Notes From Babel

For Atheists, Everything Is a Matter of Opinion

with 10 comments

(This post originally appeared at AtheistConnect.)

In the comments to my previous post arguing that atheism cannot account for morality, Nate asks: “[w]hy must there be a transcendental reality” to account for morality? It’s a fair question, though not a novel one.  Philosophical skepticism is at the core of epistemological inquiry concerning the nature and extent of human knowledge.  In his Meditations, Rene Descartes asked this question not just about morality, but about the entire scope of what we purport to know.  In his famous thought experiment, Descartes plunged himself into universal doubt, acknowledging the possibility that our minds were being manipulated by an “evil genius” to falsely believe in the reality of an external world around us.  The first step to resolve that doubt was to realize that the very exercise itself confirmed the existence of a being engaged in the act of doubting—an argument Descartes articulated as cogito ergo sum.  Having authenticated his own existence as a thinking being, Descartes path from doubt, very crudely summarized, proceeded by presenting an a priori argument for the existence of God, and then arguing that because God is not a deceiver, those things we “clearly and distinctly perceive” must be true.  Other than the cogito, many philosophers disagree with Descartes’ arguments.  But the problem for us today is the same as it was for Descartes as he sat in his study mired in universal doubt:  Since empirical reality is subject to doubt, then in the absence of a touchstone that transcends that reality, how can we lay claim to any knowledge about the world?  If we reject Descartes’ path from universal doubt, perhaps we have to be satisfied with the possibility that our brains might actually be in a vat somewhere being manipulated by Descartes’ evil genius, or in some other equivalent of the “matrix.”  But let’s move on.

Another significant blow to empiricist epistemology was dealt by atheist philosopher David Hume.  Hume, fond of explaining philosophical principles by making reference to billiard balls, observed that while he consistently observed that certain behavior occurred when one billiard ball struck another, he never observed anything that could properly be described as “causation.”  Causation, Hume argued, is an abstract relationship that has no extension in empirical reality.  All that we can perceive, according to Hume, is a “constant conjunction” between certain events and certain effects; constant conjunction, however, is not the same thing as causation.  For example, the moon comes out when the sun goes down; yet, the moon does not come out because the sun goes down.  Thus, while he could not help that his mind believed there exists causal relationships between the billiard balls, and while his mind further drew predictions about the expected effects of those purported causal relationships, Hume acknowledged that he could not give a reasoned account of the relationship or his predictions.  That is, because we cannot perceive causation, maintaining belief in causation in a purely empirical worldview is philosophically arbitrary.

Hume came to the same conclusion with respect to induction.  We might gain information by studying information perceived in the world.  However, once we purport to make claims about the future based on that information, we are no longer making purely empirical claims.  Instead, we have inserted a transcendental premise into our argumentation, namely, that the future will resemble the past.  Because we have no empirical data about the future, such claims are unjustified and arbitrary as a matter of empiricist philosophy.

Thus, Hume demonstrated that, with respect to fundamental tools of science—causation and induction—we have not escaped the basic Cartesian dilemma presented in a purely materialistic worldview:  Without a touchstone that transcends experience that permits us to bridge the world of abstract ideas to the physical world, all our claims about the world are wholly arbitrary.

With that in mind, atheism’s problem of morality is easily demonstrated:  In a purely empirical, materialistic worldview, there is no basis upon which we make claims that acts have moral value.  In fact, the existence of “moral value” cannot be proven empirically in the first place.  We do not have any empirical data about moral claims.  Indeed, what might moral value smell like?  How much does it weigh?  Nate claims that “Human life should be precious just because it’s human life. There doesn’t have to be more reason than that.”  This claim is the definition of chutzpah:  atheists, such as those on AtheistConnect, belligerently rail against religion by alleging it offends human reason by making moral commandments by fiat.  I disagree with that claim, of course, but Nate has here offended atheism’s raison d’être:  he has asserted a moral commandment by fiat.  Worse still, by his own fiat, it would appear.

