Monthly Archives: March 2014
Now that we’ve gotten the connection between materialism and determinism out of the way we can move on to the next point in the argument from reason:
2. If determinism is true then the process of reasoning is an illusion.
However, looking at it now, I can see that to explain this properly it would be better to split this into three separate points, as follows:
1. If determinism is true then free will is an illusion.
2. Reason requires free will.
3. Therefore, if determinism is true then reason is an illusion.
I’ll cover part 1 of that syllogism today.
As we learned earlier, determinism states that everything exists in a cause-effect relationship in which every effect is necessary given the causes that preceded it. In other words, this world is one big chain reaction, the largest physics equation that ever existed, and there is only one possible outcome to any particular reaction within that chain. What’s important to note here is that we as individuals are a part of this chain reaction. Who we are and what we do are just as much a cause and effect reaction as a billiard ball knocking another ball into a corner pocket. If a physicist had enough information about you and the circumstances around you he could predict your every thought and action. He could tell exactly where you were going to go and what was going to happen to you long before you know yourself: indeed, with enough information the physicist could have known it thousands of years before you were born, or even from the Big Bang itself.
But wait a moment. This seems to go directly against our own experiences. After all, if I go to the dry cleaners I go there because I decided to, and I could theoretically have gone a number of other places. I could have decided to go to the beach instead, or stay home and read a book, or even rob a gun store and go on a shooting spree. Now granted, I’m not going to go on a shooting spree because there are ethical and practical reasons which would make that a very bad idea. Still I feel like I could if I wanted to.
However if determinism is true then the fact is that I couldn’t do any of those things. If I go to the dry cleaners then that was the only thing I could have done. After all I am only a complicated collection of matter and energy (according to the materialist point of view) and matter and energy does not get to make choices. Matter and energy follows the laws of physics exactly. Just as a billiard ball does not get to decide which way it will be knocked by a cue stick so I do not get to decide whether I will go to the dry cleaners or not. I feel like I have free will, but that feeling is actually an illusion.
Strangely enough I’ve encountered many self-described materialists who reject this conclusion. They claim that they do have free will to make their own decisions. Many of them appear to believe this is possible because brains are terribly complicated. However no matter how complicated a brain is it is still made of matter and energy, and matter and energy do not get to decide how they will react to things. All the complexity of the brain could do is obscure this fact from us. While the neurons in my mind are reacting to the impulses the senses provide them it feels as if I’m deciding whether to do one thing or the other. However neuroscientist with a perfect understanding of how the brain works could measure each electrical impulse in my mind, calculate the results, and then know exactly what “decision” I was going to come to. Whatever I decide is an inevitable result of the chain reaction that is occurring in my brain.
If a materialist still doesn’t accept that determinism destroys the concept of free will, all I can suggest is that they do some research. A vast majority of philosophers who believe in materialism do not believe in free will. Dr. Alex Rosenberg wrote in his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality that there is “no chance” that free will exists. Simply googling “materialism and free will” or “naturalism and free will” or even “determinism” is bound to give you some helpful links for studying the issue.
So if materialism is true, then determinism is true, and if determinism is true then free will is an illusion. What does this have to do with reason?
We’ll look at that in my next post.
Let’s star by examining the very first part of my rough outline of the argument from reason from Monday’s post.
1. If materialism is true then determinism must be true.
Let’s start by defining terms. What exactly does materialism mean in this context? Materialism as used here refers to a philosophical position about the ultimate nature of reality. Essentially materialism is the idea that everything that exists consists of matter following the laws of nature. In this definition “matter” and “energy” are essentially interchangeable, especially after Einstein proved that matter and energy are simply two different forms of the same thing. Materialism is also known as naturalism, or occasionally scientism (though technically scientism more properly refers to the idea that we can only know things that are provable through the scientific method, which is a whole different barrel of fish altogether). On a practical level materialists reject the existence of the “supernatural:” no ghosts, spirits, souls, or gods are allowed (interestingly enough a materialist wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with ghosts, or even a god, as long as such entities were shown to consist of and be produced by matter and energy working through purely naturalistic processes).
The essential point for the purpose of discussing the argument from reason is the materialist’s rejection of the existence of the soul. By soul, in this particular context, I mean the idea that there is something non material about my identity, something that may have existed before I was born and may exist after my death. This sense of soul could be interchanged with the idea of “mind” as existing, in some capacity, apart from the workings of the brain. Materialism naturally rejects the idea that the human mind consists of anything other than the natural and material actions of the brain.
With materialism out of the way we can move on to the next big word: determinism.
