At the Christian Apologetics Alliance, Carson has a post describing the apparent leap of faith required to be an atheist. He expresses this leap by providing pairs of statements made by an atheist student (“Drew”). According to Carson, these pairs of statements are logically inconsistent – they clash with each other, hence the title of this post.
I’d like to provide an extensive rebuttal to Carson’s claims of inconsistency. I’ll quote each pair of clashing statements and explain how they can be resolved (if indeed they clash at all).
1: There are no objective moral truths.
2: I’ve decided to accept some moral axioms as true, because I think it is important to have a moral system to live by.
We cannot proceed with an analysis of these statements until we agree what objective moral truths are. Let’s start by considering objective truths more generally. An objectively true statement is one that is true regardless of the opinions or beliefs of the person making it. For instance, “Texas is larger than Colorado” is an objectively true statement.
But how do we know it is objectively true? Because anyone who takes the time to measure the size of Texas and Colorado will come to the same conclusion, namely that Texas is larger than Colorado. Even someone who initially believes that Colorado is larger than Texas will find, when she makes the proper measurements, that she is wrong and that Texas is, in fact, larger than Colorado.
What about moral statements then? How do we know if any given moral statement is objectively true? For instance, if you tell me that “murder is wrong”, what measurement can I go out and make to convince myself that this statement is true? How can I differentiate it from personal opinion?
I would argue that unlike the statement about Texas and Colorado, which can only be evaluated in one way (by measuring the sizes of the two states), moral statements can be evaluated in many different ways, depending on which standard you use. Theists, for instance, use something like the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments tell us that murder is wrong, so according to this measure, then, “murder is wrong” is an objectively true statement. Anyone who takes the time to turn to the proper page in the Bible will come to the same conclusion.
But the Bible is not the only way of assessing moral statements. Let’s suppose that we believe (as I, in fact, do) that the purpose of morality is to improve people’s well-being. To assess the statement “murder is wrong”, I therefore have to determine if murder improves people’s well-being. Well, clearly it does not. It certainly does not improve the well-being of the person who is murdered, and it does not improve the well-being of the loved ones left behind. Anyone who takes the time to look at the data concerning the effects of murder will have to agree: murder does not improve well-being. It is therefore objectively true, using my humanistic metric, that murder is wrong.
So there are, in fact, objective moral truths under atheism, and the first statement in the above pair is incorrect.
The big question, of course, is which metric should we use to evaluate the objective truth value of moral statements? The evidence does not support the assumptions that have to be made for theological metrics (the existence of God, etc.), so I would argue that these are the first we can discard. As to which secular moral metric to use, that is a much harder question, and lies beyond the scope of this post (see my essay on morality for more).
1: There is no ultimate moral accountability for my actions.
2: Even when I know no one can catch me doing things that we would both consider to be “bad”, but are still incredibly fun things to do, I try to do what I think is right.
First, we should decide what is meant by “ultimate” moral accountability, and how this is different from the ordinary variety. Presumably Carson has God in mind: Ultimate moral accountability is some sort of judgment of our actions that will occur in the afterlife. If this is the case, then the first statement of the above pair is indeed correct. There is no such thing as ultimate moral accountability, because under atheism there is no God and there is no afterlife.
So why do atheists care about actions that no one else will find out about? Well, even if no one finds out about a “bad” action, the well-being of others will nonetheless be affected by it. Indeed, under many secular moral theories (including my own), this is the very definition of a “bad” action: A “bad” action is one that reduces the well-being of other people.
Consider the following example. Let’s say that I have the opportunity to steal $100 from someone’s wallet without him, or anyone else, finding out it was me. So why shouldn’t I do it? Because if I steal the money, the owner of the wallet will suffer. Even if he never finds out it was me who stole his money, he will still suffer the consequences of a financial loss.
For the sake of the well-being of others, then, it behooves us to refrain from doing “bad” things, regardless of the chances of being caught.
This points to a larger issue, namely that our motivation for avoiding immoral behavior should not be the threat of punishment or reprimand. Rather, we should avoid immoral behavior out of compassion and respect for others.
1: In the long run, all life will be extinguished.
2: I’m pretty hopeful about the future.
