December 15, 2016

objective moralityLet’s revisit the question of objective morality. We have another contestant who thinks he can convince us that objective morality exists.

But before we consider that, here’s Christian apologist Tim Keller to set the stage:

The Nazis who exterminated Jews may have claimed that they didn’t feel it was immoral at all. We don’t care. We don’t care if they sincerely felt they were doing a service to humanity. They ought not to have done it. We do not only have moral feelings, but we also have an ineradicable belief that moral standards exist, outside of us, by which our internal moral feelings are evaluated.

“They ought not have done it”? How do you know?

This is the problem with how this topic is typically handled within Christian apologetics: a moral situation with one obvious answer is tossed out, and we’re supposed to infer ourselves into the apologist’s moral viewpoint. This is insufficient. There’s a difference between a widely believed or strongly felt moral opinion and objective morality. Don’t make the remarkable claim of objective morality (Keller’s “moral standards exist, outside of us”) without evidence.

Enter our contestant …

Let’s give a warm welcome to J. Warner Wallace of the Cold Case Christianity blog. He interviewed me on his podcast once, and we’ve had occasional email exchanges. He’s unfailingly polite and a good reminder to all of us that dialing back the anger makes one’s arguments more palatable.

In one post, Wallace first notes that the simple moral dictates that we find in the Ten Commandments (don’t kill, don’t lie, etc.) are insufficient because sometimes these actions are justified. How do we escape from this moral morass? He offers this rule:

When we simply insert the expression “for the fun of it” into our descriptions of these moral actions, we discover the objective moral foundation to these claims. [With this applied to killing and lying], we’ve just discovered two objective moral absolutes.

So we shouldn’t kill or lie just for fun. I confess that I’m unimpressed. Do we now have a useful moral roadmap where we didn’t before? Does this rule illuminate issues that frustrate society like abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and capital punishment so that the correct path is now clear to all?

Nope. We’re no wiser than we were before. And note that the Nazis didn’t kill Jews just for fun, so this rule does nothing to help Keller’s example.

The point of this exercise is only to spit out yet another example that we can all agree to. Keller pointed out that exterminating Jews was bad, and Wallace points out that killing or lying without justification is bad. I’m sure we all agree with these claims, but this isn’t news. Nothing has been illuminated.

And the correct answer is …

The problem, of course, is the remarkable claim of moral truth grounded outside humanity—“moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not” as William Lane Craig defines it. Why would you pick this explanation? A far more plausible explanation is morality as a combination of

  • a fixed part (moral programming that we all pretty much share since we’re the same species) and
  • a variable part (social mores).

This explains morality completely without an appeal to the supernatural.

Wallace next anticipates some reactions to his position.

What do we do when two groups disagree on a moral issue?

Wallace first imagines Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.

When a society defines an objective moral truth and the vast majority of its members agree, on what basis can a lone reformer make a call for change?

Obviously not through an appeal to an objective moral truth. If such a truth were accessible to all of us, how could we be in disagreement? Or does Wallace imagine that objective moral truth is not reliably accessible? But if it’s inaccessible, what good is it?

Wallace puzzles over how MLK could’ve caused change, but where’s the difficulty? History tells how it happened. America is not a simple democracy where the majority rules. We have a Bill of Rights that protects the minority against the tyranny of the majority. We have a free press. And we have a long history of (slowly) changing our minds on moral issues.

The majority opinion is that and nothing more. The moral claim “Jim Crow laws are wrong” is grounded only by everyone who agrees with the statement. It’s not objective moral truth.

Next, what about two societies that disagree? He gives as an example the Nuremburg trials of Nazi war criminals, during which a prosecutor said, “There is a law above the law.” Yes, that sounds like an appeal to objective morality, but that appeal is no more supported by this guy than by Wallace himself. The laws used during the trials came from the Allies, not from God.

Since morality changes, doesn’t this overturn the idea of objective morality?

Wallace gives an anecdote about four witnesses with conflicting descriptions of a purse snatcher. Does this disagreement mean that there was no purse snatcher? No, Wallace says, and similarly, disagreement about what objective moral truth is doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

But if we can’t agree on the description of the purse snatcher, then why bring up objective truth? All you’ve shown is that the description is inaccessible, so why bring up “objective” anything?

And back to our subject, if different people give different answers to today’s moral issues, where does “objective” fit in? There may be an objectively correct resolution to each, but we can’t access it. The Big Book of Moral Truth is locked up in God’s library.

Wallace might’ve given us slightly more than other apologists, but this is woefully insufficient to overturn the obvious natural explanation of morality.

Can God make a rock so heavy that hitting His head with it 
would explain the change in personality He underwent 
between the Old Testament and the New Testament?
— commenter GubbaBumpkin

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 8/21/13.)

 

August 21, 2013

Let’s revisit the question of objective morality. We have another contestant who thinks he can convince us that objective morality exists.

But before we consider that, here’s Christian apologist Tim Keller to set the stage:

The Nazis who exterminated Jews may have claimed that they didn’t feel it was immoral at all. We don’t care. We don’t care if they sincerely felt they were doing a service to humanity. They ought not to have done it. We do not only have moral feelings, but we also have an ineradicable belief that moral standards exist, outside of us, by which our internal moral feelings are evaluated.

“They ought not have done it”? How do you know?

This is the problem with how this topic is typically handled within Christian apologetics: a compelling example is thrown out like chum, and we’re supposed to infer ourselves into the apologist’s moral viewpoint. This is insufficient. Don’t make the remarkable claim of objective morality (Keller’s “moral standards exist, outside of us”) without evidence.

Enter our contestant …

Let’s give a warm welcome to J. Warner Wallace of Cold Case Christianity. He interviewed me on his podcast once, and we’ve had occasional email exchanges. He’s unfailingly polite and a good reminder to all of us that dialing back the anger makes one’s arguments more palatable.

