Friday, May 25, 2007

The Problem of Evil For Atheism

Professing to be wise they became fools!What follows is my reply to an Atheist who disagreed with my assertion in the previous post that an Atheistic worldview simply can not answer the why's of moral obligation. The reply he gave is not all that uncommon from moderately sophisticated Atheists so I think it serves as a good post. This fellows name is "Godma", here is my reply to what he wrote:

Hey Godma thanks for the comments I will give a brief response to some of the things you raised.

You write:

"1. There are good evolutionary advantages for people to have an innate moral instinct, albeit a simplistic one (something like "try to be nice to your fellow humans")."

Based upon an evolutionary assumption sure, there may be "advantages" (defining that gets sticky as I will show) to a sort of pragmatic moral code. This however does not equal those actions being inherently wrong, we just define them as such for pragmatic reasons. So rape isn't really wrong but we just categorize it as such because it's effects are undesirable.

Also I think a case could be made that many practices we deem "wrong" in themselves certainly could have evolutionary "advantages". Take random indiscriminate open copulation, like animals practice. We would find it rather immoral if when we walked down the street we saw numerous couples engaging in procreative activities in public in front of young children. Or even rape for that matter could be seen as advantageous and as such "moral" on a strict evolutionary sense.

"Over the long course of evolution, individuals with a genetic predisposition toward being generally nice to their family and tribe-mates out-reproduced individuals who did not have that predisposition. The instinct we have inherited from this is still present. It's not fool-proof, of course, but it can go a long way."

So "nicety" (whatever that is) is genetic? What part of the genome contains this "nice" gene? Can you weigh nice genes? Can you pour niceness into a glass?

Given this strict materialist view of things I wonder how you can say anything is "wrong" at all. I mean people are just acting on how their chemical make up determines them to act. How can you say it is wrong to fail to posses an adequate amount of "nice" genes"? Given such a view I just wonder how we can make any moral judgments on people or call anybody "criminals" because they are simply acting upon their biological makeup.

"2. Human cultures have further promoted habits of moral behavior in their members, through morality stories (including religious stories), social pressures, and rule of law with punishment for transgressors. Over time, the moral sense of a culture does gradually shift due to changing conditions, however (e.g. times of bounty/famine, technological growth, etc.)"

Well, Nietzsche would say these stories were just made up by the weak to control the natural barbaric instincts of the strong. We need to adopt a master morality and reject all of these stories and let "do what thou wilt" be our moral guide. In essence these are all facades and control devices, there isn't any REAL right and wrong, just pragmatic weapons to control people with. Do you live in that world? The world where there is no real right and wrong, where right and wrong are just conventions made to control people?

Or do you live in a world where the rapist REALLY did do something wrong? If you live here I would submit that as an unbeliever you are simply borrowing from my Christian worldview. Indeed this borrowing from the Christian worldview becomes apparent as you will soon invoke the "golden rule" as a moral standard.

"3. Basically, as a culture, we should treat certain behaviors as "good" and others as "bad", for the simple reason that it is beneficial to the culture to do so (in that it helps the culture persist and prosper)."

Why? Why is that what we should do? Why should we care about the culture as a whole? Why should any of that concern me? Why should I based upon YOUR worldview give a rip about anybody else, nevertheless a whole culture of others?

Again your assessment masks that "good" and "bad" are conventions. We just pragmatically employ this "moral language" to control people. The actions themselves aren't actually wrong, we just label them as such arbitrarily.

"For example, I think we could mostly agree that the golden rule is an excellent basis for morality that can continue to endure through time and even be treated as an absolute, with no need to justify it based on the belief in deities. We can justify it based on the fact that it helps us minimize suffering (which is conducive to a peaceful society)."

Why yes I think the golden rule is wonderful...based upon a Christian worldview. But see you have no right to borrow this concept. Once you take the golden rule and divorce it from the authoritative objective word of God incarnate (Christ) then it is just another arbitrary convention made by men that I see no reason to abide by.

So based on YOUR worldview why is the golden rule a good standard to live by? Why should I care about other sacks of chemicals and how they may "feel" about certain actions? Why?

You have simply taken some of the leftovers from the Christian worldview in appealing to this. I submit that this is because you are made in the image of God and that although you deny this God you really do know Him.

"So, my answer to the question, as an atheist, is that it is wrong to fly planes into buildings because it is wrong to cause needless suffering."

