And an abuse of philisophy

Given my need to use a link within a recent post, I clicked over to Punching Bag Neil’s site. I found one of his traditional trolling Red Herring Theist posts where he says atheists have no grounding for atheism. Quoting another Red Herring Theist, he poses this question:

Here are some questions you can ask Richard Dawkins (and by extension any new atheist) the next time you sit next to him on a bus:…

• What makes your moral standard more than a subjective opinion or personal preference? What makes it truly binding or obligatory? Why can’t I just ignore it? Won’t our end be the same (death and the grave) either way?

I know Neil has this nasty habit of insulating himself from most outside criticism – it’s a common thing in the Christian blogosphere – but I would like to turn the question back on him and his silly little Christian brethren. What makes your moral standards more than subjective? How do you objectively know God exists? How do you objectively know anything in the Bible is true? Are you God himself? If not, then what method are you using to get outside yourself? After all, if you’re using a human brain to interpret anything, you can’t possibly be doing something which is not 100% subjective.

So why are you raising yourself to the level of God, Neil? Aren’t you being disrespectful to your particular, cultural icon?

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.

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.

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.

Objective morality

The idea of objective morality doesn’t even make sense. It’s the biggest sham, the most ludicrous game out there. It’s this meme that just falls apart, landing with a thud. It’s just a crashingly bad notion.

There are two definitions of objective which are important here. First, there’s the ultimate sense sort of objective which transcends all life, thoughts, actions, events, etc. Then there’s the second sort of objective which means without bias, without personal preference. For instance, when I say the Tampa Bay Rays are doing really well this year, that’s an objective statement in that there is no input of my team preferences or any such thing. It’s just that they’re a good baseball team right now. This is the same sort of “objective” people tend to want in their journalism.

It’s unfortunate that the two terms get confused so easily and often, but alas, it happens. But with this distinction now in hand, it is possible to move on to the next point.

To say a moral claim is objective is to say there is some sort of ultimate source which dictates it be so. This is always God and it’s a bunch of malarkey to beat around the bush and pretend it isn’t. But this claim is itself a subjective one. Who is deciding that God is an objective source? Of course, within the useless field of theology, it is God who has made the decision, but in reality, people are making the call. They are making the choice to believe their holy books. They are the ones who are interpreting the ‘data’, the ones who are determining truth from fiction. Whether they’re right or wrong is besides the point. What’s important is that even a claim of objective morality is a subjective position.

The next point theists (especially on FTSOS’ Facebook Page) like to make is that this also means science is subjective. Yes, but it only means it in this ultimate sense. Science is still objective in that it is without bias, without personal influence (at least ideally). The sole reason for pointing out the necessary subjectivity of science is to bring about a false equivalence, a favorite tactic of creationists and their theists in arms. Science still remains the most powerful tool for gaining knowledge in the world, and it does so because it objectively analyzes the Universe. To get a little more specific, a double-blind study is objective because no bias can possibly be introduced to the raw data. (Incidentally, that’s why homeopaths never subject their bullshit to such rigors of science.) This doesn’t mean the results of the study are ultimately true – one can always go back to philosophy 101 and ask how anyone even knows any of this is real – but they are true in the operation of the real world. But, I lament, the theist will distinctly and intently drive on by this point.

The interesting point here is when the theist is asked to defend why something is right or wrong. If he’s simply, he’ll just say “because God said so”, relying on his subjective interpretations. But if he thinks he’s clever, he’ll answer with some common basis which goes beyond religion, usually reflecting some ethical theory of some sort. Take the teabaggers. They’re all religious nutbags, but they’ll loosely reflect libertarian ideals (until they become inconvenient, but I digress). Those libertarian ideals say that personal liberty and autonomy is good. Of course, this runs counter to much of what Christianity teaches them, but they’ll still stand behind their reasoning. The reason is that while libertarianism is not a very good ethical theory, it is a defensible one. And more importantly, people think it’s objective morality when they can apply particular situations to the principles of certain theories. For instance, using libertarian principles as a basis, it is possible to say that most taxes are objectively bad. In this instance, “objective” references a particular standard. In other words, when applying X event (taxes) to Y principle (liberty is good), it is possible to reason out a correct answer. Of course, X event may be a great thing according to the principles of another theory. That’s where the subjectivity comes in. It’s still possible to apply X event objectively within a certain construct, but that presumes there’s agreement with said construct.

More claims of objective morality with no basis

It’s a big irk of mine when someone tries to claim an objective basis for morality while going outside the supposed source of objectivity. The religious have a habit of it. I don’t get it; it’s so simple. If a person claims something is objectively moral without being able to directly source said claim, then there is no objectivity. The claim may still be moral, but subjectively so.

Of course, religidiots don’t always get it.

You are aware by now that a 12,000 pound killer whale at SeaWorld Orlando killed his trainer Dawn Brancheau yesterday by pulling her into a pool and dragging her around until she drowned, in front of a crowd of stunned guests.

Chalk another death up to animal rights insanity and to the ongoing failure of the West to take counsel on practical matters from the Scripture…

If the counsel of the Judeo-Christian tradition had been followed, Tillikum would have been put out of everyone’s misery back in 1991 and would not have had the opportunity to claim two more human lives.

Says the ancient civil code of Israel, “When an ox gores a man or woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner shall not be liable.” (Exodus 21:28)

So, your animal kills somebody, your moral responsibility is to put that animal to death. You have no moral culpability in the death, because you didn’t know the animal was going to go postal on somebody.

