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.

New Books in Philosophy, Theology, and Apologetics

* Thinking About Christian Apologetics – James Beilby (IVP Academic, 2011)

“Most introductions to apologetics begin with the “how to” of defending the faith, diving right into the major apologetic arguments and the body of evidence. For those who want a more foundational look at this contested theological discipline, this book examines Christian apologetics in its nature, history, approaches, objections and practice. What is apologetics? How has apologetics developed? What are the basic apologetic approaches? Why should we practice apologetics? Countless Christians today are seeking a responsible way to defend and commend their faith. If you are one them, Thinking About Christian Apologetics is the place to start.”


* Monopolizing Knowledge Ian Hutchinson (Fias Publishing, 2011)

“Can real knowledge be found other than by science? In this unique approach to understanding today’s culture wars, an MIT physicist answers emphatically yes. He shows how scientism — the view that science is all the knowledge there is — suffocates reason as well as religion. Tracing the history of scientism and its frequent confusion with science, Hutchinson explains what makes modern science so persuasive and powerful, but restricts its scope. Recognizing science’s limitations, and properly identifying what we call nature, liberates both science and non-scientific knowledge.”


* The Moral Argument – Paul Copan and Mark D. Linville (Continuum, 2013)

“The Moral Argument offers a wide-ranging defense of the necessary connection between God and objective moral values, moral duties, proper function, and human rights. It presents several versions of the moral argument for God’s existence; a survey of the history of the argument, including the more recent work of Robert Adams, John Hare, John Rist, and others; an assessment of competing meta-ethical views that attempt to ground or explain ethics; a defense of moral knowledge; and an assessment of the Euthyphro Dilemma (and related objections) for any theistic conception of moral values. The book will examine—and find wanting— various non-theistic alternatives to ground or explain morality.”


* Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality – R. Scott Smith (Ashgate, 2012)

“Philosophical naturalism is taken to be the preferred and reigning epistemology and metaphysics that underwrites many ideas and knowledge claims. But what if we cannot know reality on that basis? What if the institution of science is threatened by its reliance on naturalism? R. Scott Smith argues in a fresh way that we cannot know reality on the basis of naturalism. Moreover, the “fact-value” split has failed to serve our interests of wanting to know reality. The author provocatively argues that since we can know reality, it must be due to a non-naturalistic ontology, best explained by the fact that human knowers are made and designed by God. The book offers fresh implications for the testing of religious truth-claims, science, ethics, education, and public policy. Consequently, naturalism and the fact-value split are shown to be false, and Christian theism is shown to be true.”


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Philosophy Word of the Day – Jacques Maritain

Jacques Maritain

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“(1882-1973).  The best-known neo-Thomist of the twentieth century.  Having become dissatisfied with secularism and scientism, at the age of 24 Maritain converted to Roman Catholicism and spent the following sixty or so years elaborating a comprehensive philosophical system based on the writings of Thomas Aquinas and his scholastic followers, most especially John of St Thomas (1589-1644).

“His major contributions are to epistemology (The Degrees of Knowledge (1932)), social philosophy (The Person and the Common Good (1947)), and aesthetics (Art and Scholasticism (1920)).  Maritain is a staunch realist in metaphysics and epistemology; he advocates ontological pluralism, claiming that there are various non-reducible levels of existence, e.g., the physical, the biological, the psychological, the social, and the spiritual; and similarly he insists upon the diversity of our ways of knowing reality, emphasizing the role of rational and creative intuition and thereby linking metaphysics and aesthetics.”

— John Haldane in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 522.

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Fallibilism

Karl Popper in 1990.

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“Fallibilism is the view that human knowledge lacks a secure and an infallible foundation. Fallibilism is associated in particular with American scientist and philosopher Charles S. Peirce (1839–1914) and Austrian-born philosopher Karl Popper (1902–1994). In its most comprehensive form the fallibilist maintains that people cannot know anything with certainty. In its more restricted forms uncertainty is attributed to a particular domain of beliefs, such as empirical or religious beliefs. What separates fallibilists from others is the confidence each gives to epistemological success in general or within a particular domain. Participants within the science/religion discussion quite frequently affirm fallibilism. Its merit seems to be that it opens up possibilities for a dialogue on more even terms than foundationalism does.”

