully when assuming facts about my past or present… or whether I am even a Christian.
5. Finally, you claim that an atheist can claim that “Well, I don’t believe that God can be a source of facts about value, obligation, human rights, cosmic justice, or morality, since God does not exist.”
That does not follow, though. One can accept the implications of a claim without embracing the claim itself. For instance, an atheist can accept that if God exists, then God would be the source of our eternal life without conceding that God (and eternal life) in fact exists. Likewise, an atheist can accept that if God exists, moral realism follows as an implication of that without accepting that God exists. By rejecting God, the atheist would then have to accept that (1) moral realism is false, or (2) there is some other basis for moral realism that does not make reference to God.
Thanks for your reply, Jaegwon. However, I do think that you are misunderstanding the issues here.
1. Rationality clearly does have a property of intrinsic value that we can discover and measure. Without rationality, we would not be able to love. Without rationality, we would not be able to create. Without rationality, we would not be able to explore the intellectual landscape. Without rationality, we would not even be having this discussion. Thus, we can easily measure the goodness of rationality.
2. This issue is not about resolving the dispute between moral realists and moral antirealists. It is about determining whether or not an objective, absolute moral system can be developed in an atheist worldview. Whether or not an atheist (or theist) accepts this, it clearly can.
I do think you are right that the heart of our disagreement centers around rationality. You seem to think I am saying that if rationality GUIDES decision making, it is moral. I am certainly not saying that. I am saying (as I have said countless times) that rationality ITSELF is objectively good. We can demonstrate that in many ways, such as the ways discussed in point 1. Since rationality is objectively good, preserving it is objectively good, and that can be the basis of an objective moral system.
3. Once again, you are not understanding the fact that rationality is objectively good. I am not saying that rational decision making is moral. I am saying that the preservation of rational beings is clearly good, because rationality is objectively good. Thus, an objective moral system can be based on preserving rational beings.
4. I am not assuming anything about your worldview. I am just making conclusions based on your arguments. Based on what you have said, you don’t seem to understand the atheist worldview, because you don’t seem to understand that atheists can, indeed, recognize certain things (like rationality) to be objectively good.
5. Once again, you don’t seem to understand my point at all. You tried to dismiss my argument by saying, “…I don’t believe that facts about value, nor facts about obligation, nor facts about human rights, nor facts about cosmic justice, nor an adequate moral epistemology can exist in that worldview.” I am saying that the atheist can say exactly the same thing about your claim that God gives us facts about value, facts about obligation, facts about human rights, facts about cosmic justice, and an adequate moral epistemology.
Greetings, Dr. Wile.
A few preliminary matters are in order. First, I hope you don’t mistake my love of a vigorous rational discussion with any abrasiveness on my part. Sometimes things can come off differently on the Internet than in an actual conversation, so I just wanted to make this clear. Second, I don’t want to have three different fronts open when so many of the issues overlap and produce needless redundency, so I won’t be responding to any of these threads further but will confine anything further under my own post below. Now, onto the substance.
1. Your first argument seems to refute itself. You claim that rationality has “intrinsic value,” but you then follow that up by implying that rationality has merely extrinsic value: rationality is valuable only insofar as it helps us realize certain other goods—creativity, intellectual exploration, love, etc.—that are the real goods in question. That is a paradigmatic example of an instrumental good. No one denies that rationality has instrumental value for us, but that hardly shows that it does indeed have intrinsic value, nor does it show that any of the other things you mention have intrinsic value. A subjectivist or nihilist would concede that it has subjective value for many people while denying that it has any intrinsic value.
2. The issue is about the moral argument for God, and the proponents of the moral argument are explicitly making a meta-ethical argument against naturalism: they are claiming that various moral facts, such as intrinsic goodness or genuine moral obligations, are better explained by theism than by naturalism. Furthermore, whether a moral system is “objective” or subjective is itself a meta-ethical issue involving the nature of our moral concepts and posits. Given that a successful resolution of the realism and anti-realism debate in favor of naturalism would refute the moral argument, I don’t understand how you can say that this has nothing to do with that issue. It has everything to do with it.
3. I think I understand your position just fine right now. What I still don’t understand is how this is relevant to the moral argument, or how it is supposed to show that the argument fails. If something is intrinsically good in a naturalistic worldview, then of course the moral argument fails, but the very issue is whether anything can be intrinsically good in such a worldview. You claim that you have provided an argument for the intrinsic goodness of at least one thing—rationality—but I don’t see it. All you have done is merely claimed that rationality is instrumentally useful for helping us achieve various ends that we have; that hardly shows that it is intrinsically good. As I have mentioned again and again, a nihilist about value accepts that claim about rationality while denying that it is objectively and intrinsically good. Thus, you have to do more than merely point to rationality as if that were an argument for the existence of objective goodness.
4. It is not that I do not understand the fact that rationality is objectively good; rather, it is that I don’t see that rationality would be objectively good if naturalism were true. Why is rationality or anything else objectively good if naturalism is true? That is the question that you have failed to answer over and over again.
5. I think you should be careful about speaking of “the atheist worldview,” as if it were a monolithic thing. The fact that many atheists—Dawkins, Provine, Ruse, Mackie, Joyce, Marks, etc.—are moral antirealists of various sorts shows that there is no such thing as “the” atheist worldview. There are atheists who are moral realists, and atheists who are not. None of that requires that one just accept a priori that rationality is intrinsically good. That is a substantive claim that is disputed by the atheists, among others, that I list above.
