What’s Wrong with my Atheism?

I mentioned in a recent post on moral philosophy that, although I understand why Christians think I should switch teams, I’m confused and frustrated by the comments of “Convert already!” I get from my atheist friends.  One of my college friends posted a cogent sum-up of the inconsistency he sees (reformatted slightly from facebook):

I don’t think anything you’re espousing is incompatible with atheism. I do think you may be using metaphysical backsliding as an excuse for not engaging with metaphysics.

That sounds a little weird, so let me try and put it another way: you’ve said, and I agree, that atheism without elaboration is boring and insubstantial. your response to this, unless I’m missing something important — which I might well be, and do tell me if I am — is elaborating, at length, your brand of atheistic moral theory, which is laudable.

But the great strength of religion, to me, and especially of Christianity (which is your main target) is that, in theology, it unites morals with metaphysics. That which we, as fallible humans, ought do, and that which we do but should not do, is illuminated by the word of God and the example of Christ.

Meanwhile, you write a great deal about what we ought do, without any non-pragmatic reason for why. How do you construe your role? Are you just trying to hold us to the basic moral precepts you assume in good faith we all hold, but, in proper social-scientific fashion, correcting our means? Or are you aiming for a broader theory of your brand of atheism? And if it’s the latter, since you reject postmodernism and all its post-metaphysical tendencies, with what do you replace the metaphysical-rather-than-moral hole left by the death of god? (If the answer’s in a series of posts I never read, by all means just link to those.)

It’s going to take me a little while to give my friend a satisfactory answer, since, as was the case with Douthat’s dilemma, this is a pretty foundational question that I never seem to give anyone a satisfactory answer.

For now, I’d be very curious whether any atheist readers of this blog have run into this problem and if you’ve come up with solutions.  Do you jettison metaphysics?  Do you ditch objective morality?  Are you forced to hedge all your moral imperatives?

My very cursory answer is that I don’t know that I believe the death of god deals a serious wound to the study of metaphysics.  The Greek philosophers were confident in moral order and telos without the benefit of particularly well-behaved deities.  Look for more on this after this weekend.  I’m meeting with a Dominican friar to discuss Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism and there’s going to be a lot of Aristotelianism on the table..

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Eldnar

    Hi Leah,

    What do you think about Darrin Rasberry’s recent conversion? In a way, he speaks directly to your post.

    http://ultimateobject.blogspot.com/2011/11/autobahn-to-damascus.html

    • Hibernia86

      Eldnar: Nothing that he listed (the existence of the universe, moral values and duties, objective human worth, or consciousness and will) automatically provides any evidence for an all powerful conscious being that controls the universe. And I would argue that some of the things he listed don’t exist at all (if by “will” he means “free will” then this is an example).

      And the Atheists have plenty of Christian ministers who have turned Atheist. One of the best known examples is Dan Barker of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

  • Eldnar

    Oh, for those that don’t know, this is the Darrin Rasberry from John Loftus’ “Debunking Christianity” site.

  • Lukas Halim

    I’ve said this before, but never hurts to try again and see whether I can say it more clearly….

    From what I understand, you take Aristotles view that human beings have a telos – something in human nature calls us to moral perfection. The Catechism explains it this way, “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment… His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary.” But what is the origin of this inner law? What gives this inner law authority?

    A while back I made the argument that some of the order we see in the universe can be explained as a result of spontaneous order, but that evolution/spontaneous order was insufficient as an explanation for all the order we see in the universe. In a way, this argument is very similar – I’m trying to make an argument for God’s existence based on the moral order in human beings. As with the argument regarding cosmological order, I think I can make the case that evolution and spontaneous order aren’t sufficient to explain the moral order in human beings.

    • Brandon

      The claims in your last paragraph are not empirically supported, and look an awful lot like arguments from incredulity. Even if we accepted these arguments axiomatically true, they wouldn’t be affirmative arguments for the God you refer to; they’d point us in the direction of the supernatural, but say nothing at all about the validity of Christianity.

    • Hibernia86

      Lukas: Humans are moral either A) because of Kin Selection (helping those who share genes with us) or B) because of Reciprocal Altruism (you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours). Remember that humans evolved to live in tribes so most people they came in contact with would either be related to them or could help them in the future. The fact that we help the homeless that we’ll never see again nowadays does not change the fact that we would have seen them again if the same scenario had taken place back in the stone age when our instincts evolved. That is the world we evolved to survive in so that is what our instincts are hardwired for.

      • Lukas Halim

        @Brandon – You’d need to flesh out “The claims in your last paragraph are not empirically supported, and look an awful lot like arguments from incredulity” in order for me to understand your objection.

        @Hibernia – If our moral sense is merely an evolved instinct, then we should be able to selectively ignore it, just as we ignore other instincts. (I might need to ignore my reflexive response to rotting food or my fear of heights in order to perform some task – in the same way, I might need to ignore the fact that I’m uncomfortable with lying or stealing in order to accomplish some task.) In other words, if our moral sense is a product of evolution, then I don’t see why it should have authority over us. (Now, if you don’t think conscience has authority, this argument won’t be relevant to you)

        • Hibernia86

          You are correct in your last statement. The evolution argument that I was giving was just to show why most people agree on morality. It doesn’t mean that we have to follow that morality. That morality only exists because of culture and evolution and could change. We can choose our own morality. But I believe that it must be internally consistant. You can’t say “Killing the innocent is ALWAYS wrong.” and then say “Killing the innocent is okay on Tuesdays.” Those statements contradict each other. You can’t believe both.

          If two conflicting moral systems are both internally consistant then it would just be a competition to see which could gain the most followers.

  • Brandon

    Meanwhile, you write a great deal about what we ought do, without any non-pragmatic reason for why.

    This seems like a rather dim lead in to the ensuing questions. Why would one assume that there must be non-pragmatic reasons for an action? I take the garbage out for the pragmatic reason that I do not like my home to stink, not because I find deep meaning in it. I don’t think there’s much problem at all in shaping questions of what we ought to do in purely pragmatic terms.

    Additionally, even if one accepts that they need some metaphysical reason for moral claims (and this takes some hand waving), it’s not even a remotely compelling argument for Christianity over any other religious beliefs. Requiring a non-pragmatic reason for morality does not lead one to shout, “eureka, Jesus!”. At best, this would be an argument for the usefulness of Christianity, not the validity of Christianity’s truth claims.

    • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

      Usefulness is a good place to start. If it works, it passes the “practice” test, which is step one before the “theory” test.

      And acting for purely pragmatic reasons is a metaphysical view, it just wishes it wasn’t.

      • Brandon

        Something being useful doesn’t imply, in any way, that it’s true.

        Pragmatism isn’t a metaphysical view, and you offer no evidence or support for the idea that it is. An argument by declaration shouldn’t be expected to impress anyone.

        • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

          I don’t think you are understanding my point. Being useful does mean its true, in a practical sense, as in science and the technology derived thereof, which “works.” Why/how it works, the theory behind it, is a completely different question. If you think truth is purely theoretical and not practical that you are rather unusual for the contemporary West (quite Platonic really), since and tech relies on practical truths.

          Pragmatism is a metaphysical view, it is one which seeks to minimize the importance of metaphysics. One can provide no empirical basis for this decision to “minimize” metaphysics, so it is itself just more metaphysics. The logic is fairly obvious, I didn’t think it needed elaboration.

          • Hibernia86

            Pragmatism is true in the sense that it is the best theory so far, but it might be improved in the future, changing the belief system.

  • http://barefootbum.blogspot.com Larry, The Barefoot Bum

    Assuming you do not believe that any god(s) exist, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with your atheism.

    I do think that objective morality is either incoherent, inconsistent, or false. If you’re interested, you can read my work on meta-ethical subjective relativism.

    As I recall from reading your earlier posts, I don’t think you are expressing your views clearly and precisely. That’s no crime; I often have to feel my way around a subject, sometimes for quite a long time, before I really know what I think about it.