Determinism is simply the idea that everything occurs on a cause and effect basis and that there is only one possible effect for any particular cause. This means that everything is essentially predictable and inevitable. A good example of determinism in action is a game of pool. At the beginning of a pool game the pool balls are set into a triangular formation. Then the cue ball is hit with a pool cue and sent flying at speed into the triangle, scattering the pool balls all over the table. To a casual observer this scattering seems to be essentially random, a way of setting up a unique playing field for each game. However, as a determinist would be quick to point out, the pattern that results is anything but random. If you had enough knowledge you could predict the end pattern as soon as the cue ball has been hit. If you knew exactly how much kinetic energy the ball contained after being hit, it’s velocity, the amount of energy being lost to friction with the table’s surface, the exact positions, weights, and densities of the individual pool balls, their exact shape, etc., etc., and you knew all the relevant natural laws of physics involved, you could predict exactly where each individual pool ball will end up. This is because we know that matter and energy follow strict natural laws. When a pool ball is hit with the cue ball it doesn’t get to choose how it will react to that impact; it doesn’t get to decide which direction it will go, or how hard it will hit the other pool balls around it, or where it will stop. The pool balls simply follow the laws of physics. Really the whole pool ball scenario can be reduced to a physics equation, and there is only one right answer to any particular equation. You’ll never solve that same equation twice and get two different answers.
Such cause and effect relationships have been proven definitively when it comes to interactions of matter and energy. Matter and energy don’t get choices and their reactions can be mathematically modeled and predicted. Now, remember, a materialist believes that nothing exists besides matter, energy, and the reactions between the two. So now we have two ideas: the first is that matter and energy always follow the laws of physics in strict “cause/effect” relationships that can be modeled and predicted. The second idea is that nothing exists besides matter and energy. If both of these ideas are true then it naturally follows that everything that exists can be modeled and predicted. Everything is one giant chain reaction, like a pool table the size of the universe with pool balls crashing into each other at the speed of light and bouncing all over the place. It may seem random, and to an observer who doesn’t have all the information it is essentially unpredictable: but, if you did have enough knowledge you could predict exactly what will happen, what is happening, and what happened in the past all the way down the chain of cause and effect to the very beginning, and back around again to the very end. This is what we call determinism when it comes to the field of philosophy: everything can be predicted and everything is part of an inevitable series of cause and effect.
This is what I mean when I say “If materialism is true then determinism must be true.” Now what does that have to do with reason?
We’ll discuss that in detail in my next post.
Things went so well with my short series on the moral argument that I knew I’d have to dive into my favorite argument of all: the argument from reason. However the argument from reason is a difficult one to convey, and I’ve seen well intentioned people absolutely butcher it while trying share it with skeptics. So I thought I would start with a simple and very rough outline of what the argument from reason is before diving into the specifics in other posts. I’m going to take this one nice, slow, and careful.
The argument from reason is, very, very roughly, as follows:
1. If materialism is true then determinism must be true.
2. If determinism is true then the process of reasoning is an illusion.
3. Reasoning is not an illusion.
4. Therefore, materialism is false.
This initial rough argument only takes us as far as rejecting materialism, in much the same way that the moral argument does (note: the primary point of debate here is number 2, though I’ve seen people argue against 1 and 3 on occasion). However there is a second part to the argument from reason:
1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
2. At some point my mind began to exist.
3. If reasoning is not an illusion then the mind was not wholly caused by naturalistic processes.
4. Therefore an eternal and non-naturalistic cause must have been ultimately responsible for the existence of my mind.
Again, this is a very rough outline. There are many points along the way where a reasonable person might disagree: therefore I’d ask that you save any particular objections you may have to the arguments as written until I put up posts that go through these points step by step. Unless, of course, you simply disagree that I have basic argument outlined correctly, in which case feel free to comment with your critiques.
I’m looking forward to diving into this in detail over the next few weeks! I hope you’ll join me.
Lately I’ve been dreaming of fishing.
I don’t come from a fishing family. Neither of my parents fish, and though I grew up in a town that was locally famous for its fine fishing lake none of my friends were big on fishing either. I suppose I would have been just the same as my family as far as fishing is concerned if it wasn’t for a small event in my early life.
When I was four or five years old some friends of my parents came to visit. I have no idea who they were today, and I didn’t really know back then either. At this early stage of my life I had the kind of confidence and trust in others that some small children have. I didn’t really need to know who they were to feel comfortable around them. Anyway, I wouldn’t even remember this couple if it wasn’t for the fact that they offered to take me fishing out on the lake. I don’t know if I professed any particular desire to go fishing before this, but I was certainly game to go. They had two little kids of their own (both of whom were a little older than me) so I suppose they thought one more little guy in the boat wouldn’t be an inconvenience.
I can still remember parts of that day with remarkable clarity considering how long ago it was. I can remember sitting in the aluminum boat: I can remember how the man showed me how you take the fish you catch, put a string through their gills, and tie them to the back of the boat so they stay fresh. I was amazed that you could put fish back in the lake and they wouldn’t disappear. I know that we caught several fish, though that wasn’t what was most important. The most important thing was that I caught a fish. I believe it was a rainbow trout: at least that’s what I think they told me it was. I was so excited to have caught a fish of my very own. Looking back on it, I think it’s likely that one of the adults had a lot more to do with catching the fish than I did: but it was my rod that caught it, and that was enough for me.
