Atheism and Objective Morality

Golden Lady Justice, Bruges, Belgium

I’ve been having an interesting exchange with someone using the screen name Atheist Advocate about the nature of morality. The conversation began on Twitter, and AA wrote a reply on his blog, and I’m posting my response to his blog post here. I appreciate AA’s thoughtful engagement on these issues.

Although AA denies it, I still believe, as I said in my extended tweet, that he is conflating moral ontology with moral epistemology. He writes, “it seems pointless to call God ‘maximally good’ unless we know what good means outside of God. It seems like the only way that trait would make sense. . . . I think my analogy deals with the nature of humor, and asks if we can define humor simply in terms of a comedian’s jokes / nature etc, without having an independent idea of what humor is.” (For the full context of the analogy, see the extended Twitter post.)

We can note that he mentions the term nature (which concerns ontology), but conjoins this concept with questions about knowledge of “what good means outside of God,” the definition of humor (his analogy for goodness), and “an independent idea of what [good] is.”

But these are clearly two different things. What it is that grounds moral facts is different from our ideas of good and evil, and our definitions of them. We can acquire many ideas about morality, but this has no bearing on where the basis of morality resides.

If this were the 19th century and we were discussing the basis of the meter, the ground of the meter would be the official meter bar in France. If AA and I were in Europe at the time, our ideas of a meter might come from distances we had traveled, from signs we had seen, and the like, but the foundation and basis of that length just was that bar located in France. In the same way, God’s nature just is the basis and foundation for good. Given that God is the ground of all reality, it makes sense that this includes morality.

Interestingly, AA seems to hold that for goodness to make sense, it has to exist outside of human beings, and presumably any being. But if so, where does it reside? Presumably AA doesn’t believe in some type of Platonic realm where goodness exists “out there.” But if objective good does exist, it must have an ontological grounding—something that provides an ultimate explanation for its existence.

In this light, it appears to be a contradiction for AA to claim that, in effect, morality resides within human beings “in the physical firing of neurons in our brains.” To be consistent, AA would have to hold that goodness can’t be internal to human beings, but must exist “as something outside of” them—as humor only makes sense if it exists outside of the comedian.

But can human beliefs, based on firing neurons in the brain, provide a basis for morality? Since the firing of neurons are simply physical events determined by impersonal, deterministic laws of nature, the answer is clearly no. Firing neurons are no more value-determining than a rain shower, a cough, an avalanche, or the earth’s orbit around the sun. These events simply are, and one can’t derive an ought from an is (at least on atheism). The fact that zebras have four legs, for example, can’t tell us whether this is good, bad, or indifferent. It’s simply an existing state of affairs—like the firing of neurons.

AA links to an article on Desirism intended to address this problem, but note what the article states: “Desirism states that the reason this type of ‘ought’ [a truly moral ought] cannot be derived from ‘is’ rests on the fact that it does not exist. It is not real. It is a fictitious or mythical ‘ought’.”

And that is exactly the point I was making about morality on atheism—it’s an illusion, a set of assertions without justification. And this is because there is no ontological basis for it. Nothing “out there” on atheism makes it the case that some actions are really right, and some really wrong. To support this point, I quoted a number of atheist thinkers saying essentially the same thing. To reiterate, I’ll reproduce a few of them here.

• “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, and other people are going to get lucky; and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom, no design, no purpose, No evil and no good; nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”
– Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life.
• “The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns their ontological foundation. If they are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, they are purely ephemeral.”
– Paul Kurtz, Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Secularism, p. 65.
• “If there is no single moral authority we have to in some sense ‘create’ values for ourselves … [and] that means that moral claims are not true or false… you may disagree with me but you cannot say I have made a factual error.”
– Julian Baggini, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, pp.41-51.

To these we could add Michael Ruse and E. O. Wilson: “In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. It is without external grounding. Ethics is produced by evolution but is not justified by it because, like Macbeth’s dagger, it serves a powerful purpose without existing in substance. . . . Unlike Macbeth’s dagger, ethics is a shared illusion of the human race.” “The Evolution of Ethics,” in Philosophy of Biology, ed. Michael Ruse (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 316.

