It’s all subjective

I find it frustrating when theists repeat over and over that atheists have no basis for morality. It’s an immature view that misunderstands both atheism and morality. The argument goes something like this:

Morality must be grounded. The only way it can be grounded is if it comes from somewhere outside humanity (at a minimum). Only a higher power can provide for such objectivity. Thus, atheism provides for no objective morality.

There are several problems here. First, I worded the summary specifically, so take note: It starts out talking about morality but then makes a switch to objective morality. This characterizes the number one mistake theists make, and it isn’t goal post moving. What they’re doing is assuming morality must be objective when talking about it in the first place. It’s classic Question Begging. (Goal post moving entails knowing where the goal posts are in the first place.) Second, so what if they’re right? If we follow the argument, it’s going to end in God. But did God tell them what argument to follow? How do they know their argument is right? Even if they can be highly certain, apply scientific standards to their process, and not a single person can find a flaw in their steps, they are still making an argument that necessarily lacks 100% certainty (just like every argument ever made). In other words, they have come to their conclusion via their own perspectives, via their own values, via their own reasoning, via their own abilities. At every point they have been arguing subjectively. Even if they are right, no one can objectively confirm as much.

So where does this leave us? Well, on a pretty level playing field. Once my argument is understood, a theist can no longer say he has an objective grounding for morality. He doesn’t. No one does. The best we can do is argue from our common needs and values. Fortunately, thanks to evolution, we have a lot of overlap there. That gives us a basis for talking about morality; indeed, it has been the basis of morality since the beginning of humanity and before.

Thought of the day

If God creates morality, then morality is ultimately arbitrary; an act is not intrinsically good, but only good on the say so of God. What this means is that murder is not always wrong and that rape might be okay some day. However, if morality transcends God, then God is not the only thing which is eternal. This conflicts with most Christian beliefs, and certainly with many Christian ‘proofs’ for God.

But then, I’m never really surprised when I note yet another unresolvable problem for Christians.

Punching bags

Aaaand the very first winner of my new series Punching Bags is Wintery Knight. Congratulations, Mr. Knight! This is the probably the greatest thing you’re ever going to accomplish in your blogging career.

There’s a lot of silliness out there, but what really grabbed my attention by standing heads and shoulders above the rest was a series of posts by Wintery Knight about atheism and morality. It’s astonishing just how poorly pieced together it all is. Let’s take a peek at WK’s methods:

First of all, I wrote up a list of questions to use to interview atheists about their views.

Second, I posted the raw results of my survey.

Third, I listed the minimal requirements that any worldview must support for in order to ground rational morality.

Fourth, I argued that atheism does not ground any of these requirements.

Fifth, I argued that Christian theism does ground all of these requirements.

Sixth, I posted my own answers to the questions.

I really recommend taking a look at that first link; the arrogance and snobbery drip from every word:

Who is safe to talk to?

In this post, I am going to explain to you clearly how to engage your atheist friends on these issues. But be careful. Some atheists have fascist tendencies – when they feel offended, some of them want to bring state to bear against those who make them feel bad. Atheists struggle with morality, it just doesn’t sit well on their worldview, even though they sense God’s law on their hearts, like we do.

1) Thank goodness WK is here to help everyone know which atheists are okay. Some of us bite, don’t you know.

2) It’s good to know he has already defined morality when he declares that atheists struggle with it. Of course, we all know this is just another case of a theist assuming “objective” in front of “morality”.

3) Of course atheists sense God’s law in their hearts. Just like how Christians really hate science and reason deep down, amirite?

But WK’s interviews appear to be entirely irrelevant. They aren’t necessary to any of his further posts in any way. Besides that, his questions are statistically meaningless since he, um, doesn’t obtain any statistics; his ‘survey’ holds no value and is nothing more than an exercise in condescension. Let’s move on.

His next move (third link) is to try and tell us what is required for “rational moral behavior”. Gee, I wonder if he’s going to assume “objective” anywhere, gaming the issue in his favor.

1) Objective moral values

There needs to be a way to distinguish what is good from what is bad. For example, the moral standard might specify that being kind to children is good, but torturing them for fun is bad. If the standard is purely subjective, then people could believe anything and each person would be justified in doing right in their own eyes. Even a “social contract” is just based on people’s opinions. So we need a standard that applies regardless of what people’s individual and collective opinions are.

Whoa! My whole world view has been devastated! And in only 5 sentences. How could I have been missing something so obvious?!

Oh. Wait. Woulddya look at that. We need a way to tell good from bad. Well, wouldn’t that require that there is an objective good and bad in the first place? Or maybe WK is just making an assumption, causing him to beg the question. Could it be that our ideas of “good” and “bad” have a basis in our cultures and societies and human nature and our emotions and physical bodies and relationships and intelligence? And if so, couldn’t we use ethical and moral theories, applying them to the facts of the world and our derived definitions of “good” and “bad”, thus shaping how we behave? And wouldn’t this be the very definition of rational? (Hint: The answer to all of my questions is “yes”.)