Once again, it is not that I fail to understand that some things can be intrinsically good under naturalism. Instead, I don’t *accept* that this is true because I see no reason to believe it is true and many reasons to believe it is false, and neither do the atheist antirealists I quote above. There is a difference between understanding a position and rejecting it because one finds it to be false or inadequate.
6. Of course the atheist can make that claim. All this shows is that we have to offer further arguments explaining why certain concepts are more or less plausible in the respecting worldviews, and on that point, it is blatantly untrue that the two worldviews are explanatorily symmetrical. To take one example, if naturalism is true, then there is no reason to think that wrongs and injustices will ultimately be righted (“cosmic justice”), but if theism is true, that follows essentially from the content of the various theistic religions. I have no problem with an atheist who genuinely tries to explain how moral facts could exist in an atheistic worldview, but what I do have a problem with is the idea that an atheist can merely stipulate that goodness is exist without showing how this follows from the rest of what he or she believes about the nature of reality. If one thinks that matter and energy is all that exist, then it is hardly evidence that something as different as “intrinsic value” can also exist in that universe. To say otherwise amounts to a bald stipulation, and stipulations do not need to be taken seriously.
Thank you once again Dr. Wile. I’m still having trouble with the logic of your argument.
People are objectively rational. I agree
“We can repeatedly distinguish between a person and an animal by simply providing tests that measure rationality.” I’m with you.
“Thus, there was a quantitative, measurable difference between people and animals.” OK.
“This tells the atheist that cosmic debris which became human was processed in such a way as to produce rationality, and rationality allows for moral reasoning.”
WOW! What a jump. Cosmic debris which became human. You can’t reasonably go directly from cosmic debris to humans. With clear scientific evidence that cosmic debris cannot even reasonably make it to the DNA stage of life, the argument implodes. Obviously, DNA can’t come from cosmic debris. That is the point I have been continuing to make. The atheist argument is terribly flawed from the very first premise, that any life comes from cosmic debris. Thus, no life form equals no morality, and no reasonable moral argument from the atheist position.
Perhaps you and others could be excused for believing such things in the past. Dr. Tour has made it abundantly clear that the option to believe cosmic debris produced the first life form is no longer a reasonable option when empirical science is considered. Anyone who continues to hold that position needs to have a long talk with Dr. Tour.
I agree with you 100%, Bill, but once again, you are not making a moral argument. You are making a design argument. The point of this discussion is evaluating the moral argument, which is clearly flawed. You have helped make that point by trying to defend the moral argument, but in the end falling back to the design argument.
I would also add something here. You keep bringing up Dr. Tour. You need to realize that he is not nearly as confident as you are when you say that DNA cannot come from cosmic debris. I assume you are referring to his article, which I discussed a while ago. You need to remember how he ends that article:
Thus, Dr. Tour is most certainly not saying that cosmic debris can’t form DNA. He is saying that IF it can, we have no idea how it can. Nevertheless, he leaves open the possibility that it might be explained someday. That’s a proper scientific attitude on the matter.
As always, I appreciate your reply Dr. Wile.
I thought I was presenting a design argument to provide empirical scientific support for the reason I do not believe the atheist world view can provide morality. No life equals no morality. It is that simple. Obviously you do not accept that rational, so there is nothing else I can say to convince you of what I think is clear evidence for what I think is true.
As far as Dr. Tour is concerned, you are correct that he thinks it is possible that we may one day find an answer to abiogenesis. Any good scientist has to allow for that possibility. In my opinion, the information he has provided tells me that it is just not reasonable to expect that answer to come. Chemists are collectively clueless after many years of research into the field according to Dr. Tour. I think that makes it highly improbable that a good reasonable answer will be found. Once again, anything is possible, not everything is reasonable.
I do thank you for agreeing with me 100% on the points that I made. I am hopeful that others reading my comments, and your comments, will at least see the hoops an atheist has to jump through to get morality from their world view. I would also like to thank you for providing me an opportunity to discuss these issues with you. Even as we disagree, I have always found it extremely helpful to be able to discuss atheist issues with someone of your intelligence who has such an excellent insight into how those in the atheist community think.
You were presenting a design argument, Bill, because the moral argument simply doesn’t work. The fact is that we know human beings are rational, and that gives them objective value. Thus, whether or not one believes in God, one can construct an objective, absolute moral system. Now…it certainly makes no sense that rationality can develop in a world without God, but once again, that’s not the moral argument. That’s the design argument.
Hello, Professor Wile:
I too must confess that I too don’t understand where your objection to the morally argument is supposed to gain its force. You claim that it is “demonstrably false” that atheism cannot accommodate moral realism and objectivism, but I hardly think that is demonstrable or correct; if it were correct, there would be no atheistic philosophers—such as John Mackie, Mark Kalderon, Richard Joyce, Daniel Nolan, Joel Marks, Michael Ruse, and others—who believe exactly what you claim to be demonstrably false: they claim that morality is either a useful fiction, or else it is just plain false, and many of them do so because they think morality is dependent upon God (Mackie and Marks make this very connection).
I think this then is what Karen and the others are puzzled over. Why is an action—say, animal cruelty—objectively *wrong* in an atheistic and naturalistic universe given its physicalist ontology, scientific epistemology, and non-teleological (often meaningless)account of historical progression? The question is not whether one can derive the wrongness of a particular action from some more fundamental category of natural facts (e.g., animal cruelty is wrong because it involves suffering, and suffering is prima facie wrong, etc.), but whether the very category of “wrongness” can exist in the world. One can accept that creatures suffer without embracing any moral conclusions from this after all, so wherein lies these extra moral facts above and beyond the purely physical facts? Are you claiming that they are *identical* with natural properties as certain naturalists claim? If so, I think that quickly leads to more problems that answers, but I will leave that here for now.
