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.

The Missing Links – April 1, 2012

The front side (recto) of Papyrus 1, a New Tes...

The front side (recto) of Papyrus 1, a New Testament manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew. Most likely originated in Egypt. Also part of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (P. oxy. 2).

Dr. Bryant G. Wood recently presented lectures on “Archaeology and the Conquest: New Evidence on an Old Problem.”  Wood is editor of Bible and Spade, and director of the Excavations at Khirbet el-Maqatir (suggested as a possible site for Biblical Ai). Four separate talks cover:

  • Background and Chronology of the Exodus and Conquest
  • Digging Up the Truth at Jericho
  • The Discovery of Joshua’s Ai
  • Great Archaeological Discoveries Related to the Old Testament

Alexander Pruss points to a new blog on the philosophy of cosmology.

Daniel Wallace and Bart Ehrman debate on the topic: “Is the original New Testament lost?”

A new article on “Platonism and Theism” is up at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Alvin Plantinga lectures on “Religion and Science: Why Does the Debate Continue?” at Rainier Beach Presbyterian Church in Seattle Washington

Craig Blomberg writes on “Jesus of Nazareth: How Historians Can Know Him and Why It Matters” (PDF). 

Peter S. Williams engages with the question “Can Moral Objectivism Do Without God?”

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The Rage Against God

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Image via Wikipedia

“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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William Lane Craig Debates Richard Dawkins

It’s a well-known but unfortunate fact that Richard Dawkins has refused to debate Bill Craig.  But, coincidentally, he did this past weekend and Dr. Craig provides some of the details on his website (it may be necessary to login to view this).  A Spanish-dubbed version of the debate is on YouTube, but the English version is said to be coming soon.

Along with the debate details, Dr. Craig observed that the workshops held at the conference – “La Ciudad de las Ideas” (City of Ideas) in Mexico – were marked by three themes.  These intellectual currents are the same ones that characterize much of our culture and institutions of higher education.  The first two I believe are corrosive to rationality and truth-seeking while the third is naïve.

(1) Naturalism. There was no cognizance of God or even of religion’s contribution to culture and humanity—though, to Professor Roemer’s credit, there was, after all, our debate! But the other conference presenters took no recognition of the supernatural. Human beings were repeatedly treated reductively as purely physical mechanisms. A person was treated as just a network of neurons. This led to the bizarre view, repeated several times, that the worldwide web (whose inventor, by the way, was one of the presenters) is a huge collective brain, almost a sort of super-person. The day before the debate Richard Dawkins delivered a hateful screed against religion, denouncing “the evil of faith.” About 40% of the audience gave him a standing ovation. I was glad that most people had the courage to stay seated. The audience, at least, was not as secularized as the conference presenters.

(2) Scientism. The unspoken assumption throughout the conference was that science, and science alone, is the way to truth and knowledge. It’s not just that religious knowledge was excluded. Rather any and every question, even questions that are properly philosophical, was considered only insofar as it could be addressed scientifically. Apart from our debate, no one even questioned this unspoken scientism. So when Dawkins claimed that we should not believe anything except on the basis of (scientific) evidence, no one seemed to notice that his position was self-defeating, since the claim that we should believe only what can be scientifically proven cannot itself be scientifically proven! At this conference, as in Hawking and Mlodinow’s The Grand Design, scientists were taken to be “the torchbearers of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”

(3) Utopianism. There was a pervasive sentiment that science and technology are the savior of mankind and are about to usher us into a golden age. I couldn’t help having misgivings about the brave, new world they described. For example, Michio Kaku said that the internet will be embedded in contact lenses that will project images directly into our retinas. So, he said, if a student doesn’t have a date for Friday night, he can create an image of the most beautiful girl imaginable, download a movie, and watch it with her. I found something pathetic about this scenario of a student, alone in his room, cut off from contact with a real person, living in his imaginary world. This is progress?

* Update: The full audio of the debate is now up at Apologetics 315, and the English video is here.

