The clash of the atheists

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!

Advertisements

14 Responses to The clash of the atheists

  1. Fair play to you for trying…for myself I have lost patience with these people.

    For example, in one of his blog entries, “Carson” states that “The problem with atheism is it denies that there exist any moral rules. Instead, atheism affirms that all that exists is matter, energy, and space-time. And the problem for atheism is that these elements are not enough to support the existence of morality.”

    Atheism does not deny that there exist any moral rules – atheism denies that there exist any gods. Atheism does not affirm that all that exists is matter, energy, and space-time – the only thing that atheism affirms is that there are no gods, and even then atheism can, and is, classed as a belief.

    I have written elsewhere that I am soundly convinced that relativism, in morality as in everywhere else, is a failing doctrine. Although I consider myself a naturalist, I am neither a materialist nor a physicalist – Carson makes no attempt anywhere, as far as I can see, to distinguish between them. So whoever “Carson” is addressing, he’s not talking about me. Granted, there must be some atheists, I imagine, who are relativists and materialists, but that’s not a necessary feature of atheism any more than support of Everton Football Club.

    So “Carson” gets it completely wrong, unsurprisingly. For his part, he subscribes to a doctrine in which truth is dependent on a consciousness – exactly the opposite of objectivity.

    Who’s the relativist here?

    • PlatinumBeetle says:

      “I have written elsewhere that I am soundly convinced that relativism, in morality as in everywhere else, is a failing doctrine. Although I consider myself a naturalist, I am neither a materialist nor a physicalist – Carson makes no attempt anywhere, as far as I can see, to distinguish between them. So whoever “Carson” is addressing, he’s not talking about me.”

      You are correct, he is not talking about you – you are very unusual! Me too, good for us, too many people just copy other folks’ thinking. That said, a quick look at atheistic materials around the internet or even at your local library will show that materialism and relativism are by far the dominant views among atheists.

      • My experience with atheists is that quite often they do deny the existence of objective truth and they do adopt a “matter is all there is” approach to metaphysics. Indeed, in both cases there is an argument to had, which, unlike any arguments in favour of theism, at least have the merit of referring to facts, or an interpretation of facts. Moreover, many prominent atheist philosophers (and the great majority of prominent philosophers over the last 200 years have been atheists) or atheist bloggers also subscribe to these positions.

        I grew tired of being expected by theists to support the views of Nietzsche or Sartre simply because they thought might have an argument there (they didn’t, of course). Worse still, the oft-misquoted words by the fictional Ivan Karamazov, written by Dostoevsky who is generally considered a somewhat unusual theist, are continually held to be representative of atheism – a classic case of Christian dishonesty.

        I have no firm idea whether realism or idealism is the dominant philosophy among atheists. You might be right, although I strongly suspect that realism is pre-eminent. However, I have noticed that it is commonplace that atheists that convert from Christianity often carry with them the Christian apologetic view of atheism, similar to that depicted by “Carson”. They can no longer believe in Christianity for various reasons, and also decide to take the opposite view on other matters apart from the existence of God. As Christianity at least gives lip-service to the idea of objective morality, some atheists such as converts will argue the opposite. This often shows a lack of thinking just as bad as “Carson’s”.

        I, too, will argue against relativism and against philosophical materialism – and I’m an atheist! So it ill behoves “Carson” to define atheism (and to be fair to him, he does often refer to his definition) as synonymous with a belief philosophical materialism. He also says that theists who don’t subscribe to philosophical materialism aren’t his target, but then what’s the point of arguing arguing against it?

        Not that he does a very good job of it. If he takes Keith up on his offer he will surely lose, although I doubt very much whether he would admit to such a thing.

  2. L.Long says:

    Like head butter I have lost all patience with these people.
    Their delusions are beyond all reaching. I admire your patience and fortitude to address them and please keep up the good work. Somewhere there may be a fence sitter that has fallen off onto our side.