I am sorry you don’t understand the fact that the moral argument is demonstrably false. Many philosophers believe in demonstrably false things. As I have shown, rationality imparts value, and as a result, that value can be used as a basis of an objective morality, regardless of one’s worldview.
It is painfully simple to show that animal cruelty is wrong regardless of one’s worldview. For example, one can show that people who engage in acts of cruelty to animals are more likely to be psychopaths than those who do not. Since a smooth, functioning society that preserves rationality is objectively good, any kind of behavior that promotes psychopathic behavior is bad.
Of course “wrongness” can exist in the atheist world. That’s because you can use rationality as an objective measure of value, which can lead to objective definitions of right and wrong.
Hello Dr. Wile:
You say “I am sorry you don’t understand the fact that the moral argument is demonstrably false.”
I have read a fair amount of the literature in atheistic ethics, and I am unaware of any such “demonstration.” This is why I don’t understand your reasoning; there is no clear or easy path from rationality to morality. Perhaps you are conflating normative ethics, the discipline that seeks to formulate theories of moral decision-making, from meta-ethics, the discipline that seeks to understand the very nature of moral concepts such as “goodness” and “obligations.” Rationality *is* relevant to normative ethics—to utilitarian and Kantian and social contract theories, etc.—but it has almost no relevance to the meta-ethical debate over the very existence of basic moral facts because everyone concedes that humans are rational. That fact makes no difference to the debate.
“Many philosophers believe in demonstrably false things. As I have shown, rationality imparts value, and as a result, that value can be used as a basis of an objective morality, regardless of one’s worldview.”
I don’t see that you have shown any such thing. Rationality does not impart value, as if it can create new properties ex nihilo; it is merely a tool we can use to understand the world and guide our action within it; as such, one does not need to accept objective moral obligations or intrinsic value in order to have a psychological foundation for rational action. We must not conflate subjective value (that something is valuable to us) with intrinsic or objective value (that something is valuable in itself). If something has intrinsic value, then clearly we did not make it by our rationality anymore than we make something heavy or alive or mammalian by our rational activity… at least as long as you are not going the postmodern route and claiming that we literally construct the universe, including its properties, by our mental activity. I hope not.
“It is painfully simple to show that animal cruelty is wrong regardless of one’s worldview. For example, one can show that people who engage in acts of cruelty to animals are more likely to be psychopaths than those who do not.”
But that is a descriptive claim about some of the people who engage in the practice and not a normative claim telling us what we should or should not do, or of what is or is not good or bad. I am asking how a naturalist explains why animal cruelty is morally wrong–categorically wrong regardless of what desires one happens to have–and your response seems to confirm my suspicion that they have no coherent answer to that or any other moral question.
“Since a smooth, functioning society that preserves rationality is objectively good, any kind of behavior that promotes psychopathic behavior is bad.”
I agree that *if* what you describe, or anything else, happens to be “objectively good,” then your conclusion follows. What the proponent of the moral argument denies is that the naturalist has any rational basis for declaring anything, including a “smooth, functioning society,” to be objectively good or bad because the very ontological category is non-existent; it is equivalent to invoking phlogiston in chemistry. There are no such things as “human dignity” or “goodness” that exist in objects within a materialist worldview. If you disagree, where is the argument, rather than mere assertions, claiming that something can be good or bad within naturalism?
What you have shown at best is that a smooth, functioning society is *instrumentally good* to those who desire to have a smooth, functioning society, but an instrumental good by its very nature is not an objective property of the thing itself. It is a good *for* someone given that person’s aims and desires and intentions. If one is a psychopathic, nihilist, one might have no such desire, and thus no incentive to abide by norms promoting such a society. Naturalism has no explanation for why anything—including smooth, functioning societies—is objectively “good” or “bad.” At best, they can merely make the empirical and psychological claim that many people desire such a state of affairs, and if they desire it, they ought to behave in this or that way to best realize it, but a psychological claim about our preferences is not a moral claim about our obligations or of whether there are intrinsic properties of value within the object or state of affairs themselves. Why is that “objectively good.” Where is the argument?
Furthermore, animal cruelty is hardly an impediment to a smooth, functioning society, as evidenced by the many societies in the past (and present) who still engage in it substantially without problems. Or take torture. Why precisely is torture bad even by your own standards when society has functioned just fine without it? I doubt you can show that these things must be proscribed in order for a smooth, functioning society to exist, but even if you could, one could just modify what they take to be good by altering or changing their values. Perhaps a smooth, functioning society can be sacrificed in order to realize some other value, such as punishing various groups of people. As long as you have no standard rooted in reality itself by which to morally evaluate those practices—and the naturalist does not—there is no escape from subjectivity.
“Of course “wrongness” can exist in the atheist world. That’s because you can use rationality as an objective measure of value, which can lead to objective definitions of right and wrong.”
That is clearly false. A moral nihilist can subjectively value many things and then use rationality to guide his decision making (e.g., by maximizing utility or using similar techniques) without conceding that there is something in the world called “intrinsic value” that inheres within objects themselves. How do you move from the existence of ratoinality to the existence of objective moral value? That would be an incredible achievement if you somehow could show that rationality committed one to moral realism, but I don’t see it.
