Notes From Babel

Posts Tagged ‘Atheism

For Atheists, Everything Is a Matter of Opinion

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(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.

Written by Tim Kowal

March 27, 2011 at 1:14 pm

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.

Written by Tim Kowal

March 21, 2011 at 10:55 pm

Morality without God?

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Kyle Cupp rejects the idea that God is a necessary precondition for morality, offering three arguments:

[W]hile people disagree about moral norms and principles, most people have some moral presuppositions in which their deliberations are grounded. These presuppositions may be religious, but they don’t have to be. A belief in Jesus may motivate one volunteer at a soup kitchen, while the very presence of someone who is hungry may motivate another. A theist may avoid murder because it violates God’s commandment, while an atheist may avoid murder because of the loss and misery it delivers. The consequences of human action alone provide reason for not permitting everything.

Cupp’s second argument is related to the first:

[E]ven if God exists and has written the moral law, the believer still acts based on the presupposition that the consequences of obeying the moral law are better than and preferable to the consequences of violating it. In doing so, the believer and the unbeliever share basically the same presupposition.

These arguments are really just different ways of suggesting that bad acts lead to bad consequences, and thus we don’t need a separate concept of “morality” to tell us not to do bad things (or, conversely to tell us to do good things).  Whatever the merits of Cupp’s argument, it is not an argument about whether we can have an objective, universal morality without God.  Focusing on consequences only helps us avoid things we happen to find personally unpleasant.  It does not tell us anything about the relationship between unpleasantness and badness as a moral concept.

However, Cupp presents a third argument that is a bit more complicated to explain and thus to refute:

Third, while the absence of a divine lawmaker would leave humanity without a divine moral law, humanity would still have ground on which to build an objective morality. Unless it is held that God composed the moral law arbitrarily, then the moral law is something that makes sense given the way of the world. There’s a difference between killing a flea and killing a person not merely because God says so, but because there are significant differences, physical and metaphysical, between an insect and a person. Therefore, even if it were left to men and women to write moral laws, they are not thereby doomed to write arbitrarily, without rhyme or reason. Moral reflection can look to insights about the physical and metaphysical as a sailor would look to a guiding star.

In other words, the argument suggests that because God, even if he does exist, is not arbitrary, then his handing down a moral code is not the same thing as saying we depend on God for the existence of morality in the first place.  While God did us a favor distilling the moral law in the Ten Commandments, the moral law exists whether or not God does.  Thus, the trick in a godless universe is not deciding whether there is a moral law at all, but discerning what it is.

This is a sophisticated argument, but I think it ultimately unravels into arbitrariness.  If we assume, as Cupp does, that there is a transcendental reality, man’s inquisitive nature demands there be some account of its nature other than arbitrarily picking out certain of its characteristics.  Beyond the empirically observable world, what truths can we purport to know?  Certainly, we depend on such truths to make sense of our observable reality.  For example, to make any predictions about the world, we have to assume, as a transcendental fact about the world, that the future will resemble the past. Without this profoundly non-empirical claim, science cannot do any work.  Similarly, causation, induction, grammar, numbers, categories, political obligations, and so on, are all non-empirical claims that are nonetheless necessary for a meaningful understanding about the world.

But it is dismally unsatisfying to simply posit them without explanation.  Thus, while I applaud Cupp for acknowledging the existence of an objective morality, I reject his invitation to proceed with intellectual inquiry without demanding any rigor in accounting for these important transcendental truths. To suggest, for example, that we do not need any explanation for why there is a morality in the first place, or why we are the sort of creatures that recognize it and are impelled to follow it, is no answer to the argument that we do.  The existence of God, and more specifically the Christian account of God, man, morality, sin, and salvation, begin to provide such a construct for these transcendental realities.  Regardless of whether that construct is persuasive, it cannot be seriously doubted that it is a more rigorous account than the shopping cart account, which is all atheism can offer.

Written by Tim Kowal

March 13, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Ricky Gervais on Atheism

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After thoroughly enjoying myself with youtube clips of Ricky Gervais hosting the Golden Globes, I remarked to a friend how much I appreciated the fact that Gervais, though an atheist, seemed to refrain from making a big thing out of his atheism.  Alas, I spoke too soon.

It’s always tragic when talented figures disappoint.  Gervais’s performance in the Extras series finale was provocative and moving.  His insight into the pop culture mind is incisive, biting, and witty. He is a fresh voice in the entertainment community precisely because he is that rare breed, like Steve Martin or John Cleese in their heyday, that marries intellect and comedic talent.

But smart entertainers do not necessarily make for smart theologians.  For that matter, smart scientists do not necessarily make for smart theologians, as Richard Dawkins volunteered to prove.  For his part, Gervais trots out the same “burden of proof” line, that the believer has to prove the atheist wrong, not the other way around.  I’ve explained numerous times why this is absurd, and if you’re interested, you can look at some of my past posts on the subject.  But if you’re really in the market for some theological humor and have some familiarity with Richard Dawkins, you can’t do much better than this short mock interview:

As for Gervais, he concludes that, as an alternative to God, “‘Do unto others…’ is a good rule of thumb.”  I can’t figure out whether this commandments is meant to suggest that Ricky Gervais is God or his thumb is.

