Believe it or Not: Does Either the Universe or Moral Truth Exist?

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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.

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About Mark Hamilton

I am, in no particular order, a nerd, an aspiring writer, a Christian, an aspiring filmmaker, an avid reader, a male, a YEC, a GM, and a twenty something. I like learning how things are made, finding out how to do things from scratch, and I you can find more of my writing at thepagenebula.wordpress.com

Posted on March 10, 2014, in Apologetics, Christianity. Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.

  1. Are you denying that evolution is the source of and governs morality?

    • Are you denying that random fluctuations in a highly entropic universe is the source of and governs our perceptions of reality? 🙂

      More to the point, you know that I believe in moral truth and thus believe that morality has it’s foundation in something besides evolution. Why exactly are you asking?

      • More to the point, you know that I believe in moral truth and thus believe that morality has it’s foundation in something besides evolution. Why exactly are you asking?

        Because you are trying to be smarty-pants by presenting arguments that tacitly imply that your god is not a feature of your well thought out and clever argument and so nasty atheists and non believers have nowhere to hide.

        Now, you nearly came clean with this comment. Almost actually admitted to the G word. Why not take it one step further?

      • To be sure I believe that God is the best explanation for the existance of moral truth. However, as I’ve said before there are non-theistic explanations (such as moral truth existing as a Platonic Form). However this post is not about why I believe God is the best explanation for the existance of moral truth. This post is about exploring how someone can decide whether or not moral truth exists, and about uncertian metaphysical propositions in general.

      • and about uncertain metaphysical propositions in general.

        metaphysics is the retreat or those who struggle yo put together a rational argument based on reality.

        Doesn’t matter what you believe n this regard unless you can demonstrate your god exists.
        Morals and morality are part and parcel of the evolutionary process. End of story.

      • I hate to say it (well maybe I don’t) but this comment is hilarious. First you say

        “metaphysics is the retreat of those who struggle to put together a rational argument based on reality”

        then you end your comment by saying

        “Morals and morality are part and parcel of the evolutionary process.”

        However that itself is a metaphysical proposition! By stating that morality consists of nothing more than the evolutionary process you are making a metaphysical claim. Of course I don’t believe anything’s wrong with that: we all have metaphysical beliefs. You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself though: I think you’re capable of putting a rational argument together. I haven’t seen many from you, but I believe you could pull one off if you put your mind to it.

      • What are you babbling on about.
        Morality is a survival trait.

        Now please, grow up…

      • I understand that you believe morality is a survival trait. That doesn’t make it any less true that the idea that morality is nothing more than a survival trait is a metaphysical claim.

      • Firstly, it is not merely what “I believe” it is a demonstrable fact.
        And why do you consider morality, metaphysical?

      • I would agree that morality is a survival trait (that being a demonstrable fact is a little trickier, but I won’t split hairs about it here) but the idea that morality is nothing more than a survival trait is a metaphysical belief. Metaphysics is about figuring out what the fundamental nature of the universe and our existence is like. When I say that morality exists independently of human beings as a kind of “moral truth” I am making a metaphysical statement. When you say that morality is nothing more than a survival trait you are also making a metaphysical statement. Similarly the beliefs of the theist and the atheist are also metaphysical: if you believe God exists you have a metaphysical belief, and if you believe he doesn’t exist you also have a metaphysical belief. Just about everyone has some metaphysical beliefs, even if it’s just the belief that the world I see around me actually exists. Or even just that you exist.

        So yes, the subject of morality (whether it exists or not) is a metaphysical subject.

      • I know what ”metaphysics” is supposed to be about.
        I’ll stick with Hume’s definition for now, if it’s all the same with you.

      • And how do respond to Hume’s definition of Metaphysics?

      • If by “definition” you mean his somewhat famous statement that metaphysics should be consigned to the flames, I’d have to disagree. Besides, if that statement is to be taken at face value then it would appear that you disagree with it as well as you’ve been more than happy to make many strong metaphysical claims, such as the claim that morality is nothing more than a survival trait. But I find the idea that we can throw all metaphysics away to be fairly silly. It is certainly possible for someone to never make a metaphysical claim, but it would require a willful effort to not think about the larger questions in life: it would require a constant agnosticism about almost every question that actually matters. You could not even say for certain whether or not anything exists at all: even your own self. A life without metaphysics is an unreflected one, a shriveled life where you bounce from topic to topic without ever committing, even for a short time, to any particular concept of truth. It strikes me as being similar to a man who floats on the ocean in a tiny boat and refuses to set foot on land.

      • And now introspective philosophy it top it off? Oh my goodness me…

        Come on, stop messing about and demonstrate once and for the veracity of your god claim then we can move along.
        After all, you are so convinced it is real and not simply a “metaphysical’ projection, right?

      • I’m not sure what you mean be introspective philosophy, at least in terms that would make someone say “Oh my goodness me” as if someone had just started talking about flatulence during a fancy dinner party. A life spent without introspection and reflection is a sad life indeed.

        Ark, you always seem to come back to that same question. “Demonstrate the veracity of your god.” Whenever I or anyone else attempts to you reject their arguments outright. I know how you “debate” Ark, and no matter what I tell you you’ll shoot back with “Demonstrate the veracity of your god,” as if god could be demonstrated the same way you can demonstrate the law of gravity or the boiling point of water. If you want to know why I believe God exists then you’ll have to put up with metaphysics because it is a metaphysical question.