Hello again Jaegwon,
I am sorry, but you are defending an incoherent postion. You say, “…everyone concedes that humans are rational. That fact makes no difference to the debate.” It most certainly does. Rationality adds to life. In fact, to many atheists, it gives life meaning. Thus, it is clearly good. Since it is also unique, that makes it of infinite value and worth preserving, regardless of one’s worldview. Perhaps your confusion lies in your distinction between normative ethics and metaethics. Metaethics explores three fundamental questions: moral semantics, moral ontology, and moral epistemology. You seem to be saying that rationality cannot be shown to be good ontologically, but it clearly can. Indeed, if it weren’t for rationality, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Indeed, it mediates all issues in philosophy. Thus, it is objectively good. You claim that rationality cannot impart value, but that is clearly false. Rationality allows us to love, to explore, to create, to discuss, etc., etc. That adds value to our lives. Thus, it is good and should be preserved.
Of course my explanation shows why animal cruelty is categorically wrong. Once again, rationality must be preserved, because it is categorically good. The fact that people who engage in such behavior are more likely to be psychopaths means that it is categorically bad, because it reduces the survival of rationality. This isn’t a descriptive statement about the people who engage in the action. It is a descriptive statement about the action itself – it promotes a behavior that is bad. Therefore, it is bad.
Just because societies have engaged (and do engage) in animal cruelty and survived (survive) doesn’t mean that animal cruelty isn’t an impediment to society. It clearly is, as it promotes psychopathic behavior. The societies that engaged in it would have been able to preserve more rationality and preserve it better had they not engaged in it. Indeed, we know that animal cruelty has decreased over time, as has the average level of violence among people. Obviously, correlation doesn’t mean causation, but given the scientific studies that show the relationship between animal cruelty and psychopathic behavior, it is pretty clear that animal cruelty is bad for society.
Of course “a moral nihilist can subjectively value many things and then use rationality to guide his decision making (e.g., by maximizing utility or using similar techniques) without conceding that there is something in the world called ‘intrinsic value’ that inheres within objects themselves.” All that means is the moral nihilist doesn’t recognize the objective goodness of rationality. There are theists who deny the objective goodness of most of humanity. They are called terrorists. The fact that some people don’t recognize the objective goodness of something doesn’t affect whether or not that thing is objectively good!
A smooth, functioning society is not just instrumentally good to certain people. It is categorically good because it preserves rationality, which is categorically good.
“Of course my explanation shows why animal cruelty is categorically wrong.”
Of course your explanation did no such thing; it is a mere instrumental claim. There is a gap between the instrumental reason you provide and the categorical reason that you have failed to provide.
“Once again, rationality must be preserved, because it is categorically good.”
That is tautologically true: if rationality is categorically good then of course it ought to be valued, but whether it is categorically good is the very thing you cannot show to be true under naturalistic assumptions. Your once again merely assert as true the very thing in dispute.
“The fact that people who engage in such behavior are more likely to be psychopaths means that it is categorically bad, because it reduces the survival of rationality. This isn’t a descriptive statement about the people who engage in the action. It is a descriptive statement about the action itself – it promotes a behavior that is bad. Therefore, it is bad.”
You are switching to normative ethics right after pretending that I somehow did not understand the difference. You are trying to offer a theory of what things are intrinsically good and then trying to justify the rightness or wrongness of other actions by reference to that fundamental good. In this respect, your claim is akin to that of a utilitarian who argues that only pleasure is good, and thus concluding that action is good insofar as it realizes that fundamental value. That may be true, but it tells us nothing about whether pleasure itself is objectively good; it only says that if something is good, then pleasure is fundamentally what is good. You make the same claim about rationality.
“Just because societies have engaged (and do engage) in animal cruelty and survived (survive) doesn’t mean that animal cruelty isn’t an impediment to society. It clearly is, as it promotes psychopathic behavior. The societies that engaged in it would have been able to preserve more rationality and preserve it better had they not engaged in it. Indeed, we know that animal cruelty has decreased over time, as has the average level of violence among people. Obviously, correlation doesn’t mean causation, but given the scientific studies that show the relationship between animal cruelty and psychopathic behavior, it is pretty clear that animal cruelty is bad for society.”
Even if that were true, that would only be true if preserving rationality is a good thing, which is what the nihilist denies.
‘Of course “a moral nihilist can subjectively value many things and then use rationality to guide his decision making (e.g., by maximizing utility or using similar techniques) without conceding that there is something in the world called ‘intrinsic value’ that inheres within objects themselves.” All that means is the moral nihilist doesn’t recognize the objective goodness of rationality.’
That means that you are conceding the very first point I made, which you asserted was mistaken—namely, the irrelevance of rationality to the meta-ethical question of moral realism verses moral anti-realism. Whether anything is intrinsically valuable in reality cannot be settled by merely pointing to the existence of rationality: moral nihilists accept that rationality exists but deny that this is intrinsically valuable.
“There are theists who deny the objective goodness of most of humanity. They are called terrorists. The fact that some people don’t recognize the objective goodness of something doesn’t affect whether or not that thing is objectively good!”
Of course not. That isn’t the point. The point is that rationality by itself is neither evidence for nor an argument for either the existence of intrinsic goodness or the plausibility of intrinsic goodness in a naturalistic worldview. What you are doing is merely adumbrating the things in reality that you take to be fundamentally good without ever bothering to address the actual question in dispute—namely, whether anything is intrinsically good in the first place.
“A smooth, functioning society is not just instrumentally good to certain people. It is categorically good because it preserves rationality, which is categorically good.”