This is an example of a pair of statements that do not actually clash. It is perfectly reasonable for me to be hopeful about the remainder of my life on earth, while not believing that I will experience an afterlife. It is also perfectly reasonable for me to be hopeful about the next decade, century, or millennium of human existence, even though I know that the earth will eventually be destroyed, and all humans along with it.
In short, it is absurd to claim that just because humans are not going to live forever, I cannot hold any hopes about their affairs over the near or even long term future.
1: Anyone you help will die shortly afterwards.
2: I’m willing to make sacrifices so that others can have a better life.
Again, there is no clash here. As soon as one understands that the value of human life is experienced while we’re alive (a rather obvious statement, when you think about it), there is nothing illogical about making someone’s life better, even if it is destined to end.
To make this clearer, consider the following analogy. You have just arrived in Hawai’i for vacation. You have seven days of sun, sand, and ocean ahead of you. Should you just flop down on your hotel bed and watch TV for the whole vacation, or should you try to make the most of your time: Take a walk on the beach, go for a boat ride, go snorkeling, visit a restaurant? I think you’d agree that the obvious choice is to squeeze from those seven days everything you can. The value of your time in Hawai’i is not somehow reduced because it’s finite. If anything, it’s just the opposite. The value of your time in Hawai’i is enhanced because there is only so much of it.
The same goes with life. Just because it is finite does not mean it is worthless. It’s just the opposite. Therefore, if we can make sacrifices to help people enjoy their “vacation” on earth, it’s worth it, even if it has an inevitable end.
1: Looking at it scientifically, we are specks of cosmic dust.
2: I think my life has a lot of meaning.
The first statement is correct. But, if anything, this statement is deeply profound, and has great meaning. Imagine the vast processes of star formation and death that have led to the formation of your body! It is utterly astounding. I would have to argue, then, that the first statement in the above pair actually leads directly to the second, it does not clash with it.
But, for completeness, let’s look at the idea of meaning a little more closely, because this is another word with many possible definitions. What exactly does it mean to say that something is “meaningful”?
I would argue that something is meaningful if it has some sort of relevance to, or association with, your thoughts, memories, or emotions. For instance, I find mathematics meaningful because it is directly relevant to my work as a scientist. I find dogs to be meaningful because I have my own dog, and a long history of owning dogs (I find cats to be less meaningful, because I don’t have much prior experience as a cat owner). I find music to be meaningful, because it produces a strong emotional response in me when I listen to it or perform it. The list goes on.
On this view, meaning has nothing to do with the existence of gods. It is a deeply human thing. It arises from our psychology. And our psychology is the product of brain activity, which in turn relies on neurons which are made of cosmic dust. There is nothing clashing about any of this.
1: Everything happens in accordance with the laws of physics and biochemistry.
2: I have free will.
Once again we have a term – free will – that has a number of possible meanings. The theist usually takes a libertarian view of free will, which can be summarized as follows: libertarian free will is the ability to have chosen differently had the same set of circumstances repeated itself.
If this is the definition of free will that Drew had in mind, then I must beg to differ: libertarian free will is not compatible with what science tells us. I would therefore change the second of the above statements to the negative: I do not have free will. This clears up the clash, and is in line with current scientific thinking about human biology.
Of course, Drew might have had some other definition of free will in mind. For instance, I often use the following definition: free will is the ability to make decisions free of coercion. For example, my choice of fruit at the supermarket is a product of free will. I am free to choose the fruit I wish because no one is coercing me into picking one fruit over the other. This is true even if the choice I make is fully determined by the laws of physics and biochemistry.
If we are to take this second definition of free will, the second statement in the above pair can remain unchanged, and the clash is removed simply by virtue of the particular definition of free will that we have chosen.
1: Everything happens in accordance with the laws of physics and biochemistry.
2: My mind rationally assess propositions in order to make logical conclusions.
This is another example of a pair of statements that do not clash. Why is it impossible to conceive of a material, physics-based mind that thinks rationally? Computers do it all the time. If they can do it, so can we!
1: We are biochemical reproducing machines.
2: I truly love my family and friends.
