Category Archives: Apologetics

The Moral Argument: What Good is Christianity in Solving it?

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.

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.

The Moral Argument: Evolution is an Answer to the Wrong Question

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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.

Is an Argument Bad Because it Doesn’t Convince Everyone?

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

A Matter of Taste: Objective Morality, Raw Sewage, and Nutrition

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Is morality a matter of taste, or a matter of objective right and wrong?

My answer to that question is “yes.”

To explain, let’s look at two hypothetical college students who are working in a computer lab. Their instructor is taking them through a rather complicated piece of software. Mike notices that Jerry, who is sitting next to him, has made a mistake. Mike believes that we should always help people when we can, so he points out the mistake and offers to help Jerry. However Jerry believes that he’s using the program correctly, and even if he wasn’t he’s the kind of person who would rather figure it out himself. He politely turns down Mike’s offer of help. In this situation neither Mike nor Jerry is wrong. Mike is just trying to be helpful, and Jerry would rather try to figure it out himself.  Here the “right thing to do” is a matter of personal taste. It’s analogous to Mike offering Jerry some pistachio ice cream; if Jerry doesn’t like pistachio that’s no big deal.

Life is full of these kinds of situation. The right thing to do in one situation may not be the right thing to do in others. Different people have different needs and different ideas on what the best thing to do is. Because of this it can be very difficult to say who is “right” in certain kinds of situations, and we can have long discussions going over the merits of different moral approaches, just as we could discuss the merits of different flavors of ice cream.

Because of this it’s understandable why people would be drawn to the idea of moral relativism: the idea that morality is a matter of personal perspective, and that there is no objective “right or wrong.” From a relativist point of view those who believe in objective morality are as silly as someone saying that vanilla ice cream is the best flavor and the only one we should eat. How absurd! You can’t have “wrong” tastes after all.

The trouble is that we can have wrong tastes. If someone had a taste for sewage we would recognize that something is wrong with their taste buds, and that this is an unhealthy substance to eat. If someone had a taste for arsenic we would understand that their tastes are out of alignment. Similarly if someone has a “taste” for murdering children then we should recognize that they are still wrong to do so. If a man starts eating dirt and lead paint we know that something is very wrong with their sense of taste; similarly if someone goes on a killing spree we know that something is very wrong with their moral sense: their conscience, you might say.

Some might quibble that there is nothing objectively wrong with enjoying untreated sewage. Perhaps, but it is objectively a bad taste to have if your aim is to preserve the health of your body. Eating things that are toxic will damage your health and well-being. Similarly, certain moral actions will damage the character of the person performing them. This is a belief that has been held by adherents of objective morality for thousands of years. A “sin” is not only morally wrong but is also self-destructive.  We cannot hurt others without also hurting ourselves.  Socrates understood this: he encouraged us to seek the virtuous life over everything else, not out of duty but out of a kind of self-preservation.

Some moral actions, such as rape or murder, are obviously wrong, just as some tastes, such as sewage and cyanide, are also obviously out of whack. Other actions, and tastes, are less black and white, but still dangerous. If you just love trans-fat laden french fries, deep fried chicken skins, and buckets of cookie dough, your doctor may rightfully advise you to change your eating habits. Is it so strange then that moral authorities advise people to change their moral habits? Some people will lie, cheat, and steal in order to preserve or enhance their own happiness, just as some people will devour copious amounts of unhealthy food for the same reasons. These things may bring temporary happiness but are ultimately self-destructive. In this way the field of ethics is analogous to nutrition. A nutritionist may give strict orders to their patients: no more saturated fats, reduce your sodium intake, eat more fruits and vegetables. An ethicist does the same: don’t lie, don’t steal, practice empathy, be sincere. Just as good nutrition keeps the body in good shape good ethics keeps your character in good shape. With this in mind, objective morality makes more sense. Can you imagine a relativistic nutrition, where every patient chose whatever foods felt right to them? Naturally you have the right to eat what you like; but it’s pure folly to think that the person who chooses to eat nothing but cookie dough and pork rinds will be just as well off as the person who eats a balanced diet.

