Tag Archives: naturalism

Is God the only possible foundation for objective morality?

On Quora I was invited to help answer the question “Is God the only possible foundation for objective morality?”. The following is my contribution.

Yes, without an objective moral lawgiver the notion of an objective moral law is absurd.

The fundamental question when it comes to the establishment of any moral system is where obligation is derived. From a naturalistic perspective it appears that the best we can do is describe what is and can consequently never arrive at an obligatory ought. For that, it seems that a competent moral authority is required.

The formula goes like this (borrowed from notes on a recent debate):

Two claims

  • if God exists, then we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties
  • if God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties

To further expand on the above two points:

  • Theism provides a rational ground for morality in the character of God who, properly defined, is the maximal being who is worthy of worship.
  • Atheism does not provide a sound foundation for objective morality and further fails to provide the ability to ground moral duty since it provides no rational basis for human freedom.

This topic has the propensity to produce many rabbit trails on related topics so to remain on this topic we need to keep in mind that the scope of this question is limited to moral ontology. What makes something good or bad. Not moral epistemology or how we know whether something is good or not. In a recent debate with Sam Harris, Bill Craig used the example that ancient persons knew what light and darkness was even though they had no knowledge of the physical properties of light.

Many times altruism is posited as a possible secular source for morality. The problem with that theory, though, is that nature’s propensity for cruelty and suffering shows that secular morality is a myth. In order for an appeal to altruism to be credible on a naturalistic account of the universe, the existence of a selfless gene would need to be established.

While it is possible for all humans to know, intrinsically, certain moral truths, the question of foundation requires that we not care so much about the specifics of morality and, instead, focus on whence they are derived.

Here are a few excellent resources on this topic:

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Loosing faith: My deconversion story

I’ve weighed the evidence, listened to the best debaters, and carefully examined the scriptures. And I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that I simply can’t believe in it anymore.

The most articulate priests and prophets were unable to persuade me of the validity of their position. And they were wholly unable to answer the serious questions I had about the sacred texts. Even in the original languages its plain that the texts are hopelessly riddled with errors and omissions.

If I had to pinpoint what tipped me over the edge, though, I suppose it would have to be the dismal performance of one of the faithful’s most ardent defenders in a recent debate.

If I’ve throughly unnerved you by this point then my post has Happy April fools day! And in case you haven’t figured it out yet, my post is about scientism with the priests and prophets being the new atheists and the sacred texts being their books and others including Darwin’s classic, Origin of Species.

The Great Debate – What is Life?

[HT Uncommon Descent]

The poverty of the 5 senses

Materialists are fond of claiming that all of our knowledge comes to us through our 5 senses.

Supernatural is above or beyond nature. Any belief in a realm that isn’t knowable though our 5 senses. Or al least able to use a provable method of advanced conceptualizing that ties back to our senses and is consistent with everything else that is known to exist in the natural universe. Mysticism is the opposite. It claims that our 5 senses are inadequate to no truth or reality. this effectively removes responsibility from the individuals and places it in the hands of the elite. Who have some secret magical method of understanding truth. It is a winning strategy for those who desire power, who feel small in stature and intentionally or not, foster the powerlessness of their flock.

Dan Barber

This position raises two questions in my mind:

  1. Through our 5 senses, how do we gain awareness of ourselves? Our own thoughts, feelings, desires, etc.? It seems that introspection is not something we engage in with our 5 senses.
  2. How can we be sure that there is nothing outside the realm of or epistemic faculties? It seems that microscopes of all kinds provide evidence that our epistemic faculties aren’t perfect, that there is more about our world that we wouldn’t know without external help.

Dan answers:

A microscope is an extension of sight. Not a replacement for it. We do imagine with our brain. That is what intospection is. And it is an evolved ability that probably came about as we learned to hurl an object for hunting. Or swing from vines. To predict an outcome in the future.

Microscopes and other instruments give us reason to believe that information exists outside the reach our natural epistemic resources. That’s not to say that this information is unknowable, just that we may need help knowing what a cell looks like.

