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 — Time

The Passage of Time

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Time has been studied by philosophers and scientists for 2,500 years, and thanks to this attention it is much better understood today. Nevertheless, many issues remain to be resolved. Here is a short list of the most important ones: What time actually is; whether time exists when nothing is changing; what kinds of time travel are possible; why time has an arrow; whether the future and past are real; how to analyze the metaphor of time’s flow; whether future time will be infinite; whether there was time before the Big Bang; whether tensed or tenseless concepts are semantically basic; what is the proper formalism or logic for capturing the special role that time plays in reasoning; what are the neural mechanisms that account for our experience of time; whether there is a timeless nature “beyond” spacetime; and whether time should be understood only in terms of its role in the laws governing matter and force. Some of these issues will be resolved by scientific advances alone, but others require philosophical analysis.

Consider this one issue upon which philosophers of time are deeply divided: What sort of ontological differences are there among the present, past and future? There are three competing theories. Presentists argue that necessarily only present objects and present experiences are real, and we conscious beings recognize this in the special “vividness” of our present experience. The dinosaurs have slipped out of reality. However, according to the growing-universe or growing-block theory, the past and present are both real, but the future is not real because the future is indeterminate or merely potential. Dinosaurs are real, but our death is not. The third and more popular theory is that there are no significant ontological differences among present, past, and future because the differences are merely subjective. This view is called “the block universe theory” or “eternalism.” (Continue article)

– From The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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Philosophy Word of the Day – John Wyclif

I have a collection all prints and Lithographs...

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John Wyclif (ca. 1330-84) was one of the most important and authoritative thinkers of the Middle Ages. His activity is set in the very crucial period of late Scholasticism, when the new ideas and doctrines there propounded accelerated the transition to the modern way of thought. On the one hand, he led a movement of opposition to the medieval Church and to some of its dogmas and institutions, and was a forerunner of the Reformation; on the other, he was also the most prominent English philosopher of the second half of the 14th century.

His logical and ontological theories are, at the same time, the final result of the preceding realistic tradition of thought and the starting-point of the new forms of realism at the end of the Middle Ages, since many authors active during the last decades of the 14th and/or the first decades of the 15th centuries (Robert Alyngton, William Penbygull, Johannes Sharpe, William Milverley, Roger Whelpdale, John Tarteys, and Paul of Venice), were heavily influenced by his metaphysics and largely used his logical apparatus. However, his philosophical system, rigorous in its general design, contains unclear and aporetic points that his followers attempted to remove. So, although an influential thinker, Wyclif pointed to the strategy the Realists at the end of the Middle Ages were to adopt, rather than fully developed it.

(Via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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How Much Brain Do I Need To Be Human?

The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity
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Dr. Scott Rae of Talbot School of Theology, an expert in bioethics, describes the differences between a functional view of persons and an ontological view of persons.  When it comes to dealing with medical issues like anencephaly (partial or total absence of a brain) and persistent vegetative states (PVS), these distinctions become extremely important.

The severely neurologically impaired, such as the anencephalic newborn, the PVS patient and the nursing home resident at the end stages of Alzheimer’s, raise puzzling questions.  They are alive, but do not have much of a life, when it comes to the narrative that distinguishes them from their mere bodily functions.  Our intuitions tend to rebel against the notion that they are human beings like us, because they look and seem to us to be simply bodies that medical technology is sustaining.

These cases raise the question: “How much brain do you need to be human?”  Or to put it more generally: “What kinds of capacities are necessary for one to be considered a person?”  Underlying the former question is another criterion for personhood, that of consciousness/sentience.  With the neurologically impaired, the question we are really asking is: “Can someone be a person without being conscious or sentient?”

Read the rest of the article here from the Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity.

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