We took the fish home and I watched as it was gutted and cleaned. I don’t recall being disgusted by the gutting part. Instead I remember being fascinated by the scales, and how they fell off and covered the cutting board. It seemed so strange that they could fall off so easily. I wondered what a fish had under its scales, and I didn’t get the question answered to my satisfaction. My dad cooked it up and I ate it from my high chair. It was one of the best tasting things I had ever eaten. To this day I can taste that trout. What’s funny is that I don’t particularly like fish. I’ve always wondered whether it only tasted that good because I had caught it. Perhaps all rainbow trout taste like that. I’ve never had the chance to make a comparison, as that rainbow trout remains, to this day, the only fish I’ve ever caught.
From that day on I was slightly fish mad. I wanted to go fishing again, but there was nobody around to take me. Besides, we didn’t have any fishing gear. I can recall that at one point, possibly a year later, I went back to the lake with a group of men who my parents felt they could trust. We fished from the shore, and though people to the left and right of me caught plenty I didn’t get more than a nibble. I stayed until it got dark, and then one of the men took me home. In my mind the men were giants, and I still can’t recall their faces as they seemed too high and out of reach for me to see properly. I believe they had beards. If I was to be invited to go fishing with a similar group of strangers today I’d feel very uncomfortable and probably would decline. At that age I still had no fear of people.
After that fishing trip opportunities just dried up. Occasionally I would get it in my head to go fishing and I would find a sturdy stick, find some fishing line (we had no real poles, though my mom and dad kept line around to use for household projects), and tie one end to my stick and the other end to a safety pin. I’d try to find some works, or at least a beetle to use as bait. I tried tying pebbles to the line to use as a sinker, but I never could find a way to tie a pebble to a piece of fishing line that would work properly. Then I’d find a nice sitting place next to the deep part of the old creek and try to fish. I knew there were fish in there: if you looked long and hard enough you could barely see them move. Their backs were a sandy brown that blended in perfectly with the rocks below, so sometimes you had to sit a long time. I still don’t know what kind of fish they were, but they never even glanced at my bait. I was able to catch the occasional minnow though, with a cup or a bucket. Still, minnows hardly count: they’re strictly catch and release because you’d have to be awful hungry to try and eat one. Once a nice fellow took me fishing in the beaver pond up the road. He had proper equipment and was a nice guy. We didn’t catch a thing though. After that the next real occasion where I got to fish was back on the lake with two of my closest friends. We had known each other since elementary school, but were about to head off in different directions after graduating. Fishing wasn’t really the point: it was just an excuse to hang out one last time before we said goodbye. Nobody got close to catching anything.
Finally I had a chance to go properly fishing. I visited Ketchikan early in the summer with my girlfriend. I knew that I had to take advantage of being there: what’s the point of going to Alaska if you don’t fish? So one day I tried, and tried, and tried. I know the fish were out there (as they kept stealing my bait) but I didn’t catch a one of them. Still, as I assured my girlfriend, it was fun to try.
That was the last time I went fishing. You’d think I’d have cooled on it by now, considering my lack of experience and success. Yet somehow the desire to fish is still within me. I’m living in Alaska now. When things melt out I’d like to try again. The only problem is that I don’t know how. I’ve never really properly fished without someone there to show me what to do. I don’t have any equipment of my own. I don’t know where to fish, or what’s expected of you when you get there, or what any of the fishing etiquette is when dozens of other fishermen are all around you. Most importantly, I don’t want to fail again. I don’t want to get excited and have it come to nothing one more time. I’ve been looking through the fishing guidebooks up here. Most of the pages are spent telling you the best places and times to get salmon. Pink salmon, Silver salmon, Sockeye salmon, and the biggest prize of all, King salmon. But I don’t really care about those (addmittingly magnificent) fish. I just want to find myself a lake or stream and finally catch another rainbow trout. I want to take it home, clean it, and cook it.
And I want to find out if it tastes as sweet as I remember.
It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and I’m rocking a nice emerald green shirt today. I’ve always been fond of St. Patrick’s Day because I love the color green. I hope all of you are having as fun a St. Pattie’s day as I am!
Now I’m not Catholic, but of all the Catholic saints I’ve read about I’d have to say that St. Patrick is my favorite. Why? Let me tell you.
St. Patrick was born to a Roman family living in Roman occupied England. This was late in the life of the Roman Empire and Patrick’s families were Christians. Patrick was a nominal Christian, but didn’t have a particularly strong belief. Life was probably pretty decent for Patrick growing up, until in the middle of his adolescence he was kidnapped by barbarians from Ireland. Ireland at this point in history was a primitive place full of warring tribes that often sailed over to England to raid and take back slaves. Patrick became such a slave and spent the next six years stranded in the middle of nowhere herding a barbarian’s sheep and trying to survive as best he could. During that time he became close to God, and gained a serious conviction in the truth of Christianity. He managed to escape Ireland and made his way back home where he joined the priesthood.