    You might want to start at the beginning. What precisely do you mean by “moral”, and precisely what do you mean by “objective”?

    What are the ontological referents of moral statements? I.e. what objects, properties, and/or relationships of the real world do moral statements refer to?

    What is the epistemic method applicable to moral statements? I.e. how do we come to know the truth and falsity of moral statements? Do you take a deductivist approach? I.e. Do we deduce the truth of moral statements from incontrovertibly true premises? Do we take an an empirical approach? I.e. Do we determine the truth of moral statements — somehow — by their connection to incontrovertible statements about experience? A coherentist approach? Intuitionist? Something else?

    Philosophy, even moral philosophy, is not — in my view — a methodology for coming to the correct answers. Philosophy is about asking questions to deepen and sharpen our own thoughts, opinions, preferences, and experiences.

    I don’t follow your blog, and I don’t see how to subscribe to post comments. If you want additional input, feel free to comment on my blog (linked above), with links to your own work if you like, or send me an email.

    • dbp

      FYI, the comment feed RSS is here.

      • http://barefootbum.blogspot.com Larry, The Barefoot Bum

        Thanks. I’m subscribed.

  • deiseach

    I was going to say yeah, why do your atheist friends tell you to convert? That fascinates me!

    Then I saw the last line. I’ve been Catholic all my life, and fI don’t meet up with Dominicans on a casual “What you doing this weekend?” “Oh, seeing a friar about a refutation” basis.

    :-)

  • Patrick

    In short, I have little patience for metaphysics, and I’ve jettisoned objective morality, at least in the sense that theists believe in it, where “objective morality” really means “supernatural morality” first and foremost.

    As for the “convert already” thing, I don’t have a strong impression of exactly where you stand on a lot of this stuff. But in general, I find that you have one good insight- that behaving according to one’s moral values is at heart a practical matter, and part of achieving it is making sure that you are the sort of person who is able to follow through on behaving as you’d like yourself to behave. Just as a parent might want to raise a child to be able to easily achieve certain things (including following a particular code of conduct), we each raise ourselves on a day by day basis, in the same way.

    But for whatever reason you insist upon phrasing that in terms of virtue ethics and telos, which unnecessarily confuses matters, and makes it seem as if you have a superstitious overlay.

  • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

    Using human morality to argue for the existence of god seems pretty arrogant and human-centric to me. The whole point of my atheism is that it doesn’t make sense that humans are the center of the universe, the pinnacle of “creation”, or that the only beings “greater” than humans is an infinite, all powerful god. All of which every single theistic worldview that I’ve come across implicitly assumes (of course, the arrogance of this worldview is also immoral to me, but I digress…).

    Morality has nothing to do with what’s really “out there”. It’s putting the cart before the horse. If we as a society thought that it was immoral that the majority of men are physically stronger than the majority of women, this doesn’t necessitate that we come up with a religion or worldview that asserts that men and women are equal in physical strength so that we could live morally.

    How the world actually is should be the basis for morality, not the other way around. We should find out what’s really real and then premise our morality on that. If your atheism is based on morality instead of reality then you really have very little warrant for staying an atheist, since morality will change slightly from culture to culture and through time.

    • dbp

      I don’t know; I think humans are pretty astonishing. The development of intelligence to the point at which we possess it makes us something categorically different from any other animal we know about, and at the very least into a category that I suspect we would share with whatever was discovered to be the pinnacle of creation.

      The reason I think so is because of evolutionary fitness. Most species are at the mercy of their environment and so there is a ‘fitness landscape’ that goes along with the physical landscape they inhabit. But humans, through science and invention, make fitness where they see fit: we may not have much incentive to build cities at the bottom of the ocean, but we can certainly imagine what would be required to do so and would be limited in our attempts to do so mainly through resources and not through innate ability. The same thing goes with almost any other environment in which life could be expected to survive. If it’s possible for any creature, we could probably find a way, in theory at least, to make it work.

      So as beings whose fitness landscape extends theoretically to most of the universe, I’d say we’re in a special category. There may be some being who can do all that we do faster or more reliably: if you’ll forgive the technical analogy, we might be like a program running on an old 386 chugging away on antiquated hardware versus something running on an overclocked modern processor and teamed up with ECC RAM for faster, more reliable execution– but it seems like we’re already Turing complete and therefore can accomplish more or less everything that can be accomplished. We are even capable of finding the shortcomings in our intelligence and working to avoid the bad effects thereof.

      As an atheist purportedly basing your thoughts on reality, what do you see out there that can compete with this, much less surpass us? Do you have any evidence at all that such a thing exists?

      • keddaw

        As an atheist purportedly basing your thoughts on reality, what do you see out there that can compete with this, much less surpass us? Do you have any evidence at all that such a thing exists?

        Well, our descendants for one. To think that we are the same species as the creatures that will inhabit the planet/space in 100,000 years is naive at best.

        • dbp

          Are you serious? This is not only not an empirical answer, it’s a positively superstitious one.

          First, evolution is not progress along some predefined vector, so you can’t in any way assume that we’re just going to go on getting smarter and more intellectual. You might as well assume we’re going to evolve to be stupider, more efficient consumers. That would be much more reasonable based on current social pressures.

          Second, you don’t know that we’ll even last another 1000 years as a species, let alone another 100,000. So using a hypothetical future candidate is pure science fiction– if not fantasy.

          Third, you only choose that because it illustrates my point: you don’t say, “the descendants of dolphins” or “hyper-evolved elephants” or whatever. The only example you have to build on is us.

          Fourth, you haven’t in any way explained why any evolution would be sufficient to make us categorically different as intelligent beings. Again, I admitted that we could end up with upgraded, more reliable hardware, but the realm of logic and reason in which we– and we alone in the universe, as far as we have empirically seen–is fully accessible to us. Yes, we draw startling conclusions from time to time, and the rate of discoveries and logical leaps could increase; but there isn’t any evidence whatsoever that there’s some ‘meta-logic’ out there that we would suddenly gain access to. That’s what I meant by ‘Turing complete:’ it doesn’t appear that there are any ideas capable of being thought that we couldn’t think. We might not yet be at a point where we could get to all the true ideas, and given a true idea we may not be able to completely assimilate and comprehend at one moment all the logic supporting and underpinning it, but those are just issues of execution. It’s not at all clear that there’s some fundamental power of the intellect that we lack.

          In other words, you can hypothesize that such fundamentally different and better modes of existence might exist, but there is no more reason to believe they do than that fairies exist. At least some people claim to have seen the latter.

          But for what is empirically known right now? We are the pinnacle of creation. And since our intellect reaches from the Big Bang (with forays even further back intellectually) to the heat death or other ultimate fate of the universe, and through all its reaches, we might as well be at the center of it, too.

          • Hibernia86

            True, evolution doesn’t need to move toward smarter and smarter beings, but it isn’t hard to imagine that that might happen in our case.

            Sure we might die out at any time but since we can survive the Cold War, there is hope for us.

            If humans did die out, then maybe some other intelligent being would evolve to replace us.

            Our brains are not capable of picturing more than three dimensions of space (up-down, left-right, front-back) even though string theory says that there may be 10 or 11 dimensions. If this is possible at all, then an evolution for this ability would be a meta-leap our ability to picture and understand the world.

      • Brandon

        As an atheist purportedly basing your thoughts on reality, what do you see out there that can compete with this, much less surpass us? Do you have any evidence at all that such a thing exists?

        That’s still not an argument for a deity. I don’t know whether humans are the “best” species or not; it’s not presently a question that we have the information on hand to answer, if it’s a question that even makes sense at all. It’s also irrelevant – whether we find species that exceed our capabilities or not, the question of whether there’s deities can only be settled by evidence regarding those deities. This is, of course, where nearly all religious arguments fall down. A simple lack of evidence prevents them from being compelling.