A Frank Turk Graphic...Wha!? How did you reach the conclusion that "needless suffering" is wrong? Based upon your worldview why is causing "needless suffering" wrong? I mean sure maybe I might not want to be held at gunpoint while jihadists slit the throats of my family members in front of me but that doesn't = wrongness just because I happen to not like what is going on or even most people don't like that, that doesn't make it wrong. If that is the case then earthquakes are immoral and hurricanes, and rain at a baseball game. All of these cause "needless suffering" therefore rain at baseball games is "wrong"!

Also we need to remember that jihadists and rapists are just acting on their chemical makeup. They are just doing what nature has chemically determined them to do. I would also ask this: Is there such a thing as "needed suffering"? Well then it seems like it would be a matter of subjective perspective to make a distinction between what is needless and needed. I think the Jihadists would say blowing the WTC up was needed suffering. Who's right you or them?

You try to answer my above question saying:

"And needless suffering is bad because it is harmful to a stable and peaceful society. ...And that is something we should try to maintain because it is in our own self-interest in the long run."

Again, who cares! "Self interest" that sounds like a bunch of junk considering that I got about 80 years to whoop it up and then annihilation, why in the world should I give a rip about the "good" (whatever that means) of society or humanity?

You next add onto why "needless suffering" is bad writing:

"I also think it's bad because I have a sense of compassion. Seems obvious, but I thought I should add it just in case."

So because you have these feelings that action X is bad that = moral obligation? What about the sacks of chemicals (people) walking around who don't share those feelings? Like, oh, Charles Manson. So what makes him the bad guy and you the good guy because you when you heard a women being raped in the alley called 911 and went out with a baseball bat to get the attacker off her, whereas on the other hand Mr.Manson pulled up a chair at his apartment window and opened a bag of Doritos and watched the show? Why is he "bad" and you "good" based on your worldview? Are not both paths equally valid?

After all he doesn't have the chemical make up that induces this thing you call compassion, can you really fault him for that?

So again this just raises the question as to WHY I should (based upon an Atheist Materialist worldview) care if another sack of chemicals and nerve endings is experiencing pain?

Now as a Christian I can answer all of those questions. We should care about other human beings because they are not just sacks of chemicals they are creatures made in the image of God, and as such they have dignity and worth. There is no higher value you can place on human life then to acknowledge that we are made in God's image.

Furthermore right and wrong are not mere pragmatic categories invented to make society "work". Ethics and morality reflect the character of God, and thus is implanted in the nature of man made in the image of God (This explains your feeling of compassion for others, those feelings are valid in a Christian worldview). Thus, because they are based upon God, the creator of man and transcendent over man, these standards are objective and universal and as unchanging as God is unchanging.

Furthermore God has revealed His nature and Character not exhaustively but truly in His revealed word the Bible. Thus I have a standard that says why rape is wrong, it is a crime against the person who has worth (being made in God's image) and against God who made that person and has stated that such treatment of others is wrong.

Let me end by saying that you probably are a fairly moral fellow. You would probably say that it is "wrong" to steal for fun or hit people in the face in to see how they react. However, I would say that based upon your worldview you have no reason to think this way. All you have given is pragmatic benefits to having a sort of moral code in a society, that doesn't make these actions wrong, that just means we act as though they are.

I would lastly say that you do know these behaviours are wrong, this is because you are made in the image of God and you live in the world God made. You don't live in Materialist Atheist land where morality is just a convention, you don't live in a world where you see people as just sacks of chemicals and water. You live in a world made by God and you bear his image, yet you in suppressing the truth of God can only offer pragmatic morality to explain what is really there.

8 comments:

TheChristianAlert.org said...

I may be wrong but I'm wondering if the majority of atheists would be such - if they were poor, under-privileged, sick, etc...

It is great to be a materialist/atheist when you have the good things in life where one is part of the elite that gets to decide what is moral and good.

But unless there is a transcendent moral law giver, there is no right and wrong. For otherwise, the strongest would feed us our moral code which would be subject to change. For example if all child-rapists got together and came up with enough money to buy their own little country to do whatever they wanted, atheist wouldn't be able to tell them it was wrong. Who are they to judge their moral values?

Thanks be to God.

godma said...

Wow, thanks for addressing my comments. I actually just now read the post, and I might work up a more detailed response later (there's a lot that I'd like to say), but for now just a few thoughts that occur to me immediately.

The point of my previous comment was simply to explain how people could adhere to moral principles without believing in deities, and for perfectly naturalistic reasons that don't require a supernatural law giver. My point was not so much to argue whether or not morality is, in fact, an objective feature of the universe. You neglected this point, it seems to me, instead always bringing it back to the issue of whether something can be said to be objectively wrong or right. This (although interesting) is beside the point I was trying to make.

