Jan 07 2013

Morality – Religion, Philosophy and Science

What is the proper basis for morality? This question comes up frequently in skeptical circles for various reasons – it tests the limits of science, the role of philosophy, and is often used as a justification for religion. There has been a vibrant discussion of the issue, in fact, on my recent posts from last week. The comments seemed to contain more questions than anything else, however.

Religion and Morality

Often defenders of religion in general or of a particular set of religious beliefs will argue that religion is a source of morality. They may even argue that it is the only true source of morality, which then becomes defined as behavioral rules set down by God.

There are fatal problems with this position, however. The first is that there is no general agreement on whether or not there is a god or gods, and if there is what is the proper tradition of said god. There are scores of religions in the world, each with their own traditions. Of course, if god does not exist, any moral system based upon the commandments of god do not have a legitimate basis (at least not as absolute morality derived from an omniscient god).

Related to this is the issue of religious freedom. It is impossible to base laws on religious beliefs without oppressing the religious freedom of those who do not share those religious beliefs.

Another fatal problem is that, even if we lived in a universe where there is a god who has moral commandments, nobody knows what those are. There is no one who objectively and verifiably knows the will of God, and God has not seen fit to unambiguously make their will known to all of humanity. We are therefore left with the interpretation of God’s will by people, and therefore at best all we know are the interpretations by very fallible and culturally biased people. If the multitude of religious traditions is any indication, this is an extremely variable and flawed filter through which to see the will of God.

Finally there is a philosophical dilemma inherent in basing absolute morality on religious faith. If God’s morality is perfect and absolute, is it so because it comes from God, or is it inherently perfect and God, who is omniscient, is simply able to discern it as so? The latter seems like an untenable position – morality is whatever God says it is, without any appeal to logic or any objective criteria of what a good moral rule would be.

This position, however, seems to fit the evidence from ancient religious texts. As many have pointed out, the morality of the god of the old testament was brutal and even evil by today’s standards – God apparently thought it was OK to murder children for poking fun at his prophets, to rape women, to engage in slavery, and to commit genocide.

If, on the other hand, morality is itself absolute and God simply knows what absolute morality is, then shouldn’t we strive to understand morality and derive proper moral decision-making on our own? If a moral position is objectively correct, then we can demonstrate that objective without appeal to religious faith, avoiding any problems with freedom of religion.

Science, Philosophy, and Morality

To what extent is our moral decision-making, including laws that derive from it, based upon science vs philosophy? I agree with the position, articulated by Massimo Pigliucci, that both science and philosophy are needed for moral reasoning. The other position, defended by Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape, is that we can develop an objective morality based entirely on science.

The problem with the science-only position is that it is dependent upon taking a particular philosophical position – that of consequentialism (also called utilitarianism). This is the philosophical position that the best moral decision is the one that maximizes human happiness. For distinction there is also deontological theory of morality, which states that an ethical system derives from rules. These rules are based upon the most fundamental assumptions possible. An example would be – it is unethical to deliberately deceive another human.

A third system is that of value ethics, which considers the effect of specific moral decision on the values of the person who makes them. This system essentially asks – what kind of people do we want to be, and what kind of society do we want to have?

Personally, I do not think there is any one ethical system that always works. It is legitimate to consider consequences, but also to have a system of rules, and to consider the bigger question of individual and societal values. These get mixed together in a complex way in order to make individual moral decisions. But there is no algorithm or method to always derive the right answer.

Science plays a role in all this – science can tell us about why we have the moral senses that we do. This is based mostly on evolutionary theory and on neuroscience. For example, most humans seem to have an inherent sense of reciprocity and justice. We feel that if we do something good for someone else, they should give back to a similar degree. Further, if someone does something bad against another person or (worse) the group, they should be punished in some way. These are evolved senses, based in the hardwiring of our brains.

None of this, however, can tell us if we should punish those who commit crimes.

Another contribution of science, however, is to tell us about outcomes. If we create certain laws or rules of behavior, what is the outcome? This type of evidence informs ethical decision making, but cannot makes the decisions for us. We still have to decide what outcomes we want, and how to value different outcomes when they conflict. How do we balance freedom and safety, for example? And how do we account for the fact that different individuals would draw the line in different places? How do we balance the rights of different individuals when they conflict?

Science cannot answer these question for us – it can only inform our choices by telling us what the likely outcomes will be.

Those defending science as the final arbiter of ethics either knowingly or unknowingly are taking a consequentialist view. Even if this view can be defended as the best system of ethics (and I do not believe it can), that is still a philosophical choice that needs to be defended philosophically.

Here is an example of why consequentialism breaks down. Would you consider it ethical to take someone against their will, kill them, and harvest their organs in order to save the lives of 5 people (or 6, or some other arbitrary number)? Most people would say no. However, you are saving 5 lives at the expense of 1, and it can be demonstrated that this will maximize happiness all around.

Ethicists would argue that the right not to be killed (a negative right) outweighs the right to be saved with a medical intervention – but this is now invoking ethical rules, not just considering outcomes. Further, we might argue that we would not want to live in a society in which one can be forcibly taken and murdered to have their organs harvested (a value ethics position).

Pure consequentialism, in my opinion, is not a tenable position. In any case, there is simply no way to avoid doing philosophy when thinking ethically.

By the same token it is difficult, and in some cases impossible, to apply moral thinking without having information provided by science. The two disciplines are complementary.

Conclusion

The best approach to morality and ethics, in my opinion, is a thoughtful blend of philosophy and science. I do not see a legitimate role for religion itself, however, cultural traditions (many of which may be codified in religious belief) are a useful source of information about the human condition and the effect of specific moral behaviors. There may be wisdom in such traditions – but that is the beginning of moral thinking, not the conclusion. Religious traditions also come with a great deal of baggage derived from the beliefs and views of fairly primitive and unenlightened societies.

 

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431 responses so far

431 Responses to “Morality – Religion, Philosophy and Science”

  1. nybgruson 07 Jan 2013 at 9:03 am

    It seems I posted my discussion/question over at your last post literally 1 minute before this went live (at least according to my RSS reader).

    It seems my thoughts were more or less in line with what you have written which actually makes me feel pretty good about myself considering how out of depth I (still) feel on the topic.

    One interesting thought I had whilst reading your post was this:

    Would you consider it ethical to take someone against their will, kill them, and harvest their organs in order to save the lives of 5 people (or 6, or some other arbitrary number)? Most people would say no. However, you are saving 5 lives at the expense of 1, and it can be demonstrated that this will maximize happiness all around.

    There is an added wrinkle – the knowledge that at any time you may be the one harvested (assuming random selection) would be likely to lower the overall happiness of society and could very well decrease overall happiness, irrespective of the negative right not to be killed.

    Or if the decision is to make only a specific subset of the population harvestable, which for argument’s sake would be easily and objectively defined and a small minority of the population at large, then the massive decrease in happiness from the minority in aggregate could also outweigh the increase in happiness of the population at large.

    Or the fact that (for example) I – and presumably others – would be unhappy knowing others were being harvested regardless of whether I am in danger of being harvested or not.

    All of these scenarios could be taken into account by an appropriately robust scientific model (though one must assume some sort of quantized objective measure of “happy units” which may or may not be feasible since now we get into the qualia of life and I can tell you that my fiancé experiences much more “happy” for things than I can possibly feel and I often envy her this).

    A last interesting question – what if we grew fully developed organs in a vat for harvest and transplant, no human ever required? What if we grew full human beings, minus a brain for the same purpose? What if we grew full human beings, but they were never awake? (There is an episode of the old TV show Sliders about this topic, for those geeky enough to recall).

    So I reckon I agree – they are complimentary to each other and that philosophy is necessary to answer the questions about which outcome is most desirable as generated by science and science is necessary to constrain the philosophers to reality (otherwise we get theologians which we have seen fails spectacularly). But I think that there is, at least in principle, a larger role for science in answering the questions than may be assumed by Massimo or yourself, but less than Harris thinks.

    Or maybe I just don’t have a clue what I am talking about. I always feel it incumbent to caveat that I am a neophyte in topics of philosophy.

  2. Zachon 07 Jan 2013 at 9:21 am

    Steven,

    Just because there is not agreement on a matter doesn’t mean it is untrue. That’s simply illogical. For example, the laws of mathematics would still be what they are if we didn’t understand them at all.

    “Related to this is the issue of religious freedom. It is impossible to base laws on religious beliefs without oppressing the religious freedom of those who do not share those religious beliefs.”

    Except we do this all the time. While I agree you cannot legislate morality effectively, we still impose our beliefs on others all the time – whether it be humanism, Judeo-Christian principles, etc.

    You said,
    “Another fatal problem is that, even if we lived in a universe where there is a god who has moral commandments, nobody knows what those are.”

    This implies that you have knowledge in which to be able to say that every religious view is wrong. You might be right, but you are assuming this when you shouldn’t. You simply do not know.

    “There is no one who objectively and verifiably knows the will of God, and God has not seen fit to unambigously make their will known to all of humanity.”

    Christians don’t agree with you. Neither do Muslims for that fact. What makes what you are saying true? It might be, but it’s a belief you hold.

    You said,
    “We are therefore left with the interpretation of God’s will by people, and therefore at best all we know are the interpretations by very fallible and culturally biased people.”

    This is all based on personal opinion. You can’t prove any of this with science.

    You said,
    “If the multitude of religious traditions is any indication, this is an extremely variable and flawed filter through which to see the will of God.”

    Again, this is based of the gambit that says because we don’t agree all are wrong or truth can’t be known. It’s a form of the ad populum fallacy.

    You said,
    “If God’s morality is perfect and absolute, is it so because it comes from God, or is it inherently perfect and God, who is omniscient, is simply able to discern it as so?”

    This is Euthyphro’s dilemma – Is an act right because God says it’s so, or does God say it’s so because it’s right?.
    This is a false dichotomy and Christians would reject both options. Rather, morality stems from neither. Morality stems from God’s character. See the following link for a basic explanation of this.

    http://www.gotquestions.org/Euthyphro-Dilemma.html

    You said,
    “the morality of the god of the old testament was brutal and even evil by today’s standards – God apparently thought it was OK to murder children for poking fun at his prophets, to rape women, to engage in slavery, and to commit genocide.”

    1. God kills lots of people, 100% of the population to be exact, and it doesn’t appear that the statistics are improving.
    2. Correct on the genocide.
    3. False on the slavery.
    4. False on the rape.

    Regardless, you claim the Old Testaments morality is burtal and evil. This implies that you are comparing this with some objective standard of right and wrong – Please, by all means hand over this objective standard from which we can then condemn this God’s evil morality….

    I am glad to see you reject Sam Harris’ view of morality. I was disheartned that someone with a philosphy background could make such basic errors in his view.

    You said,
    “Science plays a role in all this – science can tell us about why we have the moral senses that we do. This is based mostly on evolutionary theory and on neuroscience. For example, most humans seem to have an inherent sense of reciprocity and justice. We feel that if we do something good for someone else, they should give back to a similar degree. Further, if someone does something bad against another person or (worse) the group, they should be punished in some way. These are evolved senses, based in the hard wiring of our brains.”

