Notes From Babel

Posts Tagged ‘transcendental argument

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.

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

Science doesn’t have all the answers…

with 3 comments

At the Daily Dish, Zoe Pollock jumps all over Bill O’Reilly for using the teleological (design) argument to explain order in the universe as proof of God’s existence.  In so doing, however, she conjures up the presuppositional argument, which promptly forces her into a severe bout of question-begging:

Now it’s possible that Bill is being metaphoric; he doesn’t literally mean the Moon, or tides, or anything like that: he means rules and order in general. We have the laws of physics, and we don’t know why those exist the way they do.

That’s true enough, and an interesting field of exploration. But to jump to say, “God did it” is a losing bet. They used to say that about thunder. They used to say that about people getting sick. They used to say that about, oh, why the Moon and Sun are in the sky, and why we have tides. Say.

But now we understand those things. We understand them because we’re curious, we humans, and we developed a method of understanding the Universe. It’s called science.

No, we do not “understand those things” because of “science.”  In suggesting as much, Pollock commits a serious category error.  If it’s true, as Pollock supposes, that the problem O’Reilly identifies is that we cannot explain “rules and order” in an atheistic universe, science has precisely nothing to aid us, because science itself depends on the legitimacy of rules and order in the universe.  To use science to justify the rules and order on which it depends is to beg the very question.  No one is doubting that the universe is governed by rules and order, of course.  But the question is, what sort of explanation can be given to account for rules and order?

Consider instead whether Congress, by its own enactment, may decree that another of its enactments—say, the individual mandate—is lawful.  Something like:

“Be it hereby enacted and resolved that the Constitution empowers the Congress to require every United States citizen to purchase health insurance.”

It should be plain that such a thing cannot be done.  The lawfulness of an act of Congress cannot be made to depend on Congress’s opinion of its own authority.  No, its lawfulness is determined by examining whether it comports with the rules and order on which it depends for its authority in the first place.  In the case of the American political system, those presuppositional rules and order are articulated in the Constitution.  Because Congress must presuppose the legitimacy of the Constitution, it cannot itself make something constitutional that the Constitution prohibits, or vice versa.  (This is not to delve into whether and to what extent Congress may interpret the Constitution; this is another matter entirely.)  An act of Congress, deriving its authority from the Constitution, thus cannot purport to add to or subtract from the authority of the Constitution itself.  Such a thing could only be accomplished by something beyond and transcendent to the narrower sort of institution that Congress is.  Such a thing could be only be done, for example, by something like a declaration founded upon an appeal to natural law.

In similar fashion, Pollock 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 a 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.

Written by Tim Kowal

February 6, 2011 at 11:26 am