Some may be quick to point out that we can observe and measure the body and its health, but we can’t do the same for a person’s character. It’s true that nutrition can be empirical, while ethics is non-empirical. However not all truth is empirical in nature. The body can be directly observed, but a person’s character, their mind and soul, is currently (and may always be) unempirical in that it can’t be directly measured and recorded. Still, a person’s character can be observed by those around them on a non-empirical basis. We have no scale that can measure good character, but we can observe that Mother Theresa had a better character than Saddam Hussein, or that the kind woman down the street who always makes time for those in need has a better character than the drug dealer who has participated in several drive by shootings. Thusly, the measure of a good ethical system can be found in observing those who practice it. Are they better people? Has their character grown healthier? This knowledge is relational rather than empirical in nature, but that doesn’t make it less valid.

All this, in a nutshell, is to help explain what is meant by “objective morality”. It is the idea that just as some things are objectively harmful to consume, some actions are objectively harmful to commit, to both ourselves and others. There is more to it than that, of course. Choosing to eat sewage is one thing; choosing to rape and murder someone is obviously something very different. However these examples do share some essential points: both are self-destructive acts, and both are obviously wrong to those whose senses are working properly.

“I just believe in one less god than you” is too modest.

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“I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one less god than you do.” —Stephen F Roberts

The above quote is an argument I’ve heard several times from atheists attempting to discredit Christianity. “You don’t believe in Odin, Zeus, Thor,  Ahura Mazda, or the thousands of other deities that man has worshiped. I agree with you; I simply take it the final step and reject belief in any god at all.” It’s a clever thing to say; certainly there is poetic satisfaction in claiming that the Christian you’re arguing with is actually an  atheist like yourself.  However I feel that as an argument it misses the point entirely.

As a Christian I do believe that God is the only, well, “god” that exists. So it is true that I do not believe in Odin, Zeus, Thor, etc. However as a Christian I do believe that most other religions have many things right. I am not a Hindu, but the Hindus and I agree that there is more to the world than the material, that humans have souls, and that there is objective right and wrong. There are many aspects of Brahmin that I recognize as aspects of my own God. I simply believe that Hindus are wrong on most of the details. Though I don’t believe in Brahmin, and the Hindu doesn’t believe in Yahweh, we both believe in the existence of a supreme supernatural mind that created everything. We have much to agree about.

Similarly though I don’t believe in Odin and Thor I do see much truth in the old Nordic “religion.” The pagan Norseman and myself agree that a man’s spirit survives his death, that our deeds on this Earth have a great effect on our final destination, that courage and valor is to be valued, and that someday this world will be destroyed in fire and be created anew. I don’t believe in Baldur, but I see much of Jesus in his story. And again, we both recognize the existence of the supernatural.

The same is true of every religion. Though as a Christian I reject many ideas and concepts from other religions there is also always something I can find that is true. This is as it should be. After all, I believe we are all created in the image of God and that we all long for him. It is only natural that God can be found, imperfectly, in all religions. Some, like Judaism or Islam, I believe are only wrong on certain important details. Others, like Shintoism, I believe are wrong on many very important aspects. But I agree with them all in the existence of the soul, or of a coming judgment, or that there is more to this world than the material. It’s true I don’t believe in Odin, or Brahmin, or Zeus, and their followers don’t believe in Yahweh. But we all agree that there is a god, or gods.

The atheist on the other hand is in a very different position. The atheist believes that all religions are completely wrong in their most important aspects: that there are no gods, no souls, no spirits, no supernatural. The atheist must reject all these religions outright. This puts him in an extraordinary position: he must believe that the vast majority of all humans who currently exist or who have ever existed were wrong about the most basic beliefs and experiences that they held in common. Now that’s fine if you can believe that. However don’t try to lump me in there with you.