    This is wrong on several accounts. Westernized culture might have traces of this, but by in large humanity has not functioned in this manner. Not only that, but it goes against evolutionary theory to say that we should care about those outside our family/tribe.

    Even worse, you have the problem that pre-Christ you completely lose the notion of “love your neighbor as yourself/the Golden rule”. Now, I know your objection to this, and it’s misplaced. I agree many religions say to do unto others as you would have them do unto you – Christianity is not alone here, but that’s not my point. Christianity revolutionized this belief. Christianity came along and redefined who your neighbor was, your neighbor wasn’t only those who were nice back to you, or those who caused you no harm, your neighbor was also your enemy! Make no mistake, this is unique to Christianity.
    Luke 10:25-37 – Parable of the good Samaritan
    Matthew 5:44 – “But I tell you. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

    You said,
    “None of this, however, can tell us if we should punish those who commit crimes.”

    Christianity can, and does.

    You said,
    “We still have to decide what outcomes we want, and how to value different outcomes when they conflict. How do we balance freedom and safety, for example?”

    This is largely correct, and a good question, how do you answer it?

    “Science cannot answer these question for us – it can only inform our choices by telling us what the likely outcomes will be. Those defending science as the final arbiter of ethics either knowingly or unknowingly are taking a consequentialist view. Even if this view can be defended as the best system of ethics (and I do not believe it can), that is still a philosophical choice that needs to be defended philosophically.”

    True again. Glad you said it, coming from me it would cause a storm.

    You said,
    “Religious traditions also come with a great deal of baggage derived from the beliefs and views of fairly primitive and unenlightened societies.

    Every world view comes with baggage, don’t be mistaken here. The Eugenics movement was derived from naturalism/Darwinianism. Liberty itself was even used to commit atrocities in her name… the list goes on.

    Secondly, you might believe cultures to be wrong, but lets be real here, you don’t have an objective standard to demonstrate that they are wrong, you only have your personal opinion, which is largely based in your culture. So you might not “like” them, but who cares what you or I happen to fancy?

    Zach

  3. Ori Vandewalleon 07 Jan 2013 at 9:28 am

    I’m going to preface my comments by saying that I do not believe that any gods exist, and that I do not believe anyone has true knowledge about what system of morals is the correct one.

    That said, I have a great deal of understanding for the religious point of view which says that morality stems from religion. To those that subscribe to this belief, they also believe in a world in which their god created the universe and all the rules that govern it. From that point of view, morality can be seen as a property of the universe in the same way that gravity is.

    That is to say, morality is an objective system for determining what is right and wrong. There are no other assumptions required to start thinking about morality from this perspective. And this is where the religious perspective wins points with me. While many see the Old Testament god committing genocide as an obvious flaw in the morality of that system, they’re making the unfounded assumption that morality is about what is good and bad for the human species.

    It’s easy to see why we so often make this mistake. As Dr. Novella points out, we have an evolved sense of morality. And this sense of morality is clearly derived from its capacity to further the survival of the human species (or at least certain selfish genes of the human species). And it’s also pretty clear that any moral rules we have that derive from our religious beliefs are almost always our evolved sense of morality dressed up with religious justifications.

    But this doesn’t change the fact that any objective morality built into the fabric of the universe doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with humans or life at all. We hear the refrain from religious followers that God works in mysterious ways. This is usually an attempt to deal with the problem of evil, but it makes the point well: morality might not be concerned with humans in any way.

    Perhaps the morality system built into the universe values the creation of omelets above all else. If that’s the case, then it is morally justifiable to crack a few eggs to make an omelet.

    At this point, many people will say that, okay, that may be the system built into the universe, but if it has nothing to do with us, then why should we care? We should adopt whatever system benefits humanity the most.

    The problem with this approach is that it fails to realize just what objectively correct really means. It’s akin to saying, who cares if gravity exists, I can walk on air. And you can certainly try to walk on air. Nothing in the laws of physics prevents you from trying. But there will be consequences. Typically, you will fall down.

    Similarly, you can try to ignore the objective morality built into the universe, but there will be consequences. You may burn in the fiery pits of Hell, or you may cause the creators of the universe to lose the cosmic game of Chess they’re playing with our neighboring universe. Whatever the case, your actions are objectively wrong, in the same way that it is objectively wrong to say that the natural place of heavy things is the ground.

    All that said, I have no idea what system of morality is built into the universe’s rules, or if there even is such as a system. My only hope is that through the accumulation of knowledge (at least all knowledge in the universe), we might begin to figure out if such a system exists, and what that system says.

    But most people just aren’t going to care about that. Most people are only going to care about what’s good for life, or the human species, or their family, or themselves. And in that respect, this is where the perspective that many religious people have loses points with me. Many religiously-inclined individuals believe that nonbelievers (of whatever stripe) are incapable of being moral. This is wrong from two standpoints. Firstly, if morality is some objective thing that we are unaware of, then it’s perfectly possible for anyone to be moral, but we could only be moral accidentally. Secondly, if the only morality we can hope to know about is creating good for humanity, then our natural, evolved sense of morality will work for anybody who’s not a sociopath. (None of this holds up, of course, if that one person’s religion does happen to be true.)

    So, then, how to produce the most good for the human species? Well, that’s a question left for philosophers. Dr. Novella is largely right here that science can help us evaluate decisions (and create tools that allow us to do better for humanity), but it can’t actually tell us what is right and wrong. Science runs into the is-ought problem here, or even the naturalistic fallacy. You can look at science and observe that everyone dies, and therefore conclude that dying is good/natural. But we clearly don’t believe that to be what’s best for the human species. So a deeper, subtler analysis is required, and that has to come from thinking about what is best for the species.

  4. Kawarthajonon 07 Jan 2013 at 9:29 am

    Funny that advocates of religion as the only source of morality speak of it as a unified gold standard on how to act. In reality, morality is relative, even among very religious people. Take Catholics, as an example. While the use of birth control is not allowed by its members according to the official Church doctrine, each of it’s members have their own practice when it comes to using birth control. In Quebec, for example, where the vast majority of people identify themselves as Catholic, the vast majority of people are also in favour of using birth control (As an aside, they have the lowest birth rate in Canada, likely a function of their views on birth control).

    Another excellent example is the Christian Commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. Some people interpret this as murder, meaning that it is ok for soldiers to kill their enemies or for police officers to kill people who threaten them or others (because it’s not murder). Others interpret this to mean that thou shalt not kill ANYONE, including your enemies.

    An additional problem is that there are so many religions and sects within each religion. Each religion and each sect have different (sometimes very different) interpretations of similar religious texts and have different takes on morality. Sometimes, as in the case of the Anglican Church, people inside the Church cannot agree on what is moral and what isn’t (as in the case of the Church’s position on homosexuality). New sects are popping up all the time.

    The problem is similar with non-religious and atheists – morality is based on your own diverse set of beliefs and even when the Church (or government) tell you to believe one thing, you may not agree and act in a way that fits with your own morality. Morality is a very tricky thing and not as black/white as some advocates of religion make it out to be.

  5. NotAnAtheiston 07 Jan 2013 at 10:03 am

    You do a nice job of discrediting any single God-free support for morality. Then in your conclusion give your own opinion about how morality should be determined using a blend of these flawed methods with religious methods.

    If we are going to argue about the source of morality, first we must start with its definition. Morality is a standard of right and wrong. It is a concept that is understood to be universal. If it is not universal then it is meaningless and devolves to nothing more than individual preference. From your article, I think you would agree with this definition.

    I read your link to “Another Response from Martignoni on Objective Morality
    “. In it you made the statement that an “objective” morality should be based on “logic, fairness, and universality”. I don’t see this as any support for morality at all.

    Logic requires premises from which to derive concepts. What would be your premises? Some specific moral I would guess.

    Fairness is itself a moral. From where do you derive this moral?

    Universality is a characteristic that morality must have by definition. I fail to see what you mean by making it a basis for morality.

    So you basically are saying we should base morality on morality itself. This is an incredibly weak argument. Basically your response is no response at all. You are simply pushing the question further back.

    I also wanted to address this argument:
    “Science plays a role in all this – science can tell us about why we have the moral senses that we do. This is based mostly on evolutionary theory and on neuroscience. For example, most humans seem to have an inherent sense of reciprocity and justice. We feel that if we do something good for someone else, they should give back to a similar degree. Further, if someone does something bad against another person or (worse) the group, they should be punished in some way. These are evolved senses, based in the hardwiring of our brains.”

    This explains only how certain morals might have evolved. It does not explain whether they are “right” or “wrong”. Scientific arguments can be made for how racism evolved and would be useful for a society. I thing you would probably agree with me that racism is morally wrong. Why? In order to have the “universality” that you seek in your morality, you must have an authority. There is no other way.

    I believe(Sorry, no scientific proof) the existence of God is made known through our conscience. Our conscience is given to us by God in order to lead us to Him. Because of our human nature, we can not fully understand God or fully follow the true moral code that He gives us. That should not stop us from seeking Him out.

  6. daedalus2uon 07 Jan 2013 at 10:03 am

    Zach, the distinction you seem to be making between “rules” and “moral behavior” is curious and self-defeating. On the one hand you say that God is the source of perfect and unchanging morality, but on the other hand you say that the rules a person must follow to be a moral person changed from the OT to the NT.

    So which is it?

    Dr Novella said:

    “There is no one who objectively and verifiably knows the will of God, and God has not seen fit to unambigously make their will known to all of humanity.”

    To which you replied:

    “Christians don’t agree with you. Neither do Muslims for that fact. What makes what you are saying true? It might be, but it’s a belief you hold.”

    Christians don’t agree with themselves. Mormons believe one thing, Catholics believe another, and (as I understand them) those beliefs are incompatible.

    If you consider yourself to be a Christian, and a member of the class of Christians you are referring to when you say “Christians don’t agree with you”, then you are (in effect) saying that Catholics and Mormons (and yourself) objectively and verifiably know the will of God. If all 3 know the will of God, then why do they say it is different things?

  7. Steven Novellaon 07 Jan 2013 at 10:06 am

    nybrus – that’s a good point and I did think of that interpretation. We can come up with endless other scenarios, however. What if only convicted criminals were killed to harvest their organs? What about people who have less than six months to live anyway? What about just harvesting organs from people who die but who did not consent to have their organs taken?

    What about animal rights? Now, do we consider animal happiness in our equation?

    All of these questions are philosophical. Plus, when you start counting societal happiness you blur the lines with value ethics.

    Bottom line – a measure of net happiness is an insufficient basis for a moral system.

  8. Flailon 07 Jan 2013 at 10:18 am

    Harris addresses utilitarianism directly in his book. His position is not that morality is maximizing happiness, but that it is maximizing human flourishing. He leaves “what is flourishing?” as a somewhat nebulous concept.

    We do all acknowledge that societies can be moral or immoral. A society that throws acid in the faces of women that don’t cover themselves with burkas is less conducive to flourishing than a society where women can participate equally. There is no objective proof of that statement, but if you disagree with it then I doubt we could have a meaningful conversation about morality in any case. That isn’t to say that I completely agree with Harris’ views on morality, but I find he is often misinterpreted or unfairly represented.