Mikael Stenmark in Encyclopedia of Science and Religion

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Belief

“Contemporary analytic philosophers of mind generally use the term “belief” to refer to the attitude we have, roughly, whenever we take something to be the case or regard it as true. To believe something, in this sense, needn’t involve actively reflecting on it: Of the vast number of things ordinary adults believe, only a few can be at the fore of the mind at any single time.

“Nor does the term “belief”, in standard philosophical usage, imply any uncertainty or any extended reflection about the matter in question (as it sometimes does in ordinary English usage). Many of the things we believe, in the relevant sense, are quite mundane: that we have heads, that it’s the 21st century, that a coffee mug is on the desk.

“Forming beliefs is thus one of the most basic and important features of the mind, and the concept of belief plays a crucial role in both philosophy of mind and epistemology. The “mind-body problem”, for example, so central to philosophy of mind, is in part the question of whether and how a purely physical organism can have beliefs. Much of epistemology revolves around questions about when and how our beliefs are justified or qualify as knowledge.” (continue article)

— Eric Schwizgebel in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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The Magisterial vs. Ministerial Role of Reason

Portrait of Martin Luther

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“But what about . . . the role of argument and evidence in knowing Christianity to be true?  I’ve already said that it is the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit that gives us the fundamental knowledge of Christianity’s truth.  Therefore, the only role left for argument and evidence to play is a subsidiary role.  I think Martin Luther correctly distinguished between what he called the magisterial and ministerial uses of reason.

“The magisterial use of reason occurs when reason stands over and above the gospel like a magistrate and judges it on the basis of argument and evidence.  The ministerial use of reason occurs when reason submits to and serves the gospel.  In light of the Spirit’s witness, only the ministerial use of reason is legitimate.  Philosophy is rightly the handmaid of theology.  Reason is a tool to help us better understand and defend our faith; as Anselm put it, ours is a faith that seeks understanding.  A person who knows that Christianity is true on the basis of the witness of the Spirit may also have a sound apologetic which reinforces or confirms for him the Spirit’s witness, but it does not serve as the basis of his belief.

“If the arguments of natural theology and Christian evidences are successful, then Christian belief is warranted by such arguments and evidences for the person who grasps them, even if that person would still be warranted in their absence.  Such a person is doubly warranted in his Christian belief, in the sense that he enjoys two sources of warrant.”

— William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Crossway, 2008), 47-48.

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem

By the early part of the twentieth century, the work of mathematical logicians such as Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, and Alfred North Whitehead had honed the axiomatic method into an almost machine-like technique of producing mathematical theorems from carefully stated first principles (axioms) by means of clear logical rules of inference. In 1931, however, Kurt Gödel (1906–1978), an Austrian logician, uncovered a surprising limitation inherent in any axiomatic system intended to produce theorems expressing the familiar mathematical properties of integer arithmetic.

Gödel developed a method, whose reach was slightly extended by J. Barkley Rosser in 1936, that shows how, given any such (consistent) system of axioms, one can produce a true proposition about integers that the axiomatic system itself cannot produce as a theorem. Gödel’s incompleteness result follows: Unless the axioms of arithmetic are inconsistent (self-contradictory), not all arithmetical truths can be deduced in such machine-like fashion from any fixed set of axioms. This result, that here consistency implies “incompleteness,” has striking implications not only for mathematical logic, but also for machine-learning (artificial intelligence) and epistemology, although its precise significance is still debated. (continue article)

— W. M. Priestly, Encyclopedia of Science and Religion



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The Missing Links – Nov. 21, 2010

  • PhilPapers Philosophy Survey: The survey asked questions on a variety of topics and surveyed over 1800 faculty and PhDs as well as over 800 graduate students. Here are some of the results . . .  * Results show what positions these philosophers take on epistemology, free will, mind, and truth.
  • A helpful review of The Cambridge Companion to Christian Philosophical Theology (Charles Taliaferro and Chad Meister, eds.), at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.
  • Download a free chapter of Fazale Rana’s The Cell’s Design: How Chemistry Reveals the Creator’s Artistry (Scroll down the page).


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Philosophy Word of the Day — Foundationalism

Epistemic foundationalism is a view about the proper architecture of one’s knowledge or justified beliefs.  Some beliefs are known or justifiedly believed only because some other beliefs are known or justifiedly believed.  The claim that one has heart disease is known only if some other beliefs are known—for example, that doctors have reported this and that the doctors are reliable.