These atheist thinkers are exactly right—on atheism, there literally is no right and wrong; thus, any moral judgment is nothing more than a matter of opinion (whether one person’s or most of the world’s population). Yet, one of our deepest intuitions as human beings is that some things really are good and some evil. As humans, we truly apprehend an immaterial realm of moral truths. This is because we are made in God’s image, and have been created with the proper faculties to discern good and evil. Thus, objective morality fits well with a theistic worldview, but finds no place in an atheistic worldview. Christian theism explains our moral experience, but atheism can’t.

I welcome AA’s further thoughts and comments.

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New Books in Philosophy, Theology, and Apologetics – January 2013

 

God & Morality: Four Views – Edited by R. Keith Loftin (InterVarsity, 2012) **

Is morality dependent upon belief in God? Is there more than one way for Christians to understand the nature of morality? Is there any agreement between Christians and atheists or agnostics on this heated issue?

In God and Morality: Four Views four distinguished voices in moral philosophy articulate and defend their place in the current debate between naturalism and theism. Christian philosophers Keith Yandell and Mark Linville and two self-identified atheist/agnostics, Evan Fales and Michael Ruse, clearly and honestly represent their differing views on the nature of morality.

Views represented are 1) naturalist moral non-realist, 2) naturalist moral realist, 3) moral essentialist, and 4) moral particularist.

 

Reason & Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (5th ed.)  Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger (OUP, 2012)

Reason and Religious Belief, now in its fifth edition, explores perennial questions in the philosophy of religion. Drawing from the best in both classical and contemporary discussions, the authors examine religious experience, faith and reason, the divine attributes, arguments for and against the existence of God, divine action (in various forms of theism), Reformed epistemology, religious language, religious diversity, and religion and science.

Revised and updated to reflect current philosophical discourse, the fifth edition offers new material on neuro-theology, the “new Atheism,” the intelligent design movement, theistic evolution, and skeptical theism. It also provides more coverage of non-Western religions–particularly Buddhism–and updated discussions of evidentialism, free will, life after death, apophatic theology, and more. A sophisticated yet accessible introduction, Reason and Religious Belief, Fifth Edition, is ideally suited for use with the authors’ companion anthology, Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, Fourth Edition (OUP, 2009).

 

God and Evil: The Case for God in a World Filled with PainEdited by Chad Meister and James K. Dew Jr. (InterVarsity, 2013)

The question of evil—its origins, its justification, its solution—has plagued humankind from the beginning. Every generation raises the question and struggles with the responses it is given. Questions about the nature of evil and how it is reconciled with the truth claims of Christianity are unavoidable; we need to be prepared to respond to such questions with great clarity and good faith.

God and Evil compiles the best thinking on all angles on the question of evil, from some of the finest scholars in religion, philosophy and apologetics, including

  • Gregory E. Ganssle and Yena Lee
  • Bruce Little
  • Garry DeWeese
  • R. Douglas Geivett
  • James Spiegel
  • Jill Graper Hernandez
  • Win Corduan
  • David Beck

 

 

From Morality to Metaphysics: The Theistic Implications of our Ethical Commitments – Angus Ritchie (OUP, 2012)

From Morality to Metaphysics offers an argument for the existence of God, based on our most fundamental moral beliefs. Angus Ritchie engages with a range of the most significant secular moral philosophers of our time, and argues that they all face a common difficulty which only theism can overcome.

The book begins with a defense of the ‘deliberative indispensability’ of moral realism, arguing that the practical deliberation human beings engage in on a daily basis only makes sense if they take themselves to be aiming at an objective truth. Furthermore, when humans engage in practical deliberation, they necessarily take their processes of reasoning to have some ability to track the truth. Ritchie’s central argument builds on this claim, to assert that only theism can adequately explain our capacity for knowledge of objective moral truths. He demonstrates that we need an explanation as well as a justification of these cognitive capacities. Evolutionary biology is not able to generate the kind of explanation which is required–and, in consequence, all secular philosophical accounts are forced either to abandon moral objectivism or to render the human capacity for moral knowledge inexplicable.

