June 08, 2007

A Challenge to Atheists

Nick is a bright, attractive, and financially successful young man who was raised in a nominally Christian home. He has a wife and a kid on the way. He's not particularly unhappy in his marriage, but it's been 3 years now and the passionate zing has pretty much faded. He's also not thrilled with the thought of a kid intruding on his lifestyle — maybe some day, but not just now. He only agreed to one at his wife's nagging insistence.

His wife is a semi-regular churchgoer and has been getting increasingly religious and domestic, particularly now with the pregnancy. Nick doesn't much care for church these days, especially now that she's gotten so serious about it, and her increasingly conservative attitude has affected their relationship and social life. It seems to Nick that they just don't have any carefree, spontaneous fun anymore and that she thinks his friends are irresponsible and immature.

Nick's been hanging out on the Internet a lot, doing things we won't talk about. But of particular interest is his time spent on a prominent atheist website. With the proverbial "open mind" Nick has absorbed it all. It deeply resonated with his current thinking and he found it just the kind of rational fuel he needed to take his life to the next level, but not before writing the following email to the author of that website.

Dear Sir,

I've been reading your articles with great interest over the past weeks. I must say, you make a strong case for atheism. In fact, I thought you'd be happy to hear that you've finally convinced me that god is just a fiction! I wanted to write and thank you personally because this is a big breakthrough for me. I feel like a great burden has been lifted from my back. Ironically, I feel "born again" as an atheist.

It's a relief to know that there is no god haunting my thoughts and actions, no spiritual quests to waste my time, no church to bore me, and no money to be surrendered. My mind is free and my goals are my own to set. I know now that my conscience, which was my last hurdle toward atheism, is just the product of my Christian upbringing, or perhaps it is an evolutionary instinct meant for my survival. In any case, it doesn't need to trouble me again, since I am free to make my own values and follow my own natural desires.

"Guilt" is as meaningless now as the fictional and repressive concepts of "good" and "evil." I am free to live according to the knowledge that this is my one shot at existence, and I don't want to waste it "storing up treasures" in a mythical place I'll never see. Best of all, there is no hell or judgment, so there are no "wrong" choices to make and no "bad" behaviors to avoid. As long as I'm okay with it, and society allows it, then it's all good!

I've grown so tired of trying to resist my desires and fight my conscience that it feels so liberating to reject the god hypothesis and everything that goes with it. If I want to party and do drugs, or view any kind of pornography, who's to say it's wrong? In fact, if I want to have an affair, so long as my wife doesn't find out, it's no problem with me. Heck, even if she does find out and doesn't like it, divorce is a perfectly acceptable option. For that matter, murder is on the table as well!

I'm a pretty smart guy; I could probably get away with it too. And if not, I'm willing to skip the country. I'd probably be happier in another country anyway. The US is too uptight and morally restrictive. I understand that there are many countries where drugs and prostitution are legal, and the age of consent is quite low in some. If things don't work out for me, I can always take the escape clause. It's my life and I can live it or end it whenever I want.

I realize that your writings haven't tried to convince anyone to go out and kill people or commit suicide. But you know what? The way I see it everything is fair game now. A world without god is a whole new adventure and I plan to live it out.

Thanks again for all your great articles. They really gave me something to think about, but I'm outta here now.

Nick

My question to any atheists who might be reading right now is this: Do you have a problem with Nick's attitude, and if so, what do you say to him?

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75 Comments:

At 6/08/2007 11:39 PM, Blogger The Barefoot Bum said...

Other than that "Nick" is a complete fake?

It is a fact that people do party, take drugs, have affairs, get divorced, even commit murder. And there is no god to punish them. Justice is a human construction.

I have nothing but contempt for those whose only moral restraint is fear of a magical sky fairy. I have no doubt that such people actually would commit the most atrocious crimes if they were convinced that God ordered them to do so. And, according to Christian scripture, people have been convinced that God has indeed ordered them to commit murder, rape, slavery, human sacrifice.

You sir, are (in addition to being a liar or a fool) a contemptible slave. I am a free man. I do not murder because I myself choose not to murder. You choose not to murder only because you have not yet been ordered to murder.

 
At 6/09/2007 8:06 AM, Blogger DagoodS said...

Since you asked “any” atheists…a rare comment:

Along with The Barefoot Bum, my first reaction is that this e-mail is a complete fake. The statements within are so atypical of atheists, and particularly abnormal for deconverts, yet so stereotypical of how many Christians view atheists, I would normally suspect some Christian, using the anonymity of the internet, posing as an atheist.

Because of that suspicion, I do have a problem with Nick’s attitude, but I doubt it is what you are looking for. The fact that a Christian would view atheism and write in such a manner is frustrating.

For example:

E-Mail: I feel like a great burden has been lifted from my back.

I am a deconvert. I have dialogued, either personally or through written communication, at length with dozens of other deconverts. I have read 100’s of deconverting stories. I don’t recall any declaring the loss of belief in God was a “burden” being lifted. Maybe there are a few, but it is so out of the norm as to stand out as an anomaly.

Only a Christian would think that believers considered their belief a “burden” and thus would be desire to rid of it.

What makes this blog entry so despairing is to think of how poorly I must be communicating if Christians view us as making or believing such statements. Yes, I get that a worldview based upon Rom. 1:20-21 imparts some of this attitude…but still. You guys really see us as considering belief in God a “burden.”? Sigh.

Let me try (once more) to give an analogy as to why even as a hypothetical this is rude, discourteous, and insulting.

Imagine, paul, you are a doctor of some renown. People come from all over the country to you for cures, because you specialize in one particular disease. In fact, you are considered an expert on this disease.

Then one day your spouse of 30+ years contracts the disease. You bring your normal course of treatment, yet she gets sicker. You bring to bear all your knowledge, experience and resources, using everything you possibly know to cure her. Yet she gets sicker.

You turn to other doctors, who all shrug and say, “You’re the expert. It is up to you to cure her.” So you try new and radical treatments. Anything you have ever read about, or heard about or even suspected as a possible way to rid her of this disease. Yet she gets sicker.

Now people are blaming you. You must not be trying hard enough. You must not be researching enough. You must not be administering the medicine in the right amounts, or the right timing, or the right sequence, or the right something. They know this because you are the expert, and many other people have been cured of this disease, yet she is dying. If you really wanted her to live; you could cure her.

Eventually the love of your life dies. Your heart breaks. While you are somewhat relieved that her suffering is over, you doubt you can ever be happy again. If there is any “burden” that is lifted, it was the trauma of trying to save your wife, being blamed for your inability to do so, and the end of being worn out to your very last nerve.

After this, you discover life goes on. That you, amazingly can be happy again. There are still pangs and remembrances of your wife, but life goes on…

Years later, some person writes, “Hey, you lost your wife, too? Wasn’t it GREAT to be rid of that old bag?” Your heart breaks again, thinking that people would even remotely suspect you of an instance of happiness in the death of your wife.

paul, I tried to see past your analogous “Nick” to see what the point it was that you were making. Were you asking whether moral relativists are disappointed at other moral relativists who do not share the same moral beliefs? Were you asking how a moral relativist imposes their morals on others?

But this story was so unlike anything I have seen (but tragically SO like what I see Christians view us as) I couldn’t dig past what you were saying beyond the distressing image of how ineffectual we must be in communicating.

If this is the best we do, I truly fear for the theistic/non-believer debates.

 
At 6/09/2007 11:35 AM, Anonymous Mustardseed said...

That photo you used, I guess to look like the evil atheist incarnate, actually looks like one of my adulterous born-again evangelical pastors from my Baptist church.

 
At 6/09/2007 7:12 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
When I read this I assumed that it was a caricature used as a device to make a point, the issue of whether or not it was a real account was settled after the first line or so. Clearly it was nothing more than a cipher.
I think it was ill judged though, not only for the reasons that Dagoods has mentioned but because for anyone with an intelligent enquiring view of the world, it is clear that this reflects a naive view of the foundations of ethics.

 
At 6/09/2007 9:18 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

I read Dagoods deconversion story on his blog, and I remember thinking while reading this blog entry that Dagoods isn't going to relate with this at all. But at the same time, I remember when I was going through my agnosticism. There was a time when I felt like God was a burden to me. There were a lot of guilty pleasures I wanted to endulge in without feeling guilty about it. I tried for a while to stop believing in God because I thought it would lift a burden from me. I just couldn't do it.

My ex-wife did abandon Christianity and Christian morals. She became a Unitarian Universalist. I read her own testimony on a message board, and she specifically said that she enjoys the freedom that has come from her change of beliefs. I won't go into detail because it's too personal, but that freedom was in the area of morals. When I read her story, it didn't surprise me.

I've met a lot of people who had horrible experiences in churches and later abandoned it as a result. Their denial of Christianity, with all its baggage, was liberating for them. I'm surprised Dagoods hasn't run into the same thing.

But I also know that for a lot of atheists, Dagoods included, deconverstion is not a liberating experience. It's more traumatic. There are people who want to believe, but can't in the face of what seems to them to be sold evidence against Christianity. The way they describe it, you'd think their best friend died and didn't come back to life.

I think the Barefoot Bum misconstrues what might be so freeing for somebody who deconverts from theism. It isn't that we might feel free from fear of hell. I've never had any fear of hell. It's that we might feel free from moral obligation and guilt. If atheism is true, then there are no transcendent moral values. The only morals there are, are the ones we make up. We're just following natural impulses, partly as a result of evolution, and partly as a result of social conditioning. But we have no real obligation to obey these instincts that drive us. So we can ignore them when it's convenient, and we haven't done anything wrong. I think the only reason a lot of atheists don't see this is because they don't take their own worldview to its logical conclusion. So if you're an atheist, I ask you to just be honest with yourself. What reason is there to think anything really matters in this world? Does life have any meaning? Would it matter if nobody existed at all?

I did not get the impression from reading this that some real atheist wrote it or even that Paul meant us to take it that way. I got the impression that Paul was making an illustration. His point was to ask the question: What's wrong with what Nick said? Paul thinks Nick was merely taking atheism to its logical conclusion, which I'm sure he'd readily admit most atheists don't.

So the challenge to atheists is this: Where has Nick's reasoning gone wrong? How would you refute Nick without being inconsistent with your worldview? How would you argue Nick out of what he's thinking about doing? You can't very well appeal to right and wrong. The best you could do is appeal to self-interest, but Nick has already accounted for that by saying, "as long as I don't get caught." You can't appeal to Nick's compassion if he simply has none. What, then, do you have?

 
At 6/09/2007 9:59 PM, Blogger The Barefoot Bum said...

I've never been a believer, except in the most casual lip-service sense.

My wife is a apostate from Islam and she talks about being freed from the stupid, arbitrary restrictions that relegated her, by virtue of nothing but her sex, to second-class citizenship and second-class humanity.

I know of many formerly theist (or formerly Christian) gay people who feel liberated from the theology that taught that their ordinary, human love was sinful and hateful.

Moral and ethical beliefs are part of ordinary human psychology. Love, empathy, joy and even sex are fully human feelings. Atheists—even atheists who deconvert&mdah;do not abandon their humanity when they abandon their submission to the authority of an invisible sky fairy. They are free to embrace their humanity, so long denied by the fearful faithful, deathly afraid of any happiness that comes from freedom, not servility.

 
At 6/09/2007 10:05 PM, Blogger The Barefoot Bum said...

Paul's mythical straw man is devoid of compassion, of empathy, of much ordinary human feeling. As an atheist he would, of course, be a monster.

But as a theist, he would still be a monster. He would be a Torquemada, a Fred Phelps, a Crusader, an Inquisitor, an Imam. He would simply project his selfishness and ruthlessness onto God and thus grant his monstrousness divine justification.

Even the atheist monster can go only so far. It takes theism, and a sense of divine justification, to amplify a serial killer into an Inquisitor.

 
At 6/09/2007 11:13 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Unfortunately, the point of this exercise is being missed and I haven't really gotten a pointed response to "Nick," other than to call him a "monster." DagoodS's reply, while more constructive, is basically covering the same ground as Bum's (Larry). Psio didn't disappoint me, as expected. Based on our prior exchanges, he's sensing what I'm getting at with this "cipher," but he's bypassing the fun and trying to cut to the chase. However, I think that playing the game out would be instructive.

Yes, Nick is fictional, and, no, I do not think that Nick's story is necessarily typical of atheists. I appreciate Dag's touching analogy of how he lost his imaginary friend (God), and I have indeed heard similar accountings. For example, one of Billy Graham's oldest friends, Charles Templeton, was heard to speak with great sadness at the end of life over the loss of his Jesus.

However, not all atheist converts take pains to share their conversion testimonies among polite company and hi-brow atheist communities, and I have myself heard various accounts using the very words (and related sentiment) "born again." There are and have historically been individuals like Nick who have felt quite morally liberated by their non-theism and were not shy to act upon it. Some (male) names that come to mind are Oscar Wilde, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Marquis De Sade, Rousseau, Jim Morrison, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Dylan Klebold.

Are we here denying that there are indeed such atheists, or that the lack of ultimate justice and accountability would have some impact upon their behavior? Even if the vast majority of atheists were model citizens (and I do not deny that there are many such cases), it does not mean that they will be or must be by an atheistic accounting. Aside from the rather sticky issue of condemning Nick's attitude as being "evil" in some objective sense, what (as ephphatha rightly understands I am asking) do you have to say to the Nicks of the world?

 
At 6/10/2007 7:18 AM, Blogger The Barefoot Bum said...

Of course Nick is fictional. Actual, real, human atheists never act this way. Why, then, take pains to emphasize his reality, even to quotations, without a mention fiction? Just because dishonesty is transparently obvious—at least to some—does not excuse it or erase its capacity to mislead.

But now that the deception has been admitted, I suppose it is more fruitful to simply move on.

I do deny that there are any more than an insignificant handful of such atheists. In my personal, political and philosophical work I have met thousands of atheists, read scores of deconversion testimonies, and I've not met a single one who acts this way.

It's important to understand that we're not talking about the actuality of "ultimate justice and accountability"; we're speaking, rather, of such a fantasy, and what happens when that fantasy is removed.

What can you say about ethics to a person without compassion and empathy? Nothing. If such a person has an ounce of sense—enough that temporal justice is no deterrent—they will quickly realize that a fantasy of ultimate divine justice is just that: a fantasy.

If they have a pinch more sense, they will simply assert that God approves of their actions, that God demands their atrocities as a principle of ultimate justice, that God demands that their victims suffer the penalties of ultimate justice, and that we are merely speeding them along the way and showing our loyalty to God's will.

It is the very rare human being who cares to do evil for the sake of doing evil. The vast majority of human beings do evil because they have been convinced it is in the service of a "higher" good. Theism is not always the excuse, but safely protected from rational investigation, God still remains the most convenient excuse.

The question is fundamentally flawed. Since fantasies of divine justice have nothing to do with ethics in the first place, why should we be concerned about the consequences of their removal?

 
At 6/10/2007 7:36 AM, Blogger The Barefoot Bum said...

There really is only one thing to say to those without compassion and empathy, or to those who, for whatever reason, choose to act contrary to their compassion and empathy.

There is only one thing to say whether such a person displays their indifference nakedly, or conceals it with the cloak of divine justice.

Robert G. Ingersoll said it far better than I could:

"If abuses are destroyed, we must destroy them. If slaves are freed, we must free them. If new truths are discovered, we must discover them. If the naked are clothed; if the hungry are fed; if justice is done; if labor is rewarded; if superstition is driven from the mind; if the defenseless are protected and if the right finally triumphs, all must be the work of people. The grand victories of the future must be won by humanity, and by humanity alone."

It is we ourselves—the great mass of people who do have compassion and empathy, and act on it—who must deal with the Nicks, as well as the Torquemadas, Phelps, Falwells and Robertsons. And if we do not we are fools—for God has shown no evidence of helping to the smallest degree.

 
At 6/10/2007 9:37 AM, Blogger DagoodS said...

Thank you, ephphatha for realizing that I could not relate to “Nick.” At least to some extent I must be communicating…

ephphatha: I think the only reason a lot of atheists don't see this is because they don't take their own worldview to its logical conclusion.

When discussing atheism ”the” only logical conclusion one can derive is that the person lacks the belief in a god. I would freely admit that ”a” logical conclusion of atheism is that people like “Nick” would develop such a nihilistic moral sense. But there are atheist who also logically conclude altruism is a moral basis. Or objectivity. Or that morals are absolutes. Or morals are relative. In other words, ephphatha there is no ”the” logical conclusion from atheism regarding morals.

On the one hand you bind me to abide by the words of this “Nick” and on the other, paul claims it is a caricature. How effective is an argument based upon a caricature that we then demand the other person is bound by?

Here--what if I created a fictional “Nock”? And I said that “Nock” was a Christian who God told that he must kill all the Arabs, but retain their Virgin Females and gold as booty. (Numbers 31.) And I then ask if you have a problem with what Nock intends to do, and what would you say to him?

If you first question whether Nock is a Christian, I can claim that my “caricature” takes that into account by defining him as a Christian. If you question whether God actually said it, or whether Nock was hearing voices, again I can claim that my “caricature” takes that into account by specifically stating that God told him.

Do you see why creating a caricature and then limiting the answers to within that caricature is not very helpful? (And I would also hope that you would seriously question my background and knowledge of Christianity if I did not already know the answer to that particular question.)