But despite being so far off, WK trudges onward:

What difference does it make to you [an evil stupid dumb butt atheist] if you just go ahead and disregard your moral obligations to whomever? Is there any reward or punishment for your choice to do right or do wrong? What’s in it for you?

Bracketed clarification added.

I’m not so sure I would trust someone who thought the point of morality was to get something for himself. (Oh, who am I kidding. I trust a ton of Christians and they all necessarily believe that the point of being good is to get a big pretty prize at the end of the road.) I guess I just prefer to act out of genuine reasons, not for the sake of enriching myself in some unevidenced afterlife.

Anyway. WK goes on and on with his blog, sometimes saying dumb things about evolution, other times promoting science that makes him feel special. He’s an old Earth creationist, perhaps the most nebulous of all creationists (tell me again, when did humanity begin?), but in the end he’s just another punching bag.

Don’t forget to submit other potential punching bags.

Thought of the day

The most common and annoying error I see when people talk about objective morality versus subjective morality is the bald assumption of “objective” in front of the word. Presumably the very topic at hand is to resolve or at least illuminate the differences between these two,distinct ideas of morality. By assuming “objective” in front of “morality”, a classic logical fallacy has been committed.

Thought of the day

There exists this popular argument about morality that I just detest. It goes like this: If morality is to exist at all, it must be objective. The reason this is complete junk is that it assumes morality is objective in the first place. In fact, just add “objective” in front of “morality” and absolutely nothing changes about the point – the tautological flaw just becomes more obvious.

2010: FTSOS in review, July to September

This is the third installment of the 2010 review of FTSOS. See the first two here and here.

July:
Some of the smaller posts I’ve made that I think deserve a little more attention are the ones where I emphasize that biology is all about shape. The article I wrote about the fight against HIV is one of those posts. Research earlier this year found at least one location on HIV molecules that remains a consistent shape between individual viruses. This is important because HIV’s ability to be differently shaped in different parts of a single body makes it difficult to combat.

I also wrote about the difference between atheists, new atheists, and anti-theists. One of the public relation problems for atheism is that it is viewed as a dirty word. People assume it means absolute certainty, and that is seen as arrogant. It’s ironic because belief in God usually comes with certainty and that isn’t seen as being so arrogant, but I digress. Atheism is not certainty. Furthermore, where it is involved in new atheism and anti-theism, atheism acts as a descriptive base; new atheism and anti-theism are normative positions.

One of my all-time favorite posts is the one about photolyase and cancer. Photolyase is a protein that captures light and uses two of its constituents (a single proton and single electron) to force contorted nucleotides back into place. It is not present in humans, but is common in plants and other animals, helping to keep their genes functioning properly. This may be one reason we’re more susceptible to cancer than many of our fellow organisms.

August:
This was a skimpy month for FTSOS. I was away on a couple vacations for the bulk of the month, so the majority of the posts were either from my “Thought of the day” series or they were pictures/YouTube videos. But for what was there, I couldn’t resist pointing out and expanding on a fantastic quote from the judge who said Prop 8 in California is unconstitutional. In his quote he said a ban on gays getting married fails to advance any rational cause. I compared that sentiment to the idea that the majority cannot be allowed to discriminate simply because it is the majority.

I also made a post about a website devoted to philosophical thought experiments. The thought experiment I chose to highlight was Judith Jarvis Thompson’s Trolley Problem. My big motivator was a recent discussion with another blogger who laughably claimed that the trolley experiment was merely a logistical exercise, not an exercise about morality. To date he is still the only person in the world to believe that.

I also went through a few theistic arguments that are obviously failures. The most notable in my mind is the argument that says everything has a cause, therefore the Universe had a cause. There are two major problems with this. First, then why not just say a sort of ‘exo-nature’ caused the Universe? There is no need for consciousness – in fact, that only makes the theistic argument less probable. Second, the whole basis for this argument rests in the idea that forces result in reactions. For instance, if I push a chair, that chair moves; I applied a force. This is basic physics. But the whole shebang of forces and equal and opposite reactions? We’re talking about the science of what we know that happens within the Universe. And all we know necessarily breaks down prior to the Big Bang. The First Cause argument cannot be used because it rests about an unwarranted extension of science. Religion abusing science? Crazy, I know.

September:
The beginning of September was just as skimpy as the end of August because I was still on vacation. But while I never gave a huge post on the subject, the defining moment of the month (and year and decade and…) for me was my hike of Kilimanjaro. I have started writing about it at this point – just not for FTSOS. But in lieu of that you can read the account of the journey from my fellow group member and current Facebook buddy Jim Hodgson.

I also gave a very lengthy post on why prostitution ought to be legal. No one seemed to care, but I put a lot of effort into, so I thought I would mention it here. Basically, we make the practice illegal because of our own discomfort with sex as a society. We also draw false correlations between it and other illegal activities: of course one illegal thing will bring with it other illegal things if it’s something people want. Finally, for the safety and health of all involved, it would be better to legalize and regulate prostitution than keep the old system we have now.