A nihilist denies that anything is intrinsically good, including rationality; a defender of the moral argument argues that naturalism leads to moral nihilism. Merely stipulating that they are mistaken is not an argument.
Final comment on this issue.
Instead of continuing with this point and counterpoint style exchange, perhaps it would be more fruitful to simply articulate what I take the moral argument to be saying, why I don’t think it has been shown to be “demonstrably false,” and where the main lines of disagreement exist between you and many of your interlocutors. This is probably a good way for me to wrap up my side of this exchange.
First, I myself don’t like the way people such as William Lane Craig frame the moral argument. I think his deductive approach raises the epistemic stakes unnecessarily high. I prefer a probabilistic approach in which moral facts can function as evidence for the existence of God to varying degrees of probability. This merely says then that the probability. Morality is evidence for theism just in case it is more likely given theism than it is under naturalism. This has the advantage of not requiring that moral objectivism be impossible under naturalism; it merely requires that it be less plausible than it is under theism. Further, this does not require that moral facts are sufficient to justify belief in theism or God; it merely says that they are evidence for the truth of theism (this is why I can speak favorably about the argument while being somewhat of a waffle about the existence of God). That of course is completely compatible with the evidence being too weak to warrant rational belief or knowledge, but it also has allows this argument to be combined with other arguments in a cumulative case. Even if the arguments are not sufficiently individually to warrant belief in theism, perhaps they are jointly able to do so. On this construal, when you claim that the argument is “demonstrably false,” you would be claiming that moral facts provide no evidence whatsoever for theism. The likelihood of moral realism is equal between atheism and theism, and that is much more difficult claim to defend.
Second, there are various realist and antirealist approaches to value that atheists (and non-atheists) have embraced in recent years. Here is a quick sample of some of them to see how they deal with your claim that rationality is intrinsically valuable, and hopefully allow readers to understand why merely pointing to the existence of rationality and declaring that it is intrinsically valuable does not resolve the issue between realism and antirealism.
Noncognitivism: Value claims have no truth-value because their linguistic function is not to express a proposition about the world. Thus, “rationality is good” only means that the speaker has a favorable attitude towards reason, or wants others to embrace reason, etc.
Fictionalism: Moral claims are true and false, but they are only true or false hypothetically within a moral fiction. When someone says that “rationality is good,” that person means that it is good according to a moral story that we tell ourselves because it is useful—perhaps because of evolution—in motivating us or getting us to do things. But rationality is not *really* good in the actual world.
Error Theory: Moral claims are true and false, but moral claims are simply all false. “Rationality is good” does make a truth claim, but the claim is unfortunately false.
Moral Naturalism: our moral claims are true and false, but they are actually reducible to some purely natural property. When someone says that “reason is good,” for instance, the property of “good” might mean nothing more than “instrumentally useful” or something like that. This saves moral realism under naturalism, but it often distorts the nature of morality so much that a reduction becomes an elimination.
Intuitionism/Moral Platonism: Moral claims are true or false, and they are made true by irreducible and abstract moral properties that are distinct from the material world. When someone claims that reason is good, that person is claiming that the irreducible property of “goodness” supervenes upon reasoning creatures. This view saves moral realism for *atheism,* but it is explicitly non-naturalistic. It also has various problems of its own.
Theistic Moral Realism: Moral claims are true or false, but they are made true or false by some relation that the target entity has with God, who functions as an ultimate and transcendent standard of goodness and morality. TO claim that reason is good is to claim that reason is good in virtue of bearing a certain relationship with the standard of goodness; in this case, since God is rational himself and the standard of goodness, finite instances of reason are also supremely good.
Aristotelian Realism: Moral claims are true and false, but they function as adverbs and not adjectives. To claim that “X is good” is not to predicate a property of X but to claim that X is a good member of its kind (e.g., a good knife). Human reason is good insofar as humans are by nature reasoning creatures, and reason helps humans to realize that nature.
As I have tried to show, the moral argument concerns the meta-ethical question of whether objective value exists at all within a naturalistic worldview. The question is which one of these views is the correct account of morality. Since some of them explicitly deny naturalism, if one thinks that one of them is a better explanation than another, this can serve as evidence against that other viewpoint. This question is also thus completely distinct from the normative ethical question of *what* things in the world are valuable if such values happen to exist. Even if rationality is the fundamental locus of objective value in the world, for instance, pointing to rationality or claiming that it is the primary bearer of intrinsic value does nothing to address the separate question of whether anything in a naturalistic worldview, including rationality itself, has value.
By comparison, if two people were debating the very existence of, for example, witches, it would obviously be beside the point to point to specific people that one believes to be witches as evidence for the existence of witches. The question is not *who* might qualify as a witch but whether the very category of “witch” itself has any reality in the world. Likewise, the question is not what things are intrinsically valuable in the world, but whether the very category of intrinsic value has any reality in a naturalistic worldview. The question is why someone should embrace moral naturalism or intuitionism rather than one of the antirealist positions.
This is why I repeatedly pointed out that merely pointing to rationality does not settle the issue. A moral factionalist or error theorist or non-cognitivist accepts that rationality exists but denies that it is intrinsically valuable. We need an argument explaining why naturalism leads to moral realism as opposed to one of these other views, and that is not what we are getting. A mere assertion that rationality or something else is intrinsically valuable does not explain why we should interpret its value along realist lines as opposed to one of these other lines.
