Notes From Babel

Atheism Cannot Account for Objective Morality

with 23 comments

(This post originally appeared at AtheistConnect.)

AtheistConnect published several posts recently concerning the question whether it is necessary to posit the existence of God to provide a cogent account for objective morality.  For the reasons briefly stated below, among others, I argue the affirmative:  God is necessary to provide an account of objective morality and, accordingly, atheism necessarily cannot provide such an account.

First, consider the argument made in this article referenced in Nate’s post:

Even if we accept that it’s true that there is no point in being moral if there is no God, this wouldn’t be an argument against atheism in the sense of showing that atheism isn’t true, rational, or justified. It wouldn’t provide any reason to think that theism generally or Christianity in particular is likely true. It is logically possible that there is no God and that we have no good reasons to behave morally.

The suggestion that “It is logically possible that there is no God and that we have no good reasons to behave morally” is a worthless statement.  Man is the sort of being that has both a moral intuition, and a rational faculty that demands an account be given for his beliefs—including his moral intuition.  These are non-negotiable preconditions with which all persons approach the world, and for which an epistemological and moral framework of the world must give an account.  Atheists’ response to the problem of morality, however, is either to deny man’s moral intuition (e.g., by positing “morality” is nothing more than the calculated pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain), or to deny the need for a rational account of that moral intuition (e.g., by arbitrarily replacing religious morality disfavored by atheists, and replacing it with secular humanist morality).  Thus, although atheists claim to reject transcendental reasoning, they fail to give anything resembling a cogent, rational account for man’s moral intuition in its place.

Worse, atheists often purport to take advantage of the gaps in their own reasoning by arguing that theists are clearly wrong to suggest that atheism implicitly rejects objective morality, and thus cannot establish a basis for mounting moral condemnation of, for example, the Holocaust or 9/11.  To the contrary, the argument goes, atheists do acknowledge objective morality, and even behave morally, generally speaking.  But this is misdirection.  In fact, the theist’s fallacy in making this argument is to assume that atheists comport themselves consistently with their proffered worldview when, in reality, they do not.  The theist’s unsound argument thus runs as follows:

  1. Since having rejected the existence of God, atheism has not provided a suitable alternative account for objective morality.
  2. Intellectual consistency requires rejecting that for which no suitable account has been provided.
  3. Atheists comport themselves consistently with their proffered worldview.
  4. Thus, atheists reject objective morality.

Of course, the reason this argument fails is because premise (3) is false:  atheists either are intellectually dishonest, or they simply don’t understand that their worldview cannot account for objective morality.  Again, one might say “I don’t believe in God” as a glib expression of one’s anti-authoritarianism and wide-eyed skepticism, but it actually means something very severe—particularly if it also means “I do not believe in anything that transcends empirical phenomena.”  This is a profound claim that tears down important metaphysical underpinnings of one’s view of the world, including the intellectual framework necessary to account for objective morality.  If the maker of such a statement has any interest in talking seriously about such ideas, he will have to posit an alternative theory of reality that can account for them.

But nothing like this has come forth from atheism’s ranks.  The drab statement quoted above about “logical possibilities” concerning God and morality is effectively the sum and substance of all atheism has to say about objective morality.  In discussions of moral philosophy, then, atheism is, at best, intellectually irrelevant.

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Written by Tim Kowal

March 21, 2011 at 10:55 pm

23 Responses

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  1. Great article.

    “Intellectual consistency requires rejecting that for which no suitable account has been provided.”

    You have no idea how difficult this is for many alleged atheists to understand. Their disbelief often is largely so shallow and superficial, the very concept that other things in our lives will be affected if God is removed from the picture just never occurs to them.

    adam santibanez

    March 22, 2011 at 12:31 am

  2. “Of course, the reason this argument fails is because premise (3) is false: atheists either are intellectually dishonest, or they simply don’t understand that their worldview cannot account for objective morality.”

    Or the simple fact that atheism isn’t a worldview. Any more than baseball is a worldview. And like the rules of baseball, there’s no reason you should expect to get morality of any sort from atheism.

    My morality comes from looking at the world rationally, logically and empathetically. Not from following some cherry-picked portion of the arbitrary rules attributed to a god put down in an old book.