  9. Steven Novellaon 07 Jan 2013 at 10:19 am

    Zach – You said:”This implies that you have knowledge in which to be able to say that every religious view is wrong.”

    This is simply not true, and is a straw man argument. I am not saying that every religion must be wrong. I am saying no religion can prove, or even make a cogent argument, in my opinion, that their religious beliefs are the one true set of beliefs. Further, the many religious differ from each other, often in mutually incompatible ways. So by necessity you will have to argue that religion A is correct and religion B is wrong – try doing that without oppressing religious freedom.

    I agree that we restrict freedoms in society, that was not may point, however (so this is another straw man). My point is that if we are going to restrict freedoms, we need to justify it as a society based upon arguments that are valid and stand on their own – not based upon one subgroup’s traditions or religious beliefs. As a society we can come to a consensus about what moral values and rules to codify in our laws. This is an ongoing conversation, and hopefully we progress to ever more enlightened and nuanced laws.

    Finally, you keep challenging me to provide an “objective standard” of morality. Perhaps you missed the deeper point of my post but – there is no ultimately objective standard of morality, just as science does not give us final Truths. The standard is the best we can do as flawed humans, using science to help us understand ourselves, to understand the consequences of our actions, and using philosophy to reflect on a system that makes internal sense, maximized goals we can agree upon are good goals, and thinks through all the ramifications of moral decisions. It’s not perfect, but it can be very good, and it’s the best we have.

    Objective morality is an illusion. As I said – even if you think such exists, then you have to demonstrate how you know it exists, and how anyone can know what it is. Faith is insufficient.

    Regarding the brutality of the old testament, from Kings:

    2:23 And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head.
    2:24 And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.

    Please defend God mauling 42 “little children” for calling a man baldy.

  10. mufion 07 Jan 2013 at 10:24 am

    Bottom line – a measure of net happiness is an insufficient basis for a moral system.

    It’s also far from obvious how to objectively measure a subjective state like happiness, which itself can be defined in a variety of culturally biased ways.

    Still, I find it refreshing when a concept of happiness (or, better yet, flourishing) enters into moral discussion. It would really suck if we our ethics took no account of how we feel.

  11. bgoudieon 07 Jan 2013 at 10:52 am

    Despite claims that this “holy text was written by a god” , or this is what the god in flesh told me” we have no actual reason to think any religion’s morality is based on anything divine or supernatural. All we know for certain is that certain societies and groups of humans have taught and interpreted these moral guidelines.

    Even if we accept that the supernatural might exist (which is itself a giant leap away from rational thought) there is no way for us to determine which of the many competing faith’s is the one that got the message right. The “choice” of has it correct ends up generally being a matter of which culture were you raised in.

    All morality is defined by humans. We (as an aggregate) make the choices of what is and is not acceptable.

  12. Zachon 07 Jan 2013 at 11:15 am

    “On the one hand you say that God is the source of perfect and unchanging morality, but on the other hand you say that the rules a person must follow to be a moral person changed from the OT to the NT. So which is it?”

    Morality and rules are different, I fail to see how that is self-defeating…
    Are their similarities, yes, but to say that different rules equate to a diffenent morality is simply false.

    Let’s take murder and killing. Is it wrong to murder? Christians would argue yes. Is killing wrong, Christians would argue no. Is this a change in morality since in both situations it’s the question of ending a human life? Of course not, it’s a change in the rules applied to given circumstances.

    I’m not sure if that one will explain it for you so I’ll go a step further.

    Return back the drivers licence analogy (keeping in mind all analogies break down at a certain level).

    The rule tells me at 15 I cannot operate a motorized vehicle. The rules tell me then 2 years later than I now can operate a motorized vehicle…

    According to your logic we should call this a broken system since it is inconsistent. Can I or can I not drive a motorized vehicle…. well it depends. At 14 no, at 16 yes, but only if I have gone through the process of being licensed to do so.

    This is the same thing with Christianity and the Old Testament and New Testament. Notice, I am not talking about if the O.T. laws are icky, wrong, or savage, we are talking about the change – since that is all that matters for this conversation.

    In the Old Testament it is like a 14 year old wanting to drive – not ready yet. In the New Testament we are 16, and can drive. The moral nature of God remains the same, but a major event (Christ’s death on the cross) has come along allowing certain things to be different. It’s not a logical problem.

    You said,
    “Christians don’t agree with themselves. Mormons believe one thing, Catholics believe another, and (as I understand them) those beliefs are incompatible.”

    This doesn’t matter. Do all scientist agree on every aspect of scientific theory? Of course not. Does that mean the truth is not there and can’t be known, of course not. Now all scientist might be wrong, but the premise that unless you have universal agreement there an be no truth is fallacious.

    Steven,

    You said
    “This is simply not true, and is a straw man argument. I am not saying that every religion must be wrong. I am saying no religion can prove, or even make a cogent argument, in my opinion, that their religious beliefs are the one true set of beliefs. Further, the many religious differ from each other, often in mutually incompatible ways. So by necessity you will have to argue that religion A is correct and religion B is wrong – try doing that without oppressing religious freedom.”

    1. No, this isn’t a straw man, it’s an inference from what you said, I’ll show you why.
    2. When you say that no religion can prove itself or make a cogent argument (though you preference it with your opinion), that their religious beliefs are the the one true set of beliefs are you making the mistake of Niche. This is a self-defeating statement since it’s is a claim at the one true set of beliefs about all beliefs. It’s the biggest power claim on knowledge of them all. Religions are nothing but world views, and to assert your view of all world views as the only correct view is very thing you are condemning religions for doing.
    3. I will argue that Religion A is superior to religion B. Now, I do not think we should legislate religion per-say, and I believe one should be able to practice their religion (no matter how absurd it may be) so long as it does not infringe on individual human rights – a presupposition I hold that also is founded on my religious texts – what is yours founded on?
    4. All world views are not created equally. Nor are all religions. The bottom line is truth/knowledge is very difficult to decipher, but we have no other choice.

    You said,
    ” My point is that if we are going to restrict freedoms, we need to justify it as a society based upon arguments that are valid and stand on their own – not based upon one subgroup’s traditions or religious beliefs.”

    So you are putting forth humanism as your world view in which societies should make laws? Why is your world view superior to others world view? Do you have an objective standard from which to demonstrate this?

    “As a society we can come to a consensus about what moral values and rules to codify in our laws. This is an ongoing conversation, and hopefully we progress to ever more enlightened and nuanced laws.”

    This is largely false. In one breath you condemn religons contribution to that consensus, but then in the next you say it’s a consensus. Is this not an ad-populum fallacy? Please explain how that is not? Does majority rule? Might make right?

    Using words like enlightened means that you believe there is a better/worse morality – so what objective standard are you appealing to that will let us know when we are hot or cold (more enlightened or less).

    You said,
    “Finally, you keep challenging me to provide an “objective standard” of morality. Perhaps you missed the deeper point of my post but – there is no ultimately objective standard of morality, just as science does not give us final Truths. The standard is the best we can do as flawed humans, using science to help us understand ourselves, to understand the consequences of our actions, and using philosophy to reflect on a system that makes internal sense, maximized goals we can agree upon are good goals, and thinks through all the ramifications of moral decisions. It’s not perfect, but it can be very good, and it’s the best we have.”

    This really doesn’t mean much of anything.
    If there is no objective morality then what’s the point of this conversation? Morality is then nothing more than “I like this” or “we like this”. And who cares about what you or I like… and even worse, what determines who’s view of morality we go with? The Nazi’s? Might makes right?

    You said,
    “Objective morality is an illusion. As I said – even if you think such exists, then you have to demonstrate how you know it exists, and how anyone can know what it is. Faith is insufficient.”

    Then there is no morality, and survival of the fittest is all their is. The strong eating the weak is a major part of evolution, so why are you upset if humans do what is completely natural in the animal kingdom? Are we not just animals after all? Do you get upset when one animal kills the other for dominance? Why the double standard?

    “Please defend God mauling 42 “little children” for calling a man baldy.”

    First off, the Hebrew word is not for little children, it’s actually for teens, much much older. But regardless, I don’t need to defend God’s actions here, you need to defend your position that mauling teens (or even little children) is wrong. Please provide an objective standard for why it is wrong? When you do, we can then together condemn Yahweh as immoral, until then there is no immoral so who cares about mauling little children. You might not like his actions, but it’s nothing more than a preference then.

    The bottom line is your world view completely stands against the notion that humans are more valuable than rocks, trees, ants, or bees. Yet you continue to argue that they are by your illogical clinging to some moral system that isn’t even absolute as you just claimed its not.

    You have once again essentially cut the tree branch you are sitting on.

  13. mufion 07 Jan 2013 at 11:46 am

    Zach: The bottom line is your world view completely stands against the notion that humans are more valuable than rocks, trees, ants, or bees.

    Valuable according to whom? To most humans? I should think so – or at least to those whom we love or have no quarrel with.

  14. Kawarthajonon 07 Jan 2013 at 11:52 am

    Zach:
    “Let’s take murder and killing. Is it wrong to murder? Christians would argue yes. Is killing wrong, Christians would argue no. Is this a change in morality since in both situations it’s the question of ending a human life? Of course not, it’s a change in the rules applied to given circumstances.”

    Depends on your denomination. Making a blanket statement that all Christians would say one thing is inaccurate, as each sect has its own unique set of beliefs. These beliefs have changed dramatically over time – take, for example, the Christian expansion in Europe. At one time, it was acceptable and encouraged to wipe out (i.e. murder) all of the inhabitants of towns or communities that were not Christian (i.e. Jews, Muslims, Pagans, etc…). Today, this would be considered a war crime/genocide, as it was during the conflict in the Balkans in the 1990′s. As would widespread burning of women at the stake – was this not murder? Some believed it was, some believed it was justified and not murder.

    Morality is deeply contextual and changes as society changes. A few decades ago, no Christian denomination would have approved or supported same-sex marriages. Now, there are a number of sects that support this. Same could be said of pre-marital sex, co-habiting couples, divorce, etc… To say it provides a unversal moral standard is simply untrue. Morality is a moving target and it is relative to the times and the individuals within that time. Morality is not objective, it is subjective.

  15. Steven Novellaon 07 Jan 2013 at 11:53 am

    Zach – your reasoning is profoundly muddled. You are first creating a false dichotomy – absolute objective morality, or no morality at all, survival of the fittest.

    We as humans can agree on certain first principles – like, all things considered we would like to live in a world in which sentient beings have certain rights, like the right not to be killed. We can largely agree on a few such principles, and then work out from there, using logic, a system of ethical thinking that works toward those principles. That is the philosophy of ethics.

    This is not an argument ad populum because there are no empirical claims here (remember, this is philosophy, not science). This is not a law of the universe – just mutually agreed upon rules by which we are going to run our society. You are the one interjecting the whole notion of “objective” morals. You are assuming that, but it’s a faulty premise, and something you have to prove, not just assume.

    By this system – a philosophical system based upon first principals and logic, I can say that mauling children for making fun of someone is grossly immoral. It is such a blatant violation of any reasonable ethical principal that the notion of just saying – God works in mysterious ways – is laughable.