In other words, whether or not there is such a thing as objective morality does not address my claim that there are plenty of reasons why people might behave morally that don't require the existence of an objective moral authority. My comment was intended to shine a light on how that could be.

Do you disagree that my reasons would tend to promote moral behavior? How so?

Also, since you asked about this specifically in various ways, the answer is yes...in my world morality is not presumed to be objective. We are each born with a basic moral instinct, and are then further taught by our parents, teachers, and society on how to be well behaved. Obviously, different people have slightly different notions on what "well behaved" means, and that just goes to my point. Your notion is Bible-based. Mine is based on other things, including some Biblical stories, no doubt. The point is that they are _based_ on different things for different people. And being "based" on something is another way to say that it is relative to that thing.

I do feel a deep sense of compassion for others, but I don't see a need to jump from that to the conclusion that it was instilled in me by a deity. I prefer the more conservative approach of attributing it to natural causes, since they seem sufficient by themselves to bring about the moral behavior I see in myself and others. Although I believe that morals aren't *necessarily* objective truths (btw, I'm not saying it's impossible that they are), that doesn't stop me and others from behaving AS IF they were, both because it feels good and because it's to my advantage to do so.

I'll try to present some arguments regarding objective versus subjective bases for morality in a subsequent response.

Thanks again for the lively conversation.

godma said...

Oh. One more thing I forgot to add. The Golden Rule is actually independent of Christianity (it even pre-dates it).

For example, Confucius (551-479 BC) said: "What you do not wish upon yourself, extend not to others."

Just google "history of the golden rule" or "ethic of reciprocity" to see for yourself.

Here's a good summary:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethic_of_reciprocity

Bob said...

Edgar-
You are certainly on to something. Morality particularly here in the Democratic West has become consensus based, I just think of how a few months ago I was asked to vote on whether or not marriage is between a man and a women and whether or not we should have the death penalty. Societal right and wrong is being determined by the 51%. OR as you put a sort of elite...this is what we have seen in the totalitarian and communistic countries. The odd thing is that both tendencies are here in the US.

Godma,
Hey thanks for getting back I honestly am interested in hearing what you have to say in response to the issues I raised. Lets see, you wrote:

"The point of my previous comment was simply to explain how people could adhere to moral principles without believing in deities, and for perfectly naturalistic reasons that don't require a supernatural law giver. My point was not so much to argue whether or not morality is, in fact, an objective feature of the universe. You neglected this point, it seems to me, instead always bringing it back to the issue of whether something can be said to be objectively wrong or right. This (although interesting) is beside the point I was trying to make."

This seems like a littleslight of hand here. My point was that without an objective reference of morality that the practical outworking is meaningless. So to say things like: "Rape is wrong" may give the feeling of a "working moral vision" but without an objective basis saying "Rape is wrong" is on par with "Schilack pizzuuuuum!" Both have equal meaning and weight.

"The point of my previous comment was simply to explain how people could adhere to moral principles without believing in deities, and for perfectly naturalistic reasons that don't require a supernatural law giver. My point was not so much to argue whether or not morality is, in fact, an objective feature of the universe. You neglected this point, it seems to me, instead always bringing it back to the issue of whether something can be said to be objectively wrong or right. This (although interesting) is beside the point I was trying to make."

Again I think it does, you need explain WHY morality is not just nonesense and meaningless words without an objective reference point. You can't just say that this isn't a problem you need to explain how and why based upon your worldview morality is at all meaningful, so far all you have given is that society funcions better with these controllers in place. Again, so what.

"Do you disagree that my reasons would tend to promote moral behavior? How so?"

Good question. Well for somebody who is slightly astute he will see the motive "Be moral for the good of society." as a hollow message without any reference point...again the simple question of "Why?" is in order. Why should Mr.X care about society he wants to express himself in ways society forbids, what right does society have to impose ITS morality on Mr.X? Why can't he just make his own rules (no rules!)? This is just the Postmodern rhetoric for the Atheist.

So to answer your question, I haven't seen you give any real moral ought. Every time you hold up what you view as an ought the question "Why does that matter?" is always there.

"Also, since you asked about this specifically in various ways, the answer is yes...in my world morality is not presumed to be objective. We are each born with a basic moral instinct, and are then further taught by our parents, teachers, and society on how to be well behaved."

Take out the word "well" and you are being consistent with YOUR worldview. Leave it in and you have to assume a standard (objective) to measure "wellness" by.