For my part, I do believe human life is precious because I believe all life is created by God, and because I believe that, having been created in God’s image, I have a moral nature that reflects His values and instills in me a proper respect for human life.  My moral worldview is held together by these sorts of transcendental claims about the very nature of humanity, and thus allows me to make intelligible claims about what sorts of obligations are universally imposed on all human beings.  In a purely materialistic worldview, however, it is impossible to make intelligible claims about morality.  In such a worldview, the only sorts of moral claims possible are “I” statements:  “I believe slaying a child is wrong.”  “I believe slavery is wrong.”  “I believe genocide is wrong.”  Like Hume’s beliefs about the relationships between billiard balls or predictions about the future, these statements are mere matters of unfounded opinion.  In the absence of some claims about the transcendental nature of humanity, purporting to hold “moral” beliefs is philosophically arbitrary.

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Written by Tim Kowal

March 27, 2011 at 1:14 pm

10 Responses

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  1. “We might gain information by studying information perceived in the world. However, once we purport to make claims about the future based on that information, we are no longer making purely empirical claims. Instead, we have inserted a transcendental premise into our argumentation, namely, that the future will resemble the past.”

    This is the point where your argument falls apart. When we note an apparent correlation or cause/effect relationship between past events and future events, we have not inserted a transcendental premise into our argumentation. We are making an educated probability claim about what will happen in the future based on evidence of what has happened in the past. The fact that our predictions of the future are so frequently borne out, is a triumph of the scientific process, not a triumph of transcendentalism.

    ——–
    ——–

    Theist moral worldview

    In a Theist worldview, the only sorts of moral claims possible are “I believe that God believes” statements: “I believe that God believes that slaying a child is wrong.” “I believe that God believes that slavery is wrong.” “I believe that God believes that genocide is wrong.” … introducing a god into the equation offers no explanatory power for your beliefs. It just adds more junk to your morality claims.

    Intelligible claims about morality are only possible when arrogant claims about the unknowable (knowledge about the “transcendental” or the “supernatural”) are put aside, we humble ourselves before the world as it is, and we take an honest account of what is there.

    It wasn’t that long ago, just a couple of centuries, that people did not have a germ theory of disease and it was thought that disease was (what you might call) a transcendental phenomena. Mental health has only more recently been spared of most of that nonsense. We will only make progress on the issue of morality when we likewise shed ourselves of these unfounded notions about what you are calling the “transcendental”.

    Riley

    March 27, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    • Riley,

      The response to Hume that we can solve his dilemma by talking about probability is a common but mistaken one. What Hume observed was qualitatively different from the suggestion that we can’t be CERTAIN about the future. Instead, we have NO data about the future, and thus we can have NO CERTAINTY. This is why statements about the future in a purely materialistic worldview are wholly arbitrary. A very limited analogy might be to suggest that we can add predictive value about a coin flip by examining past coin flips. Obviously, we cannot.

      Also, I have been specifically using the word “transcendental” because it is broad enough to avoid suggesting what sorts of specific claims need to be made to make experience intelligible, or which religions best supply these claims. This is not to suggest I don’t have anything to say on these subjects, only that, when conversing with atheists, we don’t make it to that part of the intellectual journey. Yet, I find that most atheists are itching to get there because that’s where they feel they hit their stride by ridiculing particular follies adherents to religion have made in history. I don’t deny many examples of such follies exist, and I wouldn’t attempt to defend all of them. But I find it a bit offensive that atheists think they can leave the most fundamental questions of philosophy blatantly unanswered and yet purport to hold the philosophical high ground in debates with theists. It is intellectually disingenuous, and compounded by the fact that intellectual fidelity is purported to be the sine qua non of atheism.

      Tim Kowal

      March 27, 2011 at 4:30 pm

      • Tim,

        Sorry if I have become testy in my responses, but please stop with the atheist generalizations.

        I don’t leave Hume’s argument unanswered when I reject your arguments. It does not follow from Hume’s argument that “we have inserted a transcendental premise into our argumentation” when we speculate about the future.

        Look. Science finds patterns. That’s all it does. It doesn’t matter whether the patterns are distributed through space or through time. Hume’s claim is right; we have no reason to expect patterns to persist, but they do. Science has recorded it, and we move on. We do in fact successfully predict the future at great fidelity. If you want to claim that such a practice is arbitrary, then maybe we need a new definition for “arbitrary”. Likewise, science makes no distinction among the “transcendental”, “supernatural”, and the “material” world. If it’s something that human being can experience either directly or indirectly, its the subject of science. The quantum world might well have at some time in the past qualified as “supernatural” … today it’s dark matter and dark energy. It doesn’t matter. Science is not limited in this way.