Here then is where things stand at the end: as far as I can tell, you believe that moral properties are irreducible properties that somehow emerge from a physical substratum. That would explain why you think naturalism is compatible with moral realism. That seems to me to be a species of moral naturalism, which unfortunately generates too many further issues (about emergence and so forth) for me to address right now, but I will say that even if one does accept this form of emergent dualism, that does not show that this account is more plausible than theistic accounts. One could still accept that such an account is possible while denying that it is as plausible as a theistic one. If so, the moral argument while weakened as hardly been “demonstrably refuted.”
On that note, I think I have said more than enough for now, so I think I am bowing out of this discussion for the time being.
Until next time….
Hello again Jaegwon,
Since all but one of the five(!) comments you left yesterday are longer than the original post itself (as is the case with several of your other comments), I will not respond point-by-point to each one of them. However, I do want to comment on a couple of things you say in your other four comments and then respond to this, your final comment.
I certainly don’t mistake your love of a vigorous, rational discussion for abrasiveness on your part. I love vigorous, rational discussion as well. However, there is a point where it makes no sense to continue. As I have said, most of your comments are longer than the original post itself, and I do have work that I must do.
In one of your comments you say, “I think you should be careful about speaking of ‘the atheist worldview,’ as if it were a monolithic thing.” However, that’s exactly what the moral argument does. It makes a truth claim about the atheist worldview which is demonstrably false, because some atheists do, indeed, believe in the intrinsic value of some things (like rationality). Thus, if you are concerned about not treating the atheist worldview as monolithic, you should worry over the use the moral argument, at least as it is framed by Craig and others.
I also understand that Craig doesn’t realize he is admitting the moral argument is wrong, but he definitely is. He makes it clear that you can have objective moral values if you grant the intrinsic worth of people. Since the intrinsic worth of people is obvious to many atheists, then they can have objective moral values, and the argument from morality fails. Now, of course, you can argue that atheists have no reason to believe in the intrinsic worth of individuals, but atheists can argue that theists have no reason to believe that God provides intrinsic worth to individuals.
You claim, “Naturalism does not support anthropocentricsm because the universe does not care about people in that worldview.” However, whether or not the universe “cares” about something is utterly irrelevant. Some other thing “caring” is not the only way to impart intrinsic worth. Intrinsic worth exists in a substance if it is good, regardless of what any other being thinks of it. Rationality is good regardless of what any other being thinks, so naturalism can support anthropocentricsm.
I am not saying that a position of moral antirealism is incoherent. I am saying that your defense of the impossibility of objective moral value in an atheist universe is incoherent. Of course moral antirealism isn’t incoherent. One can argue against the existence of objective moral values. However, one cannot argue that it is IMPOSSIBLE to come up with objective moral values in a naturalistic worldview. As I have shown, it is quite easy to do so.
Now on to your final comment, which shows that there is some common ground between us.
I absolutely agree that when you frame the moral argument in a probabilistic fashion, it has some legitimacy. What I have been arguing all along is that the main premise of the moral argument as framed by Craig and others is demonstrably false. It is, indeed, possible to construct objective morals in an atheist worldview. This is obvious, since at least some atheists do this without reference to God. Now…you can argue all you want that their basis for their objective morality (the objective goodness of rationality, for example) is not reasonable. However, the atheist can, in turn, argue that God as a basis for morality is not reasonable. Thus, the discussion really is, as you say, which is more plausible: morals in a theistic worldview or morals in an atheistic worldview. That is a reasonable discussion and, while I consider it weak, it does give some evidence for a theistic worldview, as morality is more plausible in a theistic worldview than it is in an atheistic worldview. While the ACTIONS of theists don’t support this (in my opinion), rational discussion does.
However, I do disagree with your point, “This is why I repeatedly pointed out that merely pointing to rationality does not settle the issue.” I think it does settle the issue of the moral argument, at least as it is used by Craig and the like (which is what I have been discussing). Since you can point to rationality as something that is objectively good (even in a naturalistic universe), then it is clearly possible to produce an objective moral system based on its preservation. Thus, the moral argument fails. Now, as you say, objective morality is more plausible in a theistic universe than an atheistic one, but the moral argument is not framed that way, at least not in any discussion I have read.
In the end, I do really appreciate the discussion. I think we have reached at least some common ground, and that is objectively good :). I do hope you return and comment on another topic. My only request is that you keep your comments a bit less far-ranging, as I do have to devote some time to work!
Howdy once more,
“I am sorry, but you are defending an incoherent postion.”
Since I am defending the possibility of moral antirealism, and moral antirealism is hardly incoherent (even if it is false)—there are volumes written by eminent philosophers defending the position—I don’t see how it is incoherent. Of course if you care to actually define your terms and then proffer an argument for it, I would be happy to listen.
“You say, “…everyone concedes that humans are rational. That fact makes no difference to the debate.” It most certainly does.”
No, it does not. It makes no difference because the meta-ethical issue is whether the very category of “intrinsic goodness” itself correspond to anything in reality. Whether people are rational would only make a difference to the debate if everyone already conceded that rationality is intrinsically good and then empirically examined whether rationality existed in the world. If the issue however is whether anything, including rationality itself, is intrinsically good, then the existence of rationality has no bearing on that question.. Someone can still accept the existence of rationality while denying any value claim about it (or anything else), so the mere existence of rationality does nothing to settle this issue.
“ Rationality adds to life. In fact, to many atheists, it gives life meaning.”
That is a subjective claim about the atheist herself, not a claim about the objective goodness of rationality or anything else.
“Thus, it is clearly good.”