He spent several years studying when he had a dream where a voice was calling to him from Ireland saying “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.” Convinced that it was God’s will he traveled to Ireland and began to teach Christianity to the various clans and tribes. Though simply surviving as a foreigner without protection in Ireland was difficult he made many converts. As the number of Christian Irish grew he set up some as priests and nuns and worked to build up the church on the Emerald Isle. Some of the more historical estimates put him as having established or helped establish 300 churches and winning over 100,000 converts. Patrick essentially built Christianity in Ireland.
This would be cool enough, but the Irish church did some amazing things afterwards! You see the “barbarians” of Ireland, having now been converted began to establish monasteries across Ireland and Scotland. Their scholars learned to read and write and they had a voracious appetite for works of literature and philosophy from the Roman Empire. Thousands of books were brought to Ireland where the monks studied them and copied them. By this time the Roman Empire was on its last legs and the continent feel into the chaos of the Early Middle Ages. Schools were abandoned, books were lost, and people worried more about survival and power than learning and education. Many scholars fled to Ireland where they had heard that monastic schools were flourishing. They brought the intellectual traditions of western civilization with them, and the Irish accepted it with glee. By the time Charlemagne managed to beat things back into shape in France the Irish were known across Europe as scholars and teachers. When Charlemagne set up his system of schools, that later became the universities that fostered education and invention throughout the rest of the Middle Ages , it was scholars from Ireland who came to teach and them and pass on the knowledge they had rescued from the fall of the Roman Empire. So much was preserved and passed on that would have otherwise been lost if it wasn’t for the Irish: and if it wasn’t for St. Patrick the Irish would have remained raiding barbarians instead of becoming peaceful scholars.
St. Patrick’s impact, and the impact of the early Irish church, can still be felt today. One man’s dedication to Christ had consequences that still reverberate over 1,500 years later.
And that’s why St. Patrick is my favorite saint. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
The last few posts have been really neat: it’s been a pleasure to write them and I’ve been happy with all the discussions they spawned in the comments. I’m hoping next week to start a series on my favorite argument for God’s existence, the argument from reason. Or maybe I’ll take a break from arguing for a few days and post about something else. Either way, we’ve just had a good run of posts and I’d like to take a moment to wrap things up.
The moral argument, at its core, is not what I’d call a “compelling” argument. By that I mean it does not necessarily force anyone to believe in God. Some arguments are compelling: for example, the classic “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” As long as you agree with the premises the conclusion can’t be denied. But you can agree with the premises of the moral argument without being forced to accept the God conclusion. There are several other conclusions you can come to: the first and most obvious is nihilism. If someone finds that they would rather believe that moral truth is an illusion than a facet of reality there isn’t too much I can say (as far as logical arguments go) to change their minds.
certainly the moral argument does not necessitate the existence of the Christian God. One can agree that moral truths exist while being a deist, or a member of a different religion, or simply a Platonist. Still, I did lay out the reasons why I think the Christian God works particularly well when explaining moral truth.
And I’d like to think that even among my critics I’ve shown pretty well why simply saying “morality is a result of evolution” is not a good response as far as the moral argument is concerned.
So I’d like to end by simply asking that we all reflect on what we believe about morality, and what that means for our daily lives. Are we behaving in a way that is contrary to what we believe? Are we comfortable with where our beliefs lead us? As it stands I believe that moral truth does exist. If you disagree with me, fine. But no more hanging around in the middle. Find out what you do believe, and why, and what you should do about it now that you know.
While discussing the moral argument a while back Violetwisp mentioned in the comments “I still don’t understand why you think the Christian belief system makes this any clearer.” The problem at hand is that we feel like there is some kind of standard of right and wrong that everyone should be held to but it is unclear exactly what the standard is or how we could discover it. As I’ve said before you can believe in objective morality without being theist, and you can certainly believe in it without being a Christian. So what do you do if you’ve followed the moral argument this far and accepted that there is such a thing as moral truth? What are your options?
Well the only real non-theistic option I’m aware of is that morality exists as a kind of Platonic Form. Though they aren’t very numerous at this period in time there are people who believe in Platonic Forms today. Some people even believe that mathmatics and numbers exist as something very like Platonic Forms. If you really want to understand what a Platonic Form is you’ll have to study some Plato, but my own butchered and ridiculously simplified version is that a Form is a non-material always-existing substance that embodies an ideal. Wow, that really was butchered. Let me try again: Forms theoretically exist outside of material reality but at the same time are connected to and reflect reality. Beauty, for example, is a traditional Platonic Form. Why do we find some things beautiful and some things ugly? Because the things we find beautiful have something in them that partially conforms to the Form of beauty. If something is ugly it deviates greatly from that Form. For Plato the Forms were arguably the only really real things in existence, and our world was a kind of shadow being cast by the forms themselves. One Platonic form is known as the Good. If an action resembles the Good then we recognize (in general) that it is good. If an action deviates from the Good then it is wrong, or evil. So it is possible that moral truth exists like this: that somewhere there is a concrete standard of good by which all actions can be judged.