Additionally, It seems that the introspection required to envision a tool like a microscope came not from the realm of 5 senses, but from somewhere else. Before it existed, where did the vision come from and where did it reside? Are we to suppose the physical brain randomly concocted it out of thin air?

I suppose the real question here is: Why should we think that physical matter is all that exists?

It is absolutely amazing how the human mind decides what it wants to see as real and then finds the evidence for such a conclusion. Deductive vs. Inductive reasoning. Inductive is the method i use to counter act my own irrationality in this realm.

So the final question for materialists is this. When you reason, be it inductively or deductively, which of the 5 senses are you using?

The problem with physical morality

If you suppose that you are nothing more than the molecules that make you up, then the only thing you can own are molecules. However that poses a problem since our bodies are constantly changing out molecules. In fact, 98% of the molecules in our bodies are replaced yearly.

There is not a core of molecules that persists, so the best we can say is that we are only leasing the molecules of our physical bodies. So when we talk about moral obligation, it seems dubious to center it on a physical object since that object does not persist. The molecules that made up Jeffery Dahmer when he killed all his victims did not make him up 2 years hence, so should we have released him since his “bad” molecules were now dissipated?

Naturalism’s problem with the mind

Here is a 3 part video set that shows what naturalists think the fate of philosophy will be in the “age of neuroscience”

Our biological similarities with animals should serve as evidence that our real cognitive differences do not lie in our biological/physical make-up. However, neuroscientists like the ones above are quite happy to paint humans as mere machines responding to stimulus around them (aka, naturalism). The problem they face (and have yet to address) is that human’s regularly display patterns of mental activity in the absence of any stimulus. It’s called dreaming and it is the experimental Achilles heel of neuroscientists who think their field will supplant fields dealing with metaphysics like philosophy and theology.

Now neuroscience does a great job in showing us how the brain functions and how it may affect our cognitive abilities, but when it makes claims like “our cognitive faculties are only material, nothing else” it steps outside of empirical science and into philosophy. Even if it were true that we are nothing more than molecules in motion, there would be no epistemically valid reason for us to believe it.

Also, “I can’t imagine” is not an accurate representation of the current argument against philosophical naturalism. This is what the neuroscientist above arrives as at when pressed on the implications of their views in regard to the free will, a phenomenon all humans experience. The real argument is based on the logical contradiction found in epistemically closed system1. If the physical is all there is, then our brains are causally directed by the world around us. The will is rendered a myth and our appearance of thought is merely an illusion (which also begs the question as to where this illusion came from in the first place). It’s odd that she brings up the commonly believe and ultimately false scientific notion that the universe had no beginning. If our brains are nothing more than complex machines, then our thoughts had no beginning either.

She also misrepresents Galelio, his error was making wild claims without sufficient proof in arrogant ways. Much like what naturalists do when they claim to have answers they don’t.

Using fire as a deconstruction linguistic tool to lead into their definition of free will. Culminates in a great big “we don’t know”. We don’t know? Really?

Something tells me that, like the death of God, the death of philosophy is greatly exaggerated.

  1. That is, a system where new knowledge cannot be acquired. In this case new knowledge is impossible if our minds are causally controlled by purely physical forces. []

Biometrics and the case for human uniqueness

A report from The Economist on the use of biometrics in security systems concludes with the line

And everyone would be better served if a good deal more was known about what it is, biologically, that makes each and everyone of us a unique human being.

This, after the report outlines how biometric systems can and have shown how biometrics such as fingerprints and even our very DNA (separate source) have been shown to not be as unique as we once believed. The final question, then, comes from operating on naturalistic assumptions that humans are merely the sum total of their physical components.

It’s only too bad that so many in our society have abandoned the classic notion that humans in particular are not merely complex machines. The concept of a soul is seen as foreign to so many in our culture. There is, however, mounting evidence that points towards the uniqueness of men as originating from somewhere other than the physical atoms that make up our bodies.