I have no idea how you move from a subjective fact about what someone finds to be meaningful to a claim about the objective nature of extra-mental reality. That inference is a blatant non-sequiter.
Furthermore, that is what the antirealist denies. It is not “clearly good” because nothing is good in an objective sense. You may like it, but your preference or fondness for it is not an argument showing that it in itself has some mysterious property of being “intrinsically good.”
“Since it is also unique, that makes it of infinite value and worth preserving, regardless of one’s worldview.”
I have already refuted your claim about uniqueness; that is nothing more than a contingent claim about your own psychology, not an argument for the objective goodness of unique things. You once again are conflating subjective facts about persons with objective facts about external reality; you cannot just shift from the former to the latter like that.
“Perhaps your confusion lies in your distinction between normative ethics and metaethics.”
As will become very clear soon, that properly describes your situation rather than my own.
“Metaethics explores three fundamental questions: moral semantics, moral ontology, and moral epistemology.”
Yes, and you don’t seem to understand the distinction between normative ethics, which concerns devising rules and procedures for moral action, with meta-ethics, which concerns the very nature of the things we are studying. The reason I say this is that your claim that rationality is the fundamental good is an obvious claim of normative ethics: you are trying to tell us that the fundamental good in your worldview is rationality, but that has no bearing on the meta-ethical question of whether anything is intrinsically good or whether the concept applies vacuously to reality.
“You seem to be saying that rationality cannot be shown to be good ontologically, but it clearly can.”
I have made no such claim. What I am claiming is that merely pointing to the existence of rationality does not establish that rationality is intrinsically good. If you have some argument showing that rationality (or anything else) is intrinsically good under naturalism, then I would love to hear it—indeed, that is precisely what I have been asking all along. Instead, however, you just keep baldly asserting that “it clearly can,” as if adjectives and assertions can do the work of arguments.
If you think it “clearly can,” then show me.
“Indeed, if it weren’t for rationality, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Indeed, it mediates all issues in philosophy. Thus, it is objectively good. You claim that rationality cannot impart value, but that is clearly false. Rationality allows us to love, to explore, to create, to discuss, etc., etc. That adds value to our lives. Thus, it is good and should be preserved.”
i. This is a complete red-herring. Who cares whether rationality is a psychological precondition for doing philosophy or anything else? None of that is relevant to settling the meta-ethical issue of whether those things are objectively valuable or merely subjectively valuable to us. That it adds value to our lives is one again a subjective claim about our own reactions and not an argument for the objective goodness of those things. The very fact that what we value and what is actually valuable in itself can come apart shows that the two are distinct; hence, you cannot use the former as a reason for inferring the latter.
ii. Your “should” in the final sentence is once again a claim of instrumental rationality: if you value x, then you should preserve x. That does not show that we are morally obligated to preserve x. Optimization is not morality.
iii. You are once again misunderstanding the issue while projecting that misunderstanding onto me. A moral antirealist denies that *anything,* including rationality itself is intrinsically good; thus, you need to provide a reason showing that anything can be intrinsically good. Appending the adjective “clearly” in front of your assertions is not an argument for moral realism.
iv. None of this refutes the moral argument either because showing that rationality is intrinsically good does not establish that it is intrinsically good given the assumption of naturalism. Just because I have good reason to believe in x does not necessarily entitle me to believe that x can be explained or rationally justified within some particualar worldview y.
You know, you are correct that I did not realize just how long some of my replies were becoming. It can be a flaw of my own. Let me just end with a very brief remark that I think can finally bring the issue to a close.
I agree with you that it is incorrect and unwise to claim that morality is *impossibly* within an atheistic worldview. Indeed, as I noted above, there are at least two possible atheistic theories of morality that make morality possible—reductive moral naturalism, and non-naturalistic intuitionism. This is why I disagree with Craig’s way of formulating the argument; it seems to invite that sort of reading when I think Craig would say, as he has elsewhere, that he only thinks a deductive argument needs to have premises that are more plausible than their contradictories, which leaves open the logical and epistemic possibility that the premises of, say, the moral argument aren’t certain or inevitable. Another benefit of the probabilistic formulation of the argument is that it helps us see the difference between being evidence for some claim and rationally justifying a claim. A piece of data—say, the fine-tuning of the cosmos, or the existence of moral obligations, etc.—could be evidence for a hypothesis (by being more likely given that hypothesis than on another, competing hypothesis) even if the evidence is not strong enough to rationally justify belief in that hypothesis. I view the moral argument in a similarly modest way. I think the existences of certain moral facts are more plausible given theism than they are given naturalism.
If you disagree with even this, well, I’m just glad that we have such a wealth of different arguments and sources of evidence for the existence of God—a true abundance of riches—that can satisfy almost any cognitive style or approach, and that proves such a source of intellectual delight for someone like me. For someone like me, who has long wrestled with the question of God’s existence and has yet to resolve it to my satisfaction, this is, ironically enough, an exciting time to have that struggle.
To that end, I have appreciated your many contributions on creation and beyond, and will continue to read what you have to say on these issues. With that conciliatory note, I think we can put this discussion to bed.
Have a wonderful day, Dr. Wile.
Jaegwon, thank you for all your comments. I didn’t have time to read them all in entirety, but I especially found your list of the different positions on objective moral values very helpful!
I’ve not studied philosophy nor logical argumentation and I am afraid it often shows. But since I mostly discuss this with laypeople, it hasn’t mattered much. I would surely like to study the rules of logic more though.