In a recent post, Wallace first notes that the simple moral dictates that we find in the Ten Commandments (don’t kill, don’t lie, etc.) are insufficient because sometimes these actions are justified. How do we escape from this moral morass? He offers this rule:

When we simply insert the expression “for the fun of it” into our descriptions of these moral actions, we discover the objective moral foundation to these claims. [With this applied to killing and lying], we’ve just discovered two objective moral absolutes.

So we shouldn’t kill or lie just for fun.

I confess that I’m unimpressed. Do we now have a useful moral roadmap where we didn’t before? Does this rule illuminate issues that frustrate society like abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, and capital punishment so that the correct path is now clear to all?

Nope. We’re no wiser than we were before. The point of this exercise is only to toss out yet another example that we can all agree to. Keller pointed out that exterminating Jews was bad, and Wallace points out that killing or lying without justification is bad. I’m sure we all agree with these claims, but this isn’t news.

And the correct answer is …

The problem, of course, is the remarkable claim of moral truth grounded outside humanity—“moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not” as William Lane Craig defines it. Why would you pick this explanation? A far more plausible explanation is morality as a combination of

  • a fixed part (moral programming that we all pretty much share since we’re the same species) and
  • a variable part (social mores).

This explains morality completely without an appeal to the supernatural.

Wallace next anticipates some reactions to his position.

If morality is not objective but shared, what do we do when two groups disagree?

Wallace first imagines Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.

When a society defines an objective moral truth and the vast majority of its members agree, on what basis can a lone reformer make a call for change?

Obviously not through an appeal to a single objective moral truth. If such a truth were accessible to all of us, how could we be in disagreement? Or does Wallace imagine that objective moral truth is simply inaccessible? But if it’s inaccessible, why bring it up?

Wallace puzzles over how MLK could’ve caused change, but where’s the difficulty? History tells how it happened. America is not a simple democracy where the majority rules. We have a Bill of Rights that protects the minority against the tyranny of the majority. We have a free press. And we have a long history of (slowly) changing our minds on moral issues.

The majority opinion is that and nothing more. The moral claim “Jim Crow laws are wrong” is grounded only by everyone who agrees with the statement. It’s not objective moral truth.

Next, what about two societies that disagree? He gives as an example the Nuremburg trials of Nazi war criminals, during which a prosecutor said, “There is a law above the law.” Okay, I get it—that sounds like an appeal to objective morality—but that appeal is no more supported by this guy than by Wallace himself.

Since morality changes, doesn’t this overturn the idea of objective morality?

Wallace gives an anecdote about four witnesses with conflicting descriptions of a purse snatcher. Does this disagreement mean that there was no purse snatcher? No, Wallace says, and similarly, disagreement about what objective moral truth is doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

Wow. I feel like I’ve walked through Alice’s looking glass. If we can’t agree on this objective moral truth, then what good is it? It’s useless. The “Big Book o’ Moral Truth” is locked up in God’s library, and we can’t access it.

Wallace might’ve given us slightly more than other apologists, but this is woefully insufficient to overturn the obvious natural explanation of morality.

Can God make a rock so heavy that hitting His head with it
would explain the change in personality He underwent
between the Old Testament and the New Testament?
— commenter GubbaBumpkin

Photo credit: Art Resource

October 22, 2012

Leah Libresco at the Unequally Yoked blog has responded to my blog post about objective morality, as have many commenters. I’ll try to hit the ball back over the net and respond to some of these ideas.

A serving of vegetables that we need to get out of the way first is the definition of “objective.” I tried to nail down the definition that I wanted to use, but I still think many readers and I were not on the same page.

Here are three definitions that I see being used. Each is reasonable, but we need to agree on the one we’re using.

1. Objective means “strongly or viscerally held.” Christian apologists often use this. “By ‘objectively wrong,’ we refer to those things that we all know are just wrong,” they’ll say, and then give something hideous (torturing babies is popular) as an example.

2. Objective means “universally held” or “that which reasonable people can be argued into accepting.” Consider this statement: “Bob’s car is yellow.” No one cares much about this claim, but ignore that—suppose that you wanted extraordinary evidence. I could send you a photo of me in my car. I could email you the names of people who could vouch for this claim. I could show you my driver’s license (connecting my face to my name), my car registration (connecting my name to a particular car’s vehicle ID number), and then the yellow car in my garage (with that VIN). And so on.

I think that this is what the Declaration of Independence means when it says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” “These truths” are such that someone either already accepts them or can be convinced that they’re valid.

3. Objective means “grounded outside humanity” or, as Merriam-Webster defines it, “having reality independent of the mind.” 1 + 1 = 2 may be objectively true by this definition, for example. Leah’s example: “Russell’s teapot is orbiting the sun.” This claim is hard to prove, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s either true or false.

Each of these definitions has its place, and I can accept each. But now let’s focus on the topic at hand: objective morality. Objective morality by definitions 1 and 2—strongly held or universally held moral beliefs—certainly exists but I see no evidence for objective morality of the third kind. Return to William Lane Craig’s definition for objective morality: “moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not.” This is what I see no evidence for.

Consider this parallel to humans’ common moral instinct: our common appreciation of cuteness. Small, helpless, big-eyed things like babies or kittens provoke caring feelings in most of us. “Kittens are cute” is probably objectively true by definition 2. We can analyze why we feel this way (evolution probably selected adults who are drawn to help human babies and similar-looking things) but that doesn’t matter. What’s interesting is that it’s a sense shared among most humans.

Why do we react instantly when we see someone in serious danger—stepping in to pull someone out of harm’s way, shouting  for help, and so on? We just do, and almost everyone would act in a similar way. We can analyze the action from an evolutionary or physiological standpoint, but again the point is that this is a shared human instinct.