Written by Tim Kowal

January 20, 2011 at 9:01 pm

Posted in Atheism

Tagged with , ,

Merry “Xmas”

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Although it has been fairly widely debunked by now, the notion that using “Xmas” for “Christmas” is somehow a slight to Christ or Christianity is still fairly widespread.  In fact, “X” Wikipedia’s explanation of the abbreviation “X” for “Christ” is as good as any:

The use of “Χ,” derived from Chi, the Greek alphabet initial, as an abbreviation for Christ (most commonly in the abbreviation “Χmas“) is often misinterpreted as a modern secularization of the term. Thus understood, the centuries-old English word Χmas, is actually a shortened form of CHmas, which is, itself, a shortened form for Christmas. Christians are sometimes referred to as “Xians,” with the ‘X’ replacing ‘Christ.

Using “Xmas” can lead to obvious problems, however.  If you intend the term in its original sense, you’re liable to draw a lot of seething looks from folks who will reflexively assume you’re a soulless atheist.  Yet, if you do intend the term as an affront, you run up against the historical origins and meaning of the abbreviation and wind up potentially drawing more attention to the Son of God. Most probably, little good can come from using the term.

Thus, for the general public, I suggest “Christmas” be left unabbreviated.  For atheists and staunch secularists seeking to purge the religious context from Christmas, I suggest getting over yourselves.

Written by Tim Kowal

December 16, 2010 at 11:36 pm

Science 1, Leprechauns 0

with 3 comments

Periodically, the secret society of irreverent irreligionists commission a new rehashing of the same old grizzled arguments against religion, and fire off a public service message to remind the rest of us what dolts we are to continue tolerating—let alone practicing—our respective faiths.  After all, don’t we know by now that John Q. Churchgoer is no different from Muhammad Q. Taliban?  That it is only a matter of time before we are swept up by some charismatic zealot and fly ourselves right into the side of a building?

Jerry A. Coyne in the USA Today, for example, updates us that “[w]e now know that the universe did not require a creator.”  Apparently, Stephen Hawking wrote a book on it, and it conclusively settled the matter.  Even better, Coyne happily informs us, “[s]cience is even studying the origin of morality.”  You don’t say?  These are bold new accomplishments indeed!  One might only ask whether, after our Ph.D. clerics have finished grinding these metaphysical questions into pulp, might they work their way back around to some of the medical nuisances that still afflict us?  As placated as we have been with the advances in the causes against hair loss and dysfunctional phalli, many would still like to see cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s and AIDS and Parkinson’s.  Certainly, the drubbing of sappy religionists is the high calling of Science, but one hopes there is time left to devote to these other, albeit perhaps lesser, aims.

Though while science claims to have vanquished its foes, in fact it has not even overcome the devastating blow David Hume (himself an atheist) dealt it when he demonstrated that science has not—and, by its nature, cannot—explain even the basic tenets necessary to do science in the first place—i.e., causation and induction.  So, while science purports to explain life’s great mysteries, it fails to even justify itself by its own method.

Folks like Coyne and Richard Dawkins, however, are too busy equating religion with “leprechauns” or monkeys studying Hegel on Mars to appreciate, let alone offer an explanation for, this all-important question.  Science is useful to certain kinds of knowledge; but it cannot explain all the types of knowledge available to mankind.   Scienceniks scoff at all types of non-empirical knowledge, as if the laws of logic are of the same order as the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.  But rejecting the idea that Tony the Tiger exists does not have the same effect as rejecting the basis for causation, induction, the laws of logic, and morality.  The latter sort of rejection is extraordinary, and one which the scienceniks serially omit to account for.

Written by Tim Kowal

October 11, 2010 at 10:55 pm

Atheism’s Intellectual Procrastination

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I was heartened a while back to read that other writers feel as I do about blogging:  the time exacted in securing my continued employment often leaves me with only abbreviated periods for bathing and dressing and grooming and other rudimentary civilities.  It is usually not possible to write about something at the moment the inspiration strikes, so I resort to jotting down ideas throughout the week, and then referring back when I finally get a moment at my poor neglected computer.

But I did not have to resort to my list to remember what I wanted to say about the plea of beleaguered atheist Ilya Somin to stop demanding philosophical rigor from atheists.  As I’ve explained before (see, e.g., here and here), the problem with atheism is that does not replace what it purports to tear down.  Theistic models of reality draw connections between the transcendental worlds of continuity and universality—the world of the forms.  Atheism denies these models, but fails to provide any systematic, cogent theories to replace the models it rejects.