        Riley

        March 27, 2011 at 6:11 pm

        • Riley,

          We might be at an impasse on the first point. I have explained perhaps as best as I know how Hume’s argument that our inability to have information about the future is not merely a question of probability, but of an actual LACK OF INFORMATION. Yes, we do successfully make predictions about the future. I don’t dispute that. I also don’t claim that we have no choice but to be arbitrary in the way we go about it. What I am arguing is that science only covers a limited domain of human knowledge and, more particularly, there are certain kinds of claims that we have to make even to do science in the first place—e.g., causation and universal order. If we assert that science is the ONLY way we can know ANYTHING, we have boxed ourselves right out of being able to provide a cogent epistemological account for science itself, since we can’t prove causation and universal science order using science exclusively as the source of knowledge. As I concluded in a previous post, “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.”

          Tim Kowal

          March 28, 2011 at 11:05 pm

  2. Hey, Tim. I actually wrote an essay on what morality *MIGHT* look like in the absence of a God.

    http://ordinary-gentlemen.com/blog/2009/07/07/the-vector-a-post-theist-moral-framework/

    The gist of the argument is that “Moral Agency”, if it exists at all, exists in the ability to choose between two things rather than to merely react. From there, I leap to the whole “increasing moral agency is better than decreasing it” thing.

    What I don’t like about the theory is that morality is therefore time dependent… to do a thing X at time T may be right and good and moral and at time T plus t, it may be downright immoral despite it still being X.

    On the upside, it doesn’t require a God and, it seems to me, takes into account a great many things that happen naturally… but, anyway, there it is.

    Jaybird

    April 3, 2011 at 8:54 am

  3. “because I believe all life is created by God, and because I believe that, having been created in God’s image, I have a moral nature that reflects His values and instills in me a proper respect for human life. My moral worldview is held together by these sorts of transcendental claims about the very nature of humanity, and thus allows me to make intelligible claims about what sorts of obligations are universally imposed on all human beings.”

    This is only true if you also assert that YOU know the mind and will of God accurately — and in a way that ONLY those who believe EXACTLY as you believe about God seem to know – and the other 29,999 sects all have it wrong.

    I believe Life is precious because it is rare and is capable of doing something other things don’t appear to be capable of – having empathy. Because I believe there is no magical soul I believe that we have ONLY this one life and that instills in me a proper respect for human life.

    My moral worldview is held together by these sorts of observable and testable claims which allows me to make intelligible claims about our obligations for protecting life that we impose on ourselves.

    A respect that would allow me to tell a God who commanded me to murder my own child — NO.
    A respect that would allow me to tell a God who commanded me to slice infants with a sword — NO.
    A respect that would allow me to tell a God who commanded me to commit genocide against entire nations — NO.
    A respect that would allow me to tell a God who commanded me to mutilate a child’s genitals — NO.
    A respect that would allow me to tell a God who commanded me not to suffer a Witch to live — NO.
    A respect that would allow me to tell a God who commanded me to stone someone to death — NO.
    A respect that would allow me to tell a God who suggests that drowning nearly the entire human race — YOU ARE WRONG.
    A respect that would allow me to tell a God who suggests that murdering the first-born of an entire nation — YOU ARE WRONG.

    Does your grasp of morals and respect for human life allow YOU to do those things? Or does it make you morally weak and cower before empty threats of eternal punishment? Do you excuse those commands because “they don’t apply now” or do you condemn them as being immoral by ANY decent standard of human behavior?

    The Red Pill

    June 22, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    • “My moral worldview is held together by these sorts of observable and testable claims which allows me to make intelligible claims about our obligations for protecting life that we impose on ourselves.”

      To the contrary, you have not identified any claims that are observable or testable. Life is precious because it is rare? There are plenty of things that are rare that are not precious, or are not precious simply because they are rare. Life is precious because it is has “empathy”? But why, then, is empathy good, beyond your own subjective opinion?