The first of these statements is somewhat misleading. It seems to imply that we are only biochemical reproducing machines. But this is obviously false. If we were only biochemical reproducing machines, we’d spend all our time reproducing. We’d be like robot arms in a factory performing the same simple task over and over again. But it’s obvious, simply by looking around, that this is not the case. People spend an exceedingly small part of their lifetimes reproducing.
We are much more than reproducing machines. We are thinking machines. We are emotional machines. We are musical machines. We are building and creating machines. We are loving machines. Evolution has shaped us into the polymaths of the biological kingdom: we can do just about anything we want to do.
There is also something rather disturbing in the above pair of statements that I don’t think Carson intended, but which is there anyway. If we really were reproducing machines, the only form of love that one could discount as an evolutionary ploy for reproduction is love for our mates. Love for family could not be discounted in this way, for the simple reason that we don’t generally wish to reproduce with our family members. It has to be said, then, that the supposed clash in the above pair of statements does not apply generally to “family and friends” but only to girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands and wives. We therefore need to change the second statement to “I truly love my boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse”.
And even if we do this, the clash evaporates when we consider my initial objection, namely that people do not spend all their time reproducing. If lovers can maintain their love for each other even when they’re not making love, then clearly this love has a greater purpose than simple procreation. For instance, it serves to bond the two people together so that they form a stable relationship suitable for child rearing. There is nothing banal about that.
There is one more important point to make here: consider the grief people experience when they lose their loved ones. Are they just grieving the loss of reproductive opportunities? Of course not. They are experiencing loss because they have developed an emotional bond with their loved one, and the severing of that bond is painful. All of this is perfectly reasonable under a materialistic worldview in which emotions are the products of brain chemistry (indeed, it is brain chemistry that rescues emotions from being something ethereal and ill-defined, and brings them into reality).
1: Our particular existence is the result of a colossal series of random events and the process of natural selection.
2: I’m trying to figure out the purpose of my life.
Once more there is no clash here. Purpose is a human construction. This is because purpose requires intent, and intent requires a mind. The only minds we know of are in animals.
Purpose, then, is what we make of it. For instance, it was once my purpose in life to move away from South Africa and obtain a Ph.D. in physics. It was once my purpose in life to find someone I could marry. It is now my purpose in life to change careers and find a teaching job. I can assign my life these purposes regardless of the processes by which I arrived on this planet.
1: Everything about us can be explained by evolutionary pressures.
2: My own beliefs about reality are explainable in terms of what is most reasonable.
We end with another example of two statements that do not really clash. It has long been argued by evolutionary biologists that our ability to reason – to think critically and assess evidence – is perfectly in line with what we’d expect from the evolutionary process.
For a start, we would expect our senses to be reliable. No species will survive for long if its eyes, nose, and ears deliver a distorted impression of the world. Similarly, no species will survive for long if it has a thinking process that is bad at understanding its environment and which regularly draws false conclusions about it. The species that survive are, therefore, the ones who can properly observe their environment and make sense out of it.
OK, let me wrap up. It is my contention that if you put aside all the assumptions you’ve ever made in your life (including assumptions about gods) and start with only the available evidence as your guide, you will, if you build slowly and carefully from this evidence, arrive at a naturalistic view of the world that explains everything we see without the need for gods, souls, and other supernatural entities. Indeed, these entities have essentially fulfilled a role as placeholders for things we weren’t yet able to investigate through science.
Here’s what I think is really going on, then: Instead of making unfounded assumptions, naturalism is actually challenging long held assumptions made a long time ago by people who took the existence of supernatural entities like gods and souls for granted. It is no surprise, therefore, that the challenging of these assumptions often appears to theists to be the introduction of a strange and unwanted new worldview that foolishly disregards long cherished supernatural explanations.
Ironically, Carson finishes his piece by throwing caution to the wind and making an enormous leap of his own. Casting aside everything brain science has shown us about the biological basis for emotions, he says that “love, hope and meaning are … hints that we are made in the image of a loving God who made us for a reason and has a beautiful dream for the future.” Carson goes directly from human emotions to 1) the existence of God, 2) the nature of God (loving), and 3) the intentions of God (he has a dream for our future).
Now that’s some serious leaping!