    NotAScientist

    March 22, 2011 at 6:12 am

    • It seems to be a quite common approach among atheists to attempt to downplay the significance of their rejection of God and the transcendental more generally, and to suggest that it has little significance to their approach to the rest of human knowledge. What I have argued elsewhere, and in recapitulating an argument made by Greg Bahnsen, is that the rejection fo God is not like the rejection of the claim that there are so many pounds of Cocoa Puffs in the world. The rejection of God is an extraordinary claim that undermines the ability to give an account for all sorts of other claims about the world.

      Even taking the example of rejecting the rules of baseball, this would put you to the burden of explaining why the players act the way they do if all the rules are invalid. Rejecting those rules would suggest that these men are just arbitrarily throwing balls and swinging bats and running around stepping on white bags. This is a logical possibility, of course, but it is nonetheless an absurd conclusion.

      Tim Kowal

      March 22, 2011 at 8:56 am

      • It’s quite common because it isn’t an approach, it’s the truth.

        “The rejection of God is an extraordinary claim that undermines the ability to give an account for all sorts of other claims about the world. ”

        Well, you’re wrong.

        Rejecting your specific god only means I have to reject things that specifically relate to your god. Which means I reject your version of morality. The rules decided on arbitrarily by the strongest guy in the room doesn’t strike me as terribly objective or moral, by the way.

        “this would put you to the burden of explaining why the players act the way they do if all the rules are invalid.”

        My analogy was the relation of baseball rules to morality, not baseball rules and themselves. Baseball has nothing to do with morality. And it doesn’t claim to. Neither does atheism. That doesn’t invalidate what baseball rules do do, any more than it invalidates what atheism is or does. Atheism is the lack of belief in gods. And that’s it. If you want more, you need to get more, but atheism won’t give it to you.

        NotAScientist

        March 22, 2011 at 10:12 am

        • NotAScientist,

          Indeed, I would defend the Christian worldview specifically. If I were debating adherents of another religion, the debate would proceed a bit differently, although we would both agree that there is some truth that transcends observable reality, something with which atheists do not agree. Thus, members of different religions can engage in meaningful debate about which religious system provides the best account for human experience. Atheists, however, having rejected the possibility all but empirical truth about the world, do not even make it to the debate. This is why I find it so strange that atheists even endeavor to argue with theists in the first place: until atheists explain how they can provide an account for induction and causation and the rest and thus bring a colorably viable worldview to the table for debate, they haven’t even paid the philosophical price of admission.

          By the way, I explain this all in more detail here: https://notesfrombabel.wordpress.com/2010/07/24/atheisms-intellectual-procrastination/

          Tim Kowal

          March 22, 2011 at 9:48 pm

      • To put it more succinctly, it’s absurd to characterize a lack of a belief as a belief.

        Riley

        March 22, 2011 at 1:32 pm

        • Riley,

          I think that might be a distinction without a meaningful difference. If I say I don’t believe airplanes can fly, but nonetheless proceed to purchase a ticket and board the flight and reach my destination, I cannot pretend to seriously and reasonably maintain my purported disbelief. Similarly, to claim disbelief in transcendental reality, and yet continue to behave as if you believe the future will resemble the past, you cannot seriously maintain that your actions and purported beliefs/disbeliefs are not deeply conflicting.

          Tim Kowal

          March 22, 2011 at 9:26 pm

        • So, it is your worldview that a lack of belief in your worldview must be a worldview itself because no one could seriously and reasonably maintain a disbelief in your worldview without their actions being in deep conflict with their purported disbelief in your worldview!

          Beautiful.

          You have built an impressive immunity system.

          Riley

          March 27, 2011 at 10:18 am

  3. Instead of creating your own arguments about what it is that you think atheism has to say about objective morality, why not take the arguments of a neuroscientist who has published on the subject.

    I give you Sam Harris: “Can Science Determine Human Values?”

    Riley

    March 22, 2011 at 8:02 am

    • Riley,

      Thanks for the link. I’ll check it out.

      Tim

      Tim Kowal

      March 22, 2011 at 8:28 am

    • I can see where Harris is going with his argument. The problem, however, is that Harris misunderstands the nature of the objection to atheism. The objection is not limited to the claim that atheism cannot account for an objective morality only. It is that atheism cannot account for any objective claims about the world. For the atheist, the universe is just matter in motion. Unless we bring transcendental precommitments to the table, claiming the future will resemble the past, for example, is wholly arbitrary. Without certain necessary transcendental precommitments, science simply isn’t possible. This is not to say that scientists, by rejecting God, likewise reject their precommitments that there is order in the universe, that causal relationships exist, etc. They can still be fine scientists, just poor philosophers.