Lets imagine for a moment that I believed in unicorns, and that I believed I had seen one once (though it was very far away and deeply shrouded in mist). Lets say that I found others who believed they had seen it as well. However this person calls it a “Lorecks” instead of a unicorn, and he believes it’s much taller and thinner that what I saw; and this one calls it a “Poojim” and believes it is more like a great horned cat; and this one over here calls it a unicorn like I do, but believes it is a terrible ravaging meat eater, while yet another claims it is a peaceful herbivore. Hearing all this different accounts might make me doubt my own conception of the unicorn: but the last thing it would do is make me doubt that a unicorn exists. Instead my faith would be strengthened by that fact that all these other people did see something. There is a magical creature out there; it is only my own conception of it that is in doubt. In just the same way pointing out that mankind has believed in thousands of other gods and worshipped in other ways may be a decent argument against my own conception of God, but it is a terrible argument to try and make me believe that there are no gods at all. Indeed it only strengthens my faith in the supernatural.

It’s true that I believe in one God, and the atheist believes in none. But the fact is that the atheist doesn’t believe in a whole lot more than that. As a Christian I can rest assured that my belief in the supernatural is shared by, statistically, almost every human who ever existed. It is the atheist who must live with the fact that he believes that he is correct in the face of almost all of humanity.

In any case I think we can agree that the quote in question doesn’t make a very compelling argument for atheism.

Calling on the Emperor

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I was wandering around when I came across a sentiment that I had heard before. Someone pointed out the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal from the Old Testament. The story, for those not familiar with it, is roughly as follows: Elijah was the last prophet of God in Israel during his time, with the rest of the country worshiping the god Baal instead. One day God tells Elijah to go and challenge the priests of Baal to a competition of sorts. They’ll make an alter with a sacrifice, and Elijah will make an altar with a sacrifice. Then they will each pray to their god to light the sacrifice on fire, without human intervention. This would prove which god was real and worthy of being worshipped. Long story short, Baal could not deliver and God sent a fireball down moments after Elijah asked for one.

Having recounted the tale the person in question brought up a challenge to the world in general. If God is real, and has performed such acts in the past, then why doesn’t he prove himself now? The Bible sets a precedent here for testing the legitimacy of various gods. If God is real then he should be able to prove his existence to the skeptics through a miracle. Since he hasn’t we can dismiss him as another Baal.

An excellent point, and a powerful indictment against the existence of God. But something about his argument gnawed at me. It wasn’t until later, after reflection, that I realized what it was. The problem with his argument is that none of what occurred in the story was Elijah’s idea. God told Elijah exactly what to do. He commanded Elijah to challenge the priests, laid out exactly how to build the altar (which was thoroughly doused with water until the wood was soaked, as an insurance against false positives), and promised Elijah that when he prayed the fire would come.

Now when a skeptic tells me that if God exists I should be able to replicate such a miracle the situation is entirely different. God has given me no such assurance that He will choose to answer my request. It would be one thing if I claimed to have heard from God and was assured that a miracle would occur. Then we could test my claim by observing whether the miracle in question actually happens. But if a skeptic comes and asks me out of a blue for an example of God’s power, what is a Christian to do? God is not my pet. He is not some genie who must answer my commands. He is the Lord.