Now what would happen if this absolute, immaterial standard of good was more than just a force of nature? What if Good was not a Form but a person? This leads to one of the other major options presented to us, and the option that the Christian traditionally takes. Christian theology teaches (again, I’m simplifying this a great deal) that goodness is that which aligns with the unchanging character of God. It’s important to note that the Christian believes that goodness is a property of God: just as wetness is a property of water. A human being can be good or bad, just as a dog can be wet or dry: but water by definition can’t be dry, and God by definition can’t be bad. To understand the Good is thus to understand a person: the greatest Personality of all, to be specific.
Now some Christians, and some other religions, have a different conception of how the Good might relate to God. Some would argue that good is whatever God commands: if God commands it then it becomes good. The problem with that theory is that it falls prey to what is known as the Euthyphro dilemma, which is named after one of Plato’s writings where Socrates debates morality with a man named Euthyphro. Socrates asks Euthyphro whether good is commanded by the gods because it is good, or whether it is good because the gods command it? If a god commands you to do something because it is good then that means that there is some greater standard of good that the god in question is abiding by. Thus the standard of Good must be something other than that god. However if something is considered good because that god commands it the morality is arbitrary. Perhaps the god in question will change his mind at some point: if so then suddenly what was once right is now wrong, and vice versa. If this is true then moral truth doesn’t really exist: we merely feel like it does because god told us to.
That’s why, if Christian theology has anything right at all, it must be right about Goodness being a property of God’s character if God is the source of moral truth. In this view God cannot do evil any more than water can stop being wet. He is the standard of Good itself.
So those are really the best two options that I’ve found for explaining the existence of moral truth. Either it is a Platonic Form or it is God himself. Now the Christians go one step further: they claim that Good loves humanity. The Good loves humanity so much that it became a human so that we could have a relationship with it. Christianity teaches that Goodness is not simply the standard by which actions are judged but is a living and active reality that wishes for us to become closer to it. Through such a relationship an individual flawed human can get closer to the Good and become like it.
So either Goodness is an illusion, an absolute, or a person.
Not all questions can be answered for certain.
Some questions can be answered with a high degree of certainty. If I ask you “Is grandpa in the kitchen” you can go into the kitchen and see for yourself. This question is rooted in some reasonable assumptions: for instance, the question assumes that my senses actually inform me about the world around me, and thus if I see grandpa is in the kitchen that means that he is actually in the kitchen in reality. Most people take these assumptions for granted, and I’d say that there is good reason to do so. However the strange fact of the matter is that we can’t actually prove that any of those assumptions are true. It is possible that we are nothing more than Boltzmann brains: simply a mind that experiences a reality that doesn’t actually exist. Or we could be a brain in a mad scientist’s jar with all our sensory inputs being manufactured from some computer program. Or the world around us may be a simulation created by beings unknown. This is an example of solipsism. Solipsism is a philosophical position that states that the only thing we can know for certain is that we exist: after all, if we don’t exist than who is asking the question “What exists?” Everything else we must take on faith, as it were. It is possible that the world around us is a real place, that the people around us are real people, and that our senses (on the whole) provide us with accurate information about reality. Or it is equally possible that we are the only things that exist and everything else is simply a kind of convincing hallucination. Both possibilities are equally supported by the evidence at hand, and both explain our experiences to an equal degree. When it comes to a question like this we have to make a decision even if no hard evidence can be had. Most of us decide that the world is real and our senses do inform us about reality. A few (very few, but they exist) take the position that everything apart from themselves is an illusion. Neither one can provide compelling evidence to convince the other to change their position. If I try to convince a metaphysical solipsist that the world does exist he can simply reply that any evidence I offer is just an illusion, same as everything else. This isn’t an illogical response: after all, if we believed we were hallucinating a talking pink elephant we wouldn’t accept any evidence the pink elephant provided for its existence. To the metaphysical solipsist all of reality is a hallucination, so naturally any evidence the hallucination provides can’t be trusted.
We are in a similar situation when it comes to deciding whether or not moral truth exists. All we know is that we experience moral “sensations:” for example, when we see an old man being robbed and beaten by young thugs we feel that this is monstrously wrong, or when a friend breaks a promise and we feel this is unjust, or even something as simple as a stranger stealing our lunch from the break room fridge. Now there are two proposed explanations for why these sensations exist: either they are sensing something real about reality (moral truth) or that these sensations are the result of the architecture of our brains and have no correspondence to actual objective truth other than “This is how I happen to feel because I have this type of brain.” Neither explanation can be known to be true for certain. Those who favor the later explanation may rightly say “There is no need to propose that some kind of natural moral ‘law’ exists: brain architecture developed through natural selection is all that is necessary to explain these sensations.” However I would remind you that the metaphysical solipsist can say the same thing about everything: “There is no need to propose that some kind of physical reality exists: mind alone is all that is necessary to explain the sensations of reality I experience.”