I would press the "moral instinct" stuff too but then we will get bogged down in tales of evolution, no doubt that is the gap filler. Instead of naively saying "God did it." the naive phrase "evolution did it." will be invoked.

Obviously, different people have slightly different notions on what "well behaved" means, and that just goes to my point. Your notion is Bible-based. Mine is based on other things, including some Biblical stories, no doubt. The point is that they are _based_ on different things for different people. And being "based" on something is another way to say that it is relative to that thing."

Hey that's good you cought that "wellness" issue...kudos to you for having your thinking cap on! What you invoke here is a form of relativism. Now of course I would agree that there are numerous claims to moral authority apart from the Christian worldview. But in the face of all this postmodern mish mush I would just simply say Christianity is the truth all others are imitators and pretenders to the throne.

"I do feel a deep sense of compassion for others, but I don't see a need to jump from that to the conclusion that it was instilled in me by a deity. I prefer the more conservative approach of attributing it to natural causes, since they seem sufficient by themselves to bring about the moral behavior I see in myself and others."

How is it more "conservative" to say blind evolution designed me this way rather then My Maker designed me this way? I am honestly baffled at how much evolution is envoked by Atheists...people want to talk of god of the gaps but I think evolution has become the greatest gap filler. I could explain how insufficient purely naturalistic causality would be to bring us to this point where we are even talking about that causality. I would just point you to some of Alvin Plantinga's essays, a link is on the side bar of the main page of my blog. I do this merely to save my own breath and he says it so much more precisely than I could.

"Although I believe that morals aren't *necessarily* objective truths (btw, I'm not saying it's impossible that they are), that doesn't stop me and others from behaving AS IF they were, both because it feels good and because it's to my advantage to do so."

NOW THIS IS WHAT I AM GETTING AT! You have absolutely no reason to believe that your moral mothions have any REAL significance or meaning and this is where your atheism leads you. Yet you yourself have just said you do not live like morality is not objective. You do not live like your moral actions are meaningless. And I would submit to you that it is because your moral volitions ARE MEANINGFUL! You live in the world God has made and you are made in His image, no matter how much you suppress this you can't escape your humanness. You simply can't live consistantly with your Atheism. If you were to be consistent you should be like Neitszche and view morality as just controllers to be rejected.

Next you write:

"Oh. One more thing I forgot to add. The Golden Rule is actually independent of Christianity (it even pre-dates it)."

You know I will say a couple things about this 1.) I would like an actual reference and 2.) This is irrelevent to my point. I would challange Confuscious that the golden rule coming from his lips is just meaningless moral words because he has no standard.

When Christ (God incarnate) uttered these things they were meaningful because as the Lord of all Creation He is the final arbiter or standard of ethical right and wrong. He had a fixed reference point to bass His ethic from...Himself. Now when Confuscious or anybody else does the same it is just moral words because he is basing it off himself as a particular in a world of particulars. Chist was transcendent in a world of particulars. There is the difference and why when one uttered similar words they are bereft of any meaning and when Christ uttered them they were/are meaningful.

Bob said...

oh and he Godma, you seem like a nice fellow keep comming back. I'll try not to pick on you too bad :)

Bob said...

he=hey...sigh

godma said...

Thanks again. I'm enjoying this conversation, and do intend to keep up with it and with your future posts. One of my greatest pleasures is to discuss disagreements with intelligent and well-spoken individuals, such as yourself.

Anyway....

I've extracted the 4 main points that you brought up, and addressed them each individually. I hope I didn't miss anything, but if I did I'm sure you'll let me know.


1. Without a fundamentally objective standard of morality, any pragmatic/relativistic/subjective standards are meaningless (and thus invalid).

You make this point again and again in various ways throughout your entire response. For example:

"My point was that without an objective reference of morality that the practical outworking is meaningless"

and

"you need explain WHY morality is not just nonesense and meaningless words without an objective reference point"

and

"Every time you hold up what you view as an ought the question "Why does that matter?" is always there"

and

"You have absolutely no reason to believe that your moral mothions have any REAL significance or meaning"

and

"I would challange Confuscious that the golden rule coming from his lips is just meaningless moral words because he has no standard. "


It seems to me that every time you make this point you are engaging in circular reasoning. When you require "meaning", you mean this strictly in the sense of "objective meaning", right? By requiring that any basis for morality must have objective meaning, you are essentially saying that morality must be objective because otherwise it would not be objective. See what I mean by it being circular?