        Tell you what though: I’ll demonstrate the veracity of God without using any metaphysics as soon as you demonstrate the existence of the universe without using metaphysics. After all, you believe the universe is real and not simply a “metaphysical projection” (whatever that means), right?

      • If you want to know why I believe God exists then you’ll have to put up with metaphysics because it is a metaphysical question.

        And this is why, no matter how clever your arguments might seem they can be dismissed with impunity.

      • I think we’re missing a large part of that logical equation of yours. It seems that you’re arguing

        1. Discussing the existence or non-existence of God will involve metaphysics.

        2. ?????

        3. Therefore all possible arguments for the existence of God can be dismissed with impunity.

        Does this mean that you also dismiss any arguments in favor of the universe existing? Are you an agnostic about whether or not you exist at all? Come on Ark: tie this together into an actual logical argument. What’s going on in #2 up there?

      • Does this mean that you also dismiss any arguments in favor of the universe existing?

        Er….the universe does exist. One does not need a metaphysical discussion to observe it.

        (A long, completely off topic ramble has been edited out for the sake of not becoming distracted. If you want you can put a similar comment on one of my posts that actually have to do with YEC.-Mark)

        Anyway…all this aside, you only need to demonstrate the veracity of your god claim then i am fully on board.

      • Sure, I believe the universe exists. But that is a metaphysical belief: it is possible that we are Boltzmann brains, or “brians in a jar” or beings of pure mind, and that our observations of a universe are simple sensory illusions. The statement “The universe as I observe it exists” is a metaphysical statement. So I’ll say again: I’ll demonstrate the veracity of my god claim without using meaphysics as soon as you demonstrate the veracity of your universe claim without using metaphysics.

  2. or “brians in a jar”

    Yes, well, maybe you are a Brian in a jar, but the rest of us well..no.

    The statement “The universe as I observe it exists” is a metaphysical statement.

    I don’t doubt this statement is metaphysical for a second.

    But the universe is physical. Ask a physicist. Ask Neil Armstrong.

    If you struggle to demonstrate your god why not aim a bit lower?

    Offer up some evidence that Dinosaurs existed with humans. We can take it slowly, I don’t mind.
    Dinos first…god later.

    How’s that? Easier for you , right?

    • Though I agree that the universe exists, you still haven’t made much of a case. A physicist (or Neil Armstrong) may tell me that the universe is real, but it is possible that they too are simply electrical stimuli that are coursing across my brain, tricking me into thinking that they are real. If this universe is an illusion we can’t trust anyone in it to tell us the truth. If we were a brain in a jar how would Neil Armstrong be able to tell us differently if he too is part of the simulation?

      • So what you are actually saying is I must accept your god solely on faith as there is no evidence.
        Got it one.

        Thank you.

      • You’re the only one who said that Ark. I’ve offered to show you the evidence for the existence of God, and many people besides myself have tried, but you’re the one who refuses to accept any kind of metaphysics or non-empirical evidence. Well now I say the shoe is on the other foot: what’s your non-metaphysical, empirical evidence that the universe exists?

        As soon as you can provide me some I’ll do the same for God: until then I’ll stick to metaphysics and logical proofs.

      • Fine, then show me any (verifiable) evidence of the existence of your god…

        non-metaphysical, empirical evidence that the universe exists?

        The moon.

      • Again, the moon could simply be an illusion. After all your senses are nothing more than electrical impulses that could theoretically be faked. The fact that I look up in the sky and see a moon doesn’t tell me whether that moon is real or whether this is all simply a simulation or hallucination.

        Now you, like myself, quite reasonably decide to believe that our senses (on the whole) are not deceiving us and that the universe is not a simulation. However when you do so you are making a metaphysical claim on the existence of the universe, a claim that can’t be backed up by empirical evidence.

      • Which is what you cannot do with your god or dinosaurs coexisting with humans….

      • Though I get the feeling that comment was meant to be more on the mocking side, yes, you’re starting to get it. Not everything can be proven empirically. Not everything can be verified for certain to exist. The universe cannot be proven empirically and neither can God. Yet I’d say that you would call someone crazy if they didn’t believe in the universe simply because it cannot be proven empirically. With some claims it ultimately comes down to what you’re willing to believe. Are you willing to believe that all of your physical senses are illusions and that this universe is some kind of simulation? I’m certainly not. Are you willing to believe that your moral senses are illusions developed by evolution that moral truth (such as “It is evil to rape someone”) does not exist? I’m not willing to believe that, any more than I’m willing to believe that the computer I’m typing this comment on is just a projection of my own mind.

        Metaphysical arguments take us as far as they can, and we have to make the jump from there. The moral argument does not prove God beyond doubt, but it does make it clear what our choices are.

      • (Comment removed by Mark. Ark, I’ve told you once before: if you want to talk about YEC you can comment about it on one of my YEC posts. Besides, I don’t care one bit whether you ever become a YEC or whether you think I’m the most wrong person who ever lived when it comes to dinosaurs. In the end what I believe about dinosaurs doesn’t matter much: but what we believe about the basic nature of reality matters quite a bit. Let’s stick to that subject. Any further YEC related comments on this post will be deleted.)

      • As requested, I have posted a dinosaur question on one of you YEC posts, but I noted that you didn’t bother replying to the last question I posted on that particular post.

        Will you respond this time, please.

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