So that’s where we find ourselves. When it comes to the question of whether our moral senses tell us anything about reality, or whether our physical senses tell us anything about reality, we have to do something scary. We have to make a decision without compelling evidence. The idea that moral truth exists, that morality is something that is discovered and not simply felt, is one that I hold dear: however I must admit that I can’t compel anyone to believe it through evidence alone. As I’ve said before, if you take the other position that’s fine. I’m alright if you’re a nihilist. I think you’re wrong, but at least you’re consistent. My main objection is when people who claim to believe that our moral senses are purely illusionary then start to preach about what we should or shouldn’t do. And I would ask everyone to reflect on this question and decide which side of it they land on. Is there a moral dimension to reality, or is morality a useful illusion in order to aid the survival of the species? Which is it? And whichever one you choose, are you prepared to live your life in light of that knowledge?
It’s something everyone should contemplate. Some say the unreflective life is not worth living. If you behave as if something is right or wrong, I think you should really take the time to figure out why.
In my last post I touched briefly on the moral argument, and it’s been stewing in my mind ever since. What has been particularly bothering me is one common response to the moral argument. In fact it’s the only response I’ve reliably seen atheists provide for why the moral argument doesn’t work, other than nihilism. A nihilist, as I mentioned before, has nothing to fear from the moral argument. After all the moral argument essentially states that either moral truth exists, or nihilism is true. It then follows that with an argument that the best explanation for moral truth is God, or minimally that the “cause” of moral truth is supernatural in nature. If you’re a nihilist you might completely agree with the reasoning of the moral argument and still reject the supernatural since you don’t believe that moral truth exists.
I’ve known and accepted this long before I ever made much of a serious attempt to discuss the moral argument with atheists. I knew that there was little I could say to a nihilist on the subject other than to try and convince them that moral truth does exist. However what I’ve found is that there are not nearly as many nihilists as I would have imagined. Most of the atheists I have had discussions with do live their lives, and make statements that line up with, the idea that moral truth exists. They write blog posts about the evils of religion, point out abuses of power within the church, and rail against executions, persecution, and mental or physical abuse. Some even say that religion is entirely pointless because you can be a good person without it. I found this all very curious. These atheists behaved and spoke as if there was an objective standard of good and evil. They judged individuals and religions by this objective scale. I’ve certainly heard Christianity be referred to as an “evil” religion many times. These judgments were not couched by phrases such as “I believe that,” “In my opinion,” “I personally believe,” or any other relativistic phrase that would imply that these were simply personal perspectives. No, these people spoke and wrote as if the evil of, say, an apostate from Islam being stoned to death was objectively bad and that every right minded individual should agree with them on that point.
Naturally my next step was to ask them why they believed that some things were right and some things for wrong and that we should all agree on those points. Not to say I didn’t agree with them; I applaud their desire to destroy evil and advance good. But I believe that goodness can be defined in relation to the character of God; what did these atheists, most of them materialists who rejected anything supernatural, base their idea moral truth on? In other words, why did they believe that we should do some things and should refrain from doing others? Their response was almost universal in content: evolution. Having empathy towards others and punishing those who do wrong is good for the survival of the species. Your “conscience” is the finely tuned result of millions of years of evolution selecting for behaviors that would maximize the humanity’s survival. Though our morals often urge us to do things that are personally destructive (such as leap into a burning building to rescue people, or even merely give up money to feed the poor) the actions we are driven to do are, on the balance, helpful to the overall survival of the human race. In their view evolution has explained why morality exists, and there is no need of a “god” to throw his seal of approval on it.
Now I don’t necessarily disagree with any of this. I certainly believe that doing the right thing is beneficial for humanity as a whole. I also believe that a virtuous society will be more prosperous than a morally decrepit society. And I agree that because of this natural selection may have weeded out those who reject such morality. It certainly is possible, and is far from unreasonable. However the problem is that this response is answering the wrong question. Evolution may be an fine explanation for why we feel like there is an objective right or wrong. However it doesn’t explain why we should follow those feelings.