        • dbp

          Well, remember the point I was responding to:

          Using human morality to argue for the existence of god seems pretty arrogant and human-centric to me. The whole point of my atheism is that it doesn’t make sense that humans are the center of the universe, the pinnacle of “creation”, or that the only beings “greater” than humans is an infinite, all powerful god. All of which every single theistic worldview that I’ve come across implicitly assumes (of course, the arrogance of this worldview is also immoral to me, but I digress…).

          My point was just that there are good, empirical reasons for humanity to think itself in a unique, and frankly elevated, position. We can use our power for evil and even to destroy ourselves, yes; but if evolution is the only standard you have to go by (not having any metaphysical teleological standard to draw from), then look at it from that perspective. Extremophile bacteria (and so forth) notwithstanding, we are the fittest of the fittest, adaptable to nearly any contingency. We lose to lots of species on their own terms (where they are biologically strong), but we don’t need to do that: Methanopyrus kandleri might last longer than me in a vat of boiling water, but I won’t let you put me in the vat of boiling water. Besides, I guarantee you M. Kandleri’s best contingency plan in case of an incoming asteroid is piss-poor compared to any average human’s first paper-napkin sketches on the same topic.

          How can an atheist, of all people, who would be expected to ignore metaphysical, value-driven judgments like our supposed capacity for evil, and who claims to look purely at reality, not see this? If there is ever, at any point, a ‘singularity’ event in which a new type of life form arises through computer consciousness/pervasive networking/whatever, there’s one and only one species from which it could possibly come: ours.

          The question of the existence of a supernatural deity is a completely different topic, and I didn’t attempt to address it. Nor will I here; too much to write on that topic, too unrelated to what I’m responding to.

          • David

            You don’t know what “fit” means in an evolutionary context do you? It only refers to the ability to survive and reproduce, and, in the crudest sense, the “fittest” individual is the one with the most offspring. The ability to have large numbers of offspring seems entirely unrelated to everything you write about the supposed superiority of humans. (Also, from a biological perspective, talking about the fitness of an entire species doesn’t really make any sense).

            As for your notion that humans are objectively superior to all other life because we can survive in more different places, there are a couple of problems. First, the standard is completely arbitrary (why even prefer living things to non-living things? What makes me of more importance than a rock, a planet, a star, etc). Second, you have no actual evidence that your claim is true. Human reasoning abilities are an excellent tool for adapting to certain problems, but the ability of certain bacteria to produce endospores that can survive for millions of years in a very wide range of conditions seems more successful to me, judging by your criteria. It is only by assuming that reasoning ability is the appropriate metric by which to judge things (a convenient decision from the perspective of humans) that you can declare humans to be the pinnacle of the entire universe. It remains a ridiculously arrogant and entirely unsupported claim. Moreover, it relies on our very limited knowledge of the universe to even succeed on its own terms. We exist in a tiny part of an unimaginably large universe, and have only existed for a tiny fraction of its (past and future) history. But because we are the greatest thing we have encountered (as judged by a set of criteria assuming traits possessed by people to be the ones that matter most), we should therefore declare ourselves the “pinnacle of creation”? You’ll need to do better than that.

          • dbp

            David: I was referring to fitness in the same sense as you, actually, though the concepts are complex enough that a little hand-waving is necessary to shoe-horn the proposition into a comment-length post. But since you seem unwilling to do me the credit of assuming I know more or less what I’m talking about, and have evidently missed the thrust of my argument, let’s try to get a little more nitty gritty. Hopefully this will show you that I’m not as uninformed as you think, and will show the audience at home what we’re both talking about. Buckle up, this is going to be a long ride.

            First, let’s talk about what a fitness landscape might actually look like. To make explanations easier, they’re often presented like either two-dimensional topological maps or three-dimensional surfaces, but for convenience’s sake let’s start off talking about the former. The ‘topology’ assigns an ‘elevation’ for every coordinate pair, where a higher elevation corresponds to a greater fitness. The coordinates themselves correspond to a collection of attributes (the representations vary here, but in this case I’ll assume the attributes are phenotypes of the organism in question, and the magnitude of each individual coordinate is the range of variation concerning that phenotype). In this sense, then, the landscape illustrates how, by varying physical characteristics, you end up with a more or less fit organism. Typically, any real fitness landscape would exhibit multiple peaks (or local maxima), which means that there are multiple ‘pretty good’ combinations of characteristics, from which any minor deviation would mean a decrease in fitness. (Of course, the fitness at each of those local maxima could vary greatly from other local maxima. You hope you’re at the highest peak in the mountain range.)

            As David said, fitness is defined by the survival and reproductive success of the individual in question.

            One use of the fitness landscape is to illustrate evolution in terms of a series of adaptations. This doesn’t happen at an individual level, because we’re talking about physical characteristics dictated by the genetic makeup of the organism; but you could consider the ‘representative individual’ of a species, over time, ‘walking’ around the landscape. Evolutionary pressure (natural selection, etc.) means that in general that ‘walk’ will move uphill (towards a more optimal fitness) whenever possible, though certain factors can cause it to come down again.

            Now, there are some important caveats to this illustration. In actual fact, the complete fitness landscape would need to be expressed by one axis for every relevant physical characteristic, making the fitness landscape for any real ecological niche a hopelessly complex, massively-polydimensional monstrosity that we could never adequately model. Second, fitness landscapes change over time due to a multitude of factors; so what once was a peak might suddenly become a slope or even a valley.

            Those provisos out of the way, let’s see whether what David is saying is true. First, does it make any sense to talk about the fitness of a species? Of course it does: while mapping a species on the fitness landscape leads you more to a cloud than to a point, that cloud will be more or less concentrated in a relatively small subsection of a very large map. That’s why it makes sense to talk about a ‘representative’ or ‘average’ individual of a species– because they exhibit a certain degree of variation but are in most important respects more the same than they are different. That’s why they are a species in the first place.

            So to continue on the subject of species, in real ecological niches, the reason that you can have an equilibrium between many dissimilar species is a reflection of the fact that there are many local maxima that represent fit collections of physical attributes. You can survive in a particular part of the ocean not only by being a jellyfish; you might be equally happy there as a bit of plankton or a killer whale. Vastly different species, but still fit for the local adaptive landscape.

            So, what was my point about human fitness? It is this: that a species’ fitness is inherently tied to its location in space and time. Take a jellyfish out of the ocean and deposit it on top of Mt. Fuji and suddenly its fitness value drops to an alarmingly low value. Not only does it not reproduce, but it dies in pretty short order.

            The geographical map of where in the world a species is fit isn’t necessarily the same as the map of where it is actually found (because there may be intervening stretches of unacceptably low fitness, as one possible reason), but you could conceivably construct such a map. So (to take our poor jellyfish as an example again) you could mark out in yellow all the areas of the world where jellyfish could reach a sustainable population, and maybe even in red areas where they flourish to some level you choose. Color everywhere else– the places where that species is not fit– gray.

            Now, think about species you know about and start to mentally create this type of geological map for them. Observe which places are red, which are yellow, and which are gray. Zoom in and out, move higher and lower in elevation/depth beneath the sea, and imagine how that map might change if there’s an ice age or the sea level rises or situations change in other ways.

            Got the idea? Now, do the same for humans. Well, now all of a sudden we have a problem. The areas where humans actually live doesn’t begin to express the places we could live if we chose. So while the map of our actual locations may have blank spots, the one we’re discussing, where we’d be fit to live, looks a lot different. Immediately you start to think, “Well, that location in Antarctica is plainly uninhabitable for a naked, unclad man with no resources. But armed with technology (which is a product of our intellect) and resources (which may or may not be available, but which is largely dependent on what we have incentive to harvest and/or produce), we could set up a colony that could survive and reproduce there, sure.”

            I’m not contending that it needs to be self-sustaining, because humanity, by its native characteristics, is capable of both locomotion and commerce over vast distances. This means that, yes, even Antarctica is yellow, though perhaps not red.