On the other hand you refer to yourself and your ex-wife as examples of “Nick” that are outside the caricature. Nick used “rational fuel” and then completely abandoned any moral base whatsoever. On the one hand we have him studying at SecW--…er…”a prominent atheist website” and becoming “convinced” that god is just a fiction.

You indicated that it was not reason that was causing you to desire lose of belief in God, but a desire to indulge in guilty pleasure. Am I bound by the caricature of “Nick” who rationally came to the conclusion of no God, or “ephphatha” who wanted to abandon the burden of the guilt associated with God?

Of course I am aware of people that become atheists who subsequently feel liberated by the freeing of morals. Probably the easiest example of this is a person who is a homosexual, and as a Christian struggled with suppressing their homosexual desires. Upon becoming an atheist, they would no longer be bound by the moral obligations of Romans 1, and would be free to liberally engage in homosexuality.

What Christians don’t understand (for a variety of reasons which, if you are truly interested, I will go into on my own blog) is that this is a SYMPTOM, not a cause. It is a result, not an effect. Very, very rarely do I see people who say, “I want to be a homosexual, so I got rid of the ‘burden’ of belief in god” Happens? I am sure. But not often. More of “I lost god, so I am no longer bound by the ‘burden’ of pleasing a non-existent entity for a non-existent more.”

Do you see my problem with responding to “Nick”? On the one hand this facsimile is created as rationally coming to a loss of belief in God, and then immediately he deteriorates into a complete loss of morals. (In fact, he even deteriorates within his own e-mail! He goes from an “affair” [but curiously still has enough conscience that he doesn’t want her to find out] then getting a divorce, then to murdering her.) I haven’t seen this type of progression. I’m sorry; I just have not.

Your examples of yourself and your ex-wife (and thank you for being so open about that—I understand how difficult such openness can be) do not correspond to Nick.

“Nick” is an impossible creature by which we either must modify him in some way to respond, or we cannot respond.

Ignoring this “Nick” and looking at the intent behind it…frankly, the answer to the blog entry is so simplistic and obvious, I am surprised it would be asked.

Moral Relativism (atheism is a smoke-screen) at its very basis recognizes that humans will differ in what is moral to them. That difference may be guided by location, or knowledge or history, or environment, but the differences exist.

Knowing that, we expect people to clash over morals. You don’t need a hyperbolic “Nick.” I will bet dollars to doughnuts, The Barefoot Bum and I disagree at least to some moral. That is expected and anticipated within moral relativism.

The next question is what to do about it. We discuss with each other, argue, compel, learn what motivates the other, and appeal to it, and even impose laws (both actual and societal) to enforce what is viewed as the majority’s view of morals.

So to the first question “Do you have a problem with Nick’s attitude?” why is it some surprise that the answer is “Yes”? Wouldn’t the (and I do mean “the”) logical conclusion of moral relativism be that some people with have a problem with other people’s morals?

As to the second, “what do you say to him?” this would depend on how well I know “Nick,” what motivates him, what his background is, and why he is completely abandoning his morals. I would be curious as to the almost immediate loss of morals, yet the concern over hiding an affair, for example.

This is where the “caricature” completely breaks down. I agree completely with The Barefoot Bum. This person is so fictional, so over-the-top, so devoid of any humanity, asking how I would respond to him is like my creating Nock, and asking how you would respond to him.

You asked a coupla of questions:

ephphatha: What reason is there to think anything really matters in this world?

There are two questions to that—ultimately does anything matter, or intimately does anything matter.

Ultimately, there is no reason to think anything really matters in this world. We could blow up Earth tomorrow, wiping out life, and the universe will continue its course without a shrug.

Intimately, however, we won the lottery. We came into existence. Now that we are here, we need to address it. It “matters” because I would like my life to be as happy as possible. I would like those about me to be as happy as possible. I would like, as corny as it sounds, for the world to be better for my having existed. I talk to other humans, and they feel the same way. We have a collective goal to improve our situation. To make life easier for our children, and even easier for our grandchildren, and so on.

However we got it, god or not, that goal is one in which I hope we could agree. We haven’t mastered that yet. How about we complete that, and then sit around, drink beer and argue whether there is some absolute moral we don’t know, or whether morals are relative? (And yes, I get that for a person who holds to absolute morals, their existence is part and parcel of making life easier for children, so they are unable to make it simply an esoteric debate. I am just giving ya my side.)

ephphatha: Does life have any meaning?

Again, ultimately—No. If life never existed, the universe would have continued its course unaffected. Intimately, we have life. Like it or lump it—it exists. Now that it does, what are we going to do about it?

For many, that includes creating some meaning within life.

ephphatha: Would it matter if nobody existed at all?

Nope. But we do. I am a strong proponent that the worst philosophy is “Ignore the monster and hope it goes away.” I read once that there are two types of humans. One hears a hurricane is coming and hopes that it will take a turn and miss them. The other hears, and moves their valuables out of the projected path, or puts into place the best barriers to protect what valuables they have.

Since we already have life (the “hurricane” if you will) better to face it and deal with it.

 
At 6/10/2007 10:30 AM, Blogger The Barefoot Bum said...

DagoodS: Well said!

I would quibble only with your term "moral relativism" (although putting the phrase in scare quotes mitigates my quibble considerably). This term has been so thoroughly abused by both the philosophical canon as well as lay philosophers that it is meaningless or quite misleading, without consistent intensional referent.

I myself use the more elaborate phrase meta-ethical subjective relativism, which trades euphony for precision.

 
At 6/10/2007 4:35 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

You're communicating, Dagoods, but I must admit it's hard to follow you sometimes.

I agree that to be precise, I should say "a" logical conclusion instead of "the" logical conclusion, but for the purposes of this discussion, does it really matter? I don't see that it does, so I'm not going to waste anymore time on the issue. If I say "the," you'll just have to excuse me, because I don't get the impression that you missed my point merely because I said "the."

Lack of belief in God is not a logical conclusion of atheism. Lack of belief in God is atheism. One of the things that follows from atheism is that ultimately nothing matters, life has no meaning, and there are no transcendent moral obligations.

Given that you seem to agree life is ultimately meaningless, I'm puzzled why you are having difficulty figuring out how to respond to Nick. Basically what you seem to be saying is that although life is ultimately meaningless, it's not meaningless to us. Although nothing ultimately matters, plenty of things matter to us. To be consistent, then, all you have to do is say something like this:

*******
Nick, you're right that whether you kill people or not really doesn't matter in the end. We're all going to die anyway, and it won't matter that we ever existed in the first place. But in the meantime, don't you care about human suffering? Wouldn't you rather people be happy than miserable? Wouldn't you be a happier person if you at least pretended that killing is wrong, and that people have value apart from whether you personally care about them or not?
**********

What's so hard about that? That response would be perfectly consistent with atheism.

While you did readily admit that a logical conclusion of atheism is a nihilistic moral sense. But you also said that a logical conclusion of atheism is that morals are absolute. Could you tell me how moral absolutes follow logically from atheism? You see, it's not enough to say merely that some atheists have come to that conclusion. After all, many people (atheists and theists alike) come to conclusions inconsistently from their worldview.

I have no problem answering a similar question in regards to Christianity. If somebody made up a fictional character who lived out the logical implications of the Christian worldview, and it turned out to be something I strongly objected to, I could answer in one of two ways. I could either say that his point of view does not follow logically from Christianity and show him the error in his reasoning, or I could bite the bullet and say that I was the one who was being inconsistent with my Christianity.

In the case of Nock, Nock would have to convince me that God really ordered him to kill Arabs and take their virgins and gold as booty. In the meantime, I would show him that acting that way on our own initiative is inconsistent with Christianity.

Here's an even better analogy:

*****
Jim was an atheist who fell in love with a Christian girl named Christina. Christina managed to convince Jim that Christianity was true, which worked out great for Christina since she was digging on him, too. Jim and Christina decided to get married, and they joined a church together. Before too long, they were parents to an infant they named Rebecca. One Sunday, the pastor addressed the question, "What happens to people who die in infancy?" He said that since

1. Only people who sin go to hell.

and

2. Infants do not sin,

it follows logically and necessarily that

3. People who die in infancy do not go to hell.

Then the pastor went on to say that everybody sins once they obtain the mental capacity to distinguish right from wrong. Jim went home and thought about Christina and Rebecca. He knew there was no guarantee Rebecca would grow up to be a Christian. There was only the guarantee that if she grew up, she would sin. But if she were to die now she'd be guaranteed to go to heaven. Now Jim loved Rebecca, and he loved his wife, too. But he was convinced that killing Rebecca was the best possible thing he could do for her. It was morally right, because he would be guaranteeing eternal bliss, and guaranteeing that there would be no possibility of her ever going to hell. So Jim killed Rebecca.
*****

Now, you might put it to a Christian and say, "Jim took his Christian worldview to its logical conclusion. How would you, as a Christian, respond to Jim?

You see, there's no problem with questions like this? Just because I'm not Jim, and I can't relate with Jim, and I think Jim is a charicature of Christianity, that doesn't prevent me from responding to this. I would simply point out to Jim that taking the life of innocent people is explicitly forbidden to us by God, so it is not, in fact, consistent with Christianity that Jim kill Rebecca. In fact, Jim is being inconsistent with Christianity. He is taking perogatives that belong to God alone.

Most of what you said in your post is completely irrelevent. It's irrelevent whether reason or desire caused my wife or me to lose faith in God. It's irrelevent whether reason or desire caused Nick to lose his faith in God. What's relevent is whether Nick is living consistently with his atheism or whether you could object to anything Nick says or does while being consistent with your atheism.

Wouldn’t the (and I do mean “the”) logical conclusion of moral relativism be that some people with have a problem with other people’s morals?

Of course. But the problem isn't that the other person has really done something he ought not to have done. The problem is that given moral relativism the other person has done something that goes against what you or your culture values.

 
At 6/10/2007 5:24 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
However, I think that playing the game out would be instructive.

Given that it is being more than ably played by Dagoods and The Barefoot Bum I am content to watch and learn.
Isn't it funny how every single contributor here would refrain from a debate on the merits of meta-ethical subjective relativism until after they had helped lift the piano from your foot? I remember posting last year that I was sceptical regarding a correlation between the meta ethical stance of a person and their morality as lived. That scepticism remains.

 
At 6/10/2007 6:17 PM, Anonymous John said...

ephphatha wrote:

One of the things that follows from atheism is that ultimately nothing matters, life has no meaning, and there are no transcendent moral obligations.


I'm sorry, but that is patently false. But, then, I could argue that an atheist CAN live an ethical and moral life in which things DO matter and life DOES have meaning and there ARE transcendent moral obligations forcefully and eloquently and even logically until I'm blue in the face, and the response would be some variation of "No you can't."

What's curious to me is that the majority of atheists continue to manage to stay out of prison.

As far as Scott's question, If Nick were real, of course I'd have a problem with his beliefs.

What would I say to him? Probably nothing. What's the point?

In the hypothetical letter, his immoral position is quite clear, and it is quite clear he's not looking for other answers. It would be like "debating" the need for nationalized health care with Bill O'Reilly. Or discussing why, or even if, non-believers can lead moral and ethical lives with a Classical Christian.

You can read more, but it's probably pointless.

 
At 6/10/2007 6:44 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

John, if it's patently false, then you should have no trouble in explaining to us how there can be transcendent moral obligations in the absense of any sort of god. Telling me that atheists can be moral and that atheists do a fine job of staying out of prison does nothing to even address the issue I raised. I haven't said one word about whether atheists can be moral or not. I fully acknowledge that they can. But the issue isn't whether a person can act morally in the absense of any belief in God. The issue is whether there can be such a thing as moral obligation if God doesn't exist.

You can read more here.

 
At 6/10/2007 8:50 PM, Anonymous John said...

Have you read any Kant? I've read very little, and fully understood less than that.

But here's one example of what I consider a moral obligation: Kant says that people are not to be treated as a means to an end, but as an end only.

In a concrete example: Why should I not jump in the sack with a random stranger to fulfill some sexual need? Because I will have treated that person merely as an object in order to fulfill my sexual desires.

But I wonder if there's even a point of arguing whether there is or isn't a moral obligation. In the real world, people of all religious persuasions do or don't do things which may be moral, amoral, or immoral.

GOD doesn't physically stop anyone from acting in ways that displease him. It's our own sense of moral duty that determines our actions. Some folks' morality is informed by biblical teaching. Others are informed by the Buddah. Still others by of the normative ethical theories.

My sense of moral duty has been informed to some extend by an upbringing in the United Methodist Church. But it is also informed by readings (of various sundrie lengths) of Kant, Mill, Rawls, Singer and a fine little tome by James Rachels, "The Elements of Moral Philosophy."

 
At 6/10/2007 10:06 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

John,

I've read some Kant, but he's hard to understand. By giving your Kantian example, though, you're still not addressing the issue I'm raising. All you're telling me now is the content of morality. You're still not telling me how that morality exists, where it comes from, why it's binding on us, why we're obligated to obey it, etc.

I don't understand the point you mean to make when you say God doesn't physically stop anybody from acting in ways that displease him. If he did physically stop us from doing that, there would be no point in him commanding people to avoid wrong. So that observation certainly isn't inconsistent with morality.

When you go into the various sources of moral knowledge, you're still not addressing what I'm getting at (and what I think Scott/Paul is getting at). I'm not asking how we know about morals. I'm asking where morals come from. What is their basis? I'm asking an ontological question about their being, not an epistemological question about our knowledge of them.

I commented on another blog recently about how atheists almost universally misunderstand this point that Christians make. Obviously we Christians aren't being clear, but I don't know where we're going wrong with our explanations that causes us to be misunderstood almost every time, and in the same way, too. If after reading this you realize what I'm talking about, I'm open to suggestions for how I could articulate it more clearly.

 
At 6/10/2007 10:18 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Larry,

Why assume I am simply being dishonest with this post as opposed to provocative? Psiomniac, himself an atheist, has much experience with this blog and was able to see where I was taking this and why. In fact, it is something of a logical next step to an ongoing dialog he and I have been engaged in. Please don't project your hostility toward theism onto my personal motives. If you wish to engage in productive dialog here, you will see little of my attention if you choose to call me a liar and a fool.

"I do deny that there are any more than an insignificant handful of such atheists."

They at least exist, even by your accounting. I think we would discover them in larger numbers if we included the garden variety atheists in our accounting, e.g., many modern teenagers, as well as those who spend more time on the streets than on the internet writing testimonies. We would also mount up quite a pile if we included what I call "functional atheists," which are those who claim to be one religion or another, but do not live, think, or speak in any way consistent with it.

"It's important to understand that we're not talking about the actuality of 'ultimate justice and accountability'; we're speaking, rather, of such a fantasy, and what happens when that fantasy is removed."

Exactly my point. By an atheistic account, there is no justice and accountability. It's all just a fantasy, and humans have to construct some surrogate. An inspection of the surrogate is what I am about here.

"What can you say about ethics to a person without compassion and empathy? Nothing. If such a person has an ounce of sense—enough that temporal justice is no deterrent—they will quickly realize that a fantasy of ultimate divine justice is just that: a fantasy."

Your answer to the problem of "Nick" seems to be "temporal justice" as a deterrent. So, in the end, you might say to Nick, "Don't murder your wife or you might go to prison, and that wouldn't be any fun, now would it?" Of course, the much more common behavior of cheating on the wife and abandonment you would appear to cover under the "empathy" clause, i.e., "Don't do that because it wouldn't be very nice. How do you suppose that makes your wife feel? Would you want someone to do that to you?"

It's not just a lack of compassion that drives some to their extremes; it is the extent of certain desires that would trump any compassion that they might otherwise feel. And in a world without consequences, desire may win the day — meaning that compassion prevails only so far as it is the strongest desire. Unless, of course, there is some principle that demands that compassion (and other things I could mention) must trump our personal desires to the contrary. To this you can only offer temporal justice. Unfortunately, this leaves us with the problem of those compassionless things that the law actually allows, and it also leaves us with the philosophical problem of what "justice" means in a purely subjective world. I think in an atheistic world it must reduce to a matter of just getting those "monsters" out of the way so that we "compassionate" people don't need to be bothered by them.

"If they have a pinch more sense, they will simply assert that God approves of their actions, that God demands their atrocities as a principle of ultimate justice, that God demands that their victims suffer the penalties of ultimate justice, and that we are merely speeding them along the way and showing our loyalty to God's will."

And maybe they would, but that would only be an excuse for their evil behavior, and one they would make by imposing their own hermeneutic of bloodlust onto the text. Taking away the "excuse" of religion would not make them into saints (as I argued in my last blog post). Some may leverage "religion" to rationalize their evil, but taking away the concept of divine justice (whether a fiction or not) would surely add no virtue to the vast majority of people who are every day inclined toward large and small acts of selfishness.

"The vast majority of human beings do evil because they have been convinced it is in the service of a 'higher' good."

Well, since the vast majority of people across time and culture have been religious in some sense, then it is easy to find a means to support such a claim. It is also the case that people like to rationalize their behavior and so they will invent a "higher good" if a convenient one does not exist to be leveraged. Again, my last post largely addresses this issue and so I won't explore this objection of yours.

"The question is fundamentally flawed. Since fantasies of divine justice have nothing to do with ethics in the first place, why should we be concerned about the consequences of their removal?"

So you are saying, "Atheism is true, so there's no divine justice and we just have to deal with it, therefore your question is moot."