By way of example, imagine that an accomplished mad scientist created a pill that, when consumed, would manipulate the architecture of our brains to such an extent that we felt we should follow his every order. This pill made the inner compulsion to obey the mad scientist just as strong as our inner compulsion to help those in need, or to refrain from hurting others. Now let’s say that a woman named Jill has consumed such a pill at a young age, and has served the mad scientist all her life. Now another scientist arrives, examines Jill, and explains to her that the reason she feels it is right to obey the mad scientist is because of the pill she took as a child and the effect it has had on her brain. In other words, there is a completely natural explanation for some of the moral impulses (the ones that drive her to obey) she experiences. With this knowledge in hand we would likely encourage Jill to no longer obey the mad scientist’s orders. Now certainly she still feels that it right to obey the mad scientist, but she now understands that those feelings are purely the result of the architecture of her brain. She can now resist such impulses, and safely ignore any guilt she may feel for disobeying the mad scientist’s commands. Or she can continue to follow them, but with the knowledge that there is no reason she should, and that she only obeys because she finds happiness by following those impulses. What wouldn’t make much sense at all is if she went around trying to explain to everyone else that the only reason they obey the mad scientist is because their brains have been modified by a pill, and at the same time told them that they should keep obeying the mad scientist and that anyone who doesn’t is evil. Yet this is essentially what I have seen many atheists attempt to do. They proudly inform us that our moral impulses are the result of the architecture of our brains, honed by millions of years of evolution, and then they tell us that we have a responsibility to follow those impulses and condemn anyone who does differently. Evolution may explain why our moral impulses exist, but if morality is solely the result of our brain architecture then there is no good reason why we should follow them.
One response to this is that following our moral impulses we will ensure the continued survival of the species, and the survival of the species is good. But by what standard do we say that it is good for the human species to survive? Surely this impulse, more than any other, is the result of natural selection. We believe that it is good for humanity to survive because evolution has crafted our brain architecture to produce this result, and culled those whose brain architecture produces anything different. We are very much like Jill in this case, only the mad scientist has been replaced by our own DNA. From birth we have swallowed the “pill” that forces us to value human survival. Now that we’ve seen through the illusion we can either follow that impulse out of convenience or rebel against it. And many people have rebelled against it. There are environmental groups that believe the human race must be diminished in size, to become less successful as a species in order that other creatures may survive. Some very radical environmentalists believe it would be better if every human was wiped from the face of the Earth. There some who consider life itself to be a kind of joke, and consider death and nonexistence as superior to life. Nihilists believe that the survival of the human race is just as meaningless as everything else. The point I’m trying to make is that evolution does not give us a reason to value the continued survival of the human species: it merely explains why we might feel that it’s good for our species to survive.
Once this is understood the choice becomes clearer. Either there is more to morality than merely impulses that are the result of purely natural evolutionary processes or we must abandon the idea of good and evil existing as anything more than personal opinion. Either some things are good and bad apart from humanity, and apart from any individual brain architecture, or else morality simply exists on the level of your skin color, or whether your hair is curly or straight. And just as you can’t say someone is “evil” for having curly hair or fair skin, you can’t say that they are evil for preferring rape or murder: both are simply physical aspects based on their genetics. This is the choice we have: either we admit that there is an extra-natural dimension to morality, or we become nihilists. But let’s not have any more nonsense about evolution “disproving” the moral argument. The moral argument is about why we should be moral; evolution can only explain why we might want to.
As for why the existence of moral truths may point to God, I may talk about that on Friday.
Recently I was listening through the archives of the raido show/podcast “Unbelievable?” and ran into a discussion between former atheist blogger turned Catholic blogger Leah Lebresco and Hemant Mehta, who blogs under the name “The Friendly Atheist.” The discussion was over why Leah Libresco, an active blogger and highly intelligent woman, would convert to Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It’s a neat little discussion, well worth listening to as both Leah and Hemant (being bloggers) have a decently engaging conversational style, especially in contrast to the scientists and academics that are usually on the show (let’s just say that public speaking isn’t usually a course that most hard scientists are required to take and leave it at that).
Now something very interesting (to me at least) happened during the discussion. Leah explained that her primary reason for converting, the argument that finally knocked her over into the theist camp, was the moral argument. And Hemant Mehta made it clear that he had never heard of it. This was so suprising to me! In retrospect it shouldn’t have. I mean not everybody has had my life or read the books I’ve read or has had the discussions I’ve had, obviously. This is simply an example of what they call the “curse of knowledge.” Because I know the moral argument, and have contemplated it for years, I naturally assume that other educated people would know about it as well. Hemant Mehta can’t be blamed for not knowing about it, any more than I can be blamed for not knowing the ins and outs of Gnostic philosophy, or Mormon theology. Still, it caught be by surprise.
I can’t really do the moral argument justice here, but I can summarize it a bit. I would really recommend reading up more about it. Basically the moral argument says this:
- Moral truths exist.
To explain this first point in a little more detail, by “moral truths” I mean that there are things which are wrong regardless of culture, level of education, or personal opinion. For example, I believe that the concept “Rape is wrong” is a moral truth. If rape is a moral truth than no matter what you personally believe about rape, rape is still wrong. If everyone in the world was taught that rape was acceptable rape would still be wrong. That’s what I’m trying to get across by “moral truths.” Naturally not everyone agrees with this sentiment, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
- God is the best explanation for the existence of moral truths.
This is where I’m really butchering the argument. There are other possible explanations for moral truths (such as Platonic ideals) but right now we’re focusing on the moral argument in regards to theism and I’d have to add seven more points or so if I wanted to do this exhaustively. Since a detailed description of the moral argument isn’t the point of this post I hope you’ll forgive me for cutting corners.