    Trying to boil this down to world views is also a red herring. Once again – you are trying to frame the discussion with your premises as conclusions. It’s not about world view. It’s about thinking very carefully through the logic and implications of a system of behavior. Philosophers have done this for centuries, and they actually have some pretty good arguments at their disposal. Logic, transparency, and basic first principles is not a world view – it is the only system that can hope to cut across cultural boundaries and justify ethical positions.

    You are offering faith and tradition to support a system that, in many cases, offends basic logic.

    Your argument about applying the same rules in different situations does not hold. This implies there is a deeper underlying ethical system, that, in your example, takes maturity and the resultant ability to consent into consideration. I do not see any analogy or extension of this, however, that can explain how it is morally objectively right to murder 42 teenagers for being sassy.

    That is an excellent example of how ideology distorts reasoning beyond all recognition.

  16. mufion 07 Jan 2013 at 11:59 am

    PS: That we can abstract from that more concrete forms of love (e.g. towards family and friends) to a wider circle (e.g to society or humanity as a whole, the vast majority of whom are strangers) says something about human nature and potential. It says little or nothing about metaphysical postulates, like gods, angels, demons, fairies, etc., however.

  17. SARAon 07 Jan 2013 at 12:03 pm

    There is an inherent problem with a morality that is applied to world in it’s entirety. Morality is demonstrably a very flexible concept.

    The universe is disinterested in right and wrong. We created those concepts in order to have a productive structure in which to co-exist. That is more than sufficient reason to embrace a certain level of morality.

    Essentially, I think all of our ethics and morals are informed by the implicit social agreement that nybrus points out – which is that we all agree certain rules must be followed or none of us feels safe. Those rules are the more obvious laws and expectations that inform our judicial system. But individuals break those rules regularly and entire groups get excluded from those agreements.

    However, studies show that humans (all of us, religious or otherwise) have sliding scale of moral behavior and it is heavily influenced by our immediate environment and recent suggestion.

    The bible’s conflicts of morality are in fact just a literary history of this very human process. Humans act very much in a “when in Rome” manner. So, when everyone in the tribe thinks it’s OK to kill babies or own slaves, then to people in that tribe, it is.

    When an individual is in a position to re-frame the social agreement without consequence, and to their own gain, they often will. And their particular religious or ethical background will not stop the fact that they will change the guidelines of their behavior on a situational basis.

    Morality is not immutable the way certain physical laws are. It is a concept with infinite variations.

  18. DOYLEon 07 Jan 2013 at 12:04 pm

    Morality stems from species evolution.The steady development of the social animal that recognizes,whats good for another is good for the individual,who must consider the aspect of the future as a cooperative survival system.

    ps. consider the reason of the mirror neuron system.

  19. NotAnAtheiston 07 Jan 2013 at 12:09 pm

    Steve

    You said:

    “Zach – your reasoning is profoundly muddled. You are first creating a false dichotomy – absolute objective morality, or no morality at all, survival of the fittest.

    If the word morality is to have meaning it must be universal, else you are only pushing the preference of one group over another.

    You said:

    “We as humans can agree on certain first principles”

    This is laughable on the face. When did this happen that everyone on earth can agree on first principles? If we as humans can all agree on the principles, everyone would follow them or at least try very hard to. You may find a consensus, not unanimity, on some principles. You could also find a consensus on racism at certain places and times in history. If you use first principles you must choose whose principles to use and impose them on others. Why are these principles right? Why does it even matter if there are any principles at all?

    Zach need not defend a specific God to show that an authority is necessary for morality to make sense.

  20. mufion 07 Jan 2013 at 12:37 pm

    SARA: Morality is not immutable the way certain physical laws are. It is a concept with infinite variations.

    Logically, yes. But, given the pro-social emotional and cultural traits that we inherit (or at least the overwhelming majority of us), those variations are in reality highly constrained.

    NotAnAtheist: Zach need not defend a specific God to show that an authority is necessary for morality to make sense.

    There are secular thinkers who would agree and argue that reason (or ‘Reason’) is the best and only authority here. That view has been hotly contested by other secular thinkers, however. As Hume put it:

    Reason is confined in its operation to matters of fact and the relations among ideas. Reason cannot and does not motivate action – it simply helps you satisfy your desires which have their origin not in reason but in passion. If passion dictates the destruction of the world, reason will simply lay out the means to that end. It is therefore ‘not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.

    Still, no society functions for long on an “anything goes” ethic. On that I think we can all agree. It’s only a question of which actions our society is willing to accept under which circumstances and which it isn’t – for whatever “reasons” (i.e. passion-motivated arguments).

    No mention of gods (or angels, demons, fairies, or other imaginary beings) is required in order to have this discussion.

  21. mufion 07 Jan 2013 at 12:40 pm

    PS: Sorry, only the last portion of that quote is a direct quote from Hume (beginning with ‘not contrary to reason…’). The rest is a third-party description of his view. – source

  22. NotAnAtheiston 07 Jan 2013 at 12:57 pm

    mufi

    You said:

    “Still, no society functions for long on an “anything goes” ethic. On that I think we can all agree.”

    So what if society functions? Why is that my concern.

    You said:

    “No mention of gods (or angels, demons, fairies, or other imaginary beings) is required in order to have this discussion.”

    You are correct in saying that no mention of gods is necessary for one group to force their own will on another group. Now to claim that their will is one with a moral basis, an authority is absolutely necessary.

  23. tmac57on 07 Jan 2013 at 1:03 pm

    If you think that there is some unequivocal,objective Christian “word of god”,then take a look at this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bible_version_debate

    The late start in writing down the text of the bible,and the many translations, interpretations,and culling of books of the bible results in a mish mash of flawed ‘information’ that contains historical anomalies and errors.
    Hardly the foundation for the last word on universal morality,I would surmise.

  24. Philosofrenzyon 07 Jan 2013 at 1:06 pm

    @NotAnAtheist

    You said “If the word morality is to have meaning it must be universal, else you are only pushing the preference of one group over another,” in response to Steve saying ““Zach – your reasoning is profoundly muddled. You are first creating a false dichotomy – absolute objective morality, or no morality at all, survival of the fittest.”

    You’ve confused objective with universal. They do not mean the same thing.

    You then said “This is laughable on the face. When did this happen that everyone on earth can agree on first principles? If we as humans can all agree on the principles, everyone would follow them or at least try very hard to. [etc.]” in response to “We as humans can agree on certain first principles.”

    You are not reading with any serious effort at understanding your opponent’s position. “We can do X” and “We already have done X” aren’t the same thing. Steve did not claim that we have a universal consensus on first principles. He claimed it would be possible (by rigorous philosophy) to come to such an agreement.

    What’s more, you’re failing to understand the concept of first principles. You’re thinking of it in terms of moral judgements–about racism, to point out the specific example you use. That’s not the point at all. A first principle would be something like “Life is preferable to death.” “We ought, when possible, to promote human well-being.” First principles are axioms from which the rest of the discussion can proceed. There’s nothing implausible about this.

  25. nybgruson 07 Jan 2013 at 1:17 pm

    A long post explicating complicated details is one thing. A long post jumping from topic to topic all whilst asserting as accepted facts and ideas which are far from it is a Gish Gallop. The rational amongst us here know which camp Zach falls into.

    For example:

    This is wrong on several accounts. Westernized culture might have traces of this, but by in large humanity has not functioned in this manner. Not only that, but it goes against evolutionary theory to say that we should care about those outside our family/tribe.

    Of course, someone who denies the veracity of evolution can’t be expected to understand what evolution actually says, but it is telling the types of caricatures are painted as an attempt to rebut. Altruism – even between species let alone tribes of the same species – is not only not against evolutionary theory, but predicted by it, accounted for mathematically, and witnessed regularly in the animal kingdom and a staggering variety of ways (even to the point where a cat and an owl can become playmates).

    Besides the fact that Zach can’t actually hold a coherent philosophy together, it is beyond blatantly obvious he doesn’t understand the science he so vigorously fights against.

    Sorry mate, but you are so far out of your depth here it’s beyond laughable it is just tedious. Though it is reminiscent of William Lane Craig and further evinces why so few people actually care to debate the pompous windbag.

  26. Steven Novellaon 07 Jan 2013 at 1:20 pm

    Also – a general agreement does not imply 100%. Most people do not want to be murdered. So – can we as a society agree to the basic principal that it is morally wrong to murder someone else? OK – but then let’s think carefully through all the implications of that, and other principals that may conflict.

    Some ideas are so non-controversial that we can use them as starting points of moral reasoning. No authority is needed.

    We can also agree on the principal of fairness that the same rules should apply to every person, with certain exceptions to minors and those who are unable to manage their own interests. Again – no rule or principle is absolute – they are just starting points.

    Stop using some hypothetical perfect absolute morality as the arbitrary standard. It’s and absurd premise, and is not necessary. All I am advocating is a workable and usable system of ethics, usable by us humans for our own society and behavior to meet our own interests.

    In any case – there is no perfect absolute morality, and there is no authority on which to base morality. If anyone claims that such exists and they have access to it, the burden of proof is on them. So far the evidence is so laughably childish as to not even warrant taking seriously. (i.e. bears mauling naughty teens)

  27. nybgruson 07 Jan 2013 at 1:25 pm

    @SARA:

    An interesting thought experiment a professor once had us do:

    Can you create a society where murder – the indiscriminate killing of anyone for any reason – is sanctioned and perfectly legal? In other words, can a society exist were any death of any kind always goes unpunished?

    This taps into the concept of an evolutionary society which Zach seems to think is the only other option to one based on an objective universal morality – after all what separats us from the animals that kill and eat each other without jail sentences?

    Well, the argument is that such a society cannot exist. Because inevitably the society will fractionate into groups that agree NOT to kill each other and protect each other against the other groups that would kill you.

    So the notion that a “first principle” is laughable is itself laughable. To think that it seems to be lauded as divine insight that “thou shalt not kill” is handed down from god himself and inscribed in stone is absolutely puerile. In any society – human or animal – the smallest functional unit is one in which the members agree not to kill each other and protect each other to flourish. That is not only consistent with evolutionary theory, it is necessary for it to work! And you can see examples of it in the wild amongst and between species.

    The problem is access to resources being limited. The corollary to the first principle of freedom from killing is the necessity to live – and if that means killing others it will happen. The difference with humans at this point is that we have the ability to ensure everyone has the resources necessary to live and thus the smallest functional societal units can be very large. Where resources are scant, and Maslow’s hierarchy is not met, you can see the fractionation of society. Just compare parts of Africa and the Middle East with places like the US, Australia, or other developed nations.

  28. NotAnAtheiston 07 Jan 2013 at 1:29 pm

    @Philosofrenzy

    Is this right?. Objective means that it may be applied from outside of a system. Universal means that it applies to everything in a system. I think both must be a characteristic of morality for the word to have meaning.

    Apologies if I misunderstood Steve’s position on agreement on first principles. I imagine that a future agreement on first principles must be right around the corner.

    I have no such misunderstanding on what first principles are. We will use yours.

    ” A first principle would be something like “Life is preferable to death.””

    Why is life preferable to death?

    What about:
    Terminally ill?
    Mentally handicapped?
    Unwanted children?

    Even if everyone agreed that life is preferrable to death it is still an arbitrary agreement unless there is some authority behind it.