For an excellent treatment of this subject, I highly recommend philosopher JP Moreland‘s excellent work on the subject, here is a paper titled “Naturalism and the crisis of the soul”. Here is another overview of the subject by Greg Koukl titled “All mind, no brain”.

Animal ethics

This is a long video but well worth it if you want to understand the secular left’s position on animals and their relationship with humans.

The key point, in my estimation, comes in during the Q&A at the end where one of the audience members makes the point that we have to come up with a way of determining the worth of an organism that is not based on that organism’s function or physical makeup because we want to also say that babies, mentally retarded, and physically deformed people posses value as well.

I heartily agree, but the problem on their part is that without an appeal to something metaphysical in our makeup, ie. the soul, there is no reason to think that a human (much less any other “animal”) is any more or less valuable or worthy of protection or consideration than any other physical object on this planet.

Whence cometh reason?

Can atheists Trust the truth detecting ability of their own minds?

By that I mean; In a theistic universe we are given reason to trust that our senses are capable of accurately detecting the world around us because we hold to the notion that they were properly designed to operate in the environment in which we employ them.

The naturalistic alternative here is that our senses simply evolved through random chance and mutation towards an undirected end. In this case we simply cannot reasonably trust our senses, much less our cognitive abilities to understand the world we find ourselves in. In this model, we might as well be protoplasmic lumps in a cosmic vat that is manipulating our synapses into forming sensory perceptions of a purely artificial environment.

“Fittest” does not entail the production of true beliefs. I think this can be made abundantly clear by simply pointing out how many animals (and humans) posses faulty or flat out false beliefs and who nevertheless manage to survive and thrive.

I believe Idiocracy makes this point quite clearly. (Welcome to Costco, I love you.)

One example would be how easily animals are trapped in the wild. Sure, some figure out the traps and manage to avoid being caught or eaten, but only for a while. If the production of true beliefs were integral to the survival of the species or a criterion of “fittest” in the evolutionary sense of the word we should expect that animals today would not be so easily overcome by traps designed in the stone ages.

Another example would be human malice, greed, evil, etc. According to philosophical naturalists like Sam Harris our collective morality has grown up because it is somehow evolutionarily beneficial. That is contributes to “the survival of the species”. However if this were true then we should expect fewer and fewer systems propagating false beliefs such as obscure cults, Scientology, etc.

No one, to my mind, doubts that natural selection is a mechanism that operates in the world we find ourselves in. We are merely want to point out that what natural selection “selects for” is still hotly debated even among the Darwinist crowd1, and nevertheless not aimed at the production of true beliefs (and to my mind no naturalist has ever tried to make the claim that it was either).

The fact is also that evolution must be seen as random in order for it to avoid the sticky implications, if a system existed, of a guided evolutionary process. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, though many like Dawkings try, either evolution is thoroughly random or else it is guided. And not merely guided by a system that conveniently “selects for” what we, at the end of the process, deem to be evolutionarily beneficial. That is not scientific observation any more than it is wishful thinking or blind faith (which is why many like myself make no distinction between Darwinian evolution and other systems of faith).

At any rate; I believe this, the inability to ground or explain the origins of our cognitive faculties, will ultimately be the Achilles heel of Darwinian evolution.

Well, along with the sheer lack of evidence, massive changes in the underlying theory, and general disagreement on rather large details such as the definition of evolution, selection, and qualifications of “fittest”.

However if you can’t even lay a proper epistemic framework I don’t see how you can reliably build anything at all. Without a proper ground for our cognitive facilities we might as well be howling at the moon for who’s to say we are any better off cognitively than our ancestors?

  1. In fact, there is a rather large debate as to whether it is even legitimate to claim that natural selection “selects for” anything as such would entail guided as opposed to unguided evolution. []

The myth of secular morality

This is a response to a post a friend of mine recently made outlining a secular basis for morality1 centered on empathy or “the golden rule” as the objective standard by which we ought to order our lives.