  3. Pablo says:

    You rebuttal is brilliant in its simple and very evident logic, while being far from simplistic. Carsons position is, on the other hand, simplistic whishful thinking, no matter what lengths he took to make it look logical and sound. The narrowminded view of the universe, the world and the place of humankind in both, always betray these people… It´s has been very inspirational to read your piece because being a “regular joe” with no scientific or philosofical inclinations of my own, natural talents for the study of these subjects or formal education in them (beyond what you get from regular education, that is) makes very difficult for me to refute some arguments from theists in a logical, structured way. I read a lot – the usual suspects arise: Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc – and watch a lot of lectures and conferences, via youtube, to keep myself informed, but i get very emotional and frustrated when i try to give a refutal in real life discussions on the subject and, in the heat of the moment, i sense all ideas fly from my mind. A blend of stage fright and lack of discursive habilities, i guess. I’m working on that. Anyway, great rebuttal. And thank you for your time reading this.

    Please bear with my english (i´m chilean living in Spain), is a work in progress too.

    • Keith says:

      Pable – I appreciate the positive feedback, thanks. I’m not particularly good (or practiced) at making real-time rebuttals to apologists, either. I much prefer having the time to craft a written response!

      I’ve actually come across a couple of debates recently (one from the Reasonable Doubts podcast, I think) in which each participant spends time formulating an argument, makes an audio recording of it, and sends it to her opponent. She then listens to it, formulates a response, records it, sends it back, and so on and so forth. When the whole thing is stitched together you get a more substantial, less heated debate than you might get in a live setting. It’s quite a nice idea.

      • Pablo says:

        Thanks for your words. I been reading articles in your blog for a couple of hours now. Very clear thinking process you have, my friend. Very sharp and focus. Ill be recomending your blog to some likeminded friends. Good work¡¡

    • Graeme says:

      “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.”

      Let’s suppose that I believe that the purpose of morality is a societal construct that attempts to force the opinions and rules of others, to limit me from choosing to do whatever to whomever as I see fit. To assess the statement that murder is wrong, I therefore have to assess whether murder improves my personal situation. Well clearly it does. If I murder my rich wife so as to make it look like suicide knowing that she has left her assets to me in her will then I can live a comfortable life for the rest of my days with my young mistress. This greatly improves the well being of me and my mistress because the old cow wouldn’t give my any of that money before and now I can live the life of Reilly. It is objectively true that the more money I have control of, the more time I can spend living a life of luxury. Therefore for me, murder is right.

      I think the problem with your argument is the line, “Let’s suppose that we believe (as I, in fact, do) that the purpose of morality is to improve people’s well-being.” It’s your belief; it’s not everyone’s belief. You argue that there are objective moral truths aside from objective moral truths from a transcendent God. There aren’t. Without God there are only relativistic moral truths where individuals, families, organizations and governments seek to impose their own set of rules and regulations on others.

      Your correct opinion and argument that murder is wrong is no more valid or invalid than my incorrect opinion that murder is right, if there is no objective morality from God, everything becomes permissible. Both arguments are objectively true but the reason that we know which is right is imprinted from our creator in our very beings.

      I will finish with a quote, concerning relativism;

      “Everything I have said and done in these last years is relativism, by intuition. From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology, and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable. If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories, and men who claim to be the bearers of an objective immortal truth, then there is nothing more relativistic than fascism.” Benito Mussolini.

      • Keith says:

        Graeme

        The topic of relativism in morality is a separate issue that I did not think warranted discussion in this post. My main aim was to show that, given a particular goal for morality, it is possible to assess moral statements in an objective manner, namely in a way that will produce the same assessment no matter who is crunching the numbers.

        So yes, if we, as a society were to agree that morality should be all about improving the well-being of Graeme, and Graeme only, then it would be objectively true that the act of Graeme murdering his rich wife for her money would be morally “good”, since it satisfies the goal of the moral system in question.

        That obviously doesn’t mean that the Graeme-only moral system is the one we should adopt.