About Leah’s debate with Hemant Mehta, who shares Leah’s sense of objective morality, she says,

I was trying to press him on where the yardstick or rulebook or whatnot comes from.

My answer is that morality is composed of an instinctive part (the Golden Rule, perhaps) along with a societal part. The first part explains the commonality among people, and the second explains the differences.

Obviously, the instinctive part doesn’t express itself identically in every person. For example, the popular TV series Dexter is about a sociopath (someone without this instinct) who was taught how to pass in ordinary society. Similarly, every person from Seattle doesn’t express an identical Seattle moral sense. These are tendencies, not immutable constraints.

There’s my answer, but how do proponents of objective morality answer this? I’d like to know more about the external grounding of this morality, and I wonder why it’s even introduced since it seems a far more fanciful explanation that no better explains the morality that we see in society.

Leah said:

[Bob is] claiming that we can’t even ask if [a widespread moral] consensus is correlated with anything, since there’s nothing for the consensus to be true about.

I’ll agree that there’s nothing absolute for the consensus to be truth about. When we say, “Capital punishment is wrong,” there is no absolute truth (the yardstick) for us to compare our claim against. Is capital punishment wrong? We can wrestle with this issue the only way we ever have, by studying the issue and arguing with each other in various ways, but we have no way to resolve the question once and for all by appealing to an absolute standard.

Let me bring up accessibility again. If there is objective truth about capital punishment but we simply can’t access it (as if God’s Big Book of Morals exists but we don’t have a library card for God’s library), the objective moralists have won a pyrrhic victory. Yes, objective moral truth exists, but if we can’t reliably access it, what good is it?

If Bob doesn’t think there’s some external standard that his personal understanding of morality can grow to more perfectly resemble, then I’m really baffled about how he approaches new questions. Is the goal just to more perfectly and consistently live out your essentially arbitrary moral preferences?

Again, I get stuck on this idea of an external standard. I’ve seen no evidence of such a thing.

As for “arbitrary,” my morals may be arbitrary in an absolute sense, but of course they don’t feel arbitrary in a throwing-darts-at-a-list-of-possibilities sort of way. I consult my conscience with moral questions, and it gives me answers. No need for an external anything. (If you say, “Wait—where did that conscience come from? Didn’t that get put in there by an external agent?” then I point to evolution as the source.)

If we were bears or Klingons, we’d evaluate situations differently. We can be horrified at the actions of other species, but by what external standards do we judge those actions objectively wrong?

As it stands, I don’t understand why Bob feels a particular loyalty to his arbitrary moral preferences. Any debating atheist knows that we’re running on buggy hardware [that is, we have lots of biases]…

As for loyalty, that suggests that I have a choice, but all I have is a conscience that tells me what’s right and what’s wrong. I have no higher authority to appeal to to check its imperfect moral claims. If Leah’s point is that we shouldn’t be too smug about what our fallible brains tell us, I agree. But these imperfect brains are all we’ve got.

There’s no reason for Bob to treat his moral preferences as any more sacred or central to his identity than his gastronomic preferences.

My moral preferences certainly aren’t any more sacred in an absolute sense (as if God tallied my morals but didn’t care about what I ate). But from my perspective, I think that my morals are more important. If you violate my moral sense, I might tell you that you’re mistaken or I might even take action to stop you, but not much happens if you violate my culinary sense.

Either [moral or gastronomic preferences] could be maladapted to his current environment, and it’s worth poking around to see if he can come up with something better. Does he really think we’re powerless in the face of these questions?

There’s evidence that evolution built us to think that rape and slavery are okay, as long as you’re on the giving end. We see this attitude in the Old Testament, for example. However, modern society teaches us something different. This is the instinctive moral sense being overridden by the societal moral sense. Sam Harris writes about this in his The Moral Landscape. As I understand this, he argues for an objective morality of the second kind—one that we can hone with science and reason.

Here I agree with Leah that we aren’t stuck with our evolutionary programming. We can and do rise above our instincts.

I’m left rejecting objective morality (again: I’m using the William Lane Craig definition, above) for two reasons. First, this resolves no puzzles. The natural explanation is sufficient. And second, I see no evidence for it. The dictionary doesn’t appeal to an objective element to morality, and I see no need to either.

Religion gives people bad reasons for acting morally,
where good reasons are actually available.
— Sam Harris

Photo credit: Wikimedia

June 15, 2017

red shoesNear the end of the movie The Wizard of Oz, after the wizard has been exposed as a fraud, he still tries to grant the requests of Dorothy and her friends. The scarecrow wanted brains, the lion courage, and the tin man a heart. To the scarecrow, the wizard gives a diploma; to the lion, a medal labeled “Courage”; and to the tin man, a pocket watch shaped like a heart. They’re delighted, but the wizard doesn’t give them what they wanted. Instead, he gives them only an acknowledgment of what they already had.

Throughout their journey these characters had already been developing the very traits that they said that they wanted most of all. Though the wizard no longer stands behind a curtain pretending to be what he isn’t, he still takes credit for giving everyone what they already had.

God as wizard

Sound like Someone we know? Christians tell us that God gives us morality, purpose, logic, and meaning, though this is the same morality, purpose, logic, and meaning that other believers get from their god(s) and that atheists get from reality.

The Christian may respond that objective or absolute version of these traits must come from a supernatural source, but until the Christian shows that there are objective versions of these traits, this is an empty claim.

No, these are traits that we have always had. They’re borrowed by Christianity, and much is made of God’s generously giving us back what we already had.

Christianity’s most generous gesture would be to drop the imaginary gatekeeper role. Draw back the curtain to show Christians that the power to improve or destroy is (and has always been) ours, not God’s. Help Christians grow and reject their dependence on the supernatural.