You'll forgive me if, as a Christian apologist who actually believes that atheism is the fantasy, I find this to be an exercise in question begging.

"It is we ourselves—the great mass of people who do have compassion and empathy, and act on it—who must deal with the Nicks"

I guess that if there is no God, then this is necessarily true. It sounds like a majority rule kind of things, but there have been numerous societies where the majority (or those in power anyway) did not seem to have the kind of "compassion and empathy" you express. This all assumes something about the nature of your compassion and empathy: that it is something in particular and that your brand is the objectively true brand. Nice words, but deciding what content to pour into them is where it gets tricky.

 
At 6/10/2007 10:24 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Dag, a few thoughts on what you wrote to Sam (ephphatha).

In other words, ephphatha there is no ”the” logical conclusion from atheism regarding morals.

I would contend that some form of relativism is "the" logical conclusion of atheism. Since there is nothing that transcends humanity and time, then morality must somehow ground itself in humans, anywhere from the species to the individual level. But without anything higher than humans to provide incumbency to whatever morals are derived from humans, the question remains as to what we have to say to, or do about, the "Nicks" of the world.

paul claims [that Nick] is a caricature

Not a "caricature," just not representative of the average atheist. I still contend that there are and have been "Nicks." If you and Larry wish to say that all the atheists you've ever met are swell people, then I can certainly negate all his complaints by saying (genuinely) that every Christian I've met looks nothing at all like the caricature he makes of us (i.e., we theists are the cause of most of the evil in the world and, so, must be pretty nasty people).

If you question whether God actually said it, or whether Nock was hearing voices, again I can claim that my “caricature” takes that into account by specifically stating that God told him.

You're at something of a disadvantage since Christianity is something very specific, so one is more able to manufacture a true caricature. And even if someone claiming to be a Christian chooses to live like any given caricature, then we have some means of judging their behavior. On the other hand, it is far more difficult to claim that someone is being a proper atheist. Perhaps if I said that Nick had hopes of going to a better place after killing himself, then I'd be violating the boundaries of atheism.

What Christians don’t understand . . . is that [being morally liberated] is a SYMPTOM, not a cause [of becoming and atheist]. It is a result, not an effect.

How is it that atheists manage to escape all the biases and subconscious motives that everyone else in the world is so subject to? (I guess that's why atheists should be thought of as the "brights.") They certainly don't seem to give theists any latitude in this area. We all seem to believe in God as a "crutch" and out of some form of "need."

Like Sam, from my own experience (first and second hand) I can attest to the influence of personal factors on belief. I have seen many teens get swept away from the church into the characteristic indulgences of youth, not by virtue of a rational presentation of atheism, but merely by exposure to those pleasures. Their Christianity was then progressively shed as conflicts between it and their behaviors were discovered. The theism of my own youth strangely seemed to fade in direct relationship to the strength of my hormones.

Do you see my problem with responding to “Nick”? On the one hand this facsimile is created as rationally coming to a loss of belief in God, and then immediately he deteriorates into a complete loss of morals. (In fact, he even deteriorates within his own e-mail! He goes from an “affair” [but curiously still has enough conscience that he doesn’t want her to find out] then getting a divorce, then to murdering her.) I haven’t seen this type of progression.

When I said that Nick got the "rational fuel" he needed and became "convinced" of atheism, it was not to suggest that he was completely objective in his motives, only that he got the rational fuel "he needed." Just as everyone has certain moral sensibilities that they may either affirm or deny, they also seem to have a compelling need to feel rationally justified in their own beliefs and actions.

You are right to observe that in Nick's email he "deteriorates" morally. Since I had to condense this into just a single email I had to take some liberties. However, it is true that moral erosion is not inconsistent with atheism, and my point was to ask what is to be said against Nick. If you prefer, I could ask what is to be said against Jeffrey Dahmer, who said this: "If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then—then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges? That’s how I thought anyway. I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime. When we, when we died, you know, that was it, there is nothing."

We have a collective goal to improve our situation. To make life easier for our children, and even easier for our grandchildren, and so on. However we got it, god or not, that goal is one in which I hope we could agree. We haven’t mastered that yet. How about we complete that, and then sit around, drink beer and argue whether there is some absolute moral we don’t know, or whether morals are relative?

Unfortunately, I don't share your optimism that the world will ever come to a state of pure bliss where all we then have to do is sit around and ponder metaphysics and ethics. This is because there will always be "Nicks" in the world, and some of them will make it into positions of great power where "temporal justice" will be no deterrent to their self-serving ambitions.

I would hope, though, that we could debate these issues in advance of reaching world peace. And, indeed, it has some relevance to meeting such a goal. I hope you would not say something like, "We shouldn't be concerned about the poor in Africa until every last American is fed," or, "Let's not bother to discuss welfare theories until we get everyone out of poverty."

 
At 6/10/2007 10:28 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

Isn't it funny how every single contributor here would refrain from a debate on the merits of meta-ethical subjective relativism until after they had helped lift the piano from your foot?

Good contribution, small as it was! I would say that this is a testimony to our intuitive sense of "compassion." Of course explaining where such a sense comes from, its scope, and why we must be a slave to it is another matter. To your example I would say, what about that homeless fellow looking for a handout? Lifting the piano is pretty low impact; giving from your pocket is a little harder. What about jumping in to stop a mugging? How many would risk death to exercise compassion there? Why should they? Why give up your time or money for someone else, much less risk the only life you've got for the sake of someone else?

I think without a transcendent grounding for virtue, then the exercise of compassion will simply be driven by passion. Whatever we feel like doing or not doing is what will win. If it happens to feel good to help someone out (or maybe if it just looks bad not to), then that's what we'll do. But if we feel more like robbing and raping the person (and we think we can get away with it, or if our passions will risk it), then that will win in the end. It's great that you feel compassion too, but I guarantee that you trump it in various big and small ways every day.

Let me ask you to contemplate this question: Do you ever fantasize or have dreams about doing things that would get you slapped or put into prison? I know it is quite common for people to do so. Why would people think such things? Why would it be wrong? What do you suppose it would mean for such fantasies if a person who had them became "king of the world" with absolutely no consequences? There is a fine line between the depravity of the heart and the debauchery of the hands.

 
At 6/11/2007 12:22 AM, Blogger DagoodS said...

ephphatha,

I can think of a variety of ways in which absolute morals may logically flow from atheism. One could say that “survival of the fittest” is a moral that flows from the lack of there being a god. Or that technological improvement is an absolute moral. Or obtaining the most money feasible.

All an absolute moral consists of is a human that makes some broad claim that absolute morals exist. Some use a god to do so, but I am unconvinced a god is necessary. Making it up out of one’s head seems as supported are relying upon a book written by humans to me. (As to how to logically come to moral absolutes from atheism—simple. The same way theists do it. Broadly make the claim that they exist, but are unknowable.)

Depending on how one answers the Euthyphro Dilemma, even having a God does not mandate absolutes. If one answers the dilemma that God must do it because it is good, then absolute morals existed despite God. Therefore one would not need a god to have morals. (I.E. they would have existed whether God existed or not.) If one answers the dilemma by “it is good because God does it”…well…one loses moral absolutes.

ephphatha: One of the things that follows from atheism is that ultimately nothing matters,…

Maybe. Depends on how one defines “matters.” If energy truly cannot be created or destroyed, the question of “matter” is a bit irrelevant. We just are.

More: …life has no meaning,…

Perhaps for some. But for others, we can find our “meaning” in doing those things that make us happy, or that make others happy, or that improve society, or that degrade society, or in flying a kite on a warm summer day. I am not sure how you can proof out that life must necessarily have no meaning from “there is no god.”

More: …there are no transcendent moral obligations,…

While I agree with you that this is highly probable, can you demonstrate it is logically impossible? Can you show that:

1) There is no God; and
2) There are no moral absolutes

are logically contradictory?

More: To be consistent, then, all you have to do [to respond to “Nick”] is say something like this:…

*shrug* O.K. If you already knew what you would say as an atheist, and you find it consistent with atheism…what is the point of this exercise again?

More: Most of what you said in your post is completely irrelevent.

Well, if you don’t want answers to your questions, then don’t bother asking ‘em.

 
At 6/11/2007 12:24 AM, Blogger DagoodS said...

Paul,

I apologize. You are correct, that you did not say “Nick” was a caricature. My mistake.

O.K., let’s say there are “Nicks.” Does atheism make the claim that “Nicks” would never exist? Of course not. Does moral relativism (sorry, The Barefoot Bum) make the claim that “Nicks” would never exist? Equally no.

So why is the existence of “Nicks” inconsistent with either?

In recognizing the potential for “Nicks” , in forming societies that work, we create laws, and systems of justice, and punishments and prisons.

Color me confused. Are you seriously curious as to how atheists talk with each other in the field of morality? Or are you trying to make a point about moral relativism? If the latter, wouldn’t you expect disagreement among those that do not hold morals as absolutes? I could certainly see a question about two people who hold to different moral absolutes, and how that came about—but why would there be surprise at people who do not hold to moral absolutes discovering someone else (gasp!) had different morals?

Paul: Like Sam, from my own experience (first and second hand) I can attest to the influence of personal factors on belief. I have seen many teens get swept away from the church into the characteristic indulgences of youth, not by virtue of a rational presentation of atheism,…

Well, sure—if you are going to start using terms such as “functional” atheists. When I was talking about atheists, I was talking about people that positively affirm they either lack the belief in god, or say there is no God. I was not talking about agnostics, or deists, or people that generally believe in a god, but don’t hold to that god imposing morals on them. And I was certainly NOT talking about people that you have labeled as “atheists” because of the morals they live by!

Are you saying those teens term themselves as atheists? Or do they call themselves theists and you label them as atheists?

Paul: The theism of my own youth strangely seemed to fade in direct relationship to the strength of my hormones.

The strength of your belief in God (not in morals, but in the very existence of a deity) actually lessened by your desire for sex? Perhaps I am living in a cave. I have desires just like anybody, but I do not seriously recall that those desires affected my belief in the existence of a God!

You would think, if this were true, that atheism would do better than the 10-12% figure, given our current society’s fascination with sex.

 
At 6/11/2007 8:32 AM, Blogger The Barefoot Bum said...

Hypothetically speaking, there are alternative grounds for objective ethics, i.e. ethical truth somehow extrinsic to the specific properties of actual minds. These truths might be logical necessities, they might follow from only the existence of minds, or there might be some sort of real objects or properties (probably abstract) about which we could gain knowledge in the ordinary objective scientific manner.

I don't think that any of these positions are supportable in actual fact, but they are all logically possible. Disbelief in any God does not preclude these possibilities a priori. (I argue, however, that actual facts about reality do preclude these possibilities a posteriori.)

There are a lot of enthymemes in this discussion, which makes a logical treatment difficult. Most importantly, one important question is left open: What, precisely, constitutes ethical behavior?

Kant is notorious for defining (or appearing to define) a behavior as "ethical" if and only if the behavior is not motivated in any way, directly or indirectly, by one's own self-interest. Divine Command Theory holds that ethical behavior is compliance with the commands of God. Obviously, by the latter definition, an atheist cannot act ethically; she can at best only simulate ethical behavior; the requisite motivation is necessarily absent. The definition attributed to Kant seems, on basic reflection, probably physically impossible given the goal-seeking nature of human minds. Although there are religious atheists (e.g. Buddhists), an atheist committed to naturalistic physical monism (a.k.a. scientific materialism) would thus usually reject Kant's definition.

Divine Command Theory is not really subject to rational discussion. No one has improved on Socrates' Euthyphro paradox, and Leibniz' comment, "In saying, therefore, that things are not good according to any standard of goodness, but simply by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realizing it, all the love of God and all his glory; for why praise him for what he has done, if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing the contrary?" still has considerable rhetorical force.

In any event, adherence to DCT simply excludes a priori atheists and members of other religions (following the wrong commands, not God's) as ethical agents and establishes a fundamental irreconcilable enmity.

Any naturalistic account of ethical behavior must be predicated on observation: What sorts of behavior do we typically call "ethical"? Alternatively, we can construct arbitrary definitions of "ethical" that allow us to create falsifiable theories that account for human behavior.

One definition of "ethical" that seems to me to be blindingly obvious and scientifically fruitful is behavior which has the effect of promoting others' self-interest at the expense of some specific self-interest of the agent. This definition is a much weakened version of Kant's too-strong definition. Instead of being performed entirely without regard to self-interest, to be specifically ethical, a behavior must merely be contrary to some self-interest (as well as promoting others' self-interest).

This definition draws a definite distinction. It distinguishes behavior which does not promote the self-interest of others, and it distinguishes behavior which, although promoting the self-interest of others, is not contrary to one's own self interest. Thus, seeing a movie with a friend would not qualify as a specifically ethical act, since even the value of the companionship itself to one's friend is not (assuming one also values companionship) achieved at any cost at all to one's own self-interest.

Of course, this definition is so far purely descriptive; I have not yet far explored the normative dimension. But it is useful, I think, to try an converge on a definition of the topic under discussion as an important component to understanding its causes and justification.

There is also the curious notion that if "meaning" exists, it must be ultimate, transcendent or objective. Again, most nonreligious atheists would reject this position; I can't see much of a way to discuss any kind of extrinsic meaning without invoking some sort of faith entirely outside the bounds of naturalism.

But why should anything have to be extrinsic? Human minds are real and have real properties. The denial of the extrinsic—ultimate, transcendent, and/or objective—does not necessarily entail nihilism, it can also entail affirmation of the intrinsic: local, natural and subjective.

(portions of this comment also appear on my blog: What is "ethical" behavior?)

 
At 6/11/2007 2:27 PM, Blogger John said...

ephphatha;

A little pressed for time, but I wanted to respond at some level.

You wrote: don't understand the point you mean to make when you say God doesn't physically stop anybody from acting in ways that displease him.

In response to me writing: It's our own sense of moral duty that determines our actions.

If I understand your Christian perspective, and I may have this wrong, morality comes from God. No God, no source of morality. No source of morality, no reason for us to act morally.

And yet - even though you have an outside objective source of morality, you are still free to choose whether or not you wish to act morally. As am I. Whether morality is objective or subjective, WE have to CHOOSE to act morally. No one is forcing us to do so.

In any case, if I understand Kant correctly, then Reason and Duty demand we act morally. God isn't part of the equation.

I'll also do some research and see if I can't dig up references to morality being based in...wait for it...evolutionary biology.

I'll also do some reading on social contract theory.

But my final answer is Reason demands we act morally. I'll let others who are smarter than I explain why.

 
At 6/11/2007 6:36 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Dagoods:
I can think of a variety of ways in which absolute morals may logically flow from atheism.

Alrighty then!

One could say that “survival of the fittest” is a moral that flows from the lack of there being a god.

But "survival of the fittest" isn't a moral, is it? Survival of the fittest is just a description of how natural selection works. It's completely amoral. There's nothing prescriptive about it.

Or that technological improvement is an absolute moral.

Huh? Where's the moral "ought" in technological improvement? We improve technologically. That's just a description of what we do. There's no moral prescription that follows from it.

Or obtaining the most money feasible.

I don't see how any of these supposed bases for absolute morals provide any absolute morals at all. This is going to require a little more explanation.

All an absolute moral consists of is a human that makes some broad claim that absolute morals exist.

So if I say, "Absolute moral exist," that causes absolute morals to exist? I wonder if maybe we both mean something different by "absolute morals." This all just sounds like crazy talk to me.

Some use a god to do so, but I am unconvinced a god is necessary.

If God isn't necessary, then there must be some way absolute morals can exist apart from God. But you haven't really explained to me how. Or if you have, I'm not understanding you.

Making it up out of one’s head seems as supported are relying upon a book written by humans to me.

Of course I would never claim that any book provides an adequate basis for absolute morals. At best, a book might serve as a source of knowledge about absolute morals.

But since you're offering "making it up in your head" as a sufficient source for absolute morals, I'm curious to know how something I make up in my head is binding on anybody else. What if I make up some moral rule in my head, and somebody else makes up a contrary moral rule in their head. Which one is absolute? If either is absolute, then the other has to be wrong by the law of non-contradiction.

As to how to logically come to moral absolutes from atheism—simple. The same way theists do it. Broadly make the claim that they exist, but are unknowable.

Here I suspect you're just being sarcastic. But you still haven't explained how to logically come to moral absolutes from atheism.

Depending on how one answers the Euthyphro Dilemma, even having a God does not mandate absolutes.

Even without Euthyphro's Dilemma, having a God doesn't mandate absolutes. What I have claimed is that God is necessary for moral absolutes. While it's possible to have a god with no morals, it's not possible to have morals without a god.

I get the impression that at this point, you're trying to take the focus off of your inability to explain how you can arrive at absolute morals from an atheist worldview by pointing out the difficulty of arriving at absolute morals from a theistic worldview. Since we've already talked about Euthyphro's Dilemma a few times before, why don't we just make this simple and pretend for the sake of argument that we theists are also unable account for absolute morals. Now then, Dagoods, how do you account for absolute morals from a atheistic worldview? You still haven't done that as far as I can see, but you claimed that you could. You see, poking holes in my theistic grounding for morality doesn't strengthen your case for an atheistic grounding for morality one bit. It's just a red herring.

we can find our “meaning” in doing those things that make us happy, or that make others happy, or that improve society, or that degrade society, or in flying a kite on a warm summer day. I am not sure how you can proof out that life must necessarily have no meaning from “there is no god.”