        Unfortunately, your solution to the problem of moral relativity doesn’t actually solve anything. Let me demonstrate this with one of your key claims. You say “Without God there are only relativistic moral truths where individuals, families, organizations and governments seek to impose their own set of rules and regulations on others.”

        The problem with this is that we still have an individual imposing his own set of rules and regulations on others. It so happens that this individual is God, but the basic set up is the same: one individual imposing his rules and regulations on others. Perhaps there is some sort of “might makes right” argument that allows you to feel better about God being the dictator of morality, as opposed to someone else.

        There are also other problems with putting God at the helm. For starters, people can’t agree that this particular individual even exists, since no one has ever seen him. It’s quite difficult to convince people of moral imperatives when the person allegedly handing them down is nowhere to be found!

        Second, people have been unable, over several centuries, to come to an agreement concerning the actual moral requirements this individual imposes, partly because many of the requirements appear to be the product not of a god, but of a somewhat primitive, often barbaric culture living in the Middle East thousands of years ago – an exceedingly odd basis for modern western morality, when you think about it.

        In conclusion, the only way to avoid an individual lording his or her morality over the people is to have the people decide for themselves, in a democratic manner, what sort of morality they wish to agree, as a society, to follow. The purpose of morality is to serve the people, so the people ought to set the rules themselves.

        And luckily for us westerners, we’ve largely agreed to follow a morality that upholds well-being, and regards all people as equally deserving of it.

      • Louis says:

        Is it objectively true that 12 inches equals one foot? Is this only objectively true if dictated by a god? (Please cite Bible chapter and verse, please!) No. Inches and feet are units of measurement invented by humans to allow us to measure and value the length of physical objects. In fact anything that we classify, categorize, measure, or value–physical or not–follows the same process. Morality is no different. We can measure morality in terms if well-being, social utility, virtues, duties, etc. It may be more difficult to define the units of measurement of morality and at times to discover moral truths, but that’s no reason to impose an additional ontological requirement for morality that isn’t valid in other areas of human inquiry.

  4. Dunn says:

    Keith,

    I appreciate your thoughtful response to Carson.

    I am going through your rebuttal here as time allows. I hope to be able to go through and respond to all points in time, but for now I must pick my battles as there are bills to pay!

    Here are some problems I see with your argument so far:

    – Your size of Texas vs. California analogy – The theist believes that moral truths are objective and real and knowable just as much as physical truths are. Yet, just like physical truths, it takes humanity time to uncover these truths. Slavery was legal in the Southern US at one time, but it was always objectively wrong, even in the time and place where most thought it right. That is no different than any given scientific advance you can name – at one time people thought one thing, such as the view of plate tectonics a century ago – and later they discovered they were wrong. But whatever was thought, the truth was always objectively real, even if we did not know it at the time. As to your example, Texas is objectively bigger than California, but there was a time when that would not be able to be measured by people in an accurate way! So your example just goes to illustrate what theists think about the moral realm – the truths are objective but are uncovered slowly by people, just as physical views are by the scientific method.

    – This next bit is extremely problematic:

    “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.”

    This is essentially a utilitarian statement, and utilitarianism is pretty hard to defend. But let’s just look at this example, and how easy it would be to counteract – suppose being murdered here was an awful person that was violent against his friends and family, and taking him out demonstrably makes them happy and improves their lives. Let’s say the person’s murder effected ten people, family and friends, and all of them positively, and only negatively affected the one being murdered. There is no objectivity here anymore, obviously. Your example is turned on its head and we are back in the realm of whim.

    But there is an even deeper problem here: The problem of this concept of “well-being”. What if your concept of such disagrees with somebody else’s, as often happens. Without an objective standard, who is “right”? You or the other guy? How can you say? I also have to ask you why “not being murdered’ is actually really objectively better than “being murdered”. Says who? You? What if somebody else disagrees, thinking humans are terrible and are destroying the planet ,and the less of them the better? Or thinking that people shouldn’t live beyond thirty, or any other reason. Why are you right and they wrong? How do you decide? Without an objective standard there simply is no way. Objectively morality is simply not possible without God.