This comes as part of a long-running discussion where I maintain that, in order for morality to be of any substance2 , it must first be objective3 , timeless4, and transcendent5. To that end, I would like to offer two conjoined arguments in opposition to the proposed secular basis for morality based on empathy and the golden rule.

1.) The philosophical foundations of naturalism do not support the case for empathy being a standard.

If by secularism we mean philosophical naturalism in the sense that the only reality is the physical reality of atoms, particles, and “laws of nature” to the exclusion of metaphysical constructs such as a soul then our biggest hurdle to overcome, long before we deal with the grounds of any objective morality, is to answer where we get the notion of “ought to” from.

In other words, if matter is all there is, then all of our actions are essentially predetermined by our genes through chemical reactions happening in our brains. In this scenario we can no more will ourselves to be good, upright individuals than a sociopath who has no conscience.

Furthermore, as naturalists, we remove from ourselves the categories of right and wrong and are merely left with preferences which, even if applied to a societal level, still find no objective basis since it is still the subject (whether an individual or collective) that is determining the correctness of any given action (or intention/motive) and not a fixed standard that fits the criteria outlined at the outset which is required if our goal is a standard that is truly objective.

The only imbalance that can be found in this scenario is an imbalance of opinion and preference so that, when I say that you have wronged me, all I am doing is merely expressing a difference in opinion over your actions or intentions.

However, the fact that humans throughout history, and even the secular humanist, feel the need for a basis to morality is a rather curious notion6 since, without a truly objective standard to go by, all we would be left with would be moral relativism which, being relative to the individual or culture, would provide no real guidance at all, let alone one based on empathy.

2.) The philosophical presuppositions in the argument of empathy seem to assume that all humans have some sort of inherent worth and are of equal value which, given the secular or naturalistic view outlined above, is as incoherent in a naturalistic or secular world view as the notion of a free will able to effect a downward causal change in the mind/body7.

At a certain level we agree that empathizing with animals is a good thing to do. However, at some point we tend to eat our small furry (or feathery) friends which seems to indicate that humans are in a category of their own8 indicating either speciesm or an indication that humans are, indeed, unique among the other “animals” in the evolutionary struggle.

Given that nature is also “red with tooth and claw“, and that animals regularly eat their own kind9, we can safely conclude that humans are alone in their ability10 to “empathize” which seems to indicate that the notion of empathy is, at best, ambiguous11 and, at worse, completely irrelevant to simple propagation of the species12.

The bottom line is that empathy, while sounding like the holy grail of secular ethics and morality does not line up with the philosophical naturalism it is built upon.

In conclusion; only in a world where humans were created equal13 would the golden rule or “empathy” make sense. Indeed, I would submit the fact that we find this golden rule upheld in some degree amongst nearly all cultures across the world and across time give us a good indication that we are, indeed, created equally and ought to therefore question seriously the foundation of our equality just in case that foundation happens to be a person like us14.

  1. As opposed to a theocentric model where morality is ultimately based on God and His Law []
  2. That is, not a myth. []
  3. That is, outside of myself. []
  4. Not constrained by time and space. []
  5. Cannot change with time []
  6. “Human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and can’t really get rid of it.” –C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity []
  7. That is, naturalism presupposes a deterministic view of causal actions which, by default, makes the concept of a “free will” incoherent. []
  8. or at least view themselves as such []
  9. Cannibalism, not only for food, but, in the case of preying mantises, even as a means of sexual arousal []
  10. and willingness to do so consistently []
  11. that is, just as much of a cosmic accident as we supposedly are []
  12. especially since altruism and self-sacrifice are values directly opposed to the Darwinistic notion of self-preservation []
  13. That is, their metaphysical souls created in the likeness of God []
  14. Yes, I am referring to God which, if he exists would require us to extend the rule of empathy to him as well. More so, since having created us he would occupy a higher place of importance than a fellow human being created in his image which, coincidentally, is what Jesus taught when he summed up the teachings of the Bible in two statements dealing with love. Both of God and of men. []