You seem to recognize that "meaning" depends on sentient beings. But you may pour one meaning into something, and I may pour another. There's no right answer to the question, "Which of our meanings is correct?" If there is a "correct" meaning--a meaning that something has regardless of what you or I think--then that meaning must come from a sentient being who is wholly other than both of us. There must be something like a God if anything is to have ultimate meaning. Without the God, we're just left with your view and my view and no real meaning.

can you demonstrate it is logically impossible [to have transcendent moral obligations without God]?

Yes. Moral obligations are imperatives, and imperatives are commands, and commands can only be made by sentient beings. If a command is to be transcendent, then it must have a transcendent source. So if there are transcendent moral obligations, then there must be a transcendent sentient being who imposes them on us. Nothing in creation can be transcendent, because it's just part of what is being transcended. So the minimum requirements for transcendent moral obligations are a sentient being who transcends creation and imposes moral obligation on us from the outside. It's impossible for there to be transcendent moral obligations without such a being.

O.K. If you already knew what you would say as an atheist, and you find it consistent with atheism…what is the point of this exercise again?

To get atheists to realize the logical consequences of their atheism. On the atheist worldview, there's nothing really wrong with what Nick is thinking about doing. But that is highly counter-intuitive.

Most of what you said in your post is completely irrelevent.

Well, if you don’t want answers to your questions, then don’t bother asking ‘em.


Silly me! You're right. If I ask questions, I should fully expect to get irrelevent responses. I have nothing to complain about.

 
At 6/11/2007 7:39 PM, Blogger John said...

While it's possible to have a god with no morals, it's not possible to have morals without a god.

There you go again. As I read it, your suggestion is that since I don't believe in god, er, sorry, God, that I can't have morals. Such a suggestion seems to me to imply that I don't have the capability to CHOOSE to be moral. Which, I suppose, further implies that I might not be human. Fine Gom Jabbar you've got in that there box. ;-)

And yet you've asserted:

I haven't said one word about whether atheists can be moral or not. I fully acknowledge that they can.

I guess I'm a little confused, because what you write in one place seems diametrically opposed to what you seem to imply in another.

Can I be moral, or not?

[The point of this exercise is to] get atheists to realize the logical consequences of their atheism. On the atheist worldview, there's nothing really wrong with what Nick is thinking about doing. But that is highly counter-intuitive.

In the atheist worldview, there are still laws against killing. As far as crimes for which there are no laws - infidelity, for example - Nick and Nock both have the same burden of choice - they both need to choose to act morally. That seems to me to render the point about an objective moral source moot.

 
At 6/11/2007 8:00 PM, Blogger DagoodS said...

ephphatha,

Part of the problem (I think) is that we approach this from two very different paradigms. And because of that approach, when I utilize the term “absolute morals” I am talking of something different than you are.

I apologize, by the way, if I took the focus off of the basis of my own morals and attacked a theist position. You are correct; mine should stand on their own. I was partially humoring myself, as well as trying to point out that theism uses (ultimately) an arbitrary basis to claim absolutes, but I can see how that would come across as inability to support my own, and to harp on the other fellow. I did not mean to communicate that.

Now, I don’t hold to moral absolutes, but that I can see how people do, so I will try to explain the difference between us.

ephphatha: Nothing in creation can be transcendent, because it's just part of what is being transcended. So the minimum requirements for transcendent moral obligations are a sentient being who transcends creation and imposes moral obligation on us from the outside. (emphasis in original)

Do morals have to be transcendent to be absolute? Assuming they do—you have taken me out of the game by definition. I would fully agree that if we define absolute morals as MUST coming from non-natural sources, then as a naturalist, I cannot produce anything non-natural. And therefore, by your defining morals in that way, I cannot logically produce something both natural and non-natural.

I don’t see “absolutes” as necessarily coming from outside natural sources. This is (to me) the key difference between us. In looking at that basic definition of morals from the dictionary, I find, “of, pertaining to, or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong;”

I am not one of those people that hold the dictionary holds absolute truth as to what a word must mean. Rather I believe that the dictionary defines common usage. However, it is instructive here as to show the difference between us.

By absolute, I mean that it is something that must be imposed every time. Ultimate. Not something dependent on circumstances. An “absolute ethic” would be a rule that is imposed every time, on every person, in every situation that defines the rules of conduct as to right and wrong..

Because we seem to disagree on this very basic definition, and as you require a non-natural source for absolutes, we will not see eye-to-eye, I think.

Do I need to go on and explain how “survival of the fittest” or “technology” or “monetary wealth” can be absolute ethics by my definition?

More: There's no right answer to the question, "Which of our meanings is correct?"

Yep. That is quite right in my worldview. I recognize that others find their meaning by things that are truly meaningless to me. And I find meaning in things they may not. I love my children very much. I find “meaning” in spending a long, hot Saturday afternoon, slowly burning the top of my head watching them play soccer.

I can see how another person would find such “meaning” completely useless and unnecessary. Perhaps they spend it golfing. Or working. Or watching video games.

More: Without the God, we're just left with your view and my view and no real meaning.

I would say they are real enough. I can talk, and reason and communicate with others. Here is a good example—I could care less if I ever make a bow in my life. I don’t hunt, I don’t shoot, I don’t have the equipment or frankly the desire to make a bow.

Yet you do. And in reading your blog on it, I became immersed in another person finding satisfaction and (dare I say) “meaning” in making a bow. I enjoyed learning and gaining knowledge. Even after reading what you wrote, I did not gain the desire, or any new “meaning” by the creation of a wooden stick and string. However, as a human, I understand “meaning” and what the effort, time, material and finished product means to another human.

I don’t expect you to embrace my “meanings” any more than I would yours. But the reality of you finding meaning in making a bow translates over to appreciate my meaning in watching my son and daughters play soccer.

Not real? I can hardly think of anything MORE real.

ephphatha: On the atheist worldview, there's nothing really wrong with what Nick is thinking about doing.

Nope, nope, nope. I will try again. To “Nick” there may not be anything wrong, but to other moral relativists because we realize that each of us has a different moral sense, this would be wrong.

I understand that I have been, can be and will be wrong. It is part of my human nature. And within that understanding, I listen to what others say as to whether what I am doing is wrong. Sure, we all think what we are doing is “moral.” However, we also recognize when we breach our own moral code. And because we can breach our own moral code, and we can learn, we are open to learning new morals.

Absolute morals (and I am not trying to pick on theism here) do almost the same thing by saying a person “learns” more knowledge about what the absolute moral is.
ephphatha: Silly me! You're right. If I ask questions, I should fully expect to get irrelevent responses. I have nothing to complain about.

Fair enough. I deserved that. Clearly it was relevant to me, or else I would not have written it. To have it brushed off as “Most of what you said was irrelevant” was…irksome. Being me, I turned it to wry humor.

 
At 6/11/2007 8:28 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Dagoods,

According to what you said, I think we are defining "morals" and "absolutes" the same. But it seems to me that if morals are to be absolute, then they must also be transcendent. The reason is because if morals are absolute, then they cannot depend on human preferences. Human preferences are subject to change, and different people may have different moral preferences. If morals are absolute, then they are not subject to change, and they do not depend on human preferences. But if they nevertheless are prescriptive obligations that humans have, then there must be someone who transcends humanity and imposes those morals on us.

I still don't see how it's possible for there to be absolute morals if atheism is true.

Do I need to go on and explain how “survival of the fittest” or “technology” or “monetary wealth” can be absolute ethics by my definition?

Yes. I'm still curious how you can begin there and arrive at absolute morals. At the very least it may reveal some other miscommunication we're having.

Here is a good example—I could care less if I ever make a bow in my life. I don’t hunt, I don’t shoot, I don’t have the equipment or frankly the desire to make a bow.

Well that's just crazy talk.

Seriously, though, I do see that we are both using the word "meaning" differently. You seem to be using it to mean "subjective satisfaction," or something like that. In that case when you say such & such has meaning, you're not referring to the thing in question; rather, you're referring to your subjective feelings about the thing in question. When I say "meaning," I'm talking about the value of the thing itself. If X is meaningful, then it really matters, it's significant, and it would be so even if I saw nothing of value in it at all.

Fair enough. I deserved that. Clearly it was relevant to me, or else I would not have written it.

The reason I said a lot of what you wrote was irrelevent was because it did not address the issue I was raising. I'm sorry that was irksome to you, but I didn't want to just ignore it without an explanation.

 
At 6/11/2007 8:43 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

John,

There you go again. As I read it, your suggestion is that since I don't believe in god, er, sorry, God, that I can't have morals.

John, I am at a total loss as to how you can read what I wrote and arrive at that. I'm not saying you must believe in God before you can have morals. I'm saying there must be a God before there can be morals. It has nothing whatsoever to do with what you believe. If there is a God who imposes morals on us, and you don't believe in God, there would still be morals. And if there are morals, then you can still be moral by obeying them even though you don't believe in God.

Can I be moral, or not?

Absosmurfly. All that's required for you to be moral is that (1) morals exist, and (2) you have the desire to act consistently with the morals that exist. Since it's possible for both (1) and (2) to be true even if you don't believe in God, then it's possible for you to be moral even if you don't believe in God. Remember, I'm not saying that anybody must believe in God for morals to exist; rather, I'm saying that God must exist for morals to exist. Since it's possible for God to exist even if you don't believe God exists, the it's possible for morals to exist even if you don't believe God exists.

In the atheist worldview, there are still laws against killing.

Of course there are civil laws against killing. But if civil law is the same thing as moral law, then no civil law could ever be immoral or unjustified. There could be no unjust laws. The mere fact that we judge the law based on our sense of right and wrong shows that we believe there are morals and that morals are a higher law than the civil law.

Nick and Nock both have the same burden of choice - they both need to choose to act morally. That seems to me to render the point about an objective moral source moot.

You'll have to explain that one to me. It seems to me that you can't have moral obligations unless you have choice, but you seem to be saying you can't have moral obligations if you do have choice. Am I misunderstanding you? If not, how does the burden of choice render any point about an objective moral source moot?

 
At 6/11/2007 10:52 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Dag,

I apologize. You are correct, that you did not say “Nick” was a caricature. My mistake.

Not a prob. I wouldn't have mentioned it except that it was germane to my response.

In recognizing the potential for “Nicks”, in forming societies that work, we create laws, and systems of justice, and punishments and prisons.

I think the ideas of "justice" and "punishment" in the commonly understood usage of those terms are another quagmire for materialism.

Color me confused. Are you seriously curious as to how atheists talk with each other in the field of morality? Or are you trying to make a point about moral relativism? If the latter, wouldn’t you expect disagreement among those that do not hold morals as absolutes? I could certainly see a question about two people who hold to different moral absolutes, and how that came about—but why would there be surprise at people who do not hold to moral absolutes discovering someone else (gasp!) had different morals?

I never said I expected atheists of any flavor to agree on morality. As I've stated, I think that atheism leads to some variation of moral relativism, which is ultimately dependent on the individual subject who chooses to affirm or reject any given system or moral precept. For this reason, I expect that different individuals will have different ethics depending upon their particular desires and circumstances.

My point is to explore the bankruptcy of moral relativism and to show that any system of ethics that atheism conjures (even if they imagine it to be objective) has absolutely no incumbency upon the individual other than what they temporarily bind themselves to or what the ruling class imposes. I cannot predict how any individual will say that they must handle Nick, but I think a common conclusion follows from materialism.

No matter how much you might feel that Nick is bad or inhumane, you cannot ultimately judge the motions of one complex lump of chemicals to be better or worse than another, so all that is left is to contain those like him who do not suit the behavioral conventions of those who are in power. It is the moral equivalent of partitioning off a bad sector on your hard drive. But even that is saying too much, because your hard drive was made by an outside agent for a specific purpose.

Nick is simply the product of matter in motion, just like yourself. His chemistry just works a bit differently from your own. Your distaste for Nick is just part of how your chemistry works; and saying more than that is merely an exercise in subjectivism similar to defining "meaning" in life on materialistic terms, or it is reaching into a mystical repository of real value and virtue that smacks of theism.

Well, sure—if you are going to start using terms such as “functional” atheists. When I was talking about atheists, I was talking about people that positively affirm they either lack the belief in god, or say there is no God. I was not talking about agnostics, or deists, or people that generally believe in a god, but don’t hold to that god imposing morals on them. And I was certainly NOT talking about people that you have labeled as “atheists” because of the morals they live by!

I understand what you are saying, but it is easy for you to make "atheists" look rosy if you are simply going to be selective in who you qualify as a "true" atheist. I think there are many who would only be disqualified as atheists because they insist on retaining labels for sociological reasons. I know for a fact that there are many who outwardly claim to be Christians that do not even believe in a deity (John Dominic Crossan appears to be such a one). And it seems these days that one may be considered a Jew even as an atheist — it is more of a racial thing. The only thing that is off limits for a "Jew" is belief in Jesus as the Messiah.

I think it is more in the ideas one entertain and the company one keeps that proves out one's true beliefs. For instance, if one claims to be an atheist, but gives the nod to reincarnation, like Sam Harris, then we might suspect that we haven't got a handle on his true metaphysics. Or if one claims to be a theist, like the Unitarian Universalists, yet is hosting atheist events and memorial services, then we might suspect their commitment to the idea of a deity.

Are you saying those teens term themselves as atheists? Or do they call themselves theists and you label them as atheists?

Both. Most often they don't even bother to call themselves anything at all. They just stop caring about the church and drift off with the new kinds of friends they are making and become far more interested in sex, smoking, drinking/drugs, tattoos, and piercing. If you have a chance to talk to them deeply they don't always come right out and say "I'm an atheist now," but they sure will raise all kinds of objections and don't seem real interested in hearing the answers.

I would love to cite specific cases, but I don't want to risk embarrassing some who read this blog or may well do so in the future. For this reason, I am more comfortable discussing myself and the observations from my own life. I can certainly tell you this: those in my teen and young adult world who got in to the most mischief (even by standards we both could agree upon) never went to church (anymore), never talked about god, and never read anything more that fantasy and sci-fi. That is to say, they were functional atheists and had not arrived there by way of exposure to convincing arguments. They just gave up on religion because it wasn't fun.

When I became a Christian I got in touch with my old friends to see where they were spiritually. I found that all of them either had nothing at all to say and avoided me like the plague, or they had a few popular-level objections to my beliefs (that most educated atheists would never use) and then they proceeded to avoid me. It seems to me as though their unbelief was simply acquired by lifestyle preference and that if there was any rationale involved whatsoever it was layered on after the fact. I had personally not met a DagoodS brand of "rational" atheist until the advent of the internet, but I have met scores of religiously apathetic, label-defying hedonists.

The strength of your belief in God (not in morals, but in the very existence of a deity) actually lessened by your desire for sex? Perhaps I am living in a cave. I have desires just like anybody, but I do not seriously recall that those desires affected my belief in the existence of a God!

It is not so straightforward a thing. Desires cause one to become deaf to those things that would seek to temper them and makes one less open to reason. For example, I have a friend whose son has taken up smoking and he seems unable to use his otherwise reasonable mind when dealing with this issue. To the argument of the related health risks, he will simply say, "Well, that's just an opinion." Before he was a smoker he would never have said such a thing. He is not open to reason, because reason is an enemy to his desire.

In the case of God, people don't simply say, "I want to have all the sex I can, therefore there must not be a God." It is more a matter of avoidance and suppression. It tends to happen inch by inch. If you are even conscious about the effort, you do something like the following.

First you rework your understanding of chastity. "Love" becomes the essential thing in a sexual relationship. Then, you begin to redefine love to be something much more emotion and passion related. Next thing you know, love = sex, and you are justified in indulging in anything you like. Then if you are forced to realize that you are out of sorts with Christian theology (which may not happen because you are not at all interested in going to church or reading the Bible anymore), you simply justify it by loosening up your reading of the conflicting texts, or maybe you just begin to pick and choose what you like in order to justify yourself. Then, after you are comfortable being very arbitrary in your theological exegesis you begin to doubt whether it is all indeed inspired or passed down to us correctly. Since it has all that garbage that is boring and distasteful, something must be wrong with it. God then becomes whatever you prefer based on your selective reading and personal interpretation of scripture. Of course, the preferred god is one that is not quite so personally involved and judgmental, and so over time he becomes something more like an impersonal force. Before long you've got your god looking more and more like a Carl Saganish, mysterious and wondrous Cosmos (with a capital "C"). All the while you have never really changed much from your commitment to live like an atheist from that first decision to step out of the Christian sexual ethic, only adding other aberrant behaviors as they come into focus. The whole liberalizing sequence is an extrinsic exercise that naturally follows from that first point of surrender to personal desire.

 
At 6/11/2007 11:00 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Larry,

Hypothetically speaking, there are alternative grounds for objective ethics, i.e. ethical truth somehow extrinsic to the specific properties of actual minds. These truths might be logical necessities, they might follow from only the existence of minds, or there might be some sort of real objects or properties (probably abstract) about which we could gain knowledge in the ordinary objective scientific manner.

Even if it were true that there is some sort of naturalistic moral dynamic at work upon humanity, that does nothing at all towards giving it incumbency. To say that you "must" or "ought" to follow any particular moral law would require something higher still. This makes it subjective in the end, as each person would decide for themselves what "laws" to obey and when, or if they cared about any of them at all.