            So keep looking. Where on this planet could we not survive? At the top of Mt. Everest? At the bottom of the ocean? In caves, miles beneath the surface of the earth? I submit we could live in any of those places, given only the resources and the time to develop the technology.

            How about extraterrestrial survival? Sure, we’ve already had proofs of concept, with simple space travel and with the ISS, for instance. We are already able to talk about permanent bases on the moon, or even Mars. These things are already almost theoretical fait accomplis, wanting only the resources and execution to complete. (Yes, there are problems like long-term side effects of low gravity and radiation concerns. But we are learning about those and can come up with ways to overcome them.)

            This isn’t to say mankind is unkillable or that it’s fit everywhere. There’s not even a theoretical solution to living on the surface of the sun, or on in the neighborhood of a sufficiently massive object that the gravity alone would kill us. But we’re more fit in more places than just about anything; and what’s more, I think we are more capable of adaptation to changing circumstances than just about anything.

            So the conclusion is that this hairless ape, of only middling size, strength, speed, and any number of other characteristics, suddenly becomes fit for an enormous, unprecedented breadth of places and scenarios by the simple addition of one characteristic: intelligence. Is this striking enough, on its face, to give it special consideration? Yes, David, I think it is.

            Now, to address the objections of your second paragraph specifically:

            First, the standard is completely arbitrary (why even prefer living things to non-living things? What makes me of more importance than a rock, a planet, a star, etc).

            Talking about organisms, species, and life is how everyone approaches this subject, unless they become cornered and need an out. That’s why atheists do things like talk about our descendants, or the possibility of life on other planets, instead of trying to say, “Yes, human intelligence is pretty good, but NASA has published some pretty amazing pictures of the Crab Nebula that are just fantastic!” Why? Well, ask them; but my general reaction is that it’s about organization: in a universe governed by the second law of themodynamics, local areas where organization is found to increase and persist are considered interesting. Stars might be very interesting indeed, but they aren’t as complex as animals, for all their energy and brilliance, and the range of their operations is more limited than that of a living creature.

            Second, you have no actual evidence that your claim is true. Human reasoning abilities are an excellent tool for adapting to certain problems, but the ability of certain bacteria to produce endospores that can survive for millions of years in a very wide range of conditions seems more successful to me, judging by your criteria.

            Yes, and a rock might be even more indestructible than an endospore. Endospores can in fact be exceptionally long-lived, but what they are and what they do is probably about as much less interesting than what we do as rocks are less interesting than endospores.

            Let’s review: as far as I know (perhaps you can correct me?), endospores are limited to prokaryotes meaning that not only are they single-cellular, but they don’t even have a nucleus. And even within those restrictions, I’d guess that the more complex the bacterium, the more fragile it is (though I haven’t looked into this at all). So given that our criteria already excludes things like rocks on the basis of organization and activity, we also have to dock some points from endospores.

            Furthermore, while an endospore is an endospore, it doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t eat, it doesn’t reproduce, it doesn’t exhibit any other characteristics of life. A bacterium endosporulates and then is, for all intents and purposes, just a rock until it reactivates. And once it reactivates, it becomes susceptible to many of the dangers it endosporulated to avoid. So again, an endospore may be long-lived, but it isn’t much else.

            Finally, we understand the endospore, and it doesn’t understand us. Yes, a person can die from anthrax if they are exposed to it and are not prepared (which, again, is possible through intelligence). But I can also kill anthrax spores with a little household bleach and five or so minutes; and giving it time to plan and prepare doesn’t give it much help.

            It is only by assuming that reasoning ability is the appropriate metric by which to judge things (a convenient decision from the perspective of humans) that you can declare humans to be the pinnacle of the entire universe. It remains a ridiculously arrogant and entirely unsupported claim.

            I’ve already explained why intelligence is so incomparably interesting. Name any other single characteristic that confers even a noticeable fraction of the fitness delta in a noticeable fraction of the ecological niches we know about. Would wings help a fish survive in the desert? Would gills help a bird a mile beneath the surface of the earth? Would echolocation help a monkey in the Marianas Trench? No. But by the addition of intelligence, humans can (theoretically) live just about anywhere complex organization is even theoretically stable.

            Again, it’s just silly to pretend this isn’t the case. If you think evolution is interesting in any way, then intelligence should be the most interesting thing in the whole picture, by a mile.

            I’ll give you the fact that it’s convenient for us to judge. But I’ll also point out that we’re the only ones judging. The fish aren’t, the birds aren’t, and the monkeys aren’t. In fact, perhaps you’d like to tell me specifically which observer is going to be hurt by our insensitive self-centered evaluation is going to offend? Oh, right, you can’t, because we know of none. So I’ll pay more attention to this complaint when you find even one other example.

            Moreover, it relies on our very limited knowledge of the universe to even succeed on its own terms. We exist in a tiny part of an unimaginably large universe, and have only existed for a tiny fraction of its (past and future) history. But because we are the greatest thing we have encountered (as judged by a set of criteria assuming traits possessed by people to be the ones that matter most), we should therefore declare ourselves the “pinnacle of creation”?

            Ah, yes, the old appeal to the unknown. “Yes, admittedly we’re doing everything we can to observe every corner of the universe; and yes, it’s true that we blow everything we’ve ever seen out of the water; and yes, our intelligence seems to have conquered the universe by pulling back the skirts to reveal its deepest underpinnings; and yes, I can’t actually conceive any branch of reality which our logic and reason would fail to be suited to examine and discover truth; but still, you don’t know what’s out there!” OK, well, when you find your super-being that proves me wrong, you let me know. Until then, your belief that there’s anything more amazing than humanity out there is as much predicated on faith as anything an atheist declaims in Christianity.

          • Hibernia86

            David is right that bacteria are more biologically fit than humans because their populations are consistantly bigger. However dbp is right that intelligence is a very unique evolution which bares importance due to its ability to help organisms expand into new habitats.

          • dbp

            Sorry to take so long to get back here. Probably no one is keeping up with this thread anymore, but just in case:

            In terms of global fitness by absolute numbers, and counting at the organism level, humans are dwarfed not only by bacteria but by ants and any number of other species. I should have stated so explicitly before, so I apologize. My point was mainly about two things: the astonishing fitness delta between our own fitness and anything comparable to us in terms of organization and size; and, second, the level of adaptability that intelligence has added, theoretically giving us the means to abandon dying planets and survive just about anywhere survival of anything of any complexity is possible. The question of absolute fitness affects only the former, so I’ll just explain why I still maintain we’re the tops, numerical superiority notwithstanding.

            What follows is extremely, extremely crude napkin math based on quick googling, so take it all as very loosey-goosey. Not ready for peer review, but hopefully it illustrates a point.

            So, the number of humans on earth is (last I bothered to check) about 7,000,000,000, or 7e9 individuals. Honestly, that’s not so terribly impressive a number, since bacteria have a global population of something like 5e30. However, that’s not all one species: Wikipedia says that there are 5-10 million species of bacteria in the world. So let’s temporarily assume the population is equally distributed by species (which it certainly isn’t, but still) at 5e6: this means a given species of bacteria might have about 1e24 or so individuals. Makes our 7e9 look positively microscopic, right?

            Well, sure, but consider that the human body contains about 1e13 or 1e14 cells. Taking the lower number, we get 7e9 times 1e13=7e22 human cells in the world. Now keep in mind that prokaryotic cells are a order of magnitude smaller by diameter than eukaryotic cells (and remember what that means for the mass of each individual cell, since volume = (4/3)pi*r^3!).

            Now, that’s an odd way of accounting, to be sure, because you can’t hack off a few cells from a human and culture them to yield a whole new population. Granted. But what you come up with is a macroscopic species like us coming within fierce-glaring distance of an averaged number in a given bacterial species by number of cells being sustained, and we probably start to pull ahead when you start to compare those cells by size.

