Posts Tagged ‘Descartes’
(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.