  29. nybgruson 07 Jan 2013 at 1:31 pm

    Also – a general agreement does not imply 100%. Most people do not want to be murdered. So – can we as a society agree to the basic principal that it is morally wrong to murder someone else? OK – but then let’s think carefully through all the implications of that, and other principals that may conflict.

    And even then there will inevitably be outliers – like the man who agreed to be killed and cannibalized even eating his own flesh before being killed and the rest of him cooked.

  30. nybgruson 07 Jan 2013 at 1:38 pm

    Objective means that it may be applied from outside of a system. Universal means that it applies to everything in a system.

    Objective means everyone can agree to its veracity, not that it need be applied to the system as a whole or at all.

    Universal means it is everwhere in a system, regardless of whether we want it there or not.

    We can objectively say that cyanide will kill any human being in sufficient quantities. We may not want to actually apply that to the system but rather avoid it.

    We can say that senescence is universal to all humans, but we are actively trying to delay and prevent it.

    Neither are necessary terms for morality to be valid and functional and in fact a universal morality will be the only one certain to be immoral, since it cannot take into account circumstances or individual or community needs and preferences. This is why the religious right attempt to ban abortion in all cases citing it an objective and universal evil to abort a fetus is subject to so much backlash – it leads to idiotic statements by congressmen and deaths of women in Ireland.

  31. mufion 07 Jan 2013 at 1:45 pm

    NotAnAtheist: So what if society functions? Why is that my concern.

    Because you either live in a society that protects you and your interests or you desire to do so.

    If not, then by all means, try to survive outside of a society. I’m sure the wildlife will be very interesting in debating morality with you. :-)

    Now to claim that their will is one with a moral basis, an authority is absolutely necessary.

    The term “morality” can be used either

    1) descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society or,
    a) some other group, such as a religion, or
    b) accepted by an individual for her own behavior or
    2) normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.

    source

    Now, with this (nuanced) definition in mind, a minimal criterion for morality is that it refers to a “code of conduct”, the basis of which can vary from tradition to personal choice to rational reflection.

    If you wish to call those bases “authorities”, then I won’t object, so long as we’re clear that they are not necessarily theistic – or even cosmic – in nature.

  32. mnestison 07 Jan 2013 at 2:13 pm

    I see lots of comments suggesting that morality is linked with religion, belief in God, etc. I also saw in previous days commenters suggesting that Steve does not understand philosophy and that morality ad philosophy inherently are not scientific. In support of Steve’s position that religion is not necessary for morality and philosophy, I provide the example of medical ethics. There is an ongoing debate about the ethics of new technologies and procedures that do not involve religion and are not derived from such. Instead, modern day ethicists use logic and evidence in coming to proposals. The end result comes from consensus, yes – but that consensus is derived from actual evidence and logic. The ethical codes of various professions (AMA, APA, etc.) are frequently updated with new considerations based upon new evidence, technology, etc. – and while none of these are perfect, the aim is to improve each iteration. They begin with underlying principles (beneficence, non-maleficence, equality) which form the basis of later principles. They are not perfect, and there are instances in which an ethical principle is in conflict with another – in which case one is provided recommended steps to consider to come to the best alternative (and always using the underlying core principles to guide one’s actions). This contrasts with religious morality – which is based upon the past and not updated to meet new demands or incorporate new knowledge.

  33. rezistnzisfutlon 07 Jan 2013 at 2:15 pm

    It seems that we’ve fallen into the typical pitfall of arguing with fundamentalist religious types, a la creationists, who attempt to obfuscate the problems with their arguments by muddying the waters and derailing the conversation.

    What it seems to me to be happening is a lot of academic nitpicking about minutiae as a red herring intended to distract from the fact that the people who claim absolute morality exists haven’t been able to satisfy burden of proof that it actually does exists in the first place. As an analog, this is exactly the same reason why atheists are atheists, because theists haven’t been able satisfy their burden of proof for the claim that their deity exists. So, what we see happening is a long string of logical fallacies, moving the goalposts by redefinitions, and intellectual dishonesty, all in order to maintain a belief that does not jibe with reality.

    One can rely on history to demonstrate that absolute morality indeed likely does NOT exist since what is considered moral in past societies has changed so often, even among those who have claimed absolute morality all along. So, not only has the burden of proof that absolute morality exists not been satisfied, there is evidence to the contrary. Keep in mind that this is not a strong position – I am not claiming that it DOESN’T exist, just that I see no evidence that it does AND that there’s evidence to the contrary – I’m open to new evidence that could compel me to rethink my position (if it ever arises).

    I don’t want to go into a lot of detail about what has already been discussed. I do believe that morality is society-based and typically comes from the human need and desire for cooperation for the mutual benefit of the group members. Even in the most heinous dictatorship, this must exist to some degree in order for society to function at all, even if the “mutual benefit” is for those running society.

    Unfortunately, no matter what system is in place, not ALL group members will ever be satisfied about every aspect, and some will invariably find happiness with the breakdown of the society, or unhappiness from having societal coherence “forced” upon them. In this regard, NotAnAtheist is correct: there is no system (that I can think of) where there’ll be complete consensus of ALL society members, and force will be necessary at some point.

    That being said, to rely on an ancient book whose authors lived thousands of years ago in pre-scientific superstitious societies is not relevant to today’s society. Heck, texts written hundreds of years ago wouldn’t be relevant (and is why we have amendments to our Constitution). Many rules in it will now be irrelevant. Many would be downright detrimental. Many are absurdly arbitrary. This is why secular humanity is vastly preferable, because it CAN change with the times as needed.

    Those who claim absolute morality are not thinking things through. Even just 50 years ago, many people had religiously moral objections to integration and interracial marriage. During suffrage, there was religiously moral outrage that women seek equal rights. Back in 19th century America, people had religiously moral reasons for owning slaves. Before then, it was moral to burn witches at stakes and wipe out so-called “godless” cultures. It’s a good thing that THESE morals are not absolute!

  34. Philosofrenzyon 07 Jan 2013 at 2:23 pm

    @NotAnAtheist

    While “Life is preferable to death” was obviously a gross simplification–and I don’t think I would stand by it as a good starting point–the form of your objection implies that if a principle isn’t *sufficient* on its own, it can’t be necessary. That’s a serious confusion.

    In any case, the whole point is that we can work through it rationally–with exactly this sort of give and take of figuring out where to start, and go from there to create a workable ethical system. The very fact we can have the discussion–and that someone can recognize that your objection (cases where death might be preferable) makes sense shows that we’re operating from a common axiom–something like what Sam Harris points out: that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad, and that we ought to avoid it to greatest extent we are able. If ‘ought’ means anything, that’s what it means. And if you ask “why should we avoid the worst possible misery for everyone?” then you’re either confused or dishonest.

    In any case, there’s no alternative to this approach to morality. It’s all we’ve got. There *might* be some objective “truth” about morality, but if there is, we have no access to it. And so whether there is or not, we’re left to work it out on our own as if there isn’t. It’s no different from physics, where the best we can do is create more and more accurate models–models that work better than then their predecessors.

    It might be the case that morality has some objective truth to it–but at some point in the chain, there comes a point where there’s an axiom that reads something like “We ought to…X.” Promote human well-being. Obey the Lord, your God. Whatever it is, the “ought,” enters the system in an axiomatic statement like this. And so regardless of the system, the sociopath gets to ask the question “Why? Why ought I to do that?” So the “Why?” question isn’t an objection to the rationalist morality; it’s an objection to morality, *period.*

    Ethics/Morality is a social technology. We make discoveries by thinking about it, discussing it, and by seeing what works and what does not. To frame this as being about different cultures having different “preferences,” is a a ridiculous parody.

  35. rezistnzisfutlon 07 Jan 2013 at 2:26 pm

    As a sidenote, I want to make clear the position of most atheists, since I’ve been seeing the argument flying around that atheism is a faith-based position claiming with certitude that there is no god. This is a strawman, because few atheists are gnostic about their beliefs. Atheism, by definition, simply implies lack of belief in a deity or deities – it does not delve into what a person claims to know or not know. That’s the realm of gnosticism/agnosticism. That’s why most atheists consider themselves agnostic as well.

    Indeed it WOULD be a faith-based position if an atheist claimed with 100% certitude that there definitely no God (few atheists, when pressed, will admit this). The only way to know that for certain would be to be omniscient. Most atheists maintain intellectual honesty by adopting an agnostic stance (incidentally, something you don’t see most theists do).

    This is relevant here since the claim has been made that atheism is every bit as faith-based as theism, and therefore an arbitrary stance based on personal preference. That argument is also a red herring since theism and secular humanity are NOT mutually exclusive. Case in point: the Executive Director for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State happens to be an a ordained minister with the United Church of Christ.

  36. daedalus2uon 07 Jan 2013 at 2:30 pm

    NaA, there does not need to be an “authority” for a common and shared system to develop among humans. Language is not derived from an authority, it is synthesized by the group of children that is growing up together.

    This is an extremely important aspect of human communication and human culture. When children re raised in a society where the adults speak a “well formed” language, the children learn and speak that “well formed” language as their first language. If the adults are not communicating with a “well formed” language, then the cohort of children growing up together takes the communication primitives that the adults are using and uses them to synthesize a “well formed” language de novo. This is how pidgin languages spoken by diverse adult immigrants are turned into a “well formed” Creole.

    There is no “authority” that dictates the “well formed” rules of the new Creole. The Creole arises spontaneously in the group of children. Language is an emergent property of a group of children growing up together. To a very large extent, a sound sequence has no intrinsic meaning, it only has meaning in the context of the language that has been synthesized.

    When humans need new terms, they can be coined and assigned meaning which can be logically fit into the structure of the language. New terms can be derived by analogy from old terms.

    A system of morality can form the same way. People collectively decide what actions are “moral” the same way that people collectively decide what meaning is attached to which sound sequence. People can deviate from those collective norms, but then they are considered to be immoral, or speaking gibberish. If you make a small “meta-leap”, and consider that just as all words need to mean the same thing to everyone, moral actions need to have the same universality; that is if everyone behaved that way the society would be stable and worth living in.

    Of course treating everyone “the same” is anathema to all of the patriarchal religions, even those that claim the same founder. They all demand that the self-proclaimed religious leaders have more rights than anyone else, and claim this is due to “The Universal and Unchanging Perfect Morality from God”, and if you don’t agree with them their “morality” tells them to kill you.

  37. NotAnAtheiston 07 Jan 2013 at 2:33 pm

    mufi

    You make make yourself the authority if you like. I will choose not to recognize your authority over morality. My point is that all rational people do have an understanding of morality to some degree ingrained in us not just for how we should act but for how your neighbor or even someone across the ocean “ought” to act. This urge we have is universal. Not all follow this urge and choose to follow other conflicting urges. Why should we have a notion of how someone completely unrelated to us “ought” to act?

    I believe that urge comes from God. Others may believe that urge comes from evolution. If so then it has no authority over me. I may kill, steal, rape and pillage as I please if it is only you as the authority. I may make a huge empire and do whatever I please. Why would it be better to follow some arbitrary rules based on some evolutionary urge that I have no problem suppressing? Why work a boring 9-5 job when I can have the exciting life of a renegade. Why would I follow “mufi’s rules for living” if I can have my empire by going against the rules? You are free to disagree and choose the 9-5. You are free to get together with likeminded people and make my lifestyle illegal. What you can’t do is say what I am doing is “wrong” without some authority.