            Now, additionally, if you consider the most interesting thing about evolution being that it seems to be a mechanism producing a consistent increase in order and complexity over time in a universe that generally doesn’t like that kind of thing, then you add to the raw numbers the complexity of each cell (for instance, just the bare fact that our cells are eukaryotic while the bacteria’s aren’t) and the organization between the cells and between individuals in our species and things start looking bleak for the bacteria.

            The other thing is, our fitness extends where no other species’ can– including all the bacteria on earth. We have the means to leave our planet, and none of them (independent of us, or *maybe* a well-placed asteroid) does. If they ever make it to Mars, it’ll only be by hitching a ride on our ships.

            By way of operation, our machines have already become our proxy: we travel inward toward the sun, out to the edge of the solar system, and everywhere in between. We’re not physically there, but we might as well be, as we are increasingly operating there and getting benefits from being there. (Incidentally, I’d add that we’re the only species, probably, that introduces this difficult distinction between where we are and where we operate.)

            This post has gotten really long again, but it’s to the same point. We are the most astonishing thing that evolution has produced, in terms of organization, operation, and, yes, fitness (relative to comparable species, in absolute terms after normalizing by size/complexity, and in terms of the breadth of ecological niches in which we operate). And, I would argue, there’s nothing anywhere which can come close.

  • Mark

    For all the Christian’s claims to have access to a true objective morality, they don’t seem to be much use in grappling with the real difficult moral questions facing society today. Questions like organ transplants for people still smoking, imprisoning people at Guantanamo Bay, same-sex marriages and environmental care. The answers to those moral questions have usually been reached by starting with fundamental principles e.g. autonomy, beneficence, non-harm, and balancing those principles with each other using reason.

    • dbp

      Do you expect that access to objective morality means that we shouldn’t ever have to use our reason to determine its application to specific situations? Or that there cannot be places where multiple general principles are in a seeming tension that is difficult to resolve adequately?

      Christian morality provides a framework which includes your ‘fundamental principles’ (which you got from where, by the way?) and others, as well as some additional guidance that helps us judge how areas of tension should be resolved (e.g. the rejection of consequentialism: it is not permissible to do evil in order to obtain something good). It doesn’t seem to me reasonable to demand that Jesus hand everyone a sealed envelope with their name on it, containing a crib sheet to every moral dilemma they’ll ever face.

    • deiseach

      If there is no objective ‘out there’ morality independent of, and separate from, our own moral senses, then where do you get fundamental priniciples such as autonomy, beneficience and non-harm?

      Why should the autonomy of each individual be a fundamental principle and not the notion of the collective good is greater, or the stronger can impose their will upon the weaker, or the wheel of fortune whereby today you are a king, tomorrow a serf?

      Why is, to take one of your examples, same-sex marriage a moral question? We may decide it is permissible; previous societies did not have any version of it (and that’s separate from Judaeo-Christian beliefs; even in societies where it was acceptable for men to have sex with other men – or rather, in general, younger males and even boys – there never was any form of two men in a marriage bond equivalent to the other social forms of marriage – even the ‘two-spirit’ or berdache societies considered one partner as a woman’s spirit in a man’s body, and mandated that that person should dress, work and live as a woman, and be considered the wife in the marriage. There were not two men married, or two women married, in the same way and accepted as a man and a woman married).

      Yesterday we did not accept this; today we may; tomorrow we may change our minds yet again. If morality is subjective, and what’s wrong for me is only wrong for me and may be right for you, or it’s wrong in this country but in that country it’s considered neutral or even desirable. We used to make slaves of other people, we don’t today, but in two hundred years’ time maybe we will again, only calling them debt-servants or indentured workers or personal bondsmen or some other title.

      Why not? What’s fundamental about “It’s wrong to enslave another person” when there is no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or outside standard by which we can judge certain matters, a standard that does not alter with alterations of historical taste or fashion or sentiment. To say that as civilisation progresses it becomes better and places a higher value on human life and freedom is as Victorian as the notion that evolution progresses to more and more complex organisms and finally arrives at us, the pinnacle of creation.

      We don’t ascribe a notion of ‘progress’ to evolution anymore, so in the same way, why would we ascribe a notion of ‘progress’ to morality? Why should our descendants of three or thirty centuries hence be ‘more’ morally evolved? What do you base your fundamentals on?

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

    “I’m meeting with a Dominican friar…”
    YES! I love Dominicans. We’ve got some great ones out here in Berkeley. They’ll keep you on your philosophical toes.

    “Do you jettison metaphysics?”
    Metaphysics cannot be jettisoned. One can pretend to ditch it, but it is always there, lurking in the closet or under the rug. To “jettison metaphysics” is itself acting upon metaphysical beliefs.

    I know in this particular situation you are talking about the relation of metaphysics and morals, but just as a broad point, atheism is a metaphysical stance. Everything is. And, there can be no ethos without mythos. The minute one shifts from action (ethos) to the reason behind the action you have shifted towards (and will eventually end up at) mythos and metaphysics.

    “The Greek philosophers were confident in moral order and telos without the benefit of particularly well-behaved deities.”
    The Greek philosophers were not big into the pantheon of Gods. Plato and Aristotle both revised the gods to be more appropriate for their philosophy.

    Atheists can have objective mind-external moral truth by placing it in nature, not God (or gods) but that also is a metaphysical act. It is a metaphysical question itself as to whether “good” is natural or metaphysical (or neither). Reality does not make it easy on us.

    Starting with the known is the way to go and science does a good job of providing it. Then figure out how the known got to be known (sci method) and you’ve started getting metaphysical pointers… and they point to the metaphysical beliefs of those who formulated the method, a bunch of theists.

    • Hibernia86

      Even if the scientific method was discovered by a Theist, that doesn’t mean that the scientific method needs theism. It is an independent entity in the world.

      • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

        That is also metaphysical statement. :)

  • http://raelifin.com Max Harms

    I’d be very curious whether any atheist readers of this blog have run into this problem and if you’ve come up with solutions. Do you jettison metaphysics? Do you ditch objective morality? Are you forced to hedge all your moral imperatives?

    Because you asked, here is my datapoint:
    * I am an atheist.
    * I see “metaphysics” as being more an indicator of what our algorithm feels like than anything outside of the mind. I do not use the word, and discourage others from using it because I find it to be unhelpful.
    * I see “morality” as being an attractor of the social part of our minds. It’s the internal construct that generalizes tribal opinion, and thus a big source of shame and pride. I find its utility to be moderate, but I try to emphasize to myself and others that it is a social construct rather than an “objective” thing so as to avoid the trap of moral certainty.
    * I hedge all normative language by explicitly stating the possible goal. So, I say things like “if you really want others to be happy, you should become a doctor”. I find the non-hedged language to be very damaging.

    • http://technologeekery.blogspot.com Hendy

      I really liked this response. While I may not have been able to articulate it prior to reading your post, this does resonate with me — metaphysics as what things feel/seem like vs. having any accuracy in mapping the actual territory.

      ,—
      | I find the non-hedged language to be very damaging
      `—

      Could you give an example? I’m not sure yet what you mean by this idea.

      • http://raelifin.com Max Harms

        Sure. (Note: I use the word “hedge” because Leah did. I think the better word would be “qualify”. (Double-note: I may not understand what she means by “hedge”.))

        Unqualified normative language: “You should give to charity.”

        Qualified equivalent: “You should give to charity if you’re interested in helping those who cannot afford to help themselves.”

        I think qualifying (“hedging”) the statements helps keep them grounded as concrete statements, and helps keep our goals in sight. Without qualifiers we can slip into hand-waving (“respect thy elders”) and into labeling others via fundamental attribution error (“My preist says we should give to the poor. Person X isn’t doing that. Therefore they’re a person who doesn’t do what they should. (a.k.a. ‘evil’)”).

        • http://technologeekery.blogspot.com Hendy

          Many thanks. “Qualify” also makes much more sense to me, and I believe I now understand.

          Non-qualified opens the door to generalizations and nebulous comparatives that don’t track back to some (as you put it) goals in sight.