Thanks for sharing your ethical meditations. I actually agree with many things that you've said, but you've simply exposed the problems intrinsic to defining a grounding for morality on purely human terms. Besides there being shortcomings to almost any theory you can name, they are quite arbitrary in that any given person or culture may easily tell you that they much prefer another theory. To say they are wrong, you must appeal to some fixed standard by which you may judge their theory out of conformance.

As I've argued elsewhere, I believe that ethical theory is simply an exercise in systematizing our moral intuitions anyway, since we would never accept a conclusion in a theory against which our intuitions protest. This ties the crux of the discussion to the nature and source of those intuitions.

Lastly, whatever you may think of grounding morality within a deity, it would nevertheless be true that it precedes us, that we were designed to operate according to it, and that it is incumbent upon us.

 
At 6/11/2007 11:17 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Sam, I would have to take issue with one thing you've said to John. I don't think having your behavior conform to the moral law is enough to say that it is "good." Motivation would be an important consideration. Larry impressed me in his little dissertation by acknowledging the fact that atheists by definition could not satisfy the demands of the moral law if it were grounding in God.

I'll use my favorite example. If Jim shoved Sally out of the way of an oncoming bus, that would appear to be a good thing. However, what if Jim did it thinking he was just shoving her to the ground to be mean? Even if an atheist does things that are "good" in the general sense of what it accomplishes (and I do believe they do so), there are missing elements of motivation involved, e.g., are they doing it out of recognition of the moral law and its source or just for the good feeling they get out of it; are they doing it for the applause of men or for the glory of God?

 
At 6/12/2007 12:36 AM, Anonymous John said...

If we accept: There is no god,
and
If we accept: Humans are rational creatures

Then:

One still ought not lie. Why? Because we rely on people being truthful to create our society. If I don't know if you're lying or telling the truth from one moment to the next, how can we possibly communicate effectively, let alone build a functioning society?

One still ought not kill a fellow human. Why? Like lying, random killing leads to a break down in social cohesion. Not a rational choice for a social creature.

In this case, we don't lie or kill because Jehova or Ra or Mithras told us not too - we don't do it because it's not a rational choice if we want our family group / tribe / village / state to survive.

Those two examples seem to me to be two moral "oughts" that would exist even if there were no God.

 
At 6/12/2007 6:58 AM, Blogger The Barefoot Bum said...

As I've argued elsewhere, I believe that ethical theory is simply an exercise in systematizing our moral intuitions anyway, since we would never accept a conclusion in a theory against which our intuitions protest.

Well said. I agree. If we are going to construct an evidentiary account of ethical theory, our ethical intuitions remain the only pertinent evidence.

This ties the crux of the discussion to the nature and source of those intuitions.

If intuition is indeed our only evidence, then there is no way to reconcile conflicting ethical intuitions: Conflicting intuitions conflict not because one person is mistaken, but because they are different specific properties of different minds (just as there is no contradiction by saying that one apple is red and another green).

It's one thing to airily assert that God gives ethical language meaning. It's quite another to actually construct a rigorous ethical theory based on that hypothesis that does not collapse from the weight of rococo baloney.

Even if we were to metaphysically (i.e. by presupposition) assign some sort of divine ontological meaning to moral language, we are helpless to decide which intuitions "correctly" correspond to that divine ontological meaning; we cannot break the symmetry of intuitive authority. I say, "My intuition is that God doesn't care about homosexuality;" another says, "God condemns homosexuality." A God theory gives us no way to reason from the fact of intuitions to their veracity (i.e the truth or falsity of the content of the intuition).

The topic is far too complex for a comment, and I've already linked to my writings on the subject. Suffice it to say that I'm persuaded that the best theory (i.e. the most parsimonious theory with the widest scope which accounts for the evidence of our intuitions) is that our ethical intuitions are about only our own minds and that ethical intuitions have directly or indirectly evolved biologically and socially.

In such a meta-ethical subjectivist account, we don't worry about breaking the deadline by appealing to logical or evidentiary arguments, since the content of the intuitions are facts about different minds. Rather, we try directly to change the facts of other minds (propaganda) or we try to find a course of action that people with differing intuitions will find at least partly satisfactory (negotiation and compromise). As a last resort, we fall back on coercion.

In other words, we don't say that "Nick" (or "Nock") is mistaken, we merely say that we strongly disapprove of his attitude. I'd love to have a truth-based framework to call Nick mistaken, but lacking an epistemic method to know who's accurate and who's mistaken, such hope is merely idle fantasy.

 
At 6/12/2007 7:07 AM, Blogger The Barefoot Bum said...

John:

Your argument begs the question. That we rely on people being truthful is itself a premise; it does not follow from atheism and rationality. And, of course, the premise is identical to the conclusion.

"Rational" is a notoriously equivocal word. It is often taken to mean the ethical duty to believe the truth; in this sense you would again be begging the question. In the sense that people always do what they believe to be in their overall self-interest, you cannot derive that people should always speak the truth—it's trivially easy to demonstrate counterexamples.

Our beliefs about the ethical value of truth do exist. Given the prevalence of those subjective beliefs as evidence, then one can show that not lying is generally a good strategy. But this argument is explicitly subjectively relative.

 
At 6/12/2007 9:18 AM, Anonymous John said...

TBB,

Regarding "begging the question," I have a comment and a couple of questions.

My formal philosophical/ethical education is limited to just a handful of undergraduate classes, so I consider my knowledge to be just deep enough that I can make myself look like a complete doofus. All I can do is plead my ignorance. That said, I'm still cogitating on the circular nature of my argument.

But do my examples not suggest how the moral rules, "One ought not lie" and "one ought not kill" might develop in without god?

And is the argument regarding "one ought not kill" also circular?

(Oh, and by "rational," I merely meant to suggest capable of reason - there seems to me no point in arguing whether morality could develop among creatures not capable of rational thought. Sea cucumbers, for example. Or Hoosiers. (I kid! I'm kidding!)) ;-)

 
At 6/12/2007 10:07 AM, Blogger The Barefoot Bum said...

John: "Begging the question" is a formal argumentative fallacy. It consists of making the statement to be proven a premise in the argument.

In this case, you introduce the statement "we rely on people being truthful to create our society" as a premise, i.e. a statement not logically deduced from the explicitly labeled premises in the argument. Since "we rely on people being truthful..." is a restatement of "we ought not to lie", you are assuming that which is to be proven.

It's trivially easy to prove God exists if you assume God exists. It's a little trickier to make the question-begging less obvious. For instance:

P1: If the universe exists, then God must have created it
P2: The universe exists
-----
C1: Therefore God created the universe
C2: Therefore God exists

Here I'm "begging the question" of the existence of God by slipping it into the first premise.

Keep in mind that a logical or argumentative fallacy means only that the argument itself is flawed; it does not entail that the conclusion is necessarily false.

Fundamentally, purely logical, deductive arguments can prove only formal theorems about propositional calculus (e.g. (p or not-p), (not (p and not-p) or (if p and (if p then q) then q). To get truths about the real world, we must use evidentiary arguments.

You can learn more about logical and argumentative fallacies at Internet Infidels.

 
At 6/12/2007 11:03 AM, Blogger DagoodS said...

ephphatha,

Again, I think you and I part ways at “transcendent.”

Sorry ‘bout this, but I have to regress a bit to give some background to answer your question. We have three choices:

1) A god exists (with or without absolute morals) who chooses to NOT describe those morals upon humanity.
2) A god exists (with or without absolute morals) who chooses TO describe those morals upon humanity.
3) No god exists.

(And yes, we could probably break out more categories, but I am trying to be simplistic here) Would you agree with me that if No. 1 was true, we would have the functional equivalency of Moral relativism? That despite Morality actually existing, we are left on our own to determine what those morals are? And, due to our variances, will come up with different answers to that question?

Now looking at No. 2. The most interesting choice. You have indicated that in order for there to be “transcendent moral obligations” they cannot come from within creation. (A pretty big “if”, but to move the discussion along, I will concede this under this choice. Given the definition of “transcendent,” this is self-evident and correct.) If you will allow me, I am going to use the terms “natural” to describe creation and “super-natural” to describe…well…what is not in creation. God’s morals in this particular instance.

If the supernatural desires to communicate with the natural, though, it must breach that barrier and present its existence on the natural plane. It does us no good to have God, on the supernatural plane, tell another entity, on the supernatural plane, what the supernatural morals are. It will never trickle down to us.

Which means, in a nutshell, our entire body of evidence is natural. Either God must enter the natural plane and inform natural human eyes, or tell natural human ears. Or, somehow “whisper” by the unknown method of inspiration. Which results in a natural book. Even non-empirical evidence (such as you and I have discussed) takes its form through two natural entities using natural means to derive principles.

The problem here is that regardless of whether No. 1 or No. 2 or No. 3 is what is actual, ALL of them use the same body of evidence—natural. And, even within that body of evidence, people claim that some of the evidence is false. That someone who claims a transcendent moral is not telling the truth.

Without the ability to verify what the supernatural is communicating to the natural, we are unable to develop a method to weed out the false evidence from the true. (Not entirely, of course, but still a great difficulty.)

We end up using a body of evidence, which we know is both natural and partially false, to make the claim of the existence of a non-verifiable supernatural. I question the strength of this methodology. I question the use of “here is a bunch of natural evidence, so therefore there must be something non-natural.” Natural evidence would lead to natural conclusions. Natural evidence leading to non-natural conclusions would be speculative.

Further, because of the lack of clarity in the communication from supernatural to natural, we end up with even those who claim moral absolutes disagreeing with each other as to what those absolutes are. We are unable to come up with a method to determine absolutes, let alone claim what the absolutes are, yet it is insisted that despite this knowledge, they must still exist!

I think (if I am reading you correctly) you are saying that even if we don’t know what those absolute morals are—they exist. That by virtue of our understanding “ought,” morals must exist. And that existence cannot be self-sufficient within creation. It requires something outside of creation, or “transcendent.”

Is this another form of “the universe cannot exist without a creator, so their must be a creator” argument for God?

And, as we look to the history we have—what happens if we consistently apply our method to the body of evidence we have? If we are claiming that the natural world must be a reflection of the non-natural world? What we see are morals that clash, and differ and completely disagree among humans. Would it be more consistent to say it is more likely that the “transcendent” morality is relative?

I understand your frustration between epistemological and ontological questions on morality’s existence, but I see a subtle change of methodology here, which (not coincidentally) ends up making the evidence arrive in the conclusion desired.

It seems to me that when we demonstrate that we disagree over ethics, ontologically I am informed that “A-ha! Because we are able to even disagree over ‘ought’—this means they must exist” yet if I concede that point, and using the same evidence that disagreement would indicate (epistemologically) moral relativism, I must then disregard that very same evidence. Why is that? Why does the method change?

If the natural body of evidence is proof of super-natural, what does that proof tend to indicate morals are—absolute or relative?

Given our three scenarios, under the first, we have functional Moral relativity, with the possible claim of moral absolutes. (And if that claim is correct is pure guesswork.) Under the third, I see functional moral relativity, with the possible claim of moral absolutes. (And if that claim is correct is pure guesswork.) And under the second, I think the more consistent methodology, using what evidence we have, is that morals are relative. One could still argue that morals are absolute, and yet again, that claim is pure guesswork.

How I focus my attention and dependent on my bias, will affect my review of the body of evidence. Just like someone who reviews history through the lens of politics, or a different lens of economics, or a different lens of societies describes history dissimilarly, if one reviews that body from a theistic standpoint, or an absolute morality standpoint, they will come to different conclusions as to what the entire body of evidence is claiming.

(For a simple example, if one is a moral relativist, they could say that slavery was moral at one time, but immoral now, and morals changed. If one holds to moral absolutes, they could claim that slavery was always correct, just not practiced now. Depends how one wants to view it. Same evidence. Very different conclusions.)

So I (as an atheist) look back at history from a technological standpoint. I see societies that suppress dissemination of information, and reject new technologies. I see other societies that embrace new technologies. Those that do so improve their longevity, their health, their happiness, their economics and their social stability. After reviewing that history, I decide that one “ought” to advance technologically. Faster, larger, more efficient are all the moral thing to do. To develop technology that is slower, smaller and less efficient would be immoral. To not allow technology to develop is equally immoral. Riding horses is non-moral.

I come to the conclusion that the advancement of technology must always occur. It is an absolute. I understand that people will disagree with me. They are wrong.

Now…I obviously don’t actually hold to the moral absolute of advancement of technology, but if I did, that is how I would essentially argue for it. Do you see how my own bias reflects what I want as a conclusion? How I pick and choose the evidence that supports my position and quietly disregard that which does not? How I define the goal?

I am sorry, but that is what I see theists that claim moral absolutes do. Retrofit everything by bias to fit the conclusion. Why can’t I utilize the same methodology as an atheist and equally come up with moral absolutes?

ephphatha: The reason is because if morals are absolute, then they cannot depend on human preferences. Human preferences are subject to change, and different people may have different moral preferences.

This is what I am talking about, regarding the natural body of evidence being used as demonstrative of what non-natural ethics exists. If, as humans, our preferences change, and our morals are based on preferences—isn’t this good evidence that the transcendent morals would equally based upon a preference, and equally change?

I would think if the transcendent morals were absolute, the idea of morals changing on preferences, would be as absurd as thinking mathematics change on preferences.

Further, if we reviewed the body of evidence presented by Christianity, we do see morals imposed on humans that appear to be based upon preferences. God gives deference to Jacob over Esau. God gives David preferential treatment. What is immoral at one point of time is non-moral later. I don’t have to remind you about the hard right turn taken between the Tanakh covenant and the New Testament covenant.

Yes, I am aware of the arguments as to maintaining moral absolutes between the apparent differences. Yet is that fully contemplating the body of evidence? Is that staying consistent within methodology? Or is that a bias as to reach a conclusion?

Again, I am not trying to turn this argument around against Christianity. I am trying to demonstrate that we share the same natural evidence, yet can come up with completely different conclusions. What is the better argument—that morals change or morals are absolute?

ephphatha: I'm saying that God must exist for morals to exist. (emphasis in original)

I know this is directed to John, but is this more than just “the universe needs a creator—therefore god”? Is there something specific about morals which make God more likely, as compared to the universe?

Why couldn’t morals be a matter of environmental convention? If I said, “I is to go from store,” I imagine that sentence grates on your eyes. It is grammatically incorrect. Yet that is only a matter of convention. Different time, different place, the sentence could have been grammatically correct. Do we say that the development of “grammar” is proof of the existence of God? Or something that evolved with humanity? Could morals be the same thing?

 
At 6/12/2007 11:04 AM, Blogger DagoodS said...

paul: My point is … to show that any system of ethics that atheism conjures (even if they imagine it to be objective) has absolutely no incumbency upon the individual other than what they temporarily bind themselves to or what the ruling class imposes.

I would agree with that. In the end, morals ARE what persons agree to bind themselves to. Sometimes we question whether they will do so, and we enact laws to give them impetus. But even with speed limits—people speed. For that moment, the person did not agree to bind themselves to the speed limit. For that, we impose consequences.

And in some situations, a person is even agreeing to bind themselves to what the ruling class imposes.

The trick, paul, is that for those of us who disagree with another’s morality, is to persuade them to change what they are binding themselves to.

In the end, isn’t that what we all do?

More: My point is to explore the bankruptcy of moral relativism…

This terminology I would disagree with, as deliberately loaded. If moral relativism exists, it is not “bankrupt.” It just is. You may not like it, you may not prefer it. It may be “bankrupt” to you. Yet that is merely a preference.

The idea of this discussion (I would hope) is to determine what “is.” Not which flavor we like the best. As ephphatha said to John, whether we believe God exists or not does not determine his existence—the question is whether God exists. Whether you find moral relativism “bankrupt” or not does not determine its existence—the question is whether there truly are moral absolutes.

Sure, it would be a great deal easier on us all if a voice shouted from heaven, “Thou shalt not drink alcohol until thou reachest the age of 21.” Quite a bit harder to make that determination on our own, depending on the person, the time, the amount, etc. But that is the reality of what we have.

More: No matter how much you might feel that Nick is bad or inhumane, you cannot ultimately judge the motions of one complex lump of chemicals to be better or worse than another,… (emphasis in original.)

Oh I can judge another. That is not so hard at all. I can easily say, “my morals are different here, here and here. If you do that, you will be doing something I hold as immoral.” But you are correct that we cannot “ultimately” judge another. As I said to ephphatha before, there is no “ultimate” when it comes to justice or morals.

Again, we may think the idea is nice and all, but is it true?

More: They just stop caring about the church and drift off with the new kinds of friends they are making and become far more interested in sex, smoking, drinking/drugs, tattoos, and piercing.

This is what saddens and frustrates me. Yes, I know that Romans 1 (which is from God) tells you that atheists are degenerates. I truly wish that there was some way you could rip open my brain and see that I am convinced there is no god, and yet I equally am not out pimping and whoring. That it is possible.

paul, I give you two teenagers. Both attend church irregularly now, and probably more for social reasons than spiritual. Both have Christian parents. One is an athlete, honor student, holds a part-time job. The other skips school, is a partier, and plays video games with his friends until the very early hours.

What I hear from you (and the bit that saddens me) is that, based upon outward appearances, one of those teenagers you would label a “nominal Christian” and another as an “atheist.” I don’t have to say which is which. I see labels being applied by your standards.