Now of course I can pray and ask that God perform a miracle. But if I do and no such miracle occurs than that cannot be taken as proof that God does not exist. Imagine some faraway land that is ruled by a mighty emperor. This emperor is powerful indeed, but chooses to remain hidden in his palace most days, ruling from afar. One day a loyal subject of the emperor is confronted by a skeptic who believes the whole emperor story is a myth, and that there is no king in the castle. When the loyal subject objects, the skeptic challenges him, saying “If he exists then show him to me. Have him come before me with a grand parade of courtiers, generals, advisors, and horsemen. Show me his gilded coach and his ranks of servants. If he exists and is as grand and powerful as you claim than it would be a simple thing indeed for him to do this.” Now the loyal subject wants very much indeed to prove that the emperor is real. But could anyone blame him for being hesitant to demand that his liege drop whatever he’s doing and have a parade for his sake? Such a servant could go to the palace and ask, politely and humbly, for the emperor to hold such a procession. But if the emperor chooses not to can the loyal subject really be blamed? The argument of the skeptic fails because if such an emperor did exist we have no reason to expect him to do everything (or anything, really) we ask of him. To be sure such a grand procession would prove without a doubt (at least to that one skeptic) that the emperor exists. But the lack of one does not provide a proof that the emperor does not exist.

What Does It Mean To Live In A Fallen World?

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In my travels here and there over the great wide blogosphere I occasionally am struck with inspiration for a  post of my own. This is one of those posts.

I was over at Randal Rauser’s blog, flipping through the archives, when I came across a post about the possibility of demons being responsible for natural evil. Now by natural evil I mean evil that has no obvious human perpetrator. We can blame mass killings and the like on the choices of fallible and often corrupted human beings, but we can’t do the same for a hurricane or an earthquake. It’s obvious that many terrible natural disasters occur around the world causing pain, death, destruction, and suffering. This creates an objection toward the idea of that a good and powerful God exists. If God is good then why do such disasters happen?

One possible explanation that some apologists and theologians have presented is that natural disasters are caused by demons. This may seem like a pretty backward and superstitious belief for modern philosophers to have, but it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. If you already believe in God, and angels, and demons, then why can’t demons be responsible? To be more clear, if demons exist at all then they could possibly be blamed for natural disasters. If a Christian believes in demons already then it is not at all an implausible argument. This works logically (I: If demons exist then they could be responsible for natural disasters II: Demons exist, therefore III: Demons could be responsible for natural disasters).

Of course that leads to the question “Why would God allow demons to cause natural disasters?” But then, why does God allow anyone to cause harm to any person whatsoever? The traditional answer to this is that God prizes free will. He did not want to create a world of robots incapable of choosing anything that God didn’t choose for them. So he created beings with free will, and the consequences of that is that some beings are going to choose badly. They are going to choose to hurt other beings. As usual C. S. Lewis puts it better than I ever could:

“God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata -of creatures that worked like machines- would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they’ve got to be free.
Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently, He thought it worth the risk. (…) If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will -that is, for making a real world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings- then we may take it it is worth paying (The Case for Christianity).”

So there we are. Demons, like humans, are beings with free will. They also have powers we do not understand. Therefore it is possible that they are responsible for natural disasters, and God is off the hook. However we have two major problems. Firstly this is a terrible argument for convincing people who do not believe in demons. It’s downright awful. It’s persuasiveness grows exponentially worse the father you get from conservative Christianity, and it’s people who are far from Christian belief (atheists, agnostics, etc.) who are the ones who need the question of natural evil to be answered before they’ll consider believing.

That’s where Randal Rauser comes in. In the post I linked to above he expands on the problem I just pointed out. One passage in particular caught my eye and my thoughts. He writes:

“It is possible that natural evil might be due to demonic agency. It is possible that legions of demons are employed every June-to-January in the “Atlantic Ocean Hurricane Task-Force” (AOHTF) while others are employed full time at the “Pacific Rim Committee for Earthquakes” (PRCE), even as others labor at the “Department for Evolving Predators” (DEP) and still others moonlight at the “Institute for Spreading Cancer” (ISC) or the “Society for Droughts and Floods” (SDF). So come on Mr. Mephistopheles, roll up your sleeves and get to work. There’s misery to be spread about like so much fresh manure.”