I appreciate Craig and have found his web site very helpful. I do think at times he has a regrettable tendency to overstate his case. I heard him once make a terrible blunder in trying to defend a position that animals do not feel pain.
All that aside, though, I appreciate your comments. I could see clearly what you were getting at, and you said so many things I wanted to say but a LOT more clearly than I did. So thank you for that.
Dr. Wile has made me curious to read Dennett. I have also bought a book which seems to be very good on this topic. It is called “Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality.” By David Baggett and Jerry Walls.
If I am honest, it is a bit over my head, so my reading is slow and I’ll have to reread it. It talks about the Platonist and mentions some of the other views that you put so nicely for me. Which is why I found what you wrote so helpful, because the book doesn’t explain so much for a layperson.
Anyway, wondering if you had read the book. It seems like something you would enjoy.
It seems to me that the moral argument is most useful when used in presuppositional apologetics, because then you take a look at how it fits in with metaphysics and epistemology. Seeing which worldview is most internally consistent and as you said, more probable. I think you need the metaphysical and epistemological framework to properly critique any claims to OMV. Just wondering what you think of presuppositional apologetics. I’m just learning about it right now, so really a neophyte.
And that is a lot of big words for me, for one day. I barely know what they mean! 🙂
Jaegwon – Wow! Some long winded but very SOUND reasoning. I’d venture to say that atheistic moral objective reasoning must still rely on subjective assumptions. I don’t see how any assumption can be made objectively let alone be interpreted consistently in all the diverse moral situations life creates. Let our assumption be that “A smooth, functioning society is not just instrumentally good to certain people. It is categorically good because it preserves rationality, which is categorically good. Rationality is categorically good because it enables love, discourse, progress, etc.” Sounds nice on paper, but all we need do is take a step back at society and see how it breaks down. In history, invading armies have conquered, looted, and raped other lands. However, after the dust has settled, some might argue the conquered lands had benefited overall. They have been introduced to new arts, new ideas, new loves, new genetics, etc. When you behold the beauty of Moorish influences in Spanish architecture, enjoy a Vietnamese pastry with coffee, or fall in love with a green eyed Mexican woman (who thank god was not sacrificed to a Volcano because the old religion was stamped out), you are enjoying the spoils of war. In this case a short term disruption of a smooth functioning society led to increased rationality, love, peace, and new pleasures. So how do we weigh one against the other as atheistic moralists ? Is it ok to temporarily suspend peace if it might increase rationality, and vice versa – and to what degree? Also, how do you conflate personal good versus societal good when they are at odds? If my action will preserve rationality and good in my life but might decrease it for society or another individual then which is the most objective path to take? Nobody really knows the exact answers, in an atheistic world the most we can ever hope for is tribal rule and societal norms to sort it out. I suppose we can fall back on Nature as the arbitrator. Whoever wins was right in the end. He who kills one is a murderer, but he who kills a million is king and conqueror.
I think this is why I can only imagine an unbiased numerical solution, such as Parfits, as an objective moral standard. But there would still have to be a way to figure out objective numerical values for levels of pain, pleasure, increased progress, etc. Plug all these into a master formula and you get your decision. Even then you’d have to select your ultimate goal – greater good? group fitness? biome fitness?
Even then you run into problems. The way viruses achieve group fitness is drastically different from the way penguins do. Survival is the goal – but do we want short term exponential growth (decreased long term odds), or gradual growth (increased long term odds.) This brings to mind our current debate over how fast we should consume of natural resources – Some say we should preserve them as we will need them later, others say rapid consumption leads rapid progress and that will enable science to figure out a solution more quickly. Also how to weigh Human group fitness against other organisms. Can we hunt an animal to extinction if it preserves our own fitness? Again, no way to sort it out – let Determinism do that.
I guess one can try to establish an objective moral code for THEMSELVES but it seems that it will bend to the point of breaking in the real world. It is at this point which most people tend fall back on (or ignore) their conscience or even their unconscious fight or flight response.
p.s. Thanks Dr. Wile, Karen, and the rest for making this such an interesting and thought provoking debate. Lot’s of comments on this thread! Quite a hot potato.
In reading some of the new posts that have been contributed to the discussion at hand, I noticed that Richard Dawkins has been mentioned as an atheist.
This leads to a comment I will throw in.
There are two kinds of atheists, those that believe there is no God or gods and those that know that God exists but are emotionally filled with hate for Him.
Richard Dawkins is of the latter variety. Like a number of other famous modern day atheists, he demonstrates his belief and profound hatred in God when asked quite specific questions. He is so emotionally entangled with his responses that it is immediately obvious that not only does he know God exists but that he is also filled with an enormous hatred for Him.
I have met both varieties over the years and the differences between them are extraordinary. The second variety will deny him with every breath they take and will go to extreme measures to push their agendas.
As a number of prominent atheist philosophers have pointed out in the past, the basis for the atheism of Dawkins et al is fairly infantile and lacking in sound logic.
So using anything that Dawkins and his ilk proclaim as a basis for atheism to have or not have an objective moral standard is not conducive to the discussion.
Many years ago now, I did read an interesting article titled “Richard Dawkins – the man who gave Atheism a bad name”. this was written by an atheist who highlighted some of the many problems with Dawkins’ version of atheism.
Every time I hear him, I just have such sorrow at his stance. A side note on Dawkins, it was some of his research that cemented my view that evolution is a complete farce and that all of creation is a work of incredible design and construction.
Talking about materialism… Once I came across a very intriging articule about neuroscienc and free-will. Check it out people:(it is a little big)
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