What I see is that you are calling people “atheist” by what they do, not what they believe. I get the feeling that when you imagine my face, I have horns, a pitchfork and a tail. Because I am an atheist.

There was a short comment by Mustardseed that was not replied to. To demonstrate what I am talking about, a simple question—paul, would you have used that picture in a hypothetical about a Christian? Or is that how you view us? Sex-crazed, hard-drinking, smoking, tattooed and pierced, readers of science fiction?

More: When I became a Christian I got in touch with my old friends to see where they were spiritually. I found that all of them either had nothing at all to say and avoided me like the plague, or they had a few popular-level objections to my beliefs (that most educated atheists would never use) and then they proceeded to avoid me.

Funny. If you switched “Christian” and “atheist” in that sentence, I could equally say, “Me, too.”

More: All the while you have never really changed much from your commitment to live like an atheist …

Cute. What is it that an atheist lives like? I am beginning to wonder, under your labeling system, as to whether I could qualify as a “true atheist”! And if atheism is so much fun, why do we have to commit to it?

More: In the case of God, people don't simply say, "I want to have all the sex I can, therefore there must not be a God."

That’s what I said before, and then it became very confusing as to whether Nick rationally lost the belief in God, or rationally justified what he already believed, or what the heck it was that Nick did when it came to becoming an atheist and deteriorated into a moral monster.

 
At 6/12/2007 12:25 PM, Blogger Paul said...

John,

Even if it might be true that telling the truth works out for the best in the end, why "ought" I to care about the good of others and "social cohesion"? Maybe I just care about the good of my nation, my community, my family, or my self and I don't mind lying to outsiders. Maybe telling the truth will actually cause me inconvenience or harm under certain conditions. Why should I sacrifice my own health and happiness for the good of other people that I might not even have an emotional bond with? If I can't get any form of pleasure from it then duty is the only alternative. But where'd duty come from and why should I care about it?

 
At 6/12/2007 12:26 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Larry,

You said: "Conflicting intuitions conflict not because one person is mistaken, but because they are different specific properties of different minds . . . I'd love to have a truth-based framework to call Nick mistaken, but lacking an epistemic method to know who's accurate and who's mistaken, such hope is merely idle fantasy."

I take you to be conceding that there is no absolute way "to call Nick mistaken." It also appears that you would concede that those moral intuitions that cry out against Nick's attitude are merely subjective artifacts of biological and environmental factors, and could be otherwise for any individual or our entire species if evolution had played out differently.

If this is so, then I commend you for your full comprehension of your own worldview and I think we are done here. But I have one last parting comment.

Given the fact that you are not hesitant to use language like, "contemptible," "evil," "atrocious," and "monsterous" on this blog and your own in relation to people like "Nick," or political conservatives, or religious persons like me, it would seem that you are either appealing to your intuitions as though they are telling you something real or you are simply playing the "propaganda" and "coercion" game that you mention. If these are real intuitions to which we have obligations, then we certainly have something important, though problematic, to explore. If not, then I am equally justified in playing my game while you play yours, but don't delude yourself to think you are saying anything meaningful when you call me and my beliefs and behaviors "wrong." I think "distasteful" would be more accurate, which makes me the moral equivalent of lima beans (assuming you don't like those).

 
At 6/12/2007 3:17 PM, Blogger JELyon said...

We're not ever going to resolve this.

First, my grasp of logic is weak at best, due in part to hearing and endless string of this kind of reasoning:

"The balloon is yellow, so we have to go eat a sandwich on the trampoline."

Second, you are never come to any conclusion other than our laws and moral rules come from God.

I am never going to come to any other conclusion than that religion has nothing to do with morals, and that morality comes out of reason, and, recent research suggests, our capacity for empathy.

For you, morals are transcendent. For me, morals are a natural byproduct of reason and empathy.

I guess what I'm suggesting is that it's pointless for me to keep trying to explain what I really don't know enough about. I just end up looking like a doofus. Which, I hope, doesn't beg the question.

 
At 6/12/2007 4:27 PM, Blogger The Barefoot Bum said...

You can quibble with my nomenclature if you wish. I feel the way I feel; it's clear that I'm talking about my own feelings.

Neither you nor I can actually conclude—in a logical or evidentiary manner—that Nick is actually mistaken. We can, at best, only assume he is mistaken.

Fundamentally, we do coerce people—murderers, rapists and thieves—who behave in ways that follow from particularly objectionable ethical beliefs.

If you wish to engage murderers, rapists and thieves in intellectual argument, be my guest. I'm sticking with police and prisons.

 
At 6/12/2007 7:13 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Dagoods,

I have a lot to say in response to your post, but I'm not going to. You seem to be changing the subject. We were talking about whether or not it's possible for there to be absolute morals if there is no God. Now you're talking about whether we could know about any of the absolute morals that came from God if they happened to exist. Whether I thought we could or couldn't, my argument would be exactly the same. I would still say there can't be any absolute morals unless there's a God.

I've been cooking up a book in my head for years that delves deeply into moral epistemology. I'll have to share it with you if I ever write it. In the meantime, maybe I'll post some blogs on it, and we can have that conversation then. But for now I'm going to let it go and stick to the subject.

Thanks for explaining how you derive a moral absolute from the advancement of technology. I don't think your argument works because it begs the question. You can correct me if I've just misunderstood your argument. What I take you to be saying is that we have a moral obligation to advance technologically, and the reason we have that obligation is because advancing technologically improves our health, happiness, etc. The problem is that your argument only works if you've already assumed from the get go that we have a moral obligation to do what improves our health, happiness, etc. This seems to be your argument:

1. We have a moral obligation to do what improves health, happiness, etc.
2. Advancing technologically improves health, happiness, etc.
3. Therefore, we have a moral obligation to to advance technologically.

You didn't state the first premise explicitly, but it does seem to be what you're assuming, because your argument doesn't work without it. The whole point of making the argument was to show me how you could arrive at moral absolutes from an atheistic worldview with "advancing technology" being one possible non-theistic source. Since you're assuming a moral absolute in your premises, your argument begs the question. Since the argument is fallacious, you still haven't shown how there can be a basis for moral absolutes other than some kind of deity.

If, as humans, our preferences change, and our morals are based on preferences—isn’t this good evidence that the transcendent morals would equally based upon a preference, and equally change?

I would think if the transcendent morals were absolute, the idea of morals changing on preferences, would be as absurd as thinking mathematics change on preferences.


You seem to be assuming that if morals are based on preferences, then they necessarily are also subject to change. Well, they are only subject to change if the preferences they depend on are subject to change. With humans, that is obviously the case, which is one reason we can't get absolute morals from human preferences. What follows from your statements is that if there are absolute morals, they are based on the preferences of a transcendent personal being who is not subject to change.

What is the better argument—that morals change or morals are absolute?

Again, you're changing the subject now. Remember, we're not talking about whether there are moral absolutes. We're talking about whether it's possible for there to be moral absolutes if there is no God.

ephphatha: I'm saying that God must exist for morals to exist. (emphasis in original)

I know this is directed to John, but is this more than just “the universe needs a creator—therefore god”? Is there something specific about morals which make God more likely, as compared to the universe?


I'm not sure I understand your question here. If you're asking why God is necessary for morals and why the universe couldn't be a basis for morals I'd just have to repeat what I said before. Morals prescribe behavior and impose obligation. They are like commands. The universe is blind and indifferent. Morals must come from a personal being. All the universe can give you is an "is." It can't give you an "ought."

Why couldn’t morals be a matter of environmental convention?

If morals were merely a matter of convention, that would just be cultural relativism. I don't claim God is necessary for cultural relativism.

 
At 6/12/2007 7:29 PM, Blogger The Barefoot Bum said...

Fundamentally, the theistic "argument" is this: "If ethical truth does not refer to God, then ethics aren't how I want them to be."

This is obviously not a real argument. Ethics are what they are; how anyones wants the world to be has nothing to do with how the world actually is.

 
At 6/12/2007 7:37 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
Care for a stroll down that beach?

Things have moved on since your reply to me. I think Dagoods and The Barefoot Bum have put the secular side very well but it is also good to see ephphatha return to form (even though I disagree with his view).

You said:
I would say that this is a testimony to our intuitive sense of "compassion." Of course explaining where such a sense comes from, its scope, and why we must be a slave to it is another matter.
It is another matter, I would look to evolution, game theory, anthropology and sociology whereas you might take a different tack. I would pick you up on one thing here though, there is no absolutely binding reason why we must be a slave to any moral intuition even under a theistic interpretation. Otherwise, what is all this free will defense of the Problem of Evil about? As ephphatha said: "Whether morality is objective or subjective, WE have to CHOOSE to act morally. No one is forcing us to do so."

In response to your other examples of altruism I can answer yes to some of them and 'I hope I would' to the others.

I think without a transcendent grounding for virtue, then the exercise of compassion will simply be driven by passion.
I think this is again a simplification. I think our moral intuitions are the result of multiple inference systems in the brain and they can harness powerful emotions in us.

Whatever we feel like doing or not doing is what will win.
And if I feel like showing compassion or helping others or giving mercy or behaving well? This is ultimately a tautology on your part.

It's great that you feel compassion too, but I guarantee that you trump it in various big and small ways every day.
You must be speaking from experience.

 
At 6/12/2007 7:49 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

The Barefoot Bum,

You said:
Well said. I agree. If we are going to construct an evidentiary account of ethical theory, our ethical intuitions remain the only pertinent evidence.

I disagree. There may be reasons why the distributions of such intuitions in given situations are non random which can be investigated using tools such as game theory. Stopping the investigation into the causal chain at the intuition stage seems premature to me.

 
At 6/12/2007 7:57 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Paul,

I don't think having your behavior conform to the moral law is enough to say that it is "good." Motivation would be an important consideration.

I agree with that. This is what I said to John:

All that's required for you to be moral is that (1) morals exist, and (2) you have the desire to act consistently with the morals that exist.

(2) does not read that, "you act consistently with the morals that exist." Rather, it says, "you have the desire to act consistently with the morals that exist." In other words, you have the proper motivation. With the moral and the motive, can you have the moral action.

Larry impressed me in his little dissertation by acknowledging the fact that atheists by definition could not satisfy the demands of the moral law if it were grounding in God.

I wasn't impressed at all with that. Here's what he said:

Divine Command Theory holds that ethical behavior is compliance with the commands of God. Obviously, by the latter definition, an atheist cannot act ethically; she can at best only simulate ethical behavior; the requisite motivation is necessarily absent.

An atheist can comply with the commands of God without knowing the commands were made by God. And unlike your example, it doesn't have to be an accident. A person can know that "I ought to do X" without knowing that "God commands me to do X." Larry is mistakenly assuming the only motive that counts is the motive to please God. But there is also the motive to do right that counts, and it's possible to have that motive even if one lacks a belief in God.

I would agree with you and Larry if you had made a more modest claim--that there are some moral imperatives atheists cannot perform. An atheist cannot be motivated to bring glory to God or to do anything for that end.

 
At 6/12/2007 8:10 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

it is also good to see ephphatha return to form (even though I disagree with his view).

I'm all alone now that Paul is disagreeing with me, too!

psiomniac, I get the impression that you and Paul are talking past each other. When Paul says "binding," he seems to mean "we have an obligation or an ought." When you say "binding," you seem to mean "we are determined to act in a particular way." I get that impression from you since you seem to think "binding" is inconsistent with "free will," and "choosing." The way I take Paul to be using the term, though, it is not inconsistent with choosing. In fact, it entails the ability to choose.

 
At 6/12/2007 8:36 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Just soes you know, I made the 50th post. :-Þ

 
At 6/13/2007 4:12 PM, Blogger DagoodS said...

ephphatha,

I do not mean to change the subject, but the reality of what absolute morals are, seems to be part and parcel to whether absolute morals are. Otherwise, we are reduced to saying, “There are absolute morals, but we cannot know what those are” which smells like Moral Relativism. And if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and looks like a duck…how does it become a moral absolute?

Or, to explain it another way, the proofs we have for absolute morality is that certain absolute morals exist. If we don’t explore any of those absolute morals, then what else do we use as proof of the existence of absolute morals?

My other concern is methodology. Yes, if we solely limited our discussion to whether absolute morals exist, this methodology is sufficient. But in the future, we are going to discuss what those absolutes are. And this methodology will be abandoned. Being a person that always looks behind the argument itself, I wonder as to the sufficiency of the method. Is this an appropriate method to use? Will the person stay consistent in this method? Is it prone to bias?

The fact that I see a method shift, later, tells me that there is an issue within the method itself. Sure the train is running on the ontological track correctly. But down the way, when we reach the epistemological track, if we run the train the same way, it will go off the tracks. Which causes me to question whether this is the appropriate way to run the train now.

Let me try a simple demonstration. (And due to its simplicity, it is not complete, but I hope you get the drift of what I am saying.)

Item of Proof: People discuss and disagree over morals.
Method: What people do is proof of what exists supernatural.

Absolutist: The fact that people discuss morals demonstrates that morals must exist supernaturally.
Relativist: O.K. But if we use your method of using what we view to reflect what is supernatural, then the second part of our proof—the fact that people disagree over morals, would mean that the supernatural is relative. Not absolute.
Absolutist: I just want to focus on whether absolutes exist—not what they are.

The reason, ephphatha, that Christians do not effectively communicate the difference between ontological proof of morals and epistemological, is that we see a shift in method. And we wonder why the method that was appropriate for one becomes inappropriate for the other.

Look--the proof is as follows:

P1: If absolute morals exist, then there is a God.
P2: Absolute morals exist.
C1: Therefore God

I question the first premise that one necessarily has to follow the other. But in this regard, I am focusing more on the second premise--Do absolute morals exist? To not talk about what they are would seem to be avoiding a problem of proof.

Could you proof out absolute morals exist without referring to any absolute morals?

As to question-begging in my absolute technological example—probably true. That would not come as a complete shock to me, as I smell question-begging in claims of absolute morality, so in following the example, I can see how I would commit the same problem.

If I could quibble, and even then just to demonstrate the problem—the error I see is in asserting both the goal and the means to the goal. You are correct in your addition of the first assertion, that I have arbitrarily determined what the goal of the ethic should be—i.e. the improvement of humanity. There is no foundation for that being our goal. I equally could have stated that we should improve the environment of the barn owl.

However, this raised a fascinating question to pose back at theists—what is the goal of a God imposing morals? (And yes, that has Euthyphro overtones to it.) Instead of even attempting to assert a goal, all theists do is say, “It just is.”

If you don’t accept my goal of improving humanity as “it just is”—why should I accept your goal of God setting the morals ‘cause “it just is”?

However, for fear of going off-subject (*wink*) I will reserve that question and discussion for elsewhere.

With that, I will end, ephphatha. Unless something astounding comes forth, you can have the last word, if you desire.

Thank you, paul, for putting up with my comments for a time. I will re-assume my lurker status.

 
At 6/13/2007 4:28 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Dag,

The trick, paul, is that for those of us who disagree with another’s morality, is to persuade them to change what they are binding themselves to. In the end, isn’t that what we all do?

On the surface, but there is a thinly veiled presumption that the moral positions we have striven to reach and are arguing for are real and noble things that the world will be a better place for and that we may be heroes to champion, not just that they are subjective preferences. I find it more sensible to believe the former to be so than to simply play like it for the sake of personal ends. And I find particularly irksome morally outraged materialists who would like to classify my "preferences" as "evil."

If moral relativism exists, it is not “bankrupt.” It just is. You may not like it, you may not prefer it. It may be “bankrupt” to you. Yet that is merely a preference.

Ah, then my judgment of its bankruptcy is as good as your judgment of its neutrality. This begins to hint at what I mean by "bankruptcy." If moral relativism is true, then it means that moral language is as worthless as Confederate currency, and it means that we build our grand ethical castles in midair. Of course, as you say, it doesn't make it false, but it certainly doesn't give the currency any bullion.

But you are correct that we cannot “ultimately” judge another. As I said to ephphatha before, there is no “ultimate” when it comes to justice or morals.

Resolved: All atheistic moralizing is just so much emoting.

paul, I give you two teenagers. Both attend church irregularly now, and probably more for social reasons than spiritual. Both have Christian parents. One is an athlete, honor student, holds a part-time job. The other skips school, is a partier, and plays video games with his friends until the very early hours.

What I hear from you (and the bit that saddens me) is that, based upon outward appearances, one of those teenagers you would label a “nominal Christian” and another as an “atheist.” I don’t have to say which is which. I see labels being applied by your standards.


Heck, from your description, it could be the case that both are atheists. I think I've stated several times already that atheists can behave quite pleasantly and seem to be (at least on the surface) quite virtuous people. Living in a polite culture can also help to temper what vices some of us might otherwise express. I believe that the human nature of an ancient barbarian is the same as the nature of a modern human. There is just a difference in the liberties and expectations.

St. Paul does not paint non-believers as having every one of the vices he mentions (and he doesn't bother to mention many of the lesser sins), and he certainly does not suggest that every virtuous person is a believer. However, he does indicate that if someone lives the life of a non-believer, then we are safe in at least treating them as though they are (whether just "backslidden" or not).