One of the most popular posts on FTSOS that people found via search engines was the one where I lamented low science and math scores in the United States. A lack of funding relative to other areas, hostility towards science, and a general anti-intellectual trend in the U.S. all contribute to the decline of America on the world stage in education.

Another lament was my post about the anti-vax crowd causing deaths. The fact is, people who advocate against vaccines or for made-up alternatives to vaccines are making the world a more dangerous place, making people sick and even causing deaths. Get vaccinated – and, if you have them, especially get your children vaccinated.

Once again I really want to highlight a fourth post here. In this case, it is the one I made about the Problem of Evil. This has forever been an issue that no Christian (or other relevant believer) has been able to resolve. If God is good and evil exists, then we need to answer why. Appealing to free will fails because while God is necessarily good, free will does not need to necessarily exist. In other words, God is required to be good; he is not required to create free will.

Expect October to December tomorrow.

An average conversation with a red herring theist

This is an extension of a previous post. Both that post and this post are influenced by common arguments I’ve heard from theists who just have no clue about how to stay on topic or, perhaps, just don’t want to stay on topic. It’s easier to engage this same point (which I will post in a moment) over and over – and then ignore the given answers – than to engage more difficult points. William Dembski is guilty of that recently, providing me the final impetus for this post. So here it is:

A = Atheist

T = Theist

Atheist: So yeah, I guess to summarize, I disagree with your position on how we should approach North Korea over the next year.

Theist: Yeah, well, why does your opinion matter?

A: Huh? Well, I suppose I’ve become fairly informed on the issues and I think…

T: No, no. You’re an atheist. You have no basis for morality. So why is your opinion good?

A: That’s really a red herring. We’re discussing North Korea (our allies according to Sarah Palin).

T: Stop dodging my question.

A: So you want to change the subject?

T: You aren’t answering me!

A: Okay, I’ll just pretend like you acknowledged that you want to change the topic rather than continue to discuss North Korea. So why is my opinion good? It depends on how we want to define “good” and then it depends on how my opinion comports with that definition.

T: So how do we define good?

A: We are a social animal that has evolved a general concern for ourselves and for other members of our population, “population” initially being defined as the small group in which we lived. As with every other social animal, we developed rules for interactions. This served and serves to better the health of the group. It’s important to note that this group betterment is ultimately being done for the sake of the individual gene, but I digress.

T: So then we should all individually just do whatever it takes to survive? Then why shouldn’t I just kill you if you’re standing in my way to a better job or position in life?

A: …uh, no. No. What I’ve given you is a description of reality based upon scientific observation. Do you know the difference between a descriptive position and a normative one?

T: No.

A: Right, then. You ought to know that since you aren’t 14, but briefly: A descriptive position describes something and is not a claim of value. A normative position is a value position that says how something should or should not be.

T: I still don’t get it.

A: You should. But let’s move on.

T: Okay, so why shouldn’t I kill you if you’re in the way of that sweet new job?

A: That we evolved to best survive in a particular environment does not dictate how we ought to act now. Besides that, even if our past evolution did say how we should presently act, it would not follow that we should kill each other. We’re a social animal. Killing each other probably wouldn’t help us out individually (or as a group) in the long run.

T: So if we shouldn’t act based upon our previous evolution, then what should our basis for what is good and bad be?

A: I probably can’t give you a satisfactory answer. In fact, most of your fellow Christians will disagree with you on some points concerning what is good and what is bad, but I digress. My basis is rationality. I cannot rationally justify hurting someone in any way unless I say they can do the same to me under the same circumstances. Often I don’t want to face pain – nor do I want that for the ones I care about and love.

T: So what stops you from acting irrationally?

A: Love, empathy, self-interest, sympathy, culture, social pressures, norms, dominant values that surround me, my upbringing, assumptions, passion for science, etc. Irrationality conflicts with my personal identity. Fortunately, it also conflicts with the personal identity of many of my fellow humans.

T: Then there is no ultimate right or wrong.

A: You’re right. We have to define these terms with practical and operational considerations. If we want to say anything and everything is right (or wrong), then we’re likely to undermine our own interests (interests which may directly be our own or which may be reflections of the interests of those we care about and love).

T: So my opinion on North Korea has a basis for ultimately being right and yours does not.

A: In theory, yes. Unfortunately for you, the important question here is, ‘Is it true?’ Is it true that we have accurate information from your basis? Is it true that your basis isn’t arbitrary and capricious? Is it true that your basis even exists? In reality, you have a claim to an ultimate basis, but credible evidence has yet to be given for that ultimate basis. All you’ve done is based your opinions off the same sort of things I previously listed as my own basis, perhaps minus the rationality. Furthermore, without any valid, self-correcting method for determining what is true in religion, you only have personal, often anecdotal, and usually subjective interpretations of any given evidence. This makes your conclusions just as ultimately subjective as anyone else’s but with the key difference that many other conclusions – namely scientific ones – have a superior empirical basis. We can say those conclusions are objective within a given framework of reality, a framework most everyone except the most pedantic amateur philosopher accepts. We cannot say the same of yours.