- Therefore God exists.
Now naturally most people who reject the moral argument do so at point number one. They would disagree that moral truths do in fact exist and would attribute morality to cultural and evolutionary forces. Most defenders of the moral argument would agree, but would further point out that those explanations for morality lead to nihilism. Some people can live with nihilism. Some people can’t. If you don’t believe nihilism is true then you should believe in moral truths and thus, by way of explanation, God. Again, this is a very rough description but I think you get the general idea.
What I found fascinating, however, was that Hemant Mehta seemed to not even get as far as understanding point number one. The concept of “moral truth” seems to have never been explained or even proposed to him. The idea was completely foreign to him, and by the end of the podcast he admitted that he still didn’t understand the moral argument. I want to be clear that he didn’t mean that he disagreed with the argument, simply that he didn’t yet understand it and thus couldn’t comment on whether it’s a good argument or not. However he did reject the argument out of hand anyway. Why? Because he felt that if it was a good argument then there would be a lot of people following Leah in converting to Christianity. Since there wasn’t a mob of people converting with her he felt that “her” argument must not be very good.
That’s what I want to talk about today. The concept that an argument can be rejected because it fails to be widely persuasive. It’s a crazy idea, and like a rabid dog it should be put down before it can infect anyone else. I don’t know if Hemant Mehta was ever involved in debate while at school, but as any speech and debate competitor can tell you persuading people is hard. Persuading people to change deeply held beliefs (like whether or not God exists) is really freaking hard. Even if your arguments are flawless it is just plain hard to persuade people. Complicating matters further is the fact that there is no argument that is perfect. There isn’t even a perfect argument that anything exists at all! The only argument I’ve ever found that comes close to perfect persuasiveness is Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am.” And there are people who disagree with even that, who believe that we don’t actually “think” at all and that consciousness is merely an illusion. No argument has such a powerful persuasive force that it will convince everyone everywhere with the same strength. Why? Because there a many obstacles that stand between an argument and actually persuading someone.
First the argument must be understood before it can even try to persuade someone. The moral argument was not persuasive to Hemant Mehta during the discussion because he didn’t understand it. This is perfectly reasonable, and I’m surprised that he didn’t realize that maybe droves of people aren’t converting because they too share his confusion. Some people might not have the background education in philosophy and logic to make sense of a particular argument. Others might believe that logic and rationality can’t actually teach us what is or isn’t true. I know, that sounds hard to believe, but those people exist and I’ve met them. Chaulk it up to postmodernism. Whatever the reason a good argument can be misunderstood, or simply not understood at all, or the idea of logical argument itself can be rejected out of hand. That’s the first hurdle to jump.
The second obstacle is that people may disagree with the premises of the argument, or with the logical form of the argument itself. So those premises must be proven, which requires more arguments, which puts us back to hurdle one. Now sometimes an argument has flawed or false premises. Sometimes the argument itself is fairly sound but it’s being expressed in a way that oversimplifies or miscommunicates what the argument is actually trying to say (see my butchered explanation of the moral argument above). If it’s a bad argument this is where it will usually fall apart. However people can agree that an argument is sound and still disbelieve in its conclusion if the argument fails for them at the next obstacle.
Simply put, often one of more premises is something that intelligent people can simply disagree on. Leah Libresco is quite aware that one can understand the moral argument perfectly, reject premise number one, and become a nihilist. However Leah, through her own observations, contemplations, and experiences does not believe that nihilism is a viable option. Since the moral argument shows that one should either be a nihilist or believe in moral truth, and she cannot accept nihilism, then moral truth must be real, and thus God must be real as well. Again, I’m simplifying here. Now some people have no problem with nihilism, so they won’t be convinced in the existence of God by the moral argument. This is mostly a personal trait. Some people can live with nihilism, some people can’t. It works for other arguments as well. For C.S. Lewis the argument that tipped him out of the materialist camp was the argument from reason. Basically he came to the conclusion that if the mind consists simply of what the brain does then there is no such thing as free will. Now some people believe this but have no problem with people lacking free will. However for Lewis the idea that we can have reason and rationality without free will was literally unbelievable. He could not make that jump. Some people can. For him it seemed far more plausible that the mind was something more than the actions of the brain. Others had no problem with it. That’s just the way things go. What is compelling evidence to one person isn’t always compelling to others because we value different things, have different experiences, and think different thoughts.
All of this is understandable to someone who has spent time trying to persuade people. So it’s surprising that Hemant Mehta would make such an argument. Surely he, as an atheist, knows that there is no argument for atheism that will convince everyone, just as there is no argument for theism that will convince everyone. If there was such an argument then there would be far more atheists, since all theists who heard it would deconvert on the spot. The thought of any argument having universal persuasiveness is ridiculous. Let us not judge arguments by the number of converts they produce but on their own logical merits. There may be many reasons to reject an argument, but “it’s not very popular” should not be one of them.