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.