      It is a standard assault of Christianity to assert the existence of competing supernatural worldviews. A defense of such a worldview that purports to justify non-empirical claims about reality would put our case at issue and we could begin a comparative debate about the veracity of our respective worldviews. Atheism, however, cannot begin to explain non-empirical claims about reality, and thus can never meaningfully argue with a theist. An atheist’s claims about the world never move beyond mere opinion statements. “I believe future events tend to resemble past events.” “I believe my senses provide a reasonably accurate account of an extended reality.” “I believe objects in extended space share causal relationships with one another.” “I believe certain actions have moral content, but that others do not.” Atheists implicitly assert these kinds of core premises about the world, but they are fundamentally arbitrary. Moreover, atheists refuse to submit these metaphysical premises, absolutely necessary to their own worldview, to challenge or review. In this sense, atheism is as staunch and arrogant a religion as any other.

      Tim Kowal

      June 25, 2011 at 12:05 pm

      • “To the contrary, you have not identified any claims that are observable or testable. Life is precious because it is rare? There are plenty of things that are rare that are not precious, or are not precious simply because they are rare. Life is precious because it is has “empathy”? But why, then, is empathy good, beyond your own subjective opinion?”

        As an atheist, I acknowledge that finding a truly “universal”, uncontroversial morality is problematic. But that is just the nature of a difficult problem that humans have been trying since prehistory to simplify.

        Life is precious and valuable precisely because it is valuable *to* me (and, individually, to everyone). There is no abstract platonic “value” just as there is no platonic “beauty”. Of course this is completely subjective, but it’s as real as my own existence. There is also an objective *component* of value because my subjective sense of value is rooted in the basic material facts of life. And I extend to others through empathy the same value I assign myself. True, this may not give me a bulletproof framework for dealing with those who fundamentally disagree with me, but honestly, I consider it a perfectly satisfying basis for a moral life — or at least the beginning of one.

        Positing a God just doesn’t improve the situation. We can define “good” as identical to (or otherwise bound up in) God’s character — the currently fashionable solution to Euthyphro’s dilemma. But then we empty the word of any inherent meaning. If “good” means whatever God is and does, no more and no less, then we are forced to look around at the world and into the Bible to supply some non-tautological meaning to the word. And in both the world and in the Bible we find no shortage of “good” things allegedly performed by God that could hardly be further from what our instinctive moral intuition tells us is good. We also fail to find two people on the entire planet who agree on what exactly is “good” and “valuable”, this transcendent standard notwithstanding. So how exactly is this an improvement?

        “…atheists refuse to submit these metaphysical premises, absolutely necessary to their own worldview, to challenge or review. In this sense, atheism is as staunch and arrogant a religion as any other.”

        Sure, all worldviews must begin with unprovable axioms. But some are much more basic than others. Presupposing a God, in my opinion, merely kicks the can down the road. And since non-deist theists invariably presuppose a *religion* and not just a God, an apparently simple statement (“God exists and is the basis for morality”) masks a huge set of additional presuppositions — about the Bible, two millennia of translation and interpretation, etc.

        I don’t believe an entire package of religious belief is the sort of thing that an honest person can take as an axiom or presupposion. So what else is there to do but use the “atheist axioms” (the kind that all of use every day in practice, whether we’re aware of it or not) to investigate religious claims? This is where I currently find myself. :)

        Billb

        June 26, 2012 at 7:52 am

        • “I extend to others through empathy the same value I assign myself. True, this may not give me a bulletproof framework for dealing with those who fundamentally disagree with me, but honestly, I consider it a perfectly satisfying basis for a moral life — or at least the beginning of one.”

          I disagree that this constitutes even the “beginning” of a basis for a cogent moral system. The very idea of a moral system requires that at least two things be set out: (1) a description or quality of behavior, and (2) a principle by which others are bound to conform with that description or quality of behavior. You have roughly set out (1) by talking about “empathy,” but you have not begun to set out any principle by which others are bound to that behavior.

          Positing God does at least get us beyond that point, even if we must grapple with additional questions about the nature of God, the relationship between God and man, etc. The point is, a theistic system makes a moral system possible, where an atheistic one—which supplies no possibility for an “ought” principle—does not.

          Tim Kowal

          June 26, 2012 at 9:28 am


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