From Morality to Metaphysics

 

Mappings the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of EverythingGerald Rau (InterVarsity, 2012)

What are the main positions in the debate over creation and evolution? Why do they disagree? Can the debates about origins and evolution ever be resolved? Gerald Rau offers a fair-minded overview of the six predominant models used to explain the origins of the universe, of life, of species and of humans. He aims to show the contours of current debates both among Christians and between Christians and non-theists.  He accomplishes this by not only describing the options on origins, but by exploring the philosophical assumptions behind each and how evidence is counted corresponding with each model.  He also notes the limits of a scientifically gained knowledge. Readers will not only become better informed about the current debates on origins but better thinkers about the issues at stake.

 

** Descriptions provided by the publishers.

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New Books in Theology, Philosophy, & Apologetics –November 2012

Christian Confidence: An Introduction to Defending the FaithChris Sinkinson (IVP, July 2012) **

Philosophy, archaeology and science are hot topics in Christian circles, perplexing many believers about how these issues relate to faith. Fortunately for us, Chris Sinkinson has investigated these areas and gathered historical Christian perspective. The result is this accessible introduction to apologetics, which enlightens minds and inspires confidence.

Christian Confidence is a one-stop shop for anyone desiring to engage thoughtfully and persuasively in the difficult conversations surrounding faith in the twenty-first century. This book will deepen your understanding of Christianity and empower you to present the case for faith convincingly, credibly and cleverly.Chris Sinkinson has achieved something rather remarkable here. In just a few hundred pages he looks at the craft of apologetics from almost every angle. He examines the history of apologetics, methodology, key figures in the discipline and the most important arguments. And he does all this with wit and terrific style. One of the best introductions to apologetics I have seen.” (Craig J. Hazen, founder and director of the graduate program in Christian apologetics, Biola University, and author of Five Sacred Crossings)

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The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit TrailsRandal Rauser (IVP, October 2012)

In the real world, we don’t usually sit in lecture halls debating worldview issues in systematic arguments. Chances are that we’re more likely to have haphazard, informal conversations over a latte in a coffee shop.

Meet Randal Rauser, a Christian, and Sheridan, an atheist. Over the course of one caffeinated afternoon, they explore a range of honest questions and real objections to Christian faith. Do people hold to a particular religion just because of an accident of geography? Is believing in Jesus as arbitrary as believing in Zeus? Why would God order the slaughter of infants or send people to hell? How do you know you’re really real, and not just a character in someone’s book?

Their extended conversation unfolds with all the rabbit trails, personal baggage and distractions that inevitably come in real-world encounters. Rauser provides substantive argument-based apologetics but also highlights the importance of apologetics as a narrative journey. As we get to know Sheridan, we better understand the personal history that drives his atheism and the issues that motivate his skepticism.

“Rauser’s dialogue brings the best tools of philosophical thinking within the reach of thoughtful believers and skeptics alike. His representative in the conversation knows when to stick to his guns, and when to admit to uncertainty and fallibility. His atheist counterpart is no straw man–he knows his Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens. Rauser has the philosophical chops to cut through a lot of rhetorical nonsense, but he also has the intellectual honesty to face up to the genuine difficulties confronting his faith. This enjoyable book is a model of candid, winsome, thought-provoking apologetics.” (Dean Zimmerman, professor of philosophy, Rutgers University)

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God and NecessityBrian Leftow (Oxford University Press, Nov. 2012)