      Harris purports to build morality upon scientific observations about humans and certain desires and aversions they tend to share. In doing so, he is still ignoring the fact that his worldview does not provide any cogent basis for making claims about the universality of observed phenomena, that such a thing as human nature exists, of for abstractions in general. As I’ve explained before:

      “[It] is seriously wrong to suggest that we can “understand” rules and order through science. Such understanding is simply not within the purview of science. Science presupposes and applies rules and order. But to account for them in the first place—to prove rather than simply assume the existence of rules and order—we must resort to different kinds of evidence and proof. We know how we might prove whether there is a box of crackers in the pantry, but we would not expect to prove in the same way questions about natural laws, future contingencies, political obligations, names, grammar, numbers, categories, causation, induction, or even love or beauty. To saddle the narrow domain of science with the impossible burden of providing satisfying explanations of all the types of questions presented in human experience is to either misunderstand the types of factual questions in the world, or to misunderstand the limits of science.”

      https://notesfrombabel.wordpress.com/2011/02/06/science-doesnt-have-all-the-answers/

      Harris’s attempt to bootstrap moral philosophy using science misses the point: Something other than and antecedent to science is necessary to answer these questions. Harris isn’t even in the debate.

      Tim Kowal

      March 22, 2011 at 9:17 pm

      • Tim,

        Your assertion that “Something other than [an] antecedent to science is necessary to answer these questions” is unsupported and it establishes your overall position as a tautology. You’re basically arguing that science can’t do it, because you claim science can’t do it.

        You objection that Sam Harris’s “worldview does not provide any cogent basis for making claims about the universality of observed phenomena” is irrelevant. The validity of scientific claims don’t typically (if ever) rely on their universality (it’s enough that they are accurate at any time and any space) and Sam’s claim that “Science can answer moral questions” specifically does not rely on the ‘universality of observed phenomena’. Likewise, science does not **rely** on claiming the future will resemble the past nor that causal relationships exist, etc. The fact that at the scale of our human existence reality is substantially deterministic and the future does in fact resemble the past is convenient for us, but science does not rely on that fact. For example, the entire science of quantum physics describes a world where causal relationships are sketchy at best and where existence spontaneously materializes out of nothing. Rules and order in the universe are a discovery of science, not a presupposition of science. You go on to assert that it “is seriously wrong to suggest that we can ‘understand’ rules and order through science” by which you appear to mean that we can’t understand **why** it is that rules and order exist. Again, this objection is irrelevant. No argument being made here relies on understanding why it is that rules and order exist. For the claims being made, it’s enough to observe that they do in fact exist.

        Sam Harris has made a very specific claim: “Science can answer moral questions”. The basis of that claim rests on the premise that our moral reasoning is concerned with human and animal well-being. You can reject Sam’s claim either by rejecting the premise, or you can find a logical flaw in his argument that proceeds from that premise. If a “transcendental precommitment” is necessary or meaningfully applicable to this argument, as you claim and I reject, then one of the logical building blocks of Sam’s argument (starting from his premise and ending at his claim) must necessarily have a critical flaw. Dismantle Sam’s claim by identifying that specific building block and exposing it’s flaw, not by introducing unsupported assertions that have no apparent attachment to the argument being made.

        Here’s another quote from Sam Harris that clarifies his position:

        “Now, let me be clear about what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that science is guaranteed to map this space, or that we will have scientific answers to every conceivable moral question. I don’t think, for instance, that you will one day consult a supercomputer to learn whether you should have a second child, or whether we should bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, or whether you can deduct the full cost of TED as a business expense. But if questions affect human wellbeing then they do have answers, whether or not we can find them.”

        “For instance, there are 21 states in our country where corporal punishment in the classroom is legal: where it is legal for a teacher to beat a child with a wooden board, hard, and raising large bruises and blisters and even breaking the skin. And hundreds of thousands of children, incidentally, are subjected to this every year. Is it a good idea, generally speaking, to subject children to pain and violence and public humiliation as a way of encouraging healthy emotional development and good behavior? Is there any doubt that this question has an answer, and that it matters?”