If someone believed that Jesus was God incarnate and died for their sins, yet would not call themselves a "Christian," would I be wrong to extend the right hand of fellowship to them? Conversely, if someone insisted on being called a "Christian," yet found Gerd Leudeman, Deepak Chopra, and Richard Dawkins to be edifying reading, and liked to go to wife swapping parties (not an idle example either), I hope you could forgive my rejection of that label.

Words — whoever says them or claims them — are simply containers that we fill with content. In the case of worldview labels, that content must be provided by both the professed beliefs and the testimony of one's behavior. However, I respect the old saw that says, "If you want to know what somebody believes, pay attention to what they do rather than to what they say."

The pursuit of pleasure does not always mean a direct descent into vice. Depending upon talents and interests, one may discover his pleasures in socially acceptable and productive activities. So, if one is bright and school comes easy, then pleasure may be found in grades and academic recognition. If one is gifted in sports, then pleasure may be found in the love of the game and the admiration of peers. This explains why even the most rebellious and hedonistic high schooler will often surprise you by pulling off a high grade once in a while — in a subject that sparks their interest. Pure self interest and hedonism, which are not Christian principles, simply pertain to the pursuit of personal pleasure. And pleasure may be found even in those things that many regard as virtue.

I get the feeling that when you imagine my face, I have horns, a pitchfork and a tail. Because I am an atheist.

Actually, more like a steamroller. I imagine we might rather enjoy each other's company. You may even discover that I am not the boorish prude that you might imagine.

I don't imagine self-confessing atheists to always be any more depraved than many other flavors of unbelievers. In fact, I tend to prefer atheists to certain generally "spiritual" type persons, since I think that some atheists are simply being more clear-headed and intellectually honest with themselves about their rejection of the One True God. I find that I can have rather lengthy, passionate, and rational debates with those like yourself, whereas I must step very lightly in my dialog with, say, a Wiccan in order to avoid frightening them off like a wild fawn. Most people are not much concerned for arriving at a consistent and coherent worldview.

Unfortunately, with that thoughtful, conscious rejection of God sometimes comes a thoughtful reflection upon what a universe without an overlord means for their personal liberties. And if the desires for "bad" things are strong enough to overcome the nagging moral intuitions, then you can have a "monster" on your hands. There is no duty not to be a monster. Larry said in the very first comment, "I do not murder because I myself choose not to murder." How nice for us all that he makes that choice. But there are other choices, and the sky's the limit for a "freethinking" atheist.

[W]ould you have used that picture in a hypothetical [story] about a Christian?

Depends on what point I was trying to make. If I wanted to discuss the Emerging Church Movement, I might use this. If the absurdities of the average televangelist, perhaps this. If cultic Christianity, then this. If New Age Christianity, maybe this.

I was making a reductio ad absurdum argument about atheism and moral grounding with my post, not what constitutes your average atheist. I chose a suitably dark and narcissistic image. What is interesting is that the portfolio I took this out of was not intended to make this fellow look evil, only hip. I could have equally grabbed a portrait from an average hip hop CD and gotten an even more dark, apathetic, and sneering image.

[I]s that how you view us? Sex-crazed, hard-drinking, smoking, tattooed and pierced, readers of science fiction?

The sample person I described was simply one example of the non-rational means that some atheists or pseudo-atheists may (and often do, in my experience) drift into their belief system. I am simply giving counterfactuals to the insistent claim that most deconversions happen as a result of careful and unbiased reflection upon the evidence (or lack thereof).

I said: "All the while you have never really changed much from your commitment to live like an atheist … "

You said: "Cute. What is it that an atheist lives like? I am beginning to wonder, under your labeling system, as to whether
I could qualify as a “true atheist”! And if atheism is so much fun, why do we have to commit to it?"

Sorry, I would probably reword this to clear up the confusion. When I say, "lived like an atheist," I mean, to fail to live Coram Deo (before the face of God), without being guided by conscience, scripture, parents, or the counsel of spiritual elders. When I say "commitment," I mean the point (consciously or unconsciously) of crossing that line of pursuit of self-desire.

I said: "In the case of God, people don't simply say, 'I want to have all the sex I can, therefore there must not be a God.'

You said: "That’s what I said before, and then it became very confusing as to whether Nick rationally lost the belief in God, or rationally justified what he already believed, or
what the heck it was that Nick did when it came to becoming an atheist and deteriorated into a moral monster."

I'm saying that I don't think these types of people simply follow syllogisms like that, but you might find breadcrumbs from one end of it to another. I think it is a gradual process of becoming deaf to their beliefs (which I don't think they were ever really sold on in the first place) and fading into a virtual kind of atheism. Eventually, they come to the place where it doesn't take much "evidence" to feel "rationally" justified in formally rejecting whatever belief system may still be lingering about. They may relish encountering such evidences, hoard them up, and may even begin to actively seek them out

But I think in most cases it does take some form of justification, however thin, to formally declare for atheism (or maybe anything), since one of our moral intuitions is that we ought to be rational about our beliefs. In spite of what Eastern mystics would like to teach us, nobody really wants to be thought of as irrational. Nick was at the point in his life where he was "open minded," the evidence "deeply resonated" with him, and he got the "rational fuel he needed."


Sorry, I just now saw your signoff in the last comment. I won't hold you to a further response. It has been a pleasure. I am always sharpened by our exchanges.

 
At 6/13/2007 6:15 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 6/13/2007 6:22 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Dagoods,

The first part of your post dealt with the issue of whether there are any absolute morals and whether we can know about them. The reason I thought you were changing the subject before is because I thought we were discussing the issue of whether absolute morals can exist if there is no God. I don't see what these other issues you're bringing up have to do with that. If you thought we were talking about whether absolute morals exist or whether we could know them, or how we could know them, then we've been talking past each other.

As to question-begging in my absolute technological example—probably true. That would not come as a complete shock to me, as I smell question-begging in claims of absolute morality, so in following the example, I can see how I would commit the same problem.

If you think that any argument for absolute morals is question begging, then you must admit that you cannot derive absolute morals from an atheistic worldview.

What you need for any kind of absolute morals is a person imposing obligation on you. That's why God is a sufficient basis for absolute morals, but nothing like "technological advancement" or "the betterment of society" is. You can't just trace all morals back to some originating goal and call that "the basis for all morality), because that would leave the goal unaccounted for. With the goal unaccounted for, it's just an artibrary starting point, as you said. Morals must derive from a personal being. That's not an arbitrary starting point; it's a necessary starting point.

 
At 6/13/2007 6:33 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Sorry, a few typos...
ephphatha,
You said:
psiomniac, I get the impression that you and Paul are talking past each other. When Paul says "binding," he seems to mean "we have an obligation or an ought." When you say "binding," you seem to mean "we are determined to act in a particular way." I get that impression from you since you seem to think "binding" is inconsistent with "free will," and "choosing." The way I take Paul to be using the term, though, it is not inconsistent with choosing. In fact, it entails the ability to choose.

I think you are right that Paul and I seem doomed to talk past each other. If you subscribe to the view that morals refer to abstract universals and that this entails a deity, then anything I am likely to sketch as an alternative is going to be a tough sell.
However, Paul does seem to be trying to have it both ways. On the one hand he points out that under atheism there is no enforcer in the sky who can bind us as slaves to the moral order, on the other he concedes that choice is key. But it strikes me that under either system, people can choose to follow their obligations or not.
Well, I choose light. I choose that empowerment is better than oppression. I choose nurture is better than torture. I choose life is better than death. If you challenge me to justify my choices, I ask you in return, justify healthy dentition in preference to toothache.
There will be people who will not subscribe. They will not feel empathy at the prospect of the suffering of another. But for every atheist I will bet you I can match a religious adherent whose empathy is compromised by the fact that the other person is of a different religious sect to their own.

 
At 6/13/2007 6:39 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

psiomniac,

However, Paul does seem to be trying to have it both ways. On the one hand he points out that under atheism there is no enforcer in the sky who can bind us as slaves to the moral order, on the other he concedes that choice is key. But it strikes me that under either system, people can choose to follow what their obligations or not.

Then I don't understand where you see the inconsistency in Paul. You seem to think the ability to choose is inconsistent with having moral obligations imposed on us by God. Am I misunderstanding you? It seems to me that before we can have a moral obligation, we must have the ability to choose. Without the ability to choose, we can't really be said to obey or disobey. So the ability to choose is perfectly consistent (and even necessary) with having moral obligations imposed on us by God.

 
At 6/13/2007 7:19 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

ephphatha,
I am sure Paul will be able to clarify, but I agree with you that the ability to choose is necessary. It is just that Paul seems to be unable to imagine why people would follow the guidance delivered by their moral intuitions unless they thought somebody was watching from above. It seems to me that people can decide to follow the correct course as it appears to them or not, regardless of their view about the origin of their sense of correctness.

 
At 6/13/2007 8:00 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

psiomniac,

It is just that Paul seems to be unable to imagine why people would follow the guidance delivered by their moral intuitions unless they thought somebody was watching from above.

Paul can speak for himself, but that's not the impression I got from him. I got the impression he thinks unless there is somebody "watching from above," or imposing obligations on us, then we have no duty, no obligation, no imperative, to act according to our moral intuitions. We're free from moral guilt if we choose to ignore them, whether we ignore them because don't feel like listening to them, or they are inconvenient, or whatever.

It seems to me that people can decide to follow the correct course as it appears to them or not, regardless of their view about the origin of their sense of correctness.

I agree with that. That's the point I was making to John earlier.

 
At 6/13/2007 8:12 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Larry said: "Fundamentally, the theistic 'argument' is this: 'If ethical truth does not refer to God, then ethics aren't how I want them to be.'"

Gosh, is something "wrong" with that?

Actually, the argument is this: "If morality is not established by God, and justice is not insured by same, then ethical theory reduces to "preference." It appears to me that you are basically in agreement.

 
At 6/13/2007 8:23 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

I got the impression he thinks unless there is somebody "watching from above," or imposing obligations on us, then we have no duty, no obligation, no imperative, to act according to our moral intuitions. We're free from moral guilt if we choose to ignore them, whether we ignore them because don't feel like listening to them, or they are inconvenient, or whatever.

Do you think this also? It is deeply counter intuitive to me. There are believers who choose to sin and non believers who choose not to follow certain moral intuitions. The proximal deterrents are guilt and shame and the motivators are pride in doing right and feelings of self respect. Where is the body of evidence to suggest that belief in a deity has a net effect? What if religion is parasitic on morality, merely serving as a post rationalisation of powerful feelings that people have found difficult to account for?

 
At 6/13/2007 8:43 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

You said: "Paul seems to be unable to imagine why people would follow the guidance delivered by their moral intuitions unless they thought somebody was watching from above."

I think Sam is doing a fine job of clarifying my view. But I'll add this:

You know that I believe we have moral intuitions. Intuitions involve certain feelings, desires, compulsions, emotional pains, etc. For this reason, wherever they come from we still feel them, and we have certain tendencies to follow our feelings. Indeed, that's what modern culture incessantly tells us we must do. All things being neutral, a person will often simply follow his moral intuitions and not steal, lie, kill, etc., just like we will tend to eat when hungry or sleep when tired. However, there are many things that can produce contrary desires which may trump our moral intuitions, just like being distracted by a video game or a stronger desire to diet can keep us from eating when hungry.

Applying this to morality, one may normally be repelled by theft, but if they have a stronger desire for the money they could get (out of the desire for drugs, luxuries, or just financial need), then their objection to theft will be compromised. Without some reason to stick with the program — especially to think the program is something other than biology and environment — then there is no reason to do what you don't feel like doing or to not do what you strongly want to do.

 
At 6/13/2007 9:20 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Sam,

Regarding our possible disagreement over motivation and morality...

You said:
All that's required for you to be moral is that (1) morals exist, and (2) you have the desire to act consistently with the morals that exist.

(2) does not read that, "you act consistently with the morals that exist." Rather, it says, "you have the desire to act consistently with the morals that exist." In other words, you have the proper motivation. With the moral and the motive, can you have the moral action.


I don't think that simply having the desire to act consistently with your moral intuition is enough. I think we would have to understand why someone would have such a desire. Does an atheist choose to bend the knee to morality because he understands it to be an objectively real thing that is grounded in or authored by his maker, whom he trusts, loves, and desires to serve? Is he committed to follow his moral intuitions even when his desires might work against them? Surely not, and surely it makes a difference. St. Paul thought so too when he claimed that all his righteous deeds (before conversion) were as filthy rags.

Additionally this all presumes that an atheist wants to behave morally for some kind of otherwise noble reason, and not simply to avoid social consequences or to win the approval of men. That is a more difficult thing to unpack. Even so, I think that behaving morality, for whatever reason, will surely incur less debt toward God than being immoral.

 
At 6/14/2007 7:49 AM, Blogger The Barefoot Bum said...

Essentially, yes: Ethical theory is reducible to theories about preferences, which are fundamentally subjective.

I can well imagine why someone would not like such a conclusion; to be honest I'm not so thrilled with it myself. As a scientist, engineer, intellectual and amateur philosopher, I'm very much interested in the truth.

But not liking a conclusion is not in any way an argument for its falsity; nor is liking a conclusion an argument for its truth.

To reconcile the actual observational facts with a God-based theory of ethics, one has to construct a rococo metaphysical theory elaborate to the point of ridicule.

There are myriad facts which require such elaboration, but the most blatant is that it's absolutely impossible to logically infer modern ethical beliefs from any of the Abrahamic scriptures without an a priori commitment to those beliefs. There is simply no justification whatsoever to interpret the commandments of the Old Testament as "metaphor" except by observing that they do not match our modern beliefs.

You are, of course, entitled to believe whatever you want, regardless of my opinion. I'm just as entitled, though, to believe your beliefs are irrational, especially when my belief is provable.

 
At 6/14/2007 10:00 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

Where is the body of evidence to suggest that belief in a deity has a net effect [on behavior]?

We would first have to agree on what we considered "good" behavior before we could engage in meaningful comparisons. If you were to define as neutral or wrongheaded many of the things that theists view as important moral issues, then I am rather limited in what I might appeal to. For instance, if you have no problem with promiscuity, pornography, abortion, homosexuality, and getting hammered, then I could not appeal to the fact that these things are widely approved and practiced in the secular world.

For this reason, I am probably confined to comparisons of general politeness or of extremes like murder and theft. The former would be somewhat subjective and hard to get beyond the anecdotal. The latter would be complicated by the fact that crime statistics tend to be confined to those available for inquiry. By this I mean that you can't poll people about their religion as they are contemplating and committing crimes, only after they are convicted and have had a chance to reflect and possibly change beliefs. At that point, saying someone is a theist and a murderer disassociates the crime from the beliefs which may have originally fostered them.

As to anecdotal evidence, I can only speak for myself and say that those in my church and at my Christian workplace are consistently different people than those who I know to be spiritually hostile or apathetic. I can also say that this work environment is remarkably different than the secular environments where I used to be employed. I can further say that I am quite a different person now than when I was not a Christian, and I know this to be true of many other Christian converts as well. In fact, one of the most common testimonies heard from Christians is the story of how Jesus changed their lives. So even if, at minimum, they have gone from a scoundrel to merely a rude person, it has at least made a difference and should be factored in to your "body of evidence."

What if religion is parasitic on morality, merely serving as a post rationalisation of powerful feelings that people have found difficult to account for?

Like, people feel these strong moral intuitions, and they feel like there's something greater than themselves, and they long for meaning and purpose in life, and they imagine there must be a better place, and they are struck by the order and wonder of nature, and they have eternity in their hearts? Or, how about if these things are signals of transcendence and there really is a spiritual truth that will make sense of these powerful feelings? If there really is a God, I imagine such things that burn in your own heart will be brought to the table in the end.

The other problem with this idea is that it does nothing to explain away the claims that God has actually done things in history. You could only ask such a question if it were demonstrated that, say, Jesus was a fiction. We might then hypothesize as to why those First Century cultists felt compelled to dream up such a fiction, and it could then be supposed that they were seeking to explain the mysteries they felt. However, concocting a detailed historical fiction and claiming it to be real seems to me to be an odd way to craft a metaphysical explanation for mere feelings. Gnostic writings seem to fit that mold much better in my estimation, since they were less concerned with connecting their claims to actual events.

 
At 6/15/2007 12:07 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Larry said: But not liking a conclusion is not in any way an argument for its falsity; nor is liking a conclusion an argument for its truth.

I certainly agree, and I'm sure I have said as much myself. Ironically, I find those who would otherwise think of themselves as faithful followers of their moral intuitions are quick to turn aside from them when they are not to their liking. I won't elaborate, as I may be blogging on this next.

To reconcile the actual observational facts with a God-based theory of ethics, one has to construct a rococo metaphysical theory elaborate to the point of ridicule. . . . it's absolutely impossible to logically infer modern ethical beliefs from any of the Abrahamic scriptures without an a priori commitment to those beliefs.

The first problem with this is that you seem to be backsliding into objectivism and presupposing that our "modern ethical beliefs" are the gold standard by which we must judge everything else. But being a slave to subjectivism, I think you can do nothing else.

Second, if ethics are, in the end, subjective, then how are we to judge the scriptures by your standard or anyone else's? To judge them you must have an a priori commitment to moral realism and the idea that you have the tiger by the tail. Otherwise, your objection amounts to saying that you do not like the God of the Bible. But remember, not liking a thing is no argument for its falsity.