Want a better society? It’ll happen only as a result of our hard work. Want to improve yourself? There’s no higher power guiding your progress in AA or any other self-help program. If you went through such a program and have gotten rid of some dependence, congratulations, because it was you (with the help of supportive friends and family) that made that radical change. God did nothing.

Use your ruby slippers

At the end of the movie, it’s Dorothy’s turn. Glinda the Good Witch tells Dorothy that her ruby slippers can return her home. She had been able to get what she wanted all along.

And so it is with us. Morality and meaning are to us what Dorothy’s ruby slippers were to her. We’ve always had the answer, and the supernatural claims were all lies. We just need to realize that.

Dorothy: You’re a very bad man.

Wizard: Oh, no, my dear; I’m a very good man.
I’m just a very bad wizard.

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 1/8/14.)

Image credit: Cary Bass-Deschenes, flickr, CC

 

February 16, 2017

Andy Bannister The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist bookThis is part 8 of a critique of The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist: The Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments (2015) by Andy Bannister (part 1). The book promises to critique a number of atheist arguments.

(There are three more chapters after this one. I’ve been hoping that a thorough critique of this book would be an opportunity to respond to good apologetics arguments—or what passes for them. I don’t completely fault the author, as this may be about as good as they get. Though the quality of arguments has been poor, I think that this comprehensive survey has been useful. I hope it continues to be for you.)

Chapter 8. Humpty Dumpty and the Vegan

In today’s opening episode, Fred has become a vegan to satisfy his girlfriend. They’re at a vegan restaurant, and our hero isn’t happy with his unappetizing vegan pizza. He’s shocked when Fred sprinkles tuna on his half. “It’s not meat if it lives in the water,” Fred says. Ducks live in water, so they’re on the menu as well. And cows live near water, so they’re also kosher. He justifies his lax attitude as a “progressive” approach to a vegan diet, though our hero wonders if one can define words according to convenience.

Can words mean whatever you want them to?

Atheists make a big deal about morality—violence and intolerance are bad, while humanism and science are good. Atheists think “that atheists are, in fact, better than religious people, because atheists do good for no ulterior motive.” But is morality a win for atheists, Bannister asks? He gives Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass as an example of someone who defines words however he wants.

I agree that changing definitions to suit your whim is a bad idea, but Bannister might want to get his own house in order first. “Faith” is an important concept that has two incompatible definitions, and many Christians switch between them as convenient to make their argument (more here). Another slippery area for many Christians is morality. They imagine that any moral statement must be a claim to objective morality, even though that’s not how morality is defined (more here).

Bannister demands, “Who gets to define what the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’ mean?”

Uh . . . humans? The definitions are in the dictionary. But if he’s asking how we put moral actions into the Good bin or the Evil bin, we do it with the imperfect sense of right and wrong that we got from evolution and society (more here and here). If he wants to carve out a spot for God and show that only with godly insight can we have morality, he’s done nothing to argue for that.

He notes that as long as two people with very different views on things “can agree not to try to suggest that the other one is wrong, everybody can get along famously.”

But of course, we often correct each other’s morality. We talk it over. We debate. We argue. Can he have never seen how humans try to resolve disagreements? It’s not always pretty, and minds often don’t change. But no supernatural is required to explain morality, as he wants to imagine.

Tough love time!

Bannister makes clear our error:

Quite frankly, my first reaction, when I meet anybody who tells me that they sincerely believe that we decide what is ‘good’ and ‘evil’ based on our preferences or our feelings is to lean over and steal something from them. When they protest (“Give me back my seal-skin gloves!”), I simply say, innocently and sweetly: ‘But I thought you said “good” and “evil” were just questions of personal preference. Well, my preference is that I’m smitten with your mittens.’ That usually changes the conversation quite rapidly.

Does he really want to steal my stuff? If that doesn’t fit with my plans, then I have society and the law to back me up. Theft where I come from is illegal. But if he’s just making a point, what’s the point? That people can steal things? Yes, they can—is that a revelation? We live in an imperfect society with many moral disagreements. If harm is involved, that’s usually central to society’s resolution of the problem.

Maybe he’s saying that his stealing something will snap me out of my simplistic reverie and return me to the real world. But what insights does he imagine he’s given me—that people don’t like being stolen from? That we share morals? We already know that. None of this argues for objective morality.

Next, Bannister moves on to fret if might makes right.

Yeah—sometimes it does. The Allies defeated Germany, so guess whose laws were used during the Nuremburg Trials. A German concentration camp commandant might have honestly thought that he was carrying out a noble mission, that he was right. However, the Allies disagreed, and since they won the war, they decide the standard of “right” used in the court.

In the West today, criminal defendants sometimes say that they were unjustly convicted. Is it right that they be punished? Not objectively so, but there’s no reason to imagine objective morals. Appeals may overturn a conviction, but until that point, might will prevail. It’s the best approximation to right that we have.

Consequences of the secular viewpoint

Bannister moves on to highlight some of the problems with human morality, and I largely agree with his concerns. What he wants to imagine is that he can solve these problems with a godly morality. And maybe he could, if such a morality existed, but he never gets beyond the, “Wouldn’t this be nice?” phase.

Challenge 1: If we go back to the 1950s and tell people that in 2017 we’re largely pleased that same-sex marriage is finally legal, most people would be horrified. Now imagine that the tables are turned so that we are the horrified, regressive people compared to people in society fifty or a hundred years in our future. What society declares as “good” changes with time.

Response: Obviously. Morality changes, and each society thinks that it has things largely figured out, though there are moral dissidents in each society, some longing for the morality of the Good Old Days and some pushing new attitudes that will gradually become accepted.

This causes no problem for my position, but I’m not the one who needs to justify the Bronze Age morality in the Old Testament.