Brian Leftow offers a theory of the possible and the necessary in which God plays the chief role, and a new sort of argument for God’s existence. It has become usual to say that a proposition is possible just in case it is true in some “possible world” (roughly, some complete history a universe might have) and necessary just if it is true in all. Thus much discussion of possibility and necessity since the 1960s has focused on the nature and existence (or not) of possible worlds. God and Necessity holds that there are no such things, nor any sort of abstract entity. It assigns the metaphysical ‘work’ such items usually do to God and events in God’s mind, and reduces “broadly logical” modalities to causal modalities, replacing possible worlds in the semantics of modal logic with God and His mental events. Leftow argues that theists are committed to theist modal theories, and that the merits of a theist modal theory provide an argument for God’s existence. Historically, almost all theist modal theories base all necessary truth on God’s nature. Leftow disagrees: he argues that necessary truths about possible creatures and kinds of creatures are due ultimately to God’s unconstrained imagination and choice. On his theory, it is in no sense part of the nature of God that normal zebras have stripes (if that is a necessary truth). Stripy zebras are simply things God thought up, and they have the nature they do simply because that is how God thought of them. Thus Leftow’s essay in metaphysics takes a half-step toward Descartes’ view of modal truth, and presents a compelling theist theory of necessity and possibility.

 

 

Brain Wars: The Scientific Battle Over the Existence of the Mind and the Proof That Will Change the Way We Live Our LivesMario Beauregard (HarperOne, April 2012)

“The brain can be weighed, measured, scanned, dissected, and studied. The mind that we conceive to be generated by the brain, however, remains a mystery. It has no mass, no volume, and no shape, and it cannot be measured in space and time. Yet it is as real as neurons, neurotransmitters, and synaptic junctions. It is also very powerful.”
—from Brain Wars

Is the brain “a computer made of meat,” and human consciousness a simple product of electrical impulses? The idea that matter is all that exists has dominated science since the late nineteenth century and led to the long-standing scientific and popular understanding of the brain as simply a collection of neurons and neural activity. But for acclaimed neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, Ph.D., along with a rising number of colleagues and others, this materialist-based view clashes with what we feel and experience every day.

In Brain Wars, Dr. Beauregard delivers a paradigm-shifting examination of the role of the brain and mind. Filled with engaging, surprising, and cutting-edge scientific accounts, this eye-opening book makes the increasingly indisputable case that our immaterial minds influence what happens in our brains, our bodies, and even beyond our bodies. Examining the hard science behind “unexplained” phenomena such as the placebo effect, self-healing, brain control, meditation, hypnosis, and near-death and mystical experiences, Dr. Beauregard reveals the mind’s capabilities and explores new answers to age-old mind-body questions.

Radically shifting our comprehension of the role of consciousness in the universe, Brain Wars forces us to consider the immense untapped power of the mind and explore the profound social, moral, and spiritual implications that this new understanding holds for our future.

“Mario Beauregard shows convincingly that the materialistic philosophy of the 19th century is an impoverished framework incompatible with contemporary science, from physics to psychology. The concepts he develops in Brain Wars are required reading for scientific literacy in today’s world.” (Bruce Greyson, M.D. Research psychiatrist, University of Virginia. Co-author of Irreducible Mind )

 

A Brief History of Analytic Philosophy: From Russell to RawlsStephen P. Schwartz (Wiley-Blackwell, June 2012)

A Brief History of Analytic Philosophy: from Russell to Rawls provides a comprehensive overview of the historical development of all major aspects of Anglo-American analytic philosophy. Beginning with the seminal works of Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore, Stephen P. Schwartz covers the foremost figures and schools of analytic philosophy, including, in addition to those already mentioned, Wittgenstein, Carnap, Quine, Davidson, Kripke, Putnam, Rawls, and many others. As well as presenting arguments put forth by individual philosophers, Schwartz traces the various social and political influences that helped shape analytic philosophy as it evolved over the last century. Topics considered include the emergence of logical positivism and its critics, ordinary language philosophy, Wittgenstein’s self-critical philosophy, the American neo-pragmatists, analytic ethics, late-20th-century developments, and future directions.

A Brief History of Analytic Philosophy offers illuminating insights into the origins and 100-year evolution of the dominant force in Western philosophy.