  38. NotAnAtheiston 07 Jan 2013 at 2:38 pm

    daedalus2u

    You are correct that no authority is necessary for morality to develop. It is necessary however to determine whether a morality is “right” or “wrong”. I am not arguing if there is another way to explain the existence of morality. I am arguing that an authority is necessary for there to actually be a “right” or “wrong”. The morality of the sort that could allow one to judge a society that promoted slavery as an unjust, immoral society. Anything else is just preference.

  39. nybgruson 07 Jan 2013 at 2:42 pm

    @ rezistnzisfutl:

    Once again very well said.

    I will also add that, of course, I am an agnostic atheist. I cannot know there is no god or gods, but I have enough evidence against the possibility and no evidence for it to be confident enough to eschew the agnostic bit and just say atheist. It was quite funny when the newspapers went ablaze went Dawkins stated that he was an agnostic last year – as if that and his atheism were mutually exclusive and it was some new revelation that he was admitting the possibility of a god… all despite the fact that all this is clearly explained and stated in his book. Theists tend to cling to any hope that their theism could still be valid, however precious little there is. It reminds of the movie Dumb and Dumber when Harry is told there is a one in a million chance Mary would date him. “So you’re saying there’s a chance! Woohoo!”

    Lastly, while a must be agnostic towards the generic god or gods, I can be gnostic towards specific gods since their existence is predicated on claims that can be tested. No god proposed to date – even the Abrahamic one – passes this test as they are all either self contradictory or have sufficient evidence against their existence (or some combination thereof).

    So an agnostic atheist like me can say that Yawheh doesn’t exist – just the same as Vishnu and Allah don’t – and still be correct and intellectually honest.

  40. daedalus2uon 07 Jan 2013 at 3:03 pm

    NaA, so the society of the OT was unjust and immoral even though they were following “the rules” that God had dictated because they kept slaves? And allowed those slaves to be beaten provided they didn’t die for a couple of days?

    Exodus
    21:20 And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.
    21:21 Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.

  41. mufion 07 Jan 2013 at 3:08 pm

    NotAnAtheist: What you can’t do is say what I am doing is “wrong” without some authority.

    Sure I can…with the implicit proviso that I’m expressing an opinion – however worthy (e.g. grounded in sensitivity to commonly shared core values, plus logic and evidence) an opinion it may be.

    Now, you’re free to imagine that some authority figure exists, whose opinion outweighs mine and every other human on the planet (both individually and collectively). But it’s not very likely that you’ll convince someone who doesn’t already share that delusion that s/he should play along with you, which makes it a practical non-starter with anyone except the most gullible.

  42. Philosofrenzyon 07 Jan 2013 at 3:10 pm

    @NotAnAtheist

    Your insistence that you need an authority confuses the right to enforce with being ability to recognize the truth of the proposition. You don’t need an “authority” to recognize that objects near the earth’s surface fall at 9.81 m/s^2. You just need the intellectual persistence to figure it out and demonstrate that it’s true. Neither would you need an authority to recognize when an action violates ethical principles.

    Once you understand “wrong” to mean “an action inconsistent with human well-being,” for instance, it’s true to say “murdering that child is wrong.” In fact, it’s *objectively* wrong–and anyone who thinks about it long enough will be able to say that without needing an “authority.”

    Again, the theist holds atheistic, rational morality to a standard theistic morality doesn’t meet either. Compelling people to behave morally is a problem of motivation and encouragement–it has nothing to do with the ontology or epistemology of ethics.

  43. NotAnAtheiston 07 Jan 2013 at 3:41 pm

    daedalus2u

    I did not defend the passage in Exodus. You used your moral authority(from wherever it is derived) to condemn it though.

  44. rezistnzisfutlon 07 Jan 2013 at 3:44 pm

    @nybgrus

    Some very interesting and thoughtful points, as usual. The Dawkins situation is definitely indicative of how profoundly misunderstood atheism is by society at large. I would guess that likely that comes from the fact that most people get their definition of atheism from other theists, primarily their holy leaders who attempt to bestow what they consider the evils of apostasy and disbelief and villianize those who go that route.

    In this context, theists seem to be attempting to undermine those arguing against the notion of absolute morality (aka absolute authority) by conflating that with atheism, an ad hominem that attempts to point to a person’s personal belief (or lack thereof) instead of their actual argument. That’s why I had to mention that secular humanity and religious belief are not mutually exclusive.

    In other words, it’s another attempt to obfuscate their inability to meet the burden of proof for their positive claims and to derail the conversation by muddying the waters with their nitpicking at minutiae.

  45. NotAnAtheiston 07 Jan 2013 at 3:49 pm

    Philosofrenzy

    “You don’t need an “authority” to recognize that objects near the earth’s surface fall at 9.81 m/s^2. You just need the intellectual persistence to figure it out and demonstrate that it’s true. Neither would you need an authority to recognize when an action violates ethical principles.”

    Sure, I can agree to that. You first must decide which ethical principles and that WOULD require an authority.

    You said

    “In fact, it’s *objectively* wrong–and anyone who thinks about it long enough will be able to say that without needing an “authority.””

    How is it *objectively* wrong without an authority? I do not see it. What meaning would you be using for the word objective? Thinking about it long enough=objective?

  46. Philosofrenzyon 07 Jan 2013 at 4:07 pm

    @NotAnAtheist

    You seem to have unnecessarily strict criteria for considering something objective. You seem to use the word to mean almost “necessarily true,” or something like that. Objectivity isn’t some magic property; it means little more than “factual.” In order for it to be objective it only needs to be the case that the facts are true, and that the conclusion follows logically from them, such that someone aware of the facts cannot rationally conclude anything else.

    Murdering children creates a scenario in which human flourishing is vastly diminished. This a fact about the world that can be observed and learned–not “just an opinion.” Once it is learned, “it is wrong to murder children” follows logically from the axiomatic premise “it is wrong to engage in activities that move us away from a higher degree of human flourishing and toward the worst possible misery for everyone.”

    So anyone adopting this axiom–and I contend that nobody disagrees with it, except hypothetically, and for the sake of argument–anyone aware of the facts can speak, objectively, about the wrongness of murdering children.

    But please, you’re still ignoring the challenge: how does a theistic, god-based morality avoid any of the problems you’re raising against rationalist morality?

  47. rezistnzisfutlon 07 Jan 2013 at 4:29 pm

    @Philosofrenzy

    “But please, you’re still ignoring the challenge: how does a theistic, god-based morality avoid any of the problems you’re raising against rationalist morality?”

    I see what you’re trying to achieve here, and that’s cool if you want to go that route, but it seems to me that we’re just playing his semantic games. With the highlighted statement, we’re operating under the assumptions that a supernatural god exists and that it’s a specific god of a specific religion, that that god defines morals, that some of them are absolute, and that those morals are preferable to anything humans are able to come up with on their own – not only preferable, but necessary or else. Raising issues with rational morality on these bases is simply another red herring in attempts to alleviate their burden of proof, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts. Doing so is an academic exercise at best, and I for one would like to see them address their burden of proof first.

    Going under the assumption that god exists and his morals are outlined in the bible (to pick on christians a bit here), it seems to me that the only real benefit of having an authority that dictates absolute morals is that it allows followers to defer to that higher power without having to think about it. I can see where that would be comfortable to people as it doesn’t actually require work or thought.

    NAA argues that rational morality still requires a moral authority. Even if that were true in some cases, which is arguable, it’s still preferable because it’s predicated upon the maximum well-being and the minimum hardship and suffering of ALL citizens. The “authority” comes directly from humans (which I argue has always been the case) instead of a handful of religious prophets who claim to be speaking for their god.

  48. Karl Withakayon 07 Jan 2013 at 4:31 pm

    @NotAnAtheist,

    “I may kill, steal, rape and pillage as I please if it is only you as the authority. I may make a huge empire and do whatever I please.”

    You may certainly try to do so, until the those in authority and the rest of society try to stop you.
    ——————————–

    “Why work a boring 9-5 job when I can have the exciting life of a renegade. Why would I follow “mufi’s rules for living” if I can have my empire by going against the rules?”

    Well, the rest of us probably won’t let you openly live that renegade life or build that empire unless you do so while abiding by our rules.
    ——————————–

    “What you can’t do is say what I am doing is “wrong” without some authority.”

    You really need to rephrase that, because anyone clearly can say that what you would be doing is wrong, with or without any authority. Collectively, society can decide that what you would be doing is wrong. You may not agree that they are correct, but anyone absolutely can say it.
    ——————————–

    Regarding your need for authority,

    From dictionary.com:

    au·thor·i·ty

    1. the power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command, or determine.
    2. a power or right delegated or given; authorization: Who has the authority to grant permission?
    3. a person or body of persons in whom authority is vested, as a governmental agency.
    4. Usually, authorities. persons having the legal power to make and enforce the law; government: They finally persuaded the authorities that they were not involved in espionage.
    5. an accepted source of information, advice, etc.

    No mention is made in any of these definitions of divine investment as a requirement for valid authority.

  49. mufion 07 Jan 2013 at 4:36 pm

    Philosofrenzy to NotAnAtheist: You seem to have unnecessarily strict criteria for considering something objective.

    Not only that, but philosophers categorize Divine Command theory (that is, the meta-ethical view that “for a thing to be right is for a unique being, God, to approve of it, and that what is right for non-God beings is obedience to the divine will”) as a form of Ethical Subjectivism (e.g. see here).

    After all, even putting aside the more blatantly anthropomorphic language that we often hear (e.g. references to body parts, like “hand of God”), theists traditionally ascribe personal/psychological attributes to their deities (cf. Buddhist karma, which Gautama described as impersonal forces of cosmic justice). That alone renders them subjects (e.g. conscious beings) that, on a-priori-logical grounds alone, make them vulnerable to Euthyphro-like critiques, like the one that Plato made thousands of years ago and which Dr. Novella echoed in his post.

  50. Zachon 07 Jan 2013 at 4:53 pm

    Steven,

    “Zach – your reasoning is profoundly muddled. You are first creating a false dichotomy – absolute objective morality, or no morality at all, survival of the fittest.”

    Prove it. Simply throwing out fallacies without backing up your proof is pointless.

    “We as humans can agree on certain first principles – like, all things considered we would like to live in a world in which sentient beings have certain rights, like the right not to be killed. We can largely agree on a few such principles, and then work out from there, using logic, a system of ethical thinking that works toward those principles. That is the philosophy of ethics.”

    Are we living in the same world? Are we reading the same history books?

    The point is, this is not a universally held belief – and if it was it still requires a source or it is based on fallacy.

    You said,
    “We can largely agree on a few such principles, and then work out from there, using logic, a system of ethical thinking that works toward those principles. That is the philosophy of ethics.”

    This is wrong on every level.

    1. No we can’t work out such principles. – please show me a society that has ever done that? Societies are always divided. Your idea of individual rights and treating everyone equally is largely a western idea, don’t impose that belief on the rest of the world unless you have something other than, “I like this” to back it up. It’s nonsensical and hypocritical.