Third, in order to judge any given act as immoral, we need to know much more than the act itself. We need to know such things as extenuating circumstances, motivations, ultimate consequences, etc., as well as having our various presuppositions in order regarding things like human nature, rights and obligations, the purpose of creation, the prerogatives of God, etc. Being stuck within a mere segment of the story, and having limited access to the mind of its Author, it is necessarily difficult to make absolute value judgments — perhaps as difficult as it is for a toddler to comprehend sexual passion, the need of dentistry, or being denied a toy. Inherent in most skepticism is the hubris of thinking that if there is a God, we know what His intentions and obligations must be.

Of course, I'm sure that you count all this as part of the elaborate metaphysical rococo used to glamorize the ghettos of Christianity. But it may be that the humanist philosophic construct that we have devised for and about ourselves is what qualifies as the rococo that distracts from any hope of understanding a universe that is not humanistic.

I'm just as entitled, though, to believe your beliefs are irrational, especially when my belief is provable.

Sure, you can believe whatever you like as well, but I fail to see how you can believe yourself rational and proven when you have already admitted that your own morality is simply a product of culture, biology, and preference. Even your sense of being "rational" is subject to the same criticisms as we have been reviewing here in relation to morality, and I will wager that you are sharp enough to understand this. You are dependent upon transcendental views at every turn in order to make your case against the transcendental. You may just as well give me a logical argument as to why I should reject Western logic.

 
At 6/15/2007 5:29 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

We would first have to agree on what we considered "good" behavior before we could engage in meaningful comparisons.
I agree with this. It would be beyond the scope of this thread to thrash out an agreed protocol for a comparison I suspect.

As to anecdotal evidence, I can only speak for myself and say that those in my church and at my Christian workplace are consistently different people than those who I know to be spiritually hostile or apathetic.
My anecdotal evidence is as you would expect, I know mean theists and lovely atheists and vice versa. I see no more correlation between moral behaviour and religious affiliation than I do between morality and whether people follow football or which team they support.

Like, people feel these strong moral intuitions, and they feel like there's something greater than themselves, and they long for meaning and purpose in life, and they imagine there must be a better place, and they are struck by the order and wonder of nature, and they have eternity in their hearts? Or, how about if these things are signals of transcendence and there really is a spiritual truth that will make sense of these powerful feelings? If there really is a God, I imagine such things that burn in your own heart will be brought to the table in the end.
And if there really is no god, then people will still synthesize meaning from the raw materials of perception and cognition. It is what we do.

The other problem with this idea is that it does nothing to explain away the claims that God has actually done things in history. You could only ask such a question if it were demonstrated that, say, Jesus was a fiction. We might then hypothesize as to why those First Century cultists felt compelled to dream up such a fiction, and it could then be supposed that they were seeking to explain the mysteries they felt. However, concocting a detailed historical fiction and claiming it to be real seems to me to be an odd way to craft a metaphysical explanation for mere feelings.
I don't think the historical, anthropological, psychological and sociological evidence supports the view that Jesus was anything other than a human. Nor do I think that your imaginings of naturalistic explanations take these branches of knowledge into account.

 
At 6/17/2007 9:30 AM, Blogger The Barefoot Bum said...

Paul:

I find those who would otherwise think of themselves as faithful followers of their moral intuitions are quick to turn aside from them when they are not to their liking.

This statement is internally contradictory: One's moral intuitions are what is to one's liking.

People do seem to abandon principles they say are to their liking when the consequences are not to their liking, but this demonstrates only that people's ethical beliefs are not always entirely logically consistent. This tension between principle and consequence is hardly unique to nontheists: All religions have "reinterpreted" scriptural principles (cough Leviticus) to conform to changing moral intuitions.

Such behavior is entirely consistent with treating subjective moral intuition as an evidentiary quasi-foundation for moral principles.

The first problem with this is that you seem to be backsliding into objectivism and presupposing that our "modern ethical beliefs" are the gold standard by which we must judge everything else.

Au contraire. Modern ethical beliefs are simply those beliefs that you and I and our fellow human beings actually have today. They are not an objective "gold standard", but they are a practical standard. Yesterday, people evaluated moral standards in terms of yesterday's intuitions; tomorrow people will evaluate moral standards in terms of tomorrow's intuitions.

"Modern" standards are privileged only to us, and we privilege them because they exist, and we have to privilege something because it is we ourselves, as actual existing human beings, who have to find ways to live together today.

Second, if ethics are, in the end, subjective, then how are we to judge the scriptures by your standard or anyone else's? To judge them you must have an a priori commitment to moral realism and the idea that you have the tiger by the tail.

Baloney. You are still stuck on the idea that judgment by definition is an appeal to objective standards. But it is obviously possible to judge something by subjective standards. I dislike the Bible because it contravenes my subjective moral intuitions. For precisely the same subjective reason you dislike the literal meaning of many Biblical standards* and interpret them metaphorically.

... having limited access to the mind of its Author, it is necessarily difficult to make absolute value judgments...

I would say no access at all and impossible.

I'm sure that you count all this as part of the elaborate metaphysical rococo used to glamorize the ghettos of Christianity.

Indeed I do.

But it may be that the humanist philosophic construct that we have devised for and about ourselves is what qualifies as the rococo.

Anything's possible. What can you prove?

fail to see how you can believe yourself rational and proven when you have already admitted that your own morality is simply a product of culture, biology, and preference.

This is a non-sequitur. What does admitting that my own morality is a product of my culture, etc. have to do with rationality?

You are dependent upon transcendental views at every turn...

Baloney.
*At least I hope you dislike most of the literal meaning of Leviticus and do not support literally stoning recalcitrant children to death.

 
At 6/17/2007 1:16 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

My anecdotal evidence is as you would expect, I know mean theists and lovely atheists and vice versa. I see no more correlation between moral behaviour and religious affiliation than I do between morality and whether people follow football or which team they support.

Yes, I'd expect you would say that. After becoming a Christian I, of course, began to gain exposure to a world I hadn't before either seen or noticed. The comparison between the two is just so dramatic that it is puzzling to me when people cannot even acknowledge the good that comes from Christianity.

I'd be interested to know several things before taking away any conclusions from your own observations.

1) what constitutes "mean" from a theist. Their active opposition to sin and frustration with atheists could only arguably be relevant. And it would be no surprise if other people of like mind to you would be nice to a philosophical peer. Even terrorists and gang members can be rather chummy toward each other.

2) what kind of a god they believe in. I'm not looking to win by stacking the deck, but it is part of my premise that this God is not just a deity who loves us "unconditionally" no matter how we behave. Consequently, I would be most interested in comparisons with classical theists (especially Christians) and not just liberal Christians and generally "spiritual" people.

3) how deeply you are looking into their character. I know liberals and atheists who are quite enjoyable at a surface social level, but they are rather self-absorbed and cannot be counted upon when the chips are down. Again, my own experience.

And if there really is no god, then people will still synthesize meaning from the raw materials of perception and cognition. It is what we do.

The unanswered question is why we should have these perceptions and desires. I heard even Christopher Hitchens (author of "God is Not Great") just the other day admit that he was plagued with them and had to stamp them out in his youth. If such things are satisfied by fictions, then I wonder on a materialistic accounting how they would have been seen as valuable by evolution. This is consistent with, and meaningful in, a theistic framework. It is simply an anomaly to be explained away within a materialistic framework.

I don't think the historical, anthropological, psychological and sociological evidence supports the view that Jesus was anything other than a human. Nor do I think that your imaginings of naturalistic explanations take these branches of knowledge into account.

Let's see: historically, there's good documentation from his followers and the earliest Christians with nothing conflicting until the next century (by the Gnostics), and even that just describes a different kind of divinity for Jesus; anthropologically, we see belief in the divine to be pervasive, and a very unique sort of prophetic religion in the Hebrews leading right up to Jesus; psychologically, people are plagued by their consciences and have needs and desires consistent with the biblical portrait; and sociologically, we see humanity with exactly the kinds of social patterns and issues to which Jesus and His apostles laid claim. Maybe not ultimate proofs, but I just don't see the defeaters that people so optimistically assume to exist.

 
At 6/17/2007 6:11 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

1) what constitutes "mean" from a theist.
Pretty much the same things you might regard as mean from anybody, rather than things specific to their stance as theists.

2) what kind of a god they believe in.
The people I had in mind happened to be classical Christians.

3) how deeply you are looking into their character. I know liberals and atheists who are quite enjoyable at a surface social level, but they are rather self-absorbed and cannot be counted upon when the chips are down. Again, my own experience.
I think the flaw here is in the sampling method.

The unanswered question is why we should have these perceptions and desires.
I think the naturalist perspective gets us further in understanding these problems and our limits of knowledge about them, than the theist perspective.

It is simply an anomaly to be explained away within a materialistic framework.
I don't think it is anomolous, nor is it a question of 'explaining away'.

As to your final paragraph and your appraisal of how different disciplines inform our appraisal of the claims that God has intervened in history, I think it was necessarily superficial given the nature of this thread.
I have read about, for example, the anthropological perspective concerning the ubiquity of belief in human culture and found well researched and meticulously argued naturalistic explanations. The same goes for the books I have read about the historical Jesus and the sociology of faith communities.

 
At 6/22/2007 11:39 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

I’ve been out of circulation for a while and only just came across this discussion. What an intense interchange! But, then, its not surprising that an examination of the roots of morality gets people going, inasmuch as there’s a lot happening in the world that gives rise to concern about humankind’s grip on our moral faculties.

Here’s my belated contribution.

About the hypothetical Nick, I suspect its no accident that Paul has given him a name reflecting a colloquialism for the devil, “Old Nick”. :-D

Anyways, if I wanted to advise Nick without contradicting his atheism, this is what I’d say...

The lack of formal belief in “God” does not justify an individual in disregarding morality. This is because moral principles are derived from a body of objective knowledge about human nature. Ignore them at your peril. Those who try daily to act in accordance with a sound moral code, lead lives that are in the long run far richer and more satisfying than those who follow every fleeting whim that passes through their minds. Disregarding morality, for an individual, leads only to misery and degradation. Furthermore, societies where a strong sense of morality is prevalent, tend to be safer, happier, more cohesive, and more adept at surviving. So the society that you live in, desiring to protect its wellbeing and survival, is bound to object if you act in a manner that is contrary to those aims. Go too far, and you will be dissuaded forcefully by the agencies of the law.

How can you know what’s moral and what is immoral? The human race has built up huge experience of what works and what doesn’t. We know that honesty, truthfulness, justice, and kindness, generally lead to far better consequences than theft, lying, selfishness and cruelty. For general guidance, we can draw on humanity’s historical body of experience contained in literature, philosophy, and dare I say it, religion. In coming to any specific decision, we must consider the consequences of that decision in the light of general moral principles, the knowledge of which we acquire from a full education.

Morality guides us to avoid harmful consequences and bring about beneficial results. But how do we define “harm” and “benefit”? The theory of evolution indicates that the basic impulse driving life forward is the survival instinct. The fundamental difference between an immoral act and a moral one is that moral acts enhance the survival and flourishing of the human organism. But not just the individual in isolation – individual survival occurs in the context of society, and indeed the survival of civilisation as a whole. For after all, the future survival of my inheritance (my genes and my achievements) depends upon civilisation being able to carry that inheritance forward into the future.

Moral behaviour is behaviour that is appropriate to human beings, as human beings; which is consistent with our physical, psychological and social health, taking into account the type of creatures that we are. The modes of behaviour that promote human wellbeing can be empirically studied by psychologists and sociologists, etc.

Morality then, does not just consist of my personal subjective preferences. Morality could be called the science of human conduct. It has an objective existence that transcends me. In this sense, an atheist can legitimately say that morality is “transcendent” of individuals.

But taking the discussion to a more basic, fundamental level, soon brings God into the picture.

Paul and Sam have been making the point that, without God there can be no ultimate basis for morality. Morality would be bankrupt. There would be no gold standard to back it up. Let’s express this same thought in reverse, by saying, “since morality exists (as demonstrated above), there must be a God.”

That is to say, moral order is intrinsic to the nature of things, and to human nature in particular. Actions have “good” and “bad” consequences because of the way the universe is structured. What is the origin of this structure? Whence come the mountains and valleys of the human psyche: excellence and mediocrity, wisdom and foolishness, saintliness and depravity? Everyone knows that light and darkness are not the same. In this, to my mind, the activity of God’s hand is blindingly obvious, intuitively, if not exactly “proven” to be operating. The structure of the universe has a design, and the design points to the Designer. Moreover, the structure has a moral order to it, pointing to a Designer who is a moral agent.

At this point, I suppose atheists will be saying, regarding the way the universe is structured, “it just is”. So far as I understand it, the widespread atheist position is to stop further enquiry with the statement, “it just is.” But religious believers say that the ultimate “It”, that “just is” -- is a Being who is outside and beyond all natural phenomena. This Being is commonly known in English as “God”, and by other names in other languages. Why would it be preferable to go one step further than “it just is”? What further information about reality does it give us, when we observe that “things exist”, to add “ -- because there is a God”? One answer: the idea of God expresses that, crucially, the fact of existence is a fact unlike any other. All other facts describe the properties of existent entities, but existence itself is prior to all other properties that things possess. First, objects and creatures must exist, then they can have properties, and we can know facts about these properties. It is therefore accurate to distinguish intellectually between That-Which-Gives-Existence-To-Things from things-that-exist. Do we know what it is that gives existence to things? We do not. How could we? We ourselves are creatures, and the creature by definition cannot understand the Creator, for otherwise the creature would be greater than the Creator, which is absurd. All we can say is that existence seems to come from beyond nature, and we call this Source of existence, God. The religionist asserts that the “just-is-ness” of natural objects and creatures (their existence), is not intrinsic to these things in themselves, but is given to them from a realm of Pure Existence, i.e., God.

Some readers might concede the value of singling out the ultimate ground of being as a subject worthy of special consideration intellectually – but might also object that there is no justification for equating this ultimate ground of being with the Supreme Being of religion. They might prefer some sort of monistic / pantheistic concept, that supposes “the ultimate” to be synonymous with the universe; an aspect of the universe rather than something somehow separate from it. Distinguishing it intellectually is just a convenient construct, they will say. Let that possibility remain up in the air for now. Regarding morality though, everyone who believes that it has objective existence is on common ground. And if we say that morality has objective existence, then we are saying that it is part and parcel of the characteristics of reality as it is. Reality can be credibly described in moral terms. Now, a key assumption of moral models is that life has a purpose and is meaningful. Joining the dots, leads to the conclusion that the universe, which has moral characteristics, could not have these moral characteristics if it did not have a meaningful purpose. Once you admit this, you are dangerously close to believing in God! To believe in god in a pantheistic sense is to believe that meaning and purpose are inherent in the universe. To believe in the transcendent God of monotheism is to believe that meaning and purpose are conferred on the universe by the Supreme Being. Neither variety of God-believers goes along with the notion that there’s no point to it all. (For the record, as a Bahá’i, I’m with the monotheists.) But an out-and-out atheist denies the existence of ultimate meaning in any form. I submit that this position is inconsistent with what we know about morality.

A curious anomaly I’ve noticed in the writings of certain atheists is their assertion that they see no overarching purpose in the grand scheme of things, but they find meaning and purpose in their own lives, and they say that this is enough for them. They gaze in wonder at the night sky; they rejoice in their family life; they get ineffable pleasure from a walk in the woods – but all this, they assure us, indicates nothing whatsoever about the processes of the cosmos, which march on with blind and mechanical efficiency with no particular aim in view. I think that their personal perceptions of meaning in their lives are accurate, but their philosophical model of reality has gone astray. The soul, I think, perceives meaning very directly, as if we have a “meaning detector” akin to the physical senses. Complex rationalisations don’t get in the way when our natural sensitivity to meaning is operating properly. And refusing to draw wider conclusions from our direct perception of meaning is obtuse.

Sam noted that the pinnacle of moral motivation is to do good for the love of God alone. I fully agree. Nevertheless, the individual who does not formally subscribe to belief in God, but chooses what is right ”because its right”, has a very similar purity of motive. Indeed, if man is made in the image of God, then striving to be the best that we can be as human beings, is to seek nearness to God.

God knows our hearts.

 
At 6/23/2007 5:58 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

John,
I was with you all the way until you brought god into it. You seemed to deliver a lucid coherent account of morality, one which indicates that an 'ultimate basis' might not be an applicable concept and then you go and invoke it anyway! From then on, from my perspective, your account seems question begging.

 
At 6/23/2007 3:59 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Psio -- fair enough. Your comment indicates that I was successful in conveying only the first half of the concept I had in mind. I will give it some more thought, as to how I can make the bridge to God without seeming to beg the question. But to be sly about it... what do you think I was trying to say?

 
At 6/23/2007 8:28 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

John,
To be sly back...I have every confidence in your ability to consider how to articulate your insights so that I will understand.
I could guess but it would be a pale imitation no doubt.
Your argument seems to me to have a Cartesian arc to it. Rigorous and meticulous until the god part.

 
At 6/26/2007 9:04 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Sorry for my long silence. Things have been hectic lately: work, church, personal life, and some interesting activities relating to a new Apologetics Study Bible that LifeWay is about to release.

In my spare time I'm slowly working on a new post that will address some of the outstanding issues brought up in this thread. I hate to leave these discussions always hanging, but they do tend to go on forever sometimes and it's either that or I shut off comments or maybe just don't participate in the discussion. I hate the latter options, because I value the input and pressing the antithesis.

 

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