“Stephen Schwartz’s A Brief History of Analytic Philosophy provides an engaging, non-technical historical introduction to central themes in analytical philosophy, the dominant approach to philosophical issues in the English-speaking world since the onset of the 20th century.  Schwartz illuminates topics for novices and specialists alike by tracing their sources to pressing disputes among mathematicians and scientists as well as philosophers. The book, captivating in its own right, will prove especially useful when read alongside targeted original sources. There is nothing else quite like it.” (John Heil, Washington University in Saint Louis)

 

** Descriptions and endorsements are provided by the publishers.

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Bertrand Russell’s Search for God

Español: Bertrand Russell en 1970

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Bertrand Russell’s daughter, Katharine Tait, made the following poignant observations about her father and his lack of belief in God.  Although Russell’s own willful rebellion certainly played a role in his lack of belief, believers can learn an important lesson from his experience, and be reminded that our actions as those who represent Christ have a profound impact on those around us. 

“I could not even talk to him about religion. . . . I would have liked to convince my father that I had found what he had been looking for, the ineffable something he had longed for all his life.  I would have liked to persuade him that the search for God does not have to be in vain.  But it was hopeless.  He had known too many blind Christians, bleak moralists who sucked the joy from life and persecuted their opponents; he would never have been able to see the truth they were hiding. . . . I believe myself that his whole life was a search for God. . . . Somewhere at the back of my father’s mind, at the bottom of his heart, in the depths of his soul, there was an empty space that had once been filled by God, and he never found anything else to put in it. . . . Nevertheless, I picked up the yearning from him, together with his ghostlike feeling of not belonging, of having no home in this world.”

— Katharine Tait, My Father, Bertrand Russell (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), 189.

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The Missing Links – Nov. 21, 2011

Titlepage and dedication from a 1612-1613 King...

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Max Andrews shares his Top Ten Philosophy, Science, and Theology Podcasts

J. P. Moreland talks about the argument from consciousness at last week’s ETS/EPS meeting in San Francisco (video).

Craig Blomberg discusses the historical Jesus and the reliability of the Bible (video).

Atheist philosopher Daniel Came criticizes Richard Dawkins’s decision not to debate William Lane Craig.

Chad Meister writes on “Atheists and the Quest for Objective Morality.”

Similarly, William Lane Craig lectures on the question “Is God Necessary for Morality” at Boston College Law School.

A distinguished group of evangelical scholars discuss the impact of the King James Version of the Bible (audio).

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The Missing Links – Sept. 9, 2011

Peter Adamson, Professor of Ancient and Medieval Philosophy at King’s College London, takes listeners through the history of Western philosophy, “without any gaps.” Beginning with the earliest ancient thinkers, the series will look at the ideas and lives of the major philosophers (eventually covering in detail such giants as Plato, Aristotle, Avicenna, Aquinas, Descartes, and Kant) as well as the lesser-known figures of the tradition.

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The purpose of this site is to set [the] contemporary ‘God Wars’ in their historical context, and to offer a range of perspectives (from all sides) on the chief issues raised by the ‘new atheists’. We hope this will encourage more informed opinion about the issues, discourage oversimplification of the debate, and deepen the interest in the subject.

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Edgar Andrews answers this question in an article written for the Christian Apologetics Alliance.

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The Rage Against God

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“The difficulties of the anti-theists begin when they try to engage with anyone who does not agree with them, when their reaction is often a frustrated rage that the rest of us are so stupid.  But what if that is not the problem?  Their refusal to accept that others might be as intelligent as they, yet disagree, leads them into many snares.

“I tend to sympathize with them.  I too have been angry with opponents who required me to re-examine opinions I had embraced more through passion than through reason.  I too have felt the unsettling lurch beneath my feet as the solid ground of my belief has shifted.  I do not know whether they have also experienced what often follows—namely, a long self-deceiving attempt to ignore or belittle truths that would upset a position in which I had long been comfortable; in some ways even worse, it was a position held by almost everyone I knew, liked, or respected—people who would be shocked and perhaps hostile, mocking, or contemptuous if I gave in to my own reason.  But I suspect that they have experienced this form of doubt, and I suspect that the hot and stinging techniques of their argument, the occasional profanity and the persistent impatience and scorn, are useful to them as they once were to me in fending it off.

“And yet in the end, while it may have convinced others, my own use of such techniques did not convince me.”

— Peter Hitchens in The Rage Against God, 12, 13.

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