When you actually start thinking about the ramifications of believing that demons cause natural disasters the results are pretty ridiculous sounding, aren’t they? And that got me thinking: what if demons really did cause hurricanes? How would they do that? I mean hurricanes aren’t mysterious events that come out of the blue without warning or expectation. Meterologists know pretty solidly what weather patters will cause a hurricane, and exactly how one forms. I don’t know much about the subject at all, but doesn’t it all have to do with hot air and cold air meeting in a certain way? That’s probably the understatement of the year, but the point is that hurricanes are part of a chain of cause and effect, a chain we can track pretty clearly. At what point did demons get involved? Did they heat or chill the air with supernatural powers? Have we ever had a hurricane appear without being able to trace it back to certain weather events which themselves were bound to happen based on the events that occurred before them? I don’t know if I’m being clear or not so I’ll try saying it another way; wouldn’t the hurricane form regardless of any supernatural intervention as long as hot air and cold air met in the way that we have proven causes hurricanes?

That got me thinking about cancer. Isn’t cancer too caused by natural occurrences? We may not know how all cancers develop but I don’t know anyone who thinks there is anything particularly supernatural about them. Take lung cancer, for example. We know that if you smoke your chances of getting lung cancer go up. Does any of us (and I’m definitely including Christians who believe in the existence of demons, like myself) believe that tobacco causes cancer because the leaves are infested with demons, and tomatoes don’t cause cancer because demons just don’t like them? It’s just silly. So in some cases at least we know for a fact that cancer is caused by substances in tobacco. If you smoke tobacco you increase your risk of cancer. That’s just the way it is.

Now how many other things in our environment cause cancer just by being themselves? Let’s look at UV radiation from the sun. We know that UV rays can cause cancer. Does that mean every ray of sunshine is infested with demons? Of course not! It’s just natural laws at work. If UV radiation didn’t have properties that caused cancer then it also wouldn’t be able to cause our bodies to produce vitamin D.

And what about earthquakes? Earthquake are the natural result of tectonic activity, activity that is beneficial in numerous ways. If you have tectonic plates then you will have earthquakes, and if you don’t have tectonic plates then you don’t have the Earth as we know it.

All that got me thinking.

You see, I was never taught that natural disasters were caused by demons when I was growing up. I heard that opinion from other people later in life, but in my own family and church it wasn’t taught. Instead I was told that such disasters happened because we lived in a fallen world. In Eden, before the fall of man, everything was perfect. Because of Adam’s sin all of creation suffered. That’s what I was told, and that was what I believed. But the problem with that belief is that it’s very vague. What exactly does it mean to live in a fallen world? Why would God cook up such terrible things as earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, and cancer just because Adam sinned? How did Adam’s moral actions cause nature to be thrown out of whack? It’s something I’ve never fully understood. But after reading that blog post I think I understand it better now. When you really look at natural disasters you see that, with things the way they are, there is no way they could not have occurred. The only way to have a world without hurricanes is to have a world that is radically different from our own, a world with less water, heat, and rain. The only way to have a world that doesn’t have earthquakes is a world that doesn’t have mountains, along with a dozen other things that make our world such a beautiful and amazing place to live in.

So what if man never fell? What if humanity stayed as Adam and Eve where; immortal, beautiful, intelligent, and made after God’s own image? I think that even if humanity never fell there would still be earthquakes and hurricanes. The only difference is what the results of those natural events would be. Imagine experiencing the intensity of a hurricane without the fear of death or injury. Imagine witnessing the sheer power of an earthquake without the dread of destruction. In a world without death such natural occurrences would be incredible events. Sure some houses may be knocked down. Houses can be rebuilt! But in an unfallen world death would not be in the cards. Similarly, I imagine cancer and would be far easier to cure and prevent in a world where man and God live in communion. Perhaps we’d quickly learn which foods and substances to avoid. Perhaps our own bodies would be strong enough to resist corruption and mutation.