Challenge 2: Without God, you can (1) let everyone decide good and evil for themselves. Or (2) the state decides, but then might makes right. With (1) morality is impossible, and with (2) morality is meaningless. In both cases, you have no absolute authority with which to overrule another person or state. But there is a solution: “If goodness were something bigger than us, something outside us. Only then could ethics, morality, and law actually work.”

Response: You know what it’s like to tell a joke and have it fall flat? That’s like Bannister’s Hail Mary suggestion that ethics, morality, and law might actually work if God were behind it. He supports this claim with nothing. He imagines that God is the authority that will resolve moral dilemmas, but how is that possible when you can find Christians today on every side of every moral issue?

Challenge 3: Sam Harris wants to use science to find morality. “I do give Harris credit for at least realizing something that many other atheist writers have failed to grasp—that atheism has a major problem when it comes to the question of goodness.”

Response: Atheism says nothing about goodness. That’s not a problem, just like it’s not a problem in chemistry or geology. It’s not supposed to—atheism is simply a lack of belief in god(s).

There are more, but you get the idea. He imagines that atheists are made uncomfortable by his tough hypotheticals. If his questions are uncomfortable, that’s only because they make me reach for a barf bag. They’re not driven by evidence. They’re forced. That reminds me of Christopher Hitchens charging a Christian with “trying to slip God through customs without declaring him.”

With Bannister’s argument, we never discover God waiting inevitably at the terminus of a logical sequence of evidence; rather God is shoehorned in. It might sound cute coming from a five-year-old, but it’s obnoxious coming from an adult. “Wouldn’t it be great if there were a god to put things right for us?” Maybe, but why bring it up? Wouldn’t you like a unicorn, a submarine, and a ham sandwich? Maybe, but how does that fit into the conversation?

Bannister asks us where morality comes from, and he desperately wants us to pick God. Sorry—natural explanations are sufficient.

Continue with part 9.

Any God who would grant prayers for football championships

while doling out cancer and car accidents to little boys and girls
is unworthy of our devotion.
— Sam Harris,

Image credit: Wikipedia

November 26, 2016

turekThis is a continuation of a critique of Frank Turek’s arguments in favor of Christianity made in his latest book. See the beginning of the discussion here.

The M in CRIMES is Morality

On the topic of morality, Turek couldn’t resist a Holocaust reference. He showed a photo of the Buchenwald concentration camp with stacks of dead bodies. He said,

If there is no god, this is just a matter of opinion.

The statement “I like chocolate” is just an opinion. By contrast, I wouldn’t call “I recommend we declare war” in a cabinet meeting just an opinion, but that’s a quibble. If Turek wants to say that both are conclusions grounded in the person making the statement and nothing else, I agree. The same is true for “the Holocaust was wrong.”

What alternative does Turek propose?

Turek imagines a morality grounded outside of humanity. He would probably agree with William Lane Craig’s definition of objective morality, “moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not.”

The other explanation for morality

But there’s no need to imagine Turek’s universal moral truth when we have a better alternate explanation: universally held moral programming. We’re all the same species, so we have similar responses to moral questions. That explains things nicely without the unsupported assumption of a supernatural being.

Turek confuses the degree of outrage (which, for the Holocaust, is quite high) with the degree of absoluteness. He seems to imagine that the more emphatically we think that the Holocaust was wrong, the more objective that moral opinion must be, but why imagine this? He provides no evidence to support universal moral truth or to reject the obvious alternative, universally held moral programming.

Let’s take a step back and consider his example. God allows 11 million innocent people to die in the Holocaust, and Turek thinks that this is an example supporting his side of the ledger?

Morality also changes with time. In the West, we’re pleased with our abolition of slavery and the civil rights we’ve established, but these aren’t universals. The modern views on these issues contradict the Old Testament’s, but none of us cling to the Old Testament view. Turek’s objective morality doesn’t allow change with time.

Morality vs. absolute morality

Turek listed things that must be true if God doesn’t exist. First, “The Nazis were not wrong.” If morality is an opinion, the Nazis had an opinion and the Allies had an opinion. We said they were wrong; they said we were wrong. Stalemate.

Nope—dude needs a dictionary. He’s confusing morality with absolute morality. I agree that the Nazis were not wrong in an absolute sense. But they were still wrong (from my standpoint) using the definition of morality in the dictionary, which makes no reference to an absolute grounding.

He continues his list with more examples of the same error: love is no better than rape, killing people is no different than feeding the poor, and so on. In an absolute sense, he’s right; he just hasn’t given any reason to imagine that morality is based in absolutes. Drop the assumption of absoluteness, and nothing is left unexplained.

Why the insistence on objective or universal or absolute morality? We don’t have any problem with shared (rather than absolute) ideas of other concepts like courage, justice, charity, hope, patience, humility, greed, or pride. Again, the dictionary agrees. None of these have an objective grounding, and the earth keeps turning just fine.

Turek bragged about the time he kicked Christopher Hitchens’ butt when Hitchens raised the issue of wrongs done in the name of God during the Crusades. Turek agreed but said that there’s nothing wrong with that if there is no god; without a standard of righteousness there is no righteousness.

Add the qualifier that we’re talking about absolute morality, and I agree. As he stated it, it’s nonsense.

Turek wrestles with science and science loses

Turek continues to praise science when he approves of it and lampoon it when he doesn’t.

If we’re just overgrown germs that got here by some evolutionary process then we’re no different than any other animal.

Yep, science makes clear that we’re just one more species of animal. Is this a problem?

This must’ve been a bone thrown to those in the audience who imagine that the universe was built for them. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson observed, “If you are depressed after being exposed to the cosmic perspective, you started your day with an unjustifiably large ego.”