* Update:  Rabbi David Wolpe, who along with Dr. Craig and Dr. Doug Geivett defended the proposition that the universe has a purpose, gives his account of the debate at the Huffington Post.


Philosophy Word of the Day – Skeptical Theism

Skeptical theism is the view that God exists but that we should be skeptical of our ability to discern God’s reasons for acting or refraining from acting in any particular instance.  In particular, says the skeptical theist, we should not grant that our inability to think of a good reason for doing or allowing something is indicative of whether or not God might have a good reason for doing or allowing something.  If there is a God, he knows much more than we do about the relevant facts, and thus it would not be surprising at all if he has reasons for doing or allowing something that we cannot fathom.

If skeptical theism is true, it appears to undercut the primary argument for atheism, namely the argument from evil.  This is because skeptical theism provides a reason to be skeptical of a crucial premise in the argument from evil, namely the premise that asserts that at least some of the evils in our world are gratuitous.  If we are not in a position to tell whether God has a reason for allowing any particular instance of evil, then we are not in a position to judge whether any of the evils in our world are gratuitous.  And if we cannot tell whether any of the evils in our world are gratuitous, then we cannot appeal to the existence of gratuitous evil to conclude that God does not exist.  The remainder of this article explains skeptical theism more fully, applies it to the argument from evil, and surveys the reasons for and against being a skeptical theist. (continue article)

— Justin P. McBrayer at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Dallas Willard on Outrageous Claims Made in the Name of Science

Philosopher Dallas Willard writes, “[I]ndividuals with standing in a particular professional field sometimes feel free, or even obligated, to cloak themselves in the authority of their area of expertise and make grandiose statements such as this by a professor of biological sciences [Willard quotes William B. Provine of Cornell University]:

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear. . . . There are no gods, no purposes, no goal-directed forces of any kind.  There is no life after death.  When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead.  That’s the end for me.  There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans, either.

“Logically viewed, this statement is simply laughable.  Nowhere within the published, peer-reviewed literature of biology—even evolutionary biology—do any of the statements of which the professor is “absolutely certain” appear as valid conclusions of sound research.  One trembles to think that an expert in the field would not know this or else would feel free to disregard it.  Biology as a field of research and knowledge is not even about such issues.  It simply does not deal with them.  They do not fall within the province of its responsibilities.  Yet it is very common to hear such declamations about the state of the universe offered up in lectures and writing by specialists in certain areas who have a missionary zeal for their personal causes.”

Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (HarperOne, 2009), 5.

Well said.  I do admire Provine, however, for following his naturalism to its logical conclusions, and being willing to state those conclusions openly:  there are no purposes, no life after death, no objective right and wrong, no meaning to life, and no free will.  I absolutely agree with Provine that these are the logical implications of metaphysical naturalism.  They are the stark realities that atheists of previous generations (such as Nietzsche and Sartre) embraced—and lamented.  But most popularizers of atheism today want to have their atheism and eat their cake, too.

They want to proclaim a universe without deity, but also make moral pronouncements (as if they were something more than mere opinion), live as if the will is free (do they embrace atheism because it’s rational or because they couldn’t choose otherwise?), and maintain an unjustified optimism about human life and progress through science (why bother doing science if life has no meaning?  Why even get out of bed every day?  And how do we explain the great evil human beings are prone to do?).

Provine is right.  But why anyone wouldn’t fall into the deepest depression if they held such beliefs is incomprehensible.  Such propositions can live freely in the ivory tower of abstract academic thought, but they’re unlivable in concrete human experience.  Thus, I can only conclude that those who hold such views don’t actually take them very seriously.  If they did, we would witness their lives spiraling into chaos in a very short time.

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On Naturalism, “Blind, Pitiless Indifference” Is Our Lot

As argued by Richard Dawkins.  And, given his worldview commitment of metaphysical naturalism, he’s quite right:

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

River Out of Eden (Basic Books, 1996), p. 133.

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