          Qualified helps recall the why or aim of the reason we’re using normative language in the first place.

  • keddaw

    With just a little bit of thought you can easily jettison objective morality. Basically just use the ‘why’ question and you realise it comes down to what you want/value (often for other people as much as yourself) and there is no objective reason you value it, but you do. There is no ‘objective morality’ out there to be discovered by other intelligent creatures.

  • http://technologeekery.blogspot.com Hendy

    In a group email discussion with friends on free will, someone chimed in:

    ,—
    | If I could conclusively demonstrate that we had free will, what would you do
    | differently?
    |
    | If I could conclusively demonstrate that we did not have free will, what would you
    | do differently?
    `—

    Let’s say you bring forth some new grand unified theory of ethics, thereby building a coherent harmony between your atheism, morality, metaphysics, etc.

    How will this change your actions?

    Or will you just feel satisfied that you can finally justify yourself to others?

    I see a fundamental dilemma:
    — If you can’t accept theism, you apparently can’t have an objective morality and others are entitled to slap you in the face despite your requests to stop, taunting, “But slapping others in the face is only wrong for you, not for me.”

    — If you can accept theism, you get to boast about your coherent interwoven mesh of metaphysical morality aligned with the will of the almighty.

    And through it all, some in both camps will be fantastically inspiring examples of The Good, while others will cause embarrassment to the whole human race by their evils.

    I don’t see an easy fix. No matter how coherent theism claims to be… I can’t at the moment bring myself to believe in it. It’s coherence is founded on revelation from a disembodied, timeless spaceless mind and the other things this implies about the world have too many holes for me to find them plausible.

    So… what are my options?

    In the end, the point is that I still choose to be good. If my most glaring weakness is that my reasons aren’t currently supported via sturdy philosophical buttresses, what of it? I still walk around and do stuff in the world even though physics has holes it’s trying to fill, too.

    Why is this area the WWF wrestling belt of the realm of knowledge? Why don’t we require people to verbally explain a detailed account of actuarial risk before getting in their cars or flying on a plain? To explain their knowledge of covalent bonding, pH, and Van der Waals forces prior to drinking water? Or wavelengths, wave/particle theories of light, and rods/cones before they’re justified in looking at their laptop’s LCD screen?

    My cynicism may leave a bread crumb trail to the parent thought that some of these questions might not be either valuable, or even if they are, if they are not currently solvable and won’t change my actions even if they are… perhaps I should just let go of my compulsion to think about them night and day. I’ve done that with theism for two years, don’t see much of a state change in my future, and thus it may be time to utilize my neurons on other things that are more beneficial to myself and the human race :)

    • Hibernia86

      If free will exists then you have a choice in your actions, even if the actions are the same as what they would have been without free will. Free will opens up a number of different possible futures while not having free will would mean the only possible randomness in the universe is due to quantum mechanics, not anything else (such as choice).

      Even if there was objective morality, that doesn’t stop people from slapping you in the face. People who believe in objective morality still disagree on what it is. Remember Hitler and Bin Laden believed themselves to be the good guys.

      • http://technologeekery.blogspot.com Hendy

        I understand the implications of free will or determinism from a thought process standpoint.

        I’m asking how will it change what you do if you find out that it’s definitively one or the other.

        Your first paragraph is akin to explaining the different implications of the Bohr and cloud models of the atom. I’m asking how learning which is [more] correct would change how you interact with matter before or after learning.

        And I’m leaning toward there being no practical change due to learning which, in fact, is true.

        • Hibernia86

          Well, if you knew there was no free will, the very fact that you knew that might cause you to act differently (maybe it would cause you to become a philosopher), but that wouldn’t be because you had free will. It would be because learning the knowledge that you didn’t have free will would change your neurons which would change your body’s course of action.

          Studying whether humans as a whole have free will wouldn’t change their actions necessarily, but it would tell you how predictable the future was. If there is no free will then you could, as Laplace pointed out, predict the future if you knew the actions of every atom (you would have to allow for some randomness due to quantum mechanics). However, if free will DOES exist, then it would be much harder to predict the future since we would have to take into account all of the free will decisions that people make on a daily basis.

      • http://technologeekery.blogspot.com Hendy

        Oh, and face-slapping mention was an allusion toward a fairly well known response to one’s claim to be a relativist. Read the first blockquote in this post on my blog for another example.

        The point wasn’t whether people act badly as either moral relativists or objectivists or realists… it was about the supposed intellectual defensbility of each position.

        • Hibernia86

          Your example disproves normative relativism, but it does not disprove meta-ethical relativism.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_relativism

          And to respond to a point in your blog post, I know of Calvinists who believe that morality entirely exists of God’s commands and does not exist independently. That means that if God told them to stab their own innocent child to death (*cough* Abraham *cough*) they would do it.

          • Hibernia86

            To be more specific about my first point, if someone slapped me in the face, I could try and shame them if we shared a moral code. If we didn’t, then I could defend myself using my own physical abilities or those of others (teachers, police, ect) to enforce the moral standards that I wish to follow. If the person slapping me felt that my moral code was illogical and not internally consistant, they could attempt to show me why my beliefs would actually support me being slapped if I really thought about them. But if they couldn’t do that, then it would just be a competition between who could convince the most people to follow their moral code.

    • keddaw

      I see a fundamental dilemma:
      — If you can’t accept theism, you apparently can’t have an objective morality and others are entitled to slap you in the face despite your requests to stop, taunting, “But slapping others in the face is only wrong for you, not for me.”

      Or from a theological perspective:
      I see a fundamental dilemma:
      — If you can accept theism, you apparently can have an objective morality and others are entitled to slap you in the face despite your requests to stop, taunting, “But slapping others in the face is only wrong for your objective morality, not for mine.” Where objective morality is subjectively interpreted from a supposedly divinely inspired book of (often contradictory) metaphors, stories and some actual (insane) rules.

      • http://technologeekery.blogspot.com Hendy

        Well, that’s just it. Even if morality is objective in the framework of Christianity… at the end of the day it’s still up to humans to figure out what it is. And thus, I still see it as collectively defined by humans, just as you’ve suggested :)

  • Hibernia86

    Atheism without elaboration is boring? Well, that elaboration is called science and that is anything but boring.

    As an Atheist, my personal view is that morality comes from culture and evolution. We develop a morality that best fits our value. People ask “does that mean we have to respect Hitler’s values too if we can each choose our own?” No, it doesn’t. If your values are that Hitler’s values are evil, you have no reason to allow him to continue his activities. You can’t just make up whatever you want. All of your values have to be consistant with each other.

    • http://technologeekery.blogspot.com Hendy

      I’m not sure you’re understanding the heart of the matter here. If morality is what “best fits one’s value,” and one’s values are what is commonly termed “bad” or “evil,” then is the individual being “moral” when they act badly or with evil intent?

      To Hitler, your respect of certain ethnic groups may be “bad.” So, he has the same justification as you do in stopping you from continuing your activities.

      You are describing a morality that doesn’t rest on anything — just “one’s own values.” This doesn’t say who “wins” when two individual morality’s come up against one another.

      Take a read through Cartesian’s Nazi Example to understand more.

      • Hibernia86

        I understand that Hitler would term my beliefs to be bad, but his actions turned the entire world against him, hence his defeat (yes I know that some people have come up with ways that he could have won, but this underestimates, I think, how much the combined population of the world was turning against him). The majority disagreed with his moral system and hence rejected him when he got violent about it.

        To reiterate, the moral system that “wins” is the one that gets the most people to agree with it. You can use logic to promote your moral system (for example “how can you say that blacks are morally worth less than whites when they are pretty much the same biologically except for a few outer features?”) Anyone who has a moral system must have one that is internally consistant. If you can point out flaws, then you can convince more people to come to your side.