        Riley

        March 27, 2011 at 8:42 am

      • Tim,

        You objection that Sam Harris’s “worldview does not provide any cogent basis for making claims about the universality of observed phenomena” is irrelevant. The validity of scientific claims don’t typically (if ever) rely on their universality (one given time/space is enough) and Sam’s claim that “Science can answer moral questions” specifically does not rely on the ‘universality of observed phenomena’. Likewise, science does not **rely** on claiming the future will resemble the past nor that causal relationships exist, etc. The fact that at the scale of our human existence reality is substantially deterministic and the future does in fact resemble the past is convenient for us, but science does not rely on that fact. For example, the entire science of quantum physics describes a world where causal relationships are sketchy at best and where matter spontaneously materializes out of nothing. Rules and order in the universe are a discovery of science, not a presupposition of science. You go on to assert that it “is seriously wrong to suggest that we can ‘understand’ rules and order through science” by which you appear to mean that we can’t understand **why** it is that rules and order exist. Again, this objection is irrelevant. No argument being made here relies on understanding why it is that rules and order exist. For the claims being made, it’s enough to observe that they do in fact exist.

        Sam Harris has made a very specific claim: “Science can answer moral questions”. The basis of that claim rests on the premise that our moral reasoning is concerned with human and animal well-being. You can reject Sam’s claim either by rejecting the premise, or you can find a logical flaw in his argument that proceeds from that premise. If a “transcendental precommitment” is necessary or meaningfully applicable to this argument, as you claim and I reject, then one of the logical building blocks of Sam’s argument (starting from his premise and ending at his claim) must necessarily have a critical flaw. Dismantle Sam’s claim exposing the flaw, not by asserting that Sam’s argument is incompatible with your worldview (claiming that Sam’s argument is flawed because it disagrees with your worldview is a tautological argument).

        Here’s another quote from Sam Harris that may help clarify his position:

        “Now, let me be clear about what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that science is guaranteed to map this [moral landscape], or that we will have scientific answers to every conceivable moral question. But if questions affect human well-being then they do have answers, whether or not we can find them.”

        “For instance, there are 21 states in our country where corporal punishment in the classroom is legal: where it is legal for a teacher to beat a child with a wooden board, hard, and raising large bruises and blisters and even breaking the skin. And hundreds of thousands of children, incidentally, are subjected to this every year. Is it a good idea, generally speaking, to subject children to pain and violence and public humiliation as a way of encouraging healthy emotional development and good behavior? Is there any doubt that this question has an [objective] answer?”

        Riley

        March 27, 2011 at 9:00 am

        • “Rules and order in the universe are a discovery of science, not a presupposition of science.” I must emphatically disagree. Rules and order are abstract notions. By definition, they are not observable, and thus outside the domain of science. The very ability to do science depends on there being order in the universe: if we are not able to use what we have observed to make predictions about the future, all of science is useless. I assume scientists do not believe they are engaged in a useless endeavor, and thus I am left to believe they must implicitly believe there is a universal order to the universe. From there, I can either believe they are philosophically arbitrary in this belief, or I can believe they hold some set of transcendental propositions that comprise a worldview. Now, I have met atheists who acknowledge this, and still reject God. At that point, the discussion turns into a comparison between systems of transcendental presuppositions. This is an interesting discussion in itself, but I don’t know that we’ve gotten there in our discussion. So far, I think I’ve failed in getting you past Hume’s destruction of the possibility of causation and induction in empiricist epistemology.

          Also, no, my argument is not that we must “understand why it is that rules and order exist.” It is, as I’ve said, that science alone cannot provide any cogent account for rules and order.

          Let me leave with this, for now. I’m making only a narrow claim about what I can and can’t prove about atheism. As a matter of empiricist epistemology, atheism cannot provide an account of morality, or an account of causation or induction or several other things that depend on unobservable abstractions. How much does this matter? Not a lot, in a practical sense. But as long as we’re going there, why does it matter to be atheist in the first place? It’s an abstract claim, and if someone advertises as being concerned with abstract, philosophical claims, it stands to reason that person would be troubled by Hume’s dilemma and the ability to give a cogent philosophical account for the fundamental tools necessary to do science. So it seems to me that if it’s important to somebody to be an atheist, it should also be important to have an answer to these questions.

          Tim Kowal

          March 28, 2011 at 11:33 pm

        • “Rules and order are abstract notions. By definition, they are not observable, and thus outside the domain of science.”

          This statement about abstract notions being outside the domain of science illustrates that your understanding of science is fundamentally and critically flawed and as such, it’s not surprising that your conclusions are incoherent. This incorrect notion of science is the central flaw in your entire thesis as far as I can tell.