    2. Regardless this is all vague rhetoric, you aren’t embracing real issues and real questions and are just talking in generalities.

    You said,
    “This is not an argument ad populum because there are no empirical claims here (remember, this is philosophy, not science). This is not a law of the universe – just mutually agreed upon rules by which we are going to run our society. You are the one interjecting the whole notion of “objective” morals. You are assuming that, but it’s a faulty premise, and something you have to prove, not just assume.”

    1. It is ad populum – you are relying on a consensus that is rooted in opinion to justify something that your world view says cannot truly exist universally.

    2. What do you mean there are no empirical claims in philosophy and what does that have to do with ad populum not being applicable… You are justifying your position on a majority rule fallacy – there is no debate here. This isn’t just abstract ideas that don’t effect anything – these views matter and change the world.

    You said,
    “This is not a law of the universe – just mutually agreed upon rules by which we are going to run our society.”

    So if society agrees it’s ok to feed disrespectful teens to bears then you would be ok with that? Or would you object, and if so you’re entire point breaks down.

    “You are the one interjecting the whole notion of “objective” morals. You are assuming that, but it’s a faulty premise, and something you have to prove, not just assume.”

    No I don’t, unless you believe morality is nothing more than I like this or I don’t like that, and he doesn’t like this and he does like that – then it’s an arms race to see who enforces who’s favorites.

    “By this system – a philosophical system based upon first principals and logic, I can say that mauling children for making fun of someone is grossly immoral.”

    What system? majority rule fallacy? Might makes right? Morality is just opinion so on things you happen to like and not like?
    Ok, by the same system I can also say that mauling children (teenagers but you refuse to learn) for making fun of someone is moral and right.

    Now who’s system do we go with? Incoming might makes right fallacy.

    You said,
    “It is such a blatant violation of any reasonable ethical principal that the notion of just saying – God works in mysterious ways – is laughable.”

    More of the same – your entire view of morality relies on ad populum fallacy and argumentum ad passiones (Appeal to emotion).
    This is nothing but pontification.

    You said,
    “Trying to boil this down to world views is also a red herring. Once again – you are trying to frame the discussion with your premises as conclusions.”

    So you are telling me that you have not already pre-decided your conclusion?

    You said,
    “It’s not about world view. It’s about thinking very carefully through the logic and implications of a system of behavior.”"

    Ok, lets think them through. Now what? This statement requires an answer, you obviously have some pre-decided idea to what morals should move towards – that is where you fail to realize what you are actually appealing to. It’s your own personal opinion on what you care for. And why should anyone care about what you care for? Another conclusion you are now justifying, the very thing you said I just did.

    “Philosophers have done this for centuries, and they actually have some pretty good arguments at their disposal. Logic, transparency, and basic first principles is not a world view – it is the only system that can hope to cut across cultural boundaries and justify ethical positions.”

    More vague rhetoric that doesn’t mean anything.

    “You are offering faith and tradition to support a system that, in many cases, offends basic logic.”

    Actually I haven’t pushed that point yet, you refuse to acknowledge the basic logical processes that you are claiming to appeal to. I have simply said that if you are going to call any person corrupt (including the God of the Old Testament), you had better be able to provide some other

    “Your argument about applying the same rules in different situations does not hold. This implies there is a deeper underlying ethical system, that, in your example, takes maturity and the resultant ability to consent into consideration. I do not see any analogy or extension of this, however, that can explain how it is morally objectively right to murder 42 teenagers for being sassy.”

    Again, you have missed the point. I am showing the continuity between the Old and New Testaments – not defending that they are superior to other systems, there is a difference. Remember, the new testament isn’t all peaches and cream and love your neighbor. It ends with God killing half the world’s population, then the rest of the non-believers in the end and sending them to hell. Now, you might not believe any of this, but that doesn’t matter, I am talking about the continuity between the two that you try to deny.

    Also, you might not like the God of the Bible, but so what? That’s another appeal to emotion unless you can provide me with an objective alternative you are merely providing more fallacious reasoning to why it’s immoral.

    “I do not see any analogy or extension of this, however, that can explain how it is morally objectively right to murder 42 teenagers for being sassy.”

    Hey, you used teenagers this time, I’m truly impressed that you updated your argument. However, this is the fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantiam (argument from ignorance).
    Just because you can’t think of a reason doesn’t mean there isn’t one, and secondly God killed them not the prophet. I’m pretty sure 100% of the population dies so what’s the problem here? You are clearly appealing to some other objective moral standard, what it is?

    You said,
    “That is an excellent example of how ideology distorts reasoning beyond all recognition.”

    Cheap shot and irrelevant. Start answering my questions instead of glazing over them with trite meaningless romanticized based generalities.

    Tmac57

    “If you think that there is some unequivocal,objective Christian “word of god”,then take a look at this:”

    What’s the problem here? language evolves, so the need for constant new translations will always be there.

    “The late start in writing down the text of the bible,and the many translations, interpretations,and culling of books of the bible results in a mish mash of flawed ‘information’ that contains historical anomalies and errors.
    Hardly the foundation for the last word on universal morality,I would surmise.”

    Late start? What is late? 1st century 1st hand eye witnesses is late?

    Better throw out every historian then.

    Steven

    “We can also agree on the principal of fairness that the same rules should apply to every person, with certain exceptions to minors and those who are unable to manage their own interests. Again – no rule or principle is absolute – they are just starting points.”

    What world are you looking at? Entire culture’s disagree with this in practice all the time. India – caste system….

    You said,
    “All I am advocating is a workable and usable system of ethics, usable by us humans for our own society and behavior to meet our own interests.”

    Your definition of workable is a preference not agreed upon by mankind, so why is your view superior?

    “If anyone claims that such exists and they have access to it, the burden of proof is on them.”

    That sword slices both ways. You are making a claim about morality so that claim must be backed up. Please provide an objective standard from which we can determine if your view is correct or not.

    NotAnAtheist: So what if society functions? Why is that my concern.

    Mufi you said,
    “Because you either live in a society that protects you and your interests or you desire to do so.”

    Mufi, this isn’t a reason, you are just re-explaining the same thing. Why should he care about society accept when it suits him and directly benefits what he wants?

    This is sort of like asking the question what is the point of football – one responds, “to score touchdowns”. No, for scoring touchdowns is itself the game football. The statement is true, but doesn’t need to be said. (This is clearly demonstrated by C.S. Lewis by the way, just pointing this out encase someone accuses me of plagiarism).

    NotAnAtheist

    “I believe that urge comes from God. Others may believe that urge comes from evolution. If so then it has no authority over me. I may kill, steal, rape and pillage as I please if it is only you as the authority. I may make a huge empire and do whatever I please. Why would it be better to follow some arbitrary rules based on some evolutionary urge that I have no problem suppressing? Why work a boring 9-5 job when I can have the exciting life of a renegade. Why would I follow “mufi’s rules for living” if I can have my empire by going against the rules? You are free to disagree and choose the 9-5. You are free to get together with like minded people and make my lifestyle illegal. What you can’t do is say what I am doing is “wrong” without some authority.”

    Nailed it on the head. I truly can’t figure out why this point is so difficult for atheist/agnostics to swallow…

    “I did not defend the passage in Exodus. You used your moral authority(from wherever it is derived) to condemn it though.”

    Waiting patently for them to provide where this standard comes from that allows them to condemn it.

    Wrote this in a hurry – please excuse typos. And don’t take my directness as me being rude, I am writing quickly as it’s a busy day, and didn’t take the time to sugar coat things as much as normal.

    Respectfully,

    Zach

  51. RickKon 07 Jan 2013 at 5:02 pm

    Philosofrenzy, even though I’m most definitely an atheist, I have to agree with half of NotAnAtheist’s side of this debate. He says there can be no “objective” morality without an authority, and that’s true. I’m quite confident there’s no invisible guy-in-the-sky authority. The closest we come to “objective rules of morality” are examples of hard-wired evolutionary tendencies that are pretty much universal across (and beyond) human societies.

    Interesting that you use the example of murdering children. If you take the anti-abortion community’s definition of “children”, then we quite often murder children in a socially acceptable manner. The native people of Tikopia Island provide another example. Because of limited resources and their isolation from any external trading partners, their society could only persist through rigid population control. Infanticide was one of the accepted control mechanisms. If they hadn’t practiced infanticide or some other form of murder/suicide, they would have suffered the same societal collapse as Easter Island experienced. What is worse – the intentional death of a percentage of the population, or the unintentional death of the entire population?

    I would be interested in the Christian solution to the Tikopia problem, as we may one day face it on a global scale. But that’s a digression.

    There are tendencies wired into human psychology and behavior. But history demonstrates that there is no such thing as absolute or objective morality. That’s why philosophy is important, to provide guidelines by which we can adjust morals and societal norms to fit a variety of situations.

    Religion is just philosophy attributed to an omnipotent agent. Sadly, while many such agents have been claimed, none have been seen. An omnipotent being who doesn’t want to be found is indistinguishable from a being that doesn’t exist.

  52. nybgruson 07 Jan 2013 at 5:11 pm

    So I had a thought as I read through these posts.

    This is a skeptical blog, devoted almost entirely to demonstrated the principles of logical fallacy and cognitive bias. Post after post after post, with discussion, understanding, constructive critique, and refinement. Not a peep from any of the theistic contingent we see here today.

    Then a post directly dealing with religion and all of a sudden out of the woodwork they come pouring. I can’t believe that these folks have not been reading the rest of the posts all along and came here just for the ones turning skepticism on religion. Yet until this point they are clearly content to read and at least outwardly seem to have no beef with the skepticism of the posts here… until it abuts their theism. Especially if Christianity is even hinted at. I’d love to see an experiment where Dr. Novella posts about the inanities of the Hindu religion and deconstructs some of the Vedas. Do you think these folks would still come out and howl fallacy after fallacy at us? I would argue no, since their cognitive dissonance is not triggered when they can laugh along at how silly a four armed elephant god is. But point out that a bearded white dude in the clouds is just and silly and boy howdy how incredibly arrogant, strident, militant, and stupid we are; confusing science and philosophy, not understanding such simple premises as the fact that there not only is but must be an absolute objective more standard.

    I have to force upon myself some understanding though. It was (and still is) hard to turn the skeptical eye inward on myself. But I was also never indoctrinated in any particular ideology or world view as a child – all ideas were presented equally to me (well, with the exception that academic rigor and education is paramount to a succesful life). I read Greek mythology before I read Christian mythology. And by then the Christian stuff was boring. The Greeks told a much better story and had much more interesting and useful gods. I was baptised (long story) at about the age of 6 and even then remember thinking how incredibly weird this was and wondering if I was being put on. But I never had anyone beat it into my head that it was a “truth” or “right” to do so… merely that it was the cultural tradition of the family which sponsored our escape from the Soviet Bloc and we accomodated them as a courtesy to repay their kindness. LOL, I still remember thinking the holy water was disgusting since everyone dipped their fingers in it all the time and wondering what that weird metal thing making all the smoke was.