In the end I prefer this explanation to the demon one. I find it also fits in nicely with what I already know to be true. I believe that God felt free will was worth the risk. It’s hardly a jump at all to believe that he might have felt that hurricanes, earthquakes, landslides, and famines were worth the risk as well. A world without the possibility of those things happening would be a bubble wrap world, completely alien to the one we know today and far less capable of sustaining life.

Fighting the Frivolous Fight: Why Bother Arguing on the Internet?

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Lately I’ve found myself doing something I swore I would never do again: namely, arguing about religion and philosophy over the internet.

I tried it for a while back in high school, and then swore off it forever. A good friend of mine has had a similar experience. “I used to argue with people on the internet a lot when I was younger, but there just isn’t any point to it. Nobody, including myself, has ever changed their opinions because of someone’s brilliant internet argument.” I have to agree. If you want to persuade people the internet is not the place to be. I have never, not once, heard of an atheist or theist changing their minds about their beliefs based on an argument over the internet. If you want to persuade someone, write a book. Even better, talk to them in person. The internet just isn’t going to work out for you.

Still, lately, I’ve started arguing metaphysics in comment threads all over WordPress. I haven’t changed anyone’s minds or opinions. I don’t have hope that I will. Yet, all the same, I keep doing it for two specific reasons. One of them I’m sure is good. The other reason is probably misguided, but it’s a reason nonetheless.

The first (and best) reason is that arguing on the internet makes me a better communicator. It exposes me to ideas and arguments that I would never have considered on my own. It’s one thing to sit at home, reading books of philosophy and thinking “Of course! It’s so obvious!” It’s another thing altogether to try to explain those concepts and suddenly have an objection come out of left field. I find that the more I sit with my books the less I understand people who don’t share my views. Debating on the internet lets me sample different ideas that come from people with entirely different backgrounds from myself. Even if, after further thought, I come to the conclusion that their argument is flawed, at the very least I’ve learned that the argument exists and how to better respond to it next time. Every argument I hear and consider teaches me something new about persuasion, argumentation, logic, and rhetoric. More importantly, every argument I compose a response to helps me practice clarity, simplicity, and empathy. As a writer all those things are useful to me. They are the building blocks of good communication. There have been many times where I’ve butted heads against someone who seems so incredibly stubborn and blockheaded that they seem to ignore my arguments entirely, claiming that I’m saying things that I never intended. When those times come I have to stop and consider: are they not getting my point because they aren’t willing to listen, or because I’m not good at explaining? Naturally, if the problem is on their end then there is nothing I can do to fix that. So I do the only thing I can do, which is examine my own words and try to make them as clear and understandable as possible. All of this is excellent real world practice that helps me become a better writer. Any idiot can sound persuasive in his head, and even hack writers can convince people who agree with them that they are right. The real test is facing a hostile audience and seeing how well you communicate with them. On that note, there are a lot of mean-spirited individuals on the internet who feel no qualms in peppering you with the most incendiary and hurtful insults they can come up with. This, too, is good practice. You will always have critics, and there will always be hurtful people out there. By weathering their attacks you can practice controlling your own emotions. There are a lot of people out there who want to rattle your chain just to see you blow up; better to lose your composure on a comment thread or forum (and subsequently feel embarrassed and learn not to give them the satisfaction) then to lose it in a more public arena.

So, to sum up the first reason, arguing on the internet is good practice for honing communication skills,  logical reasoning, and control over your emotions.

The second reason is the one that’s more shaky, though it can be explained more simply. Sometimes I feel that there are some things that you can’t just leave alone. If someone insulted my mother in public, you can bet I’d say something in her defense. I feel the same way sometimes when people insult my religion, or the people I respect. In those cases it’s not a matter of persuading someone but of defending the honor of those you love. I feel that what is good and right is worth standing up for, even if you only receive mockery and pain for your efforts. But I admit, this motivation may not be the best. Perhaps it’s better to accept that there will always be mockers and scoffers, and remember that discretion is the better part of valor. Still, I can’t help myself sometimes.