          “The very ability to do science depends on there being order in the universe: if we are not able to use what we have observed to make predictions about the future, all of science is useless.”
          No. Again, you misunderstand science. Science is not required to be “useful”. While the ability for science to advance beyond recording disconnected facts of the universe relies on building upon the past discoveries of patterns and loosely accurate rules and laws, the fact that science builds upon its past discovered patterns, rules/laws does not mean that the existence of rules and laws are a precondition of science. Yes, that they exist is a what makes science useful in applied technologies and that they exist is useful because it allows us to advance our scientific understanding of the world fantastically beyond what we can directly experience, yes, science would be unimpressive without them, but they are not a precondition of science.

          Finally, you conclude with a position I agree with when you say: “So it seems to me that if it’s important to somebody to be an atheist, it should also be important to have an answer to these questions [re: Hume’s dilemma ].” While it’s not important for me to be an atheist (it’s what I am by default, not choice) yes, I am interested in having an answer to these questions. What I object to is the “god of the gaps” approach of theists who when faced with a true mystery such as this, hastefully/recklessly proclaim that it is outside the domain of science BUT (inexplicably) not outside the domain of their own personal theology.

          Riley

          March 29, 2011 at 8:39 am

  4. Tim:

    A more interesting question to ponder might be: why should we be concerned about “objective morality” at all? What are we hoping to accomplish, by removing the locus of control from ourselves and giving it to a metaphysical ‘parent’ that cannot be proved empirically to exist, and whose teachings come to us through vague and conflicting stories written thousands of years ago? And, according to your argument, we are supposed to call that version of morality “objective”? I struggle to understand the logic. If you are looking to justify your faith, rest assured no justification is required. That’s the definition of faith! I would suggest that humans have room for both faith and reason in their hearts and minds, and it is wise to acknowledge that no neat reconciliation is possible.

    Gregory Newman

    March 22, 2011 at 10:18 am

    • Greg,

      I appreciate your comment! While I disagree that “no justification is required” for faith, I wholeheartedly agree thay we “have room for both faith and reason.” I just tend to believe they are much more closely related than our bifurcated modern intellectual approach suggests.

      Great to hear from you. Your website looks amazing!

      Tim

      Tim Kowal

      March 22, 2011 at 11:57 am

  5. “Thus, members of different religions can engage in meaningful debate about which religious system provides the best account for human experience.”

    And people who believe in leprechauns can debate whose version of leprechauns are better. So what? That doesn’t make what they’re debating about real.

    NotAScientist

    March 23, 2011 at 6:18 am

    • I discussed above the difference between insignificant claims, like the number of pounds of Cocoa Puffs in the world, versus extraordinary claims like the existence of God which, when rejected, undermine the ability to make intelligible all other claims about the world. To quote from a previous post on this question:

      I am always befuddled that otherwise hyper-intelligent folks fail to grasp that God is a fundamentally different kind of being than Santa, or the Tooth Fairy, or aliens studying Hegel on Mars. When you talk about a claim, such as the existence of God, which, when rejected, undermines the possibility of making intelligible all other claims, that’s fundamentally different than rejecting the existence of the Stay-Puft marshmallow man. As Greg Bahnsen once put it, if I reject the idea that there are so many pounds of Cocoa Puffs in the world, that claim doesn’t have an effect on many other things. But when I reject the transcendental basis for causation, induction, and an objective morality, that’s extraordinary.

      Tim Kowal

      March 23, 2011 at 8:12 am

      • The god hypothesis has no explanatory power with regard to causation, induction, and objective morality. Your hypothesis simply kicks the can down the road. You can claim a “transcendental basis” for whatever you want and then make up whatever you want to say about the “transcendental” to support whatever argument suites your worldview. That’s why it’s meaningless. That’s why it’s compared to claims made about leprechauns.

        Riley

        March 27, 2011 at 9:16 am

  6. My sis told me about your website and how nice it is. She’s right, I’m actually impressed with the writing and slick design. It seems to me you’re simply scratching the surface in terms of what you may accomplish, however you’re off to a great start!

  7. Heck, let’s keep this simple. Instead of saying “objective morality”, let’s say the question really is: “why be good if God’s not there to watch you?”.
    Because it’s a choice, a very HUMAN choice, that people make for trivial to profound reasons.
    P.S. You don’t have to believe in God to believe in the “Golden Rule”.

    Anonymous

    September 18, 2013 at 2:18 pm


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