Turek again:

Atheists can’t justify morality.

Again, I’m missing the problem. What, specifically, are atheists unable to do? A natural evolution of morality seems pretty defensible.

But the bigger question is, And you think you can justify morality?? Sure, you can point to this doctrine or that verse, but that explains nothing. You say your theology has it all figured out? Great—show that your theology is accurate and you’ve got an argument. Until then, nothing.

Here’s a thought experiment, Frank. Imagine that two Christians are arguing about a moral issue. They finally agree that Christian #1 was correct. Question: did they reach the right conclusion?

You’ll say that you need to know what the options were. But how is that relevant? You inject yourself into the conversation, and now it’s three Christians. How does that help? Or maybe you’ll say that you need to know what procedure they used. Again: how does that help? Prayer is no source of moral truth, and interpreting the Bible is ambiguous. Morality comes from people. That explains how Western societies could think that slavery was okay but now think it’s not. Explain that with unchanging objective morality.

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s ruby slippers could always have taken her home. Like Dorothy, we have always been the source of our morality and some of us simply need to realize that. Society’s morality ain’t perfect, but it’s the best we have, and improving it as we mature is a heckuva lot better than being held back by a barbarous book that preserves the morality from a primitive society thousands of years ago.

Continue to E = Evil and S = Science.

One of the great tragedies of mankind
is that morality has been hijacked by religion.
— Arthur C. Clarke

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 8/12/13.)

Image credit: James Cridland, flickr, CC

 

September 30, 2016

Say you’ve got Christians on two sides of an issue. Maybe some say that abortion is okay and others say that it is not. Some say that capital punishment is okay and others that it’s not. Some say that same-sex marriage is okay and others that it’s not.

What do we make of this? Both sides use the same Bible. Is the Bible then ambiguous?

Before you conclude that it is, consider this exchange during an interview with Greg Koukl (Unbelievable podcast for 7/13/13). A caller asked about ambiguity in the Bible and gave as an example the then-current debate about gay Anglican clergy in civil partnerships becoming bishops. (In the beginning of 2013, the church decided to allow it as long as they remained celibate, though celibacy isn’t demanded of straight priests.) There were honest, well-intentioned Christians in the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches arguing both sides of the debate using the same Bible.

Koukl’s answer

Koukl used arithmetic as a counterexample. Suppose one person argued that 2 + 2 = 4, while another said that 2 + 2 = 9. The honesty and decency of the participants is irrelevant—there are objective truths here, and these two antagonists can’t both be right.

I agree. But are there also objective truths in the gay bishop case? I see none, and I see no evidence that the Bible’s position on this matter is clear.

Koukl says that, like checking which sum is correct, we must look to the Bible to see what it says.

In this regard, there is very little ambiguity as to what the bible teaches … between the Genesis passage, the Leviticus passage, and the Romans passage, there is a very, very clear statement about homosexuality.

That so? Let’s follow up on those Bible references to see what this “clear statement” is.

Old Testament passages against homosexuality?

The Genesis passage is 19:4–9, the Sodom and Gomorrah story. But remove the presupposition that the lesson is “homosexuality is bad” and see what crime actually is. It’s rape. For the details, see my posts here and here. This informs us about the topic at hand—which, let’s remember, is a committed gay couple—not at all.

Strike one.

There are two Leviticus passages.

You must not have sexual intercourse with a male as one has sexual intercourse with a woman; it is an abomination (Leviticus 18:22).

If a man has sexual intercourse with a male as one has sexual intercourse with a woman, the two of them have committed an abomination. They must be put to death; their blood guilt is on themselves (Lev. 20:13).

“Abomination”? Ouch—that sounds pretty harsh. But look at the other things that are labeled in Leviticus as abominations—eating forbidden food, sacrificing blemished animals, performing divination, women wearing men’s clothes, and so on. Clearly, these are ritual abominations, out of date tribal customs. These are bad by definition, not because they actually hurt anyone.

Christians don’t care about these ancient customs today. The logic is that the sacrifice of Jesus got rid of them (see, for example, Hebrews 7:11–12). All right, but let’s be consistent. Get rid of them. Don’t sift through them to keep a few that you’re nostalgic for.

I’ve also written in detail about this here.

Notice also something else that we dismiss today: the punishment for homosexuality, which is death. How can you dismiss the punishment but cling to the crime? If one is abhorrent, what does that say about the other? Without a punishment there is no crime.

Strike two.

New Testament passages against homosexuality?

Finally, here is the Romans passage.

Because of [mankind’s sinful desires], God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Rom. 1:26–7)

Notice the verbs here: God “gave them over,” women “exchanged,” men “abandoned.” Paul imagines going from the natural (men with women) to the unnatural. That is, he imagines straight people engaging in homosexual sex. Yes, that is weird. And, strike three, that has no bearing on what we’re talking about: homosexuals doing what comes naturally.

As a postscript on our analysis of the Romans passage, is Paul declaring his position or the position that he rejects? Don M Burrows argues that this passage was a common negative view held by Jews of Gentiles, and, as an apostle to the Gentiles, Paul is refuting this argument.

Koukl’s conclusion

After referring to these passages, which do not address the question at hand, Koukl wraps up:

The evidence is there to come to a clear conclusion about what the spiritual sums are with regard to homosexuality. That people who are dedicated, who pray, who are honest, who have a relationship with God don’t agree on that, does not mean that the text is unclear, and what one needs to do in those kinds of things is go back to the text. This is not a case where God has been hidden in the information.

I’m a little surprised to say this, but I agree with Koukl here. There is no ambiguity. It’s clear both what is said in the Bible and what is not said. These passages say nothing about the case of gay Anglican clergy that is the topic.

This is a case where a lot of people have changed their mind under public pressure.