This dependence among our beliefs naturally raises the question about the proper epistemic structure for our beliefs.  Should all beliefs be supported by other beliefs?  Are some beliefs rightly believed apart from receiving support from other beliefs?  What is the nature of the proper support between beliefs?  Epistemic foundationalism is one view about how to answer these questions.  Foundationalists maintain that some beliefs are properly basic and that the rest of one’s beliefs inherit their epistemic status (knowledge or justification) in virtue of receiving proper support from the basic beliefs.  Foundationalists have two main projects: a theory of proper basicality (that is, a theory of noninferential justification) and a theory of appropriate support (that is, a theory of inferential justification).

Foundationalism has a long history.  Aristotle in the Posterior Analytics argues for foundationalism on the basis of the regress argument.  Aristotle assumes that the alternatives to foundationalism must either endorse circular reasoning or land in an infinite regress of reasons.  Because neither of these views is plausible, foundationalism comes out as the clear winner in an argument by elimination.  Arguably, the most well known foundationalist is Descartes, who takes as the foundation the allegedly indubitable knowledge of his own existence and the content of his ideas.  Every other justified belief must be grounded ultimately in this knowledge.

. . . [Debates over foundationalism] touched off a burst of activity on foundationalism in the late 1970s to early 1980s.  One of the significant developments from this period is the formulation and defense of reformed epistemology, a foundationalist view that took as the foundations beliefs such as there is a God (see Plantinga (1983)). While the debate over foundationalism has abated in recent decades, new work has picked up on neglected topics about the architecture of knowledge and justification. (Continue article)

— Ted Poston, “Foundationalism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

* Hyperlinks are mine

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Book Review – The Making of an Atheist


  • Paperback: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Moody Publishers (February 1, 2010)
  • Official Website (Introduction in PDF)
  • Amazon
  • Christian Book Distributors
  • First, I should disclose that I agree with Spiegel’s thesis that “atheism is caused by a complex of moral-psychological factors, not a perceived lack of evidence for God’s existence. The atheist willfully rejects God, though this is precipitated by immoral indulgences and typically a broken relationship with his or her father. Thus, the choice of the atheist paradigm is motivated by non-rational factors” (113-114). I noticed the patterns first in the lives of Nietzsche (whom Spiegel mentions) and Foucault (whom he does not) prior to this reading.

    Spiegel expects that the idea will encounter resistance (and it probably will). He compiles previously released information and packages it for popular consumption, drawing significantly from Alvin Plantinga, Antony Flew’s “conversion,” and Paul C. Vitz. In fact, Spiegel does Plantinga the honor of dedicating the book to him as “a gigantic intellect with a humble heart.” Moreover, Spiegel maintains a humble tone throughout which honors Plantinga and is often lacking in apologetics.

    Spiegel’s goal is unique. He is not making a case for theism or defending it against the attacks of atheists. His argument is a flanking attack that responds to the “New Atheists” by calling into question the source of their unbelief.  Even though they claim their unbelief is rooted in reason, Spiegel sees the rational component of their unbelief secondary to their immorality or broken paternal relationships.

    He blends biblical ideas (Romans 1, Ephesians 4, etc.) and virtue epistemological concepts to produce an account of how behaving badly and thinking badly decay into a downward spiral of moral and intellectual blindness (particularly in the areas of ethics, theology, and human nature).

    For the link between atheism and broken paternal relationships, Spiegel draws heavily on  Paul C. Vitz’s Faith of the Fatherless. “The lack of a good father is a handicap when it comes to faith (70),” but not an insurmountable barrier. While this link will likely be unpopular or attacked as irrelevant on ad hominem grounds, let’s not forget that non-theists have already applied similar psychoanalytical criticisms against theists. Furthermore, enough examples are given to give us pause to reconsider the role of a paternal relationship in shaping our perceptions of God.

    I think the value of this book is really threefold. First, it helps encourage believers that matters of belief and unbelief are not purely a matter of the intellect, but are issues of the heart and will. Secondly, it should remind believers to be sensitive to the things which may be going on in the hearts of the unbelievers they want to reach with the gospel. Thirdly, it is a call to unbelievers to consider non-rational factors that may be barriers to their belief in God.

    It is a witty, quick read and is worth the couple of hours invested. I hope it is read by many. If you are strapped for time, but the concept interests you, please check out the author’s blog post on the topic here.

    – Reviewed by (polymath) Adam Reece

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