        In regard to your Cartesian’s Nazi Example, there is no requirement that people agree with the prevailing morality of the culture. The person who disagreed with Jew torture could attempt to spread their beliefs using the logic that I mentioned above. One day they might be successful in convincing a majority of people to their view and then that would be the morality that becomes culturally normal.

        I understand that many people are uncomfortable with the idea of no objective morality, many Atheists included (Sam Harris, Adam Lee, Leah Libresco, ect). However, can you really have proof that it is any other way? (remember to believe in something, you should at least have evidence that suggests that it is true, even if it can’t be proven absolutely. If you look at my response to Lukas above, you can see that objective morality does not even have that)

  • Joe

    Hibernia86

    Pick a worldview. You can’t claim that people’s actions are good or evil if everything is determined by chemicals. If one ameba is absorbed by another do we call they absorbing ameba evil? Why are humans different then bacteria?

    • Hibernia86

      Yes I can. I can claim that people are good or evil WITHIN MY MORAL FRAMEWORK. I can believe that there are values that I chose to hold to be important and I can judge myself and others by how well they hold to them. Whichever moral system gets the most supporters is the one that is likely to be in force around the world just like laws would be in any democracy.

      By the way, you can not say “I’d prefer to live in a world with objective morality, therefore that is what I believe in”. Just because you want something doesn’t make it so. You have to provide evidence for why objective morality exists. Saying that it feels like it exists doesn’t work because people can explain where those feelings came from (see my response to Lukas at the top of the thread)

      • Lukas Halim

        “I can claim that people are good or evil WITHIN MY MORAL FRAMEWORK. ”

        In other words, you are a moral relativist. In this regard, you are different from Leah & me.

        • Hibernia86

          Yes, I am different from Leah and you on this topic. I agree with descriptive relativism and meta-ethical relativism, but strongly disagree with normative relativism.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_relativism

          • Lukas Halim

            Right. I’m not sure how to have a constructive debate with someone who is a meta-ethical relativist.

  • Joe

    “Yes I can. I can claim that people are good or evil WITHIN MY MORAL FRAMEWORK”.

    You sir are a soft-theist. You are the god of your own moral universe. And you are no better then any other man made god, judgeing others and seeking to oppress them with your own subjective moral code.

    • Hibernia86

      I am no God because I do not tell people that there is an objective morality that they must follow. I only tell people that there is a morality that I follow and I hope that they will agree with me.

      As for “oppressing others”, what other choice do you suggest? Should I say “do whatever you want. Steal, kill, rape if you want. I won’t try and enforce my morality on you.” That is Normative Relativism and it would lead to the collapse of society.

      What other choice do you have? Believe in objective morality even though there is no proof? That isn’t intellectually honest.

      (However, I could maybe agree with the idea that most people should believe in objective morality even if there is no evidence for it simply because it helps people to live within a healthy set of moral rules. But this would just be for helping society function. It wouldn’t be an actual statement of truth.)

      • Joe

        “That is Normative Relativism and it would lead to the collapse of society”

        Why should the atheist have any more concern for society then they do for an ant farm. Are there any rational reasons for rejecting Normative Relativism? Im not sure fear is a good motivation. Society is unlikely to collapse in your life time. You’re a good man so I think I already know your answer so don’t feel obligated to answer. The question is mostly rhetorical.

  • Hibernia86

    I should point out that Adam Lee from Daylight Atheism says that we should use science to determine morality. He suggests, to my understanding, that we should create a moral system that does the most good without violating people’s rights. He defends believing that we should value others by saying it is the same as believing in the material world instead of believing that we are in the matrix. It is just something we accept as given. One rebuttle of this could be that while we can come up with evolutionary reasons for morality (see my response to Lukas at the top of the page), we do not have any proof that we are really brains in a jar who just think we are people reading a computer screen. Occam’s Razor suggests we should believe that which makes the least assumptions which is that space and time are real and that morality is evolved. But to give Adam credit, it is something I need to think about more.

  • Pingback: Feser’s The Last Superstition [Index Post] | Unequally Yoked

  • Touchstone

    A little late to the party, but:

    Joe,

    When did “chemicals” (by which I take you to mean the physical reality of the brain) become so “mere”? Perhaps it is in the language of chemicals that the moral law is written upon the hearts of men. Perhaps it is in the language of chemicals that the moral law is written into the fabric of the universe.

    Can you really imagine not a single metaphysics that implies a moral law without (necessarily) implying a sentient creator being?

    (Hibernia86 may be a relativist, but for your point to be relevant to the debate as a whole, you need to show that all atheists necessarily are).

    • Joe

      “Can you really imagine not a single metaphysics that implies a moral law without (necessarily) implying a sentient creator being?”

      Yes you got me on this one. No I can’t imagine a moral law without a law giver. I think that is what Leah was asking in the post. Do you know of any atheists that have formulated an objective moral metaphysics that doesn’t imply a creator being?

      • Touchstone

        See, this is where we differ. To me, it seems clear that a law is all the more universal if it exists *without need for* a giver. A lawgiver implies whim, arbitrariness. The sort of moral law you claim to want is non-arbitrary.

        God as lawgiver avoids the arbitrariness trap by being omnipotent. But that’s not the only way to avoid it. Another way is not to have a sentient giver, but rather for the law to be a necessary fact implied by the structure of the universe, just as Liebniz believed God to be a “necessary being,” and just as the laws of the true physics (which history suggests we have only approximated) may turn out to be logically/metaphysically necessary.

    • Joe

      “Perhaps it is in the language of chemicals that the moral law is written upon the hearts of men. Perhaps it is in the language of chemicals that the moral law is written into the fabric of the universe.” I think both these statements are true. Is there a problem Im missing?

  • Joe

    “…but rather for the law to be a necessary fact implied by the structure of the universe..” Im not sure I understand why this couldn’t be true even with an omnipotent lawgiver? The implications of whim and arbitrariness only seem to come into play if you are a Divine Command theorist. But granted I could be totally misunderstanding your point. Im certainly not the smartest guy following this blog.

  • Touchstone

    ” Im not sure I understand why this couldn’t be true even with an omnipotent lawgiver?”

    Of course it can be. The point is that it also can be true *without* an omnipotent lawgiver, hence why I think there are plausible moral metaphysics that don’t include a sentient creator being.

    As for divine command theory, I have often wondered if omnipotence cures fears of arbitrariness. The argument would be that one power an omnipotent creator possesses is the power to write the moral law.

    If that makes you uneasy, you could also argue that God’s nature defines morality, and that God structures the universe accordingly, but those two framings seem to me to be (arguably) two ways of saying the same thing.

    • Joe

      Can you point out for me some plausible moral metaphysics that don’t include an omnipotent law giver? Im having trouble imagining a metaphysics that excludes an omnipotent God with out replacing him with a philosopher demigod. Not trying to pick a fight but without an omnipotent God its seems there is potential for relativistic metaphysics (if thats even possible. Im just an armchair philosopher)

      • Touchstone

        Basically, if you’re okay with self-caused necessary facts about the universe (and you have to be to believe in God as a necessary being), then I would argue that the (true, undiscovered, and only partially approximated by human reasoning) laws of physics must be self-caused necessary facts in an atheist metaphysics. If that seems coherent to you, why can’t similar (true, undiscovered, and only partially approximated by human reasoning) moral laws exist as self-caused necessary facts in an atheists metaphysics?

        Now, you don’t have to think this is the most convincing account of metaphysics or even a particularly likely one (I don’t subscribe to it myself) You just have to find it possible, and as soon as you do, the argument that atheists are necessarily relativists falls apart.

        • Touchstone

          Basically, in such a universe, the statement “harm to sentient beings is wrong” is a true statement the same way that “massive bodies exist an attracting force upon one another” is true statement!

          They’re both (approximations of) necessary facts that are true as long as the universe itself exists.