Social improvement comes from society. We used to chop off hands for stealing, we used to burn witches, and we used to enslave people. It’s not thanks to the Bible (which doesn’t change) but to society (which does) that we’ve put that behind us. “Public pressure” isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and we must weigh the consensus of our community to test our own moral opinions.

The problem is as Koukl identifies it: people reading into the Bible what they want it to say. And Koukl is a great example. He takes the passages from Genesis (that argues that rape is bad), Leviticus (made irrelevant thanks to his savior’s sacrifice), and Romans (which talks about some irrelevant orgy in which straight people dabble with homosexual sex) and concludes that the Bible makes plain that loving gay relationships can’t be embraced by the church.

For people like Koukl, the Bible is a sock puppet that they can make say whatever they want.

To call homosexuality admissible as long it doesn’t include sex
is like the sound of one hand clapping.
Y.A. Warren

(I recommend a resource that has been helpful with this post: “Homosexuality and the Bible” by Rev. Walter Wink.)

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 7/22/13.)

Photo credit: Chick tracts

 

July 11, 2016

Avalon has supported this blog since its earliest days (and before, when I had a small corner of apologetics.com), generous both with comments and the occasional correction. He is today’s guest blogger.

If you want to write a guest post, contact me.

Dr. Craig’s famous moral argument goes like this:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

He defines objective moral values like this:

To say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is right or wrong independently of whether anybody believes it to be so.

We may safely replace the definition of a word for the word itself without altering the meaning of a sentence. Let’s do so now to clarify the argument:

  1. If God does not exist, values and duties independent from what anyone believes do not exist.
  2. Values and duties independent from what anyone believes do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

I take issue with #2. It is not self-evident that values and duties independent from what anyone believes do exist. Since every example of objective moral values Dr. Craig uses (Nazis, murder, rape, torturing babies for fun, etc. …) is in agreement with what everyone believes, I submit that they are not independent from human belief.

Therefore, I submit the following argument:

  1. If God does not exist, values and duties independent from what anyone believes do not exist.
  2. Values and duties are not independent from what anyone believes. They exist by consensus of belief.
  3. Therefore, the existence of values and duties has no bearing on the existence of God.

Dr. Craig goes on to explain,

It is to say, for example, that Nazi anti-Semitism was morally wrong, even though the Nazis who carried out the Holocaust thought that it was good; and it would still be wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them.

Note that Dr. Craig has chosen an example of near universal agreement. How is it that Dr. Craig knows that the Nazis were objectively wrong? Isn’t it because everyone (except Nazis) agrees with him? This merely endorses his opinion that the consensus view is objectively true. But he’s just said that what we believe (individually, collectively, or universally) is irrelevant to the actual truth of the matter. Why rely on the consensus view to support your claim of objectivity? Is it just his intuition?

Suppose Dr. Craig’s scenario actually happened and everyone was brainwashed. Assuming a good brainwashing leaves no trace of your former beliefs and no memory of being changed, what position would Dr. Craig hold in this post-brainwashed world? Would he not point to what everyone (now) knows as evidence for the Nazis being objectively right? What makes the consensus view objectively right before we’re all brainwashed, but objectively wrong after we’re all brainwashed? According to Dr. Craig’s definition, where our beliefs are irrelevant, isn’t it entirely possible that our near universal beliefs were entirely wrong beforehand and the act of brainwashing simply put us onto the objective truth? Does Dr. Craig think his intuition remains unchanged after being brainwashed?

If Dr. Craig believes his own argument (values and duties independent from what anyone believes do exist) then why doesn’t he provide an example? He’s had opportunities to do so, yet he never appeals to his own argument.

For example, when asked about the Canaanite genocide that God ordered, Dr. Craig could simply reply that that was the objectively right thing to do even though we all believe it was wrong. But he doesn’t. Instead, he abandons all objective morality and cites many other, subjective moral theories (ones he supposedly rejects). These include cultural differences (“our moral sensibilities in the West”), upbringing (“shaped by our Judeo-Christian heritage, which has taught us…”), and consequentialism (“the death of these children was actually their salvation”). All of these reasons indicate someone who believes in the subjective nature of moral values rooted in what we all collectively believe about them.

The same is true when confronted with the problem of evil. Dr. Craig could say that we may perceive evil in this world, but we’re all wrong and it’s all objectively good. But he doesn’t. Instead he jumps right back on the subjectivist bandwagon and becomes a consequentialist when he says:

What I am simply saying is that God’s aims in this life, in this world, are for a maximum number of people to come to know God and His salvation as fully as possible. And it is possible that that would not be achieved in a world that did not involve as much suffering and evil as this world does. Far from being counter-intuitive, I find that very plausible. In fact, I have recently done a study, using a missions handbook, of nations of the world in which there has been intense suffering, and what I found over and over again is that it is in precisely those nations that evangelical Christianity is experiencing its most rapid and sustained growth.

So, in his mind, it’s not that what we perceive as evil is actually an objective good. We’re right again and it’s really evil, but it’s just a means to a greater good.

It is not self-evident that values and duties independent from what anyone believes do exist. Dr. Craig never provides an example of such independent values and duties. No one has ever provided evidence of independent values and duties that differ from human belief. And Dr. Craig refuses to use his own argument when the opportunity arises. Therefore, I submit that Dr. Craig doesn’t believe in objective moral values, that is, values and duties independent from what anyone believes.

So here’s the challenge to any objective moralist who agrees with Craig’s definition: give me one example of an objective good that everyone believes is wrong, some basic act that we all believe is evil, but is independently (that is objectively) good despite what anybody believes.

But perhaps I’m being unfair. Suppose it’s the case that objective moral values happen to be exactly the same as the consensus view of mankind at this point in time. If that’s the case, then it’d be impossible to provide a counter-example because none would exist. It could be that every moral consensus now is objectively true. If so, then we have a new definition of objective moral values: Objective moral values are the consensus values of mankind at this point in time.