So, your animal kills somebody…? Animal? The Bible does not support a case for stoning animals in the given passage. It explicitly states ox or bull (depending on which of the varied, inconsistent Bibles one chooses). It goes on further to state other specific animals and the ‘morality’ surrounding them and particular situations. The conclusion here is that the website advocating for the immoral death of a captive whale has no basis for making its supposed objective claim. Instead, it relies on extrapolating something explicitly specific from a book written by very simple men who had no notable training in philosophy and certainly no understanding of how their already ugly words would be made even uglier. And it’s all subjective.

The tenability of unsourced claims as they pertain to objective morality

Is it possible for a believer in objective evil to determine what actually is evil without either invoking his god (or claimed objective standard) or undermining his entire position?

For the sake of expediency, “God”, here, can refer to any deity of a belief structure which is viewed as creating some ultimate standard for evil. This includes polytheistic belief structures in many cases. “Evil” can usually be read to include both good and evil.

Here’s the common stance: In order to determine what is ultimately right or wrong, one must make an appeal to a source which has final standing. Without such an appeal, right or wrong has no universal meaning, only local meaning, and that is ultimately meaningless. (On an aside, that only addresses the value of local meaning on a universal scale – something obviously addressed simply in terminology. It says nothing of the local value of local meaning.)

With this stance comes some questions. If that ultimate source is necessary for ultimate right or wrong (and exists), how can one know what he/she/it has to say on any given human moral affair? Is it possible for one to have access to all this source has to say? Are humans limited in access?

The common answer to the first question comes in the form of holy texts. The Torah, Bible, and Koran are “the big three”. They give specific decrees on things that are right and wrong while claiming to be from God. In them murder is universally wrong. Theft, sex before marriage, dishonoring one’s parents. All, and many more, are described throughout these books. They and other holy texts act as the most direct source to knowing what is right or wrong as declared by an ultimate source.

The second question is where moral claims by believers run into trouble. Is it possible to have access to all an ultimate source has to say by virtue of holy texts? Obviously not. It isn’t possible for all moral situations and conundrums to be addressed via individual books. More directly, not all such instances are actually addressed.

So does this limit human access to this ultimate information? If holy texts account for the only manner by which one can attain such knowledge, then yes. If there are alternative routes, then those must by explored. Meditation, inference, and prayer offer the most promising paths. But first it is necessary to tie everything together.

The accuracy of any declaration on right or wrong is called into question in any holy text since they are all written by fallible human beings. This must be acknowledged for the sake of truth-seeking. However, for the sake of argumentation, it will be necessary to side-step the issue. Instead, the focus must go on to the second question. The possibility of having access to everything God has to say is nil if holy texts are the only source. What this importantly means is that if a moral issue arises which is not addressed within any holy text, then it is not possible for a believer to make an objective stance. One topical issue can be grabbed from the headlines to make the point.

Abortion is not addressed in any of the big three holy texts. Vague passages can be interpreted as such (much like Dr. Seuss’ “Horton Hears a Who” has been abused), but nothing is ever really said. This means that if a believer is to make a claim that abortion is objectively evil (remember, or good) here, he has no ground on which to stand. At least he has no ground by his own position that objective evil must come from an objective source. By chance he may be right that his objective source believes abortion is evil (he has a 50/50 shot, afterall), but his determination is based upon some other source. What that source may be or is bears no importance here. It is enough to say that it is emphatically not God.

For the further sake of expediency, it should be readily pointed out that even should abortion prove to be the wrong example for this exercise (though it isn’t), then others abound. Is capitalism evil? Communism? Social security? Even wearing mismatched socks? No holy text says anything of these issues or a number of others.

Back to the third question, human access may not be limited to just holy texts if meditation, inference, and prayer are options. These all fail, however. Should meditation and prayer reveal any information on a moral question, they are not valid beyond the targeted person. While it is possible that God revealed that something is objectively evil to a particular person, that largely argues for a local meaning. That is, Susie may know that it is objectively evil to spin in circles after sunset because God told her, but that information is entirely reliant upon Susie – the standard can only be determined to be subjective (even if it really is objective). As for inference, that can only be done using holy texts or prayer in the first place. So let us not forget the very first question: is it possible to determine what is objectively evil without invoking God. Susie may have an alternative source, but it is still God. She may be able to infer from what God has revealed, but she still must invoke his existence.

So what if a believer says “X is objectively evil” but has no holy text or revelation to back up such a claim? That is, there is no source which says “This is what God says about this issue” and there is no source which could directly indicate what God says. How can the believer then say something is objectively evil? This necessarily undermines his entire premise. If something can be determined to be objectively evil without first invoking God, then there is some other method by which the believer is making his statement. He obviously cannot logically maintain saying he knows objective standards exist because God exists and God exists because objective standards exist.

In short, no, a believer cannot “determine what actually is evil without either invoking his god (or claimed objective standard) or undermining his entire position”. He must invoke his god or undermine his whole argument. As has been demonstrated, he must cite his god (or objective standard). He often cannot do that. In those situations if he then says he has determined that something is objectively evil anyway, he is either wrong or he has admitted that his objective standard is not actually necessary for purposes here.

On a final note (one for clarification), this argument can be applied to any declaration on evil by a believer in objective standards. If it is necessary for objectiveness to exist in order for evil to exist, then the position is still undermined whenever a believer declares something evil without any sort of source beyond himself. The argument is precisely the same, but the terms are clarified: “evil” always means “objective evil” in the given context.