Responding to Ron Rosenbaum, Ilya Somin puts it this way:

Atheism is not a complete theory of the nature of the universe. Rather, as I discussed here, atheism is simply a rejection of the existence of God, by which I mean a being that is omnipotent, omniscient and completely benevolent (the definition [traditionally] accepted by [the vast majority of adherents] of the major monotheistic religions). One can reject the existence of God without believing that we “can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.”

Sure.  And so may a toddler reject his supper without being able to explain how or why he would be able to continue existing without sustenance.  Atheists tend to be deeply confused about what “atheism” actually means.  One may make the statement “I do not believe in God” in isolation from any other statements about the universe.  But it would be an idle and worthless statement—a toddler rejecting all manner of food. One may believe in an idea without fully appreciating or believing the ideas necessarily deriving from the idea.  Thus, while one may be an atheist before he can fully “explain how and why the universe came into existence,” he is immediately and continuously under an intellectual duty to engage in providing a cogent answer to these problems.  Atheism cannot be merely passive or destructive.  It must fill the intellectual gap it creates, not simply revel in sacking others epistemological systems.

To make the point another way, consider the environmentalist mandate of “sustainability.”  As it turns out, in order to have true sustainability, all humans on the planet would have to live well below the U.S. poverty level.  Thus, once we unpack the rhetoric about sustainability, we find that all this sweet talk about Mother Earth, taken seriously, would mean a devastating and far-reaching impact on the behavior of every single American—even the very poor.  I can blather on about “sustainability” as a vogue multi-syllabic political expression.  But if we are actually talking about the meaning of words and ideas, then “sustainability” means something very radical and severe.

Something similar occurs with atheism.  One can 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 statement that tears down important metaphysical underpinnings in one’s view of the world.  If the author of such a statement has any interest in talking seriously about ideas, he will have to posit an alternative theory of reality that can account for them.  Ilya Somin presumes to reduce this argument down to a quip, that

The “new atheists” whom Rosenbaum attacks also don’t rely on any comprehensive theory of the universe in making their case against the existence of God. Writers like Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins have their flaws; but believing that they can explain the origins of the universe isn’t one of them.

To the contrary, this is precisely their problem.  One has to have a viable theory of the universe in order to graft on any viable theories about anything else. I can reject that the idea that suspension bridges can safely carry any passengers across them.  But I would not expect anyone to hire me to perform maintenance on the Golden Gate Bridge unless and until I could posit a viable account for the successful passages to date.  Atheists, however, don’t feel the need to account for how we can know anything about objective reality or morality without God.  As Somin puts it:

But how can atheists rule out the possibility that God created the universe if they don’t have an airtight alternative explanation? The answer is that it’s often possible to rule out one potential explanation for X even if we don’t know for certain what actually caused it. For example, I don’t know why I had a headache a couple days ago. But that doesn’t mean I can’t rule out the theory that it was caused by a witch’s curse. There is strong evidence against the existence of witches with magical powers that isn’t tied to any particular explanation for the origins of my headache. Similarly, if we have strong arguments against the existence of God that are not tied to any specific cosmological theory, we have good reason to be atheists even if we can’t explain why the universe exists.

Talking about witches and the slimy-custard-man is a typical ploy that non-serious atheists use to rally any humans with a functioning intellect to their cause.  “You do believe in science, don’t you?  You do believe aspirin can cure your headache better than enchanted bat’s feet, don’t you?”  This is misdirection.  Atheists can’t account for how anything can cause anything if they don’t posit a transcendental explanation for the workings of reality.  David Hume observed that while we may see a billiard ball begin to move once it is struck by another billiard ball, we cannot ever actually observe anything called “causation.”  The best we can observe is “constant conjunction” between events—one even happens, and then always another.  “Causation,” for all its importance in making sense of our reality, cannot be explained by the purely empirical model of the world that atheists have adopted.  All we know is we remember always seeing two things happening together.  We then assume—for we cannot know—that what has occurred in the past will occur likewise, always and forever, into the future.

This, certainly, is faith.

And yet, atheists continue to refuse the demand to account for their theory of reality, of morality, and of truth.  Somin expresses his refusal thus:

My purpose here is not to provide a comprehensive argument for atheism. That can’t possibly be accomplished in a blog post. Rather, I want to make the much narrower point that such an argument doesn’t require a demonstrably true alternative explanation for the existence of the universe. And most serious atheist writers do not in fact rely on the claim that they have such an explanation.

Somin laces this thought with a clever qualification in an attempt to make it unassailable.   Pleading that atheists cannot be expected to provide a “demonstrably true alternative explanation for the existence of the universe” is melodramatic.  The whole problem with accounting for the nature of reality is the limitations of our senses—that is, theories about the universe cannot be “demonstrably true.”  But this is not the task put to atheists.  Their problem is they have provided no alternative explanation for the existence of the universe, whether “demonstrably true” or otherwise.

At any rate, that “most serious atheist writers do not in fact rely on the claim that they have such an explanation” is precisely why the atheism of these writers cannot be taken seriously.

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Written by Tim Kowal

July 24, 2010 at 1:29 pm

Posted in Atheism, Philosophy

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