Perhaps I should leave it at that, but just to try to elaborate further on my point of view, I'll say this:

Whether or not there actually is such a thing as objective meaning (for morality or anything else), we should admit that we are not able to actually know this, being the limited creatures that we are. We can certainly entertain the idea all we want, but to actually know objective truths (including whether there are such things) requires a complete knowledge of the universe, because if we fall short of that, we are at risk to the possibility that exceptions to those supposed truths exist in the parts we have missed. So let's not be so sure of something that we can't possibly have a hope of knowing, so long as we are less than omniscient.

However, we ARE able to extract some workable subjective "meanings" by simply comparing things to each other. For example, words have meaning at least in part by nature of their relationships to each other and to our experiences. We can agree on this much, I hope. We would be wrong to go further and conclude that these are actually objective meanings.

And...subjective meanings actually work just fine at providing a framework for learning, understanding, and getting by in the world. Sure, perhaps at the foundation of all this learning and understanding is a degree of ignorance, and all the rest is just self-supporting without a well-understood foundation. I'm perfectly fine with that. I don't need to posit an objective basis underlying all that in order to be able to exist in the world with a relative sense of meaning.

The same reasoning works for morality.

To recap what I said at the top:
You criticize my relativistic/pragmatic/subjective basis for morality because it doesn't provide for objective meaning. But this is the very point we're arguing about in the first place. You require objective meaning, but I do not. I'm therefore taking the next step of arguing that people can actually be "moral" (by whatever outwardly visible criteria you like, actually) without subscribing to an objective basis for it. You, on the other hand, keep bringing up your point that the subjective view is invalid because it is not objective. I don't know how to address that except to point out that it is circular. I hope you see what I mean, and can recast your argument in a way that we can both do something with.


2. Evolution is used as a "gap filler" just like God in the "god of the gaps" argument.

Well, I'll agree that it does fill a gap, but that itself is not what is wrong with the "god of the gaps" argument.

The real problem with the argument is that in it "God" is not well defined and has no real explanatory or predictive power. By defining "God", basically, as "the thing the fills these gaps", one doesn't actually explain anything, since we can't test God's supposed existence in those gaps for consistency with observations. In other words, we can't make predictions based on the hypothesis that "God is in these gaps" in order to support or invalidate the hypothesis. In fact, you could just as easily say "invisible leprochauns" are the things that fill these gaps. The explanatory and predictive power in terms of understanding how the natural world works is the same (none).

On the other hand, evolutionary theory does have real explanatory and predictive power. It is defined and supported not based on its ability to fill the gaps, but rather on the level of consistency between the theory and the evidence. We (humans) have fossils, genetics, computer models, etc. that are used to support or invalidate the various predictions made by the theory. Unlike the god of the gaps argument, you could not simply replace "evolution" with "invisible leprochauns" and get the same explanatory and predictive power, right?


3. "How is it more "conservative" to say blind evolution designed me this way rather then My Maker designed me this way?"

It's more conservative because it requires fewer and simpler assumptions than the God hypothesis requires. To put it as briefly as I can, evolutionary theory requires only evidence from the natural world (which is publicly testable), but the God hypothesis requires this PLUS the belief in the supernatural (which is not publicly testable). Said another way, (God + universe) is obviously more complex than just (universe).

Said yet another way, the idea that the universe created us is simpler than the idea that God created both the universe and us (or that he created the universe, which in turn created us), because in the God case, you have to explain not only the universe and us, but also God.


4. The Golden Rule (a.k.a. the ethic of reciprocity)

References:
I did provide a link to the wikipedia page, which has far more and better references within it than I could easily find on my own. I recommend at least reading that one page. Here is the link again
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethic_of_reciprocity

If you want more, all you have to do is google "ethic of reciprocity", and you will easily find a ton of other references describing the various flavors of the Golden Rule that exist in virtually all world religions, including many that are older than Christianity.

I'm curious what references you can provide to support your claim the the ethic of reciprocity is uniquely Christian...


Side note:
By the way, the Golden Rule is actually a relativistic basis for morality, isn't it? For example, it doesn't say "don't do X", but instead it says "don't do whatever X that you'd not want to be done to you". Thus, it is defining a moral standard as relative to each person's own desires!

Henry (Honzo) Imler said...

Bob,

Good post.

In addition to the arguments you make, evolutionary morality theory cannot handle the altruistic nature of our moral capacity.

Pruss wrote a great paper on this topic

http://www.georgetown.edu/faculty/ap85/papers/altruismteleologyandgod.pdf