Empirical and “Evidence”

 

Can you prove that I have a liver?

I mean yes, obviously, if we wanted to we could see whether I have a liver or not. You could cut me open and take a look (or, less barbarously, put me through an MRI). That would tell us pretty reliably whether I do indeed have a liver. But nobody has ever cut me open, and I’ve never had a full body MRI. Can you find evidence that I have a liver?

Well that depends on what you will accept as evidence.

Fide Dubitandum (the blog I highlighted on Monday) dealt with this issue a few days ago. That post, and the discussion that followed in the comments, got me thinking about evidence. What kind of evidence do we find acceptable when talking about God? For many the only kind of evidence they will accept is empirical evidence. Empirical means that something can be observed and tested. A fish is empirical because I can touch it, weigh it, see it, smell it, and experiment on it. If anyone asked me to prove that fish existed then I could show them a fish. They could touch it, weight it, see it, etc., for themselves. It would be empirical evidence for the existence of fish (or at least for that fish, anyway). For many people this is the kind of evidence they want when asking “Is there a God?” They want something they can see and smell and experiment on. When theists are unable to produce empirical evidence they proclaim that God must not exist. They often imply that if you still believe in God despite of the lack of empirical evidence then you must be an anti-intellectual who merely takes it on faith that God exists. And it’s true, I do take it on faith that God exists. I don’t have empirical evidence for God. I also don’t have empirical evidence for the existence of my liver.

Nobody has ever seen, smelled, weighed, or experimented on my liver. It has never been directly observed by anyone. Yet I believe it exists all the same. I have faith that my liver exists. Why? Because every (healthy) dead person we have cut open has had a liver. Doctors have seen, smelled, touched, weighed, etc., livers inside of every normal person they’ve cut open. What’s more, everyone who has had their liver removed (or whose liver has ceased to function due to disease) soon dies. These two observations are empirical.

From these two observations I make a crude logical proof:

1. All dead human beings that are cut open are found to have a liver within them.

2. All human beings who have been found to have no functioning liver have fallen sick and died.

3. I am a healthy, living human being. Therefore, I must have a liver.

For that reason I have faith that if you cut me open tomorrow you would find a liver inside of me. What is important to realize, however, is that I don’t know empirically that I have a liver. I have faith that I have a liver due to deductive reasoning. I have never seen my liver, but nobody would call me unreasonable believing that it exists. Similarly, I have never seen God but I have good reason to believe that he exists as well. To use one example (out of many) here is one bit of deductive reasoning that leads me to believe in God. It is self evident from our observations and experiences that some things are contingent in their existence on other things. “Contingent” in this context means that we can imagine such a thing not necessarily existing. The computer you are reading this blog on is contingent because it could conceivable have not existed. The computer has not always existed; once it was merely a collection of parts scattered around a factory, and before that it was raw elements taken from the Earth. The computer had to have been created by something. But then that leads to a problem; what created the computer’s creator? And who created the creator of the computer? So on and so on, in an infinite regression. But an infinite line of creators in logically impossible. From this, we can make another (crude) proof:

1. All things that come into existence have a creator.

2. Things exist.

3. Therefore, something must exist that has always existed.

Now this does not prove the existence of God. But it does show that somewhere there must be an eternal and uncreated Something that everything else is based off of. For naturalists this Something is Nature. For theists this Something is God. Now I have other good reasons for believing that the Something is God and not Nature, and I’ve talked briefly about some of them in previous posts. But my overall point remains. Nobody has ever observed, weighed, measured, or tested something that by necessity has always existed. It would be impossible to observe something to have always existed unless the observer has also always existed as well. In this way there is no empirical evidence that such an entity to exist. However we still can reasonably believe in it’s existence despite the impossibility of ever finding empirical evidence for it. I have faith in God’s existence the same way I have faith in my liver’s existence: confidently and reasonably without need of empirical evidence.