    It truly is a challenge to figure out how to get the likes of the theists we have here to realize that the “facts” and “truths” and “accepted premises” they keep laying down are only accepted by those who have had it driven into their heads to do so unquestioningly and that to anyone rational – or even irrational but not of their faith – they make no sense, let alone can be accepted as axiomatic.

  53. Philosofrenzyon 07 Jan 2013 at 5:15 pm

    @ Mufi

    Exactly. :)

  54. nybgruson 07 Jan 2013 at 5:21 pm

    This urge we have is universal. Not all follow this urge and choose to follow other conflicting urges. Why should we have a notion of how someone completely unrelated to us “ought” to act?
    I believe that urge comes from God

    And this is a perfect example of the utter fail. It is like when the Republican National Convention some years back had a speaker proclaim quite confidently that the Republicans hadn’t invented marriage, but marriage has always been between one man and one woman, in all cultures, and across all time and they were just there to defend it. The conclusion seems reasonable, but the premise is utter horse hockey.

    The urge is universal? Well I have an urge to make sure that my homosexual, bisexual, transexual, and polyamorous friends all have the right to and freedom to live happily and express their love to whomever in whatever way they wish with any number of consenting adults without judgement or scorn, with equal protections under the law. I have always felt this way (though not able to articulate it fully or feel as strongly) since I can remember… despite the fact that I am (and always have been) heterosexual and currently engaged to be married to a beautiful rocket scientist. Somehow there seems to be a fairly large portion of the population who seem to have an “urge” antithetical to mine.

    I also have this urge to ensure that young boys can grow up happy, healthy, and unmolested. The Catholic church doesn’t seem to share this urge with me.

    When you make absolute statements like the kind we have been seeing here (entirely from theists if you pay attention, though not all theists – here or otherwise – do so) one little contrary example shatters your entire argument leaving you pitifully defending nothing, like the Black Knight wiggling around in the leaves.

    Of course the never ending appeal to “authority” makes sense as well – they have willingly (or brainwashedly) subjugated themselves to an authority and if that is wrong, then everything they place value on is wrong.

  55. mufion 07 Jan 2013 at 5:22 pm

    Zach: Why should he care about society accept when it suits him and directly benefits what he wants?

    Strictly speaking, there’s nothing stopping someone from thinking & feeling this way, although (as Dr. Novella alluded in his post) there are certain brute facts about human nature (e.g. regarding our pro-social instincts, such as a tendency to reciprocate) that tend to work against the potential for anti-social behavior. And when nature & cultural upbringing fail (e.g. in the case of sociopaths), then we have legal and law-enforcement institutions to deal with those special cases.

    Sure, you can call this a “game” if you like. But, unlike in football, playing is not optional. It’s a game that we were all born to play and which society requires that we play in one version or another, whether we like it or not.

    Inventing some divine Game Master or Referee may or may not serve some added motivational purpose (provided one is not bothered by its implausibility). But I think it’s more likely to be a needless distraction at best.

  56. RickKon 07 Jan 2013 at 5:25 pm

    Re false dichotomy of absolute god-given morality or no morality, Zach said: Prove it. Simply throwing out fallacies without backing up your proof is pointless.”

    People with no experience of anything you’d call a God, Zach, still develop moral codes. Even other primate species demonstrate rudimentary moral behavior – fairness, reciprocity, etc. Do you deny this?

    Zach – what are you arguing? You keep criticizing Steve on the basis that not everybody agrees to a given society’s set of morals. So what? Do you think “God” is a solution to that? How many Christian sects are there? How many other versions of God and of religion? There’s a lot of people out there that think God will reward them for jihad against infidels – will yours?

    There’s no question that inventing a divine authority as a sort of omnipotent “Big Brother” is a great way to get people to be more moral when nobody is looking. It works – no question. But so does the concept of karma, so does getting people to pledge to be good every morning, so does your mother’s warning that “she will always know”, so do cameras in every room. You can achieve better compliance in a variety of ways without having to conjure up an impossible always-vigilant phantasm.

  57. daedalus2uon 07 Jan 2013 at 5:27 pm

    NaA, I don’t need an authority to tell me that beating people to near death is immoral.

    Applying the reasonable person criteria, and my empathy as a human being, I presume that servants being beaten such that they die in 2 days consider being so treated to be unacceptable and immoral. I presume that the servants being beaten to near death did not grant permission to be so beaten. It is not the presence of an authority that dictates that beating someone to near death is immoral to render such actions immoral, it is the lack of authority from the person being beaten that renders the action immoral.

    Your idea that an authority can authorize a behavior and by so doing it render it “moral” is called the “appeal to authority” fallacy when it applies to facts, it is no less a fallacy when it applies to moral actions.

  58. nybgruson 07 Jan 2013 at 5:29 pm

    I read Zach’s posts and all I can think is “wow.” As in “wow, I still always have trouble believing people can actually be so blinkered.”

    I mean for f&^%’s sake! He’s arguing the semantics of mauling chidlren versus teenagers as if that somehow means anything to the argument.

    Of course, it is patently obvious to me that he is yet another William Lane Craig acolyte since that is exactly the rhetorical tactics and examples he uses. His recent lecture about how the massacre in Newton was actually a gift from a loving god to remind us of the true meaning of the original Christmas was truly sickening… and could only be the product of such a warped mind poisoned by ideology and desperate rationalization.

    I really shouldn’t bother writing, reading, or engaging any of this drivel. But it is fascinating to me – like a rubbernecker watching a horrific accident in slow motion.

  59. tmac57on 07 Jan 2013 at 5:37 pm

    It just occurred to me that we should be VERY careful to not convert any theist who thinks that all morality MUST come from a higher source,because they would instantly become immoral,and who knows what they then might be capable of…right?
    Apparently they are right on the edge of mayhem but for the word of God.

  60. autumnmonkeyon 07 Jan 2013 at 5:43 pm

    Zach: “Not only that, but it goes against evolutionary theory to say that we should care about those outside our family/tribe.”

    Nope, it’s not against evolutionary theory at all. We’ve evolved to a broader view of what constitutes our tribe.

    Zach: “Christianity came along and redefined who your neighbor was, your neighbor wasn’t only those who were nice back to you, or those who caused you no harm, your neighbor was also your enemy! Make no mistake, this is unique to Christianity.”

    Not true. This idea was borrowed from Stoicism, along with other pilfered concepts.

    Zach: “In the Old Testament it is like a 14 year old wanting to drive – not ready yet. In the New Testament we are 16, and can drive.”

    You’re analogy fails in respect to the difference between the OT and NT. A proper analogy would be: A 14 year old drives a car, he gets stoned to death. Two years later, the driving center says we’re not stoning people anymore; people of all ages can now drive. The rules AND morality have in fact arbitrarily changed whether you can see that or not. The change makes absolutely no sense. There’s a rational sense between forbidding a 14 year old from driving on the streets and allowing a trained 16 year old. There’s no sense in killing children and then saying we don’t do that anymore because of a mythical zombie.

    Zach: “But regardless, I don’t need to defend God’s actions here, you need to defend your position that mauling teens (or even little children) is wrong. Please provide an objective standard for why it is wrong?”

    This is the logic found in a playground argument. You cannot defend the action, hence you declare you don’t have to defend it. Then, ABRACADABRA, you conclude it’s your opponent who has to prove the opposite! Bill Craig at his finest!

    daedalus2u: “If you consider yourself to be a Christian, and a member of the class of Christians you are referring to when you say ‘Christians don’t agree with you’, then you are (in effect) saying that Catholics and Mormons (and yourself) objectively and verifiably know the will of God. If all 3 know the will of God, then why do they say it is different things?”

    It’s amusing how they all claim to have a personal relationship with the same deity and yet their deity tells them all different things. This fact alone should stop them in their tracks in claiming an objective morality.

    NotAnAtheist: “If so then it has no authority over me. I may kill, steal, rape and pillage as I please if it is only you as the authority.”

    There’s no evidence that believing in a deity will stop you from doing those things. In fact, history shows the deity provides cover (at least those within the club) to do those crimes.

    NotAnAtheist: “I did not defend the passage in Exodus. You used your moral authority(from wherever it is derived) to condemn it though.”

    You offer an objective morality which forbids murder (from no less than the OT!!!) but when someone points out that the rampant and senseless murder in the OT is wrong, you say he can’t make that judgement without referring to some other source of objective morality? Your source of objective morality fails according to its own standards. The deity tells his people it’s wrong to murder, then tells them to murder. And atheists are the ones being illogical???

    AM

  61. Philosofrenzyon 07 Jan 2013 at 5:47 pm

    @ nybgrus

    “His recent lecture about how the massacre in Newton was actually a gift from a loving god to remind us of the true meaning of the original Christmas.”

    Ugh. I want to be surprised he would say such a terrible thing, but honestly, I’m more surprised that I hadn’t heard it until now than I am that he said it in the first place.

    After all, the same William Lane Craig who argued that we should pity the Israelite soldiers who were commanded to kill every man woman and child in the territories they conquered–not the people that were being murdered, but the poor soldiers who were commanded to do such difficult, tasteless work.

    You have to wonder how an intelligent man can honestly say things like that without hearing how absurd and terrible it sounds.

  62. ccbowerson 07 Jan 2013 at 5:56 pm

    Oh wow. Very nice post Steve, you gave a very nice overview of the morality issue and the roles and contributions of science and philosophy, and I think you are spot on. I appreciate your contribution to the comments as well.

    I’m only about half way through these comments (hospital is busy today), but I hope to read them all. The discussion/comments in this post is much more focused than the previous days posts, which makes it a bit more enjoyable to read.

  63. rezistnzisfutlon 07 Jan 2013 at 6:03 pm

    “I believe that urge comes from God. Others may believe that urge comes from evolution. If so then it has no authority over me. I may kill, steal, rape and pillage as I please if it is only you as the authority. I may make a huge empire and do whatever I please. Why would it be better to follow some arbitrary rules based on some evolutionary urge that I have no problem suppressing? Why work a boring 9-5 job when I can have the exciting life of a renegade. Why would I follow “mufi’s rules for living” if I can have my empire by going against the rules? You are free to disagree and choose the 9-5. You are free to get together with like minded people and make my lifestyle illegal. What you can’t do is say what I am doing is “wrong” without some authority.”

    This line of thinking is one of the most absurd, and insulting, line of thinking religious fundamentalists think of. Let me pose you this question: why is it that you don’t see atheists constantly in the news committing all sorts of horrific crimes? Why is it our prison systems are filled mostly with theists? What stays the hand of atheists from committing all of these crimes? Why don’t I want to go out and do these things? Why would an atheist want to help anyone? Why do they help others when they don’t have to?

    You guys really don’t think these things through. The “authority” comes from a self-realization that I don’t want to live in a society where murder, stealing, raping, and pillaging are acceptable and expected. Society wouldn’t be able to function if those things were acceptable and commonplace, it would be an anarchistic dystopia. I have empathy for how others feel because I can imagine what bad things must feel like myself, and I don’t want them to feel the same thing. THIS is where we get our morals from. That and I don’t want to spend time in jail, die, or be socially outcast.

    In reality, authority only EVER comes from our willingness to abide by it, whether it’s from an ancient book or from the realizations I described above. No one can make anyone willingly do anything. Given that it’s