If objective moral values are always identical to our consensus beliefs then their independence is irrelevant. We are then perfectly capable of determining moral values by a consensus of belief and no outside source (God) is necessary.

When people complain about the lack of values, 
They are usually complaining about the fact 
that other people fail to value the things they value, 
and they are presupposing that the things they value 
are the things that are truly valuable.
— Richard Garner

(This is a repeat of a post that originally appeared 6/3/13.)

 

June 1, 2015

C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity is a fundamental work in Christian apologetics. Many Christians point to this book as a turning point in their coming to faith, but Lewis’s ideas on morality need work.

Lewis says that there is a “real” right and wrong. If this were not so, how could we declare the Nazis wrong? Find a man who rejects this premise, Lewis says, and you will quickly detect the hypocrisy. He may break a promise to you, but as soon as you do the same, he declares that that’s not fair and falls back on a “real” rightness.

But it doesn’t work that way. “Right” and “wrong” come with an implied point of view. Of course I say that the Nazis were wrong, but when I do so, the word wrong is grounded in my point of view. (Kind of obvious, right? Whose point of view would I be using but my own?)

That statement is simply a less clumsy version of, “The Nazis were wrong according to Bob.” There is neither a need to imagine nor justification for an absolute standard.

Lewis doesn’t use the term “objective morality” (he wrote about 70 years ago, which explains a few odd phrasings), but I believe this is what he means by “real right and wrong.” Let’s use William Lane Craig’s definition for objective morality: “moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not.”

Despite Lewis’s claims, we needn’t imagine that morality is objectively grounded. We see this simply by looking in the dictionary. The definition of “morality” (or “right” or “wrong”) doesn’t require any sense of objective grounding or absoluteness.

Like Lewis, I insist that you keep your commitments to me, that you follow the basic rules of civility, and so on. When you don’t, I’m annoyed not because you violated an absolute law; you violated my law. It ain’t much, but it’s all I’ve got, and that’s enough to explain the morality we see around us.

To the person who insists that objective morality exists, I say: show me. Take a vexing moral issue—abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, capital punishment, sex before marriage, torture, and so on—and show us the objectively true moral position. If you want to say that objective morality exists but it’s not reliably accessible, then what good is it? This kind of objective morality that looks nonexistent might as well be.

When we see a widespread sense of a shared morality within society, are we seeing universal moral truth? Or are we seeing universally held moral programming? That latter explanation is natural and does the job without the need to imagine an objective moral truth that doesn’t exist.

Evolution explains why part of morals is built-in. What we think of as proper morals has survival value. It’s not surprising that evolution would select for a moral instinct in social animals like humans. Evolution is often caricatured as being built on the principle “might makes right.” No, natural selection doesn’t favor might but fitness to the environment. A human tribe with trust and compassion might outcompete a more savage rival tribe without those traits.

We see this moral instinct in other animals. In a study of capuchin monkeys, for example, those given cucumber for completing a task complained when others got grapes (a preferred food) for the same task. These monkeys understood fairness just like a human. (An excellent video of the monkey’s reaction is here @1:18.)

As an aside, I think it’s a mistake to look down on other primates and their “less-developed” sense of morality. The same powerful brain that gives us honor and patriotism, justice and mercy, love and altruism, and other moral instincts that we’re proud of also gives us racism, self-pity, greed, resentment, hate, contempt, bitterness, jealousy, and all the others on the other side of the coin. No other species has perfected violence, slavery, cruelty, revenge, torture, and war to the extent that humans have.

If we exceed the morality of our primate cousins on the positive side, we also do so on the negative side. Let’s show a little humility.

Human morality is nicely explained by an instinctive and shared sense of the Golden Rule plus rules that are specific to each culture. The dictionary doesn’t demand any objective grounding in its definition of morality, and neither should we.

I believe in Christianity 
as I believe that the sun has risen: 
not only because I see it, 
but because by it I see everything else. 
— C. S. Lewis

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 10/17/12.)

Image credit: ho visto nina volare, flickr, CC

May 2, 2014

Objective Truth Morality ChristianityBack in the character-based Stone Age of the personal computer, all MS-DOS PCs started up with a C-prompt, the “C:>” text with a blinking cursor. At least, all PCs that weren’t broken.

Can we conclude anything from that? That “C:>” is a reflection of some supernatural or transcendental truth? That it is an insight into God’s mind? No—it’s just a useful trait shared by this class of PCs. There’s no objective meaning behind these characters. This text is useful (it shows the directory in which any typed commands will take place), so it was selected. There’s nothing more profound than this behind it.

Human morality is like this. Almost all humans have shared moral programming, not dissimilar from instincts in other animals. Through instinct, honeybees communicate where the nectar is, newborn sea turtles go toward the ocean, and juvenile birds fly. Training or acculturation can override human programming, of course, but in general we have a shared moral sense—a shared acceptance of the Golden Rule, for example.

We think our moral programming is pretty important, and that’s understandable, but there’s no reason to imagine that it is objectively true and based on some supernatural grounding. Said another way, we think that our morality is true because it tells us that it’s true, but we can’t infer from this that it is grounded outside us. If we imagine a warlike (or gentle or wise) civilization on another planet, their programming would tell them that their morality is the correct approach, not ours.

We must not confuse universally shared moral programming with universal moral truths.

Our morality is what our programming says it is—it’s no more profound than that. There’s as much reason to imagine that it is a window into the transcendent as that the MS-DOS C-prompt is.

More: a popular apologist gets objective morality wrong here.

In Nature there are neither rewards nor punishments—
there are consequences.
― Robert G. Ingersoll

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 4/26/12.)

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