        • leahlibresco

          Basically, if you’re okay with self-caused necessary facts about the universe (and you have to be to believe in God as a necessary being), then I would argue that the (true, undiscovered, and only partially approximated by human reasoning) laws of physics must be self-caused necessary facts in an atheist metaphysics. If that seems coherent to you, why can’t similar (true, undiscovered, and only partially approximated by human reasoning) moral laws exist as self-caused necessary facts in an atheists metaphysics?

          Touchstone has correctly summarized my position.

          • Joe

            Leah,
            If your reject Aristotelian metaphysics what system of metaphysics do you use to approximate moral truth?

  • Touchstone

    (the power to write the real/true/non-arbitrary moral law)

  • Joe

    I can understand self-caused facts can exist within an all ready existing universe, but not in a universe that self-causes it’s self into existence. Why don’t you subscribe to the metaphysics you describe? Do you know of any atheists that do? And what is the motivation for an Atheist to even pay the slighest attention to this Godless metaphysics?

    • Touchstone

      I can understand self-caused facts can exist within an all ready existing universe, but not in a universe that self-causes it’s self into existence.

      I think we’re getting hung up upon the word “self-caused.” Basically, I think atheist metaphysics can easily presuppose a “necessary” universe in the way that certain Christian metaphysics take God to be a “necessary” being.

      At that point, Christians don’t say that any attributes of God other than God’s existence are contingent. Rather, they see other attributes of God as equally necessary (e.g. the moral law)—part of God’s “nature.”

      Why can’t an atheist who believes the universe to be necessary believe that some attributes of it (including the moral law) are also necessary facts? The universe doesn’t have to be sentient to have a “nature” in this sense of the word.

    • Touchstone

      I can understand self-caused facts can exist within an all ready existing universe, but not in a universe that self-causes it’s self into existence.

      I think we’re getting hung up upon the word “self-caused.” Basically, I think atheist metaphysics can easily presuppose a “necessary” universe in the way that certain Christian metaphysics take God to be a “necessary” being.

      At that point, Christians don’t say that any attributes of God other than God’s existence are contingent. Rather, they see other attributes of God as equally necessary (e.g. the moral law)—part of God’s “nature.”

      Why can’t an atheist who believes the universe to be necessary believe that some attributes of it (including the moral law) are also necessary facts? The universe doesn’t have to be sentient to have a “nature” in this sense of the word.

      What’s the motivation for atheists to pay attention to these ideas? Well, if moral laws are written into the fabric of the universe, they’d better start following them! That’s what a moral law means! Something you ought (in a real and irreducible sense) to follow.

      Also, while they are perhaps a minority of atheists, atheists like Leah want a metaphysics that locates the moral law in the human-mind-independent universe, so they’ll want to pay attention.

  • Joe

    You are just making a god out of the universe in that case. How does an impersonal universe obligate anyone to follow it’s moral law? You are just taking the personhood of God of the picture and deifying ones own will to follow the moral law

    • Patrick

      “How does an impersonal universe obligate anyone to follow it’s moral law?”

      For moral platonists, no one has to “obligate” anyone. “Obligation” is an actually existing thing. Its not something that has to be imposed, its something that actually is, on its own, on its own terms.

      You won’t find many atheists who believe in this. More frequently you find Christians who include, in their overall Christian metaphysics, the idea that moral law is a brute fact about the universe rather than something that flows from the existence or actions of God.

      And if that’s coherent, then its coherent to drop the God part and continue to believe in the moral law part.

      Personally I don’t think its coherent.

      • Joe

        Do you deny its coherency on purely materialistic grounds?

        • Patrick

          Sort of? I’m not deeply wed to words like “materialism” because discussing them always turns into a debate about words like “things” or “exists.” For example, are patterns “things” and do they “exist?” I’m just not interested in fighting about that as a sort of proxy war over whether its reasonable for grown men to believe in magic, and that’s what debates about materialism always turn into.

          But in short, there’s a named fallacy called the “mind projection fallacy.” Its when someone thinks their own feelings about something are in fact a trait of the thing itself. Its quite common, and worked pretty deeply in to the English language. But its still an error in reasoning, even if most times its a harmless one.

          I think beets are gross. But upon reflection, I recognize that beets do not have the trait “grossness.” Instead, it is I who have the trait, “perceives beets as gross.”

          Ought-ness is in the same position.

          But if someone believed that ought-ness was NOT in this position, there’s no particular reason to think that a theistic God is needed to explain why. And indeed, a great many Christians have in fact believed this. Its implicit in claims that God is necessarily good, and its even used as a premise in some forms of ontological arguments.

          Again, I’m not defending the reasonableness of this view. Just being conversational about the breadth of theological views out there.

          • Touchstone

            ^ This is a very good statement of what I’ve been trying (much less successfully) to articulate.

  • Joe

    Just like to add that what Thouchtone is purposing is a selective metaphysics. I don’t know how you can accept the metaphysics of natural law and ignore the metaphysics that teaches that there has to be a prime mover keeping the world in existence from moment to moment

    • Touchstone

      I don’t know how you can accept the metaphysics of natural law and ignore the metaphysics that teaches that there has to be a prime mover

      Why does such a prime mover need to be a conscious (as we understand the term) being? That’s what I’ve been trying to push you on this whole time. I suppose that your answer is perhaps related to your belief that obligation requires that someONE (rather than someTHING) obligate you. If you see it as obvious why only someONE rather than someTHING can be an uncaused first cause, I simply have to say that it does not seem obvious to me.

      (As a side note, I should add that I find certain kinds of pantheist arguments that the universe itself represents a kind of “mind” somewhat plausible, but I hesitate to use the word “mind” because any “thoughts” or “forms of experience” had by something so much more complex than a single human mind seems to me to be potentially so different from our own that it would be a category error (not to mention hubris) to ascribe to them the same term (ie. mind).

  • Joe

    I respect your hesitancy to equate the mind of God with a human mind. But at the same time I can’t imagine an impersonal prime mover and universe producing a thinking and emotional being such as ourselves. Perhaps I have a limited imagination. Also I find that it would be ridiculous to obey a bunch of laws with no personal incentive to do so and no necessary reprisals if you don’t. The only reason I can think of for someone to obey these laws(they’re more like natural suggestions) is if the person was a prideful intellectual maniac and wanted to show off their moral superiority like some greek stoic. Were if you can’t live up to the metaphysical ideal then its ok to kill yourself. Perhaps Leah’s commentary on Feser’s book will give us some more to chew on.

  • Joe

    “If you see it as obvious why only someONE rather than someTHING can be an uncaused first cause, I simply have to say that it does not seem obvious to me.”

    I think you do an injustice by calling this metaphysics “atheism” it sounds to me a lot more like very poor theology. Calling God a thing is still claiming a god. You are still referring to It as a being.

  • Touchstone

    You think an uncaused first cause that is an object (and not a subject)—ie. does not have internal experience—ie. isn’t conscious—ie. is not someONE (I’m running out of terminology here) still counts as a god?

    I doubt many theists would agree with you there.

    Rather, I suspect what you actually believe is that an uncaused first cause *must* be a subject. The most interesting argument I’ve heard for this is Aquinas’s (as it was explained to me) which rests on the claim that:

    a) the uncaused cause must lack potentiality (I believe this means it is eternal) and therefore must be immaterial (as material things necessarily have potentiality) and subsistent through time
    b) it follows from some substance metaphysics (Aristotelean dualism) that it is therefore a subject.

    I think there are plenty of places to dispute this argument, but I see it as more potentially convincing to *me* than the claim that an non-subject counts as a god.

    • Joe

      Well that makes it alittle more clear. I appreciate you patience this is the first time I have come across this type of understanding of the first cause. Ian ashamed that I don’t have a more rigorous argument for you to ponder. Back to the books for me. Thanks for the food for thought. I look forward to your reactions to Leahs post on Fesers book. Have you read it? I haven’t.

  • Pingback: Burden of Proof, before and after | Unequally Yoked

  • Pingback: On Atheist Blogger Leah Lilbresco’s Conversion to Catholicism and Her Atheistic Detractors | Camels With Hammers


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X