    • Keith says:

      Thanks for the response, Dunn.

      I’ll counter here with my own responses, point by point.

      “The theist believes that moral truths are objective and real and knowable just as much as physical truths are.”

      You make this claim, and give an example (slavery in the U.S.), but you don’t provide justification for it. For instance, you don’t explain why slavery was suddenly “discovered” to be immoral. What moral “evidence” was uncovered that precipitated this change in view? And what is the method of moral discovery that was used, and which you claim is analogous to the scientific method?

      I think the progress of the moral zeitgeist is much better explained in terms of science itself. For example, our growing understanding of our own biology, psychology, etc., helped us to see that black people are just as human as white people: they experience the same emotions, they are just as intelligent, etc. This was actually quite a revelation among Europeans in the nineteenth century who had, until then, mistakenly believed that blacks were far inferior to whites.

      “[S]uppose being murdered here was an awful person that was violent against his friends and family, and taking him out demonstrably makes them happy and improves their lives.”

      This is why I believe that consent is an important component of morality. No moral system can make people happy if it continually imposes actions on people against their will. More on this theme below.

      “What if your concept of such disagrees with somebody else’s, as often happens. Without an objective standard, who is “right”? You or the other guy? How can you say?”

      This is very easily solved. Simply ask them. The whole idea of my moral system to to balance the actions people themselves wish to take based on their own assessment of what will make them happy.

      “I also have to ask you why “not being murdered’ is actually really objectively better than “being murdered”. Says who?”

      Says the person who doesn’t want to be murdered, of course. And if someone actually *wanted* to be killed, then a moral case could be made for that, as it often is with cases of euthanasia, for example.

      “What if somebody else disagrees, thinking humans are terrible and are destroying the planet ,and the less of them the better? Or thinking that people shouldn’t live beyond thirty, or any other reason. Why are you right and they wrong? How do you decide?”

      For a start, it’s obvious that any society that adopted such rules wouldn’t be around for very long – these would be entirely self-defeating moral systems. For this reason alone, they don’t make much sense.

      To answer your question more directly, though, I don’t think I’m “right” and they are “wrong” in absolute terms. My only claim is that a utilitarian system such as mine is designed to improve happiness among a population, and this is not a controversial claim. It’s up to the population itself whether they actually want to follow such a system, or adopt something else instead (like virtue ethics, theocracy, etc.).

      And that is where the key lies: morality is a tool devised by people for people and as such it should be decided democratically, just like other big issues are decided democratically. And this is, in essence, what has happened in modern societies. People have supported governments that promote well-being and a view of human equality, which are two key components of utilitarianism (think of the phrase “promote the general Welfare” in the preamble to the U.S. constitution, for example). People could quite easily vote for sharia law, or Christian theocracy if that’s what they really wanted, but they haven’t done so.

      Furthermore, I think people understand that no person has an innate, a priori privilege to impose his or her moral imperatives on another person. And this gets us back to consent: there simply is no argument for granting special privileges to one person’s ability to give or deny consent, unless a democratic decision is made to place someone in that position. (Exceptions can, perhaps, be made if someone has agreed beforehand to suffer the consequences of their chosen moral system, such as punishment for crimes, etc.)

      “Objectively morality is simply not possible without God.”

      But this statement, as I’ve argued with Graeme above, really just boils down to this: no one is entitled to dictate morality to others, unless it’s the Christian god. This is still an argument in favor of a moral dictatorship. And there are problems with choosing the Christian god as the dictator, as I pointed out to Graeme.

  5. Louis says:

    Excellent retort. I too appreciate your concise and direct style. Apologists try to set up false dichotomies to make non-theism appear untenable: existence is eternal or else it is meaningless, immaterial souls exist or else life is purposeless, God defines morality or else morality is baseless, etc. It’s God or nothing–a shameless attempt to undermine humanity and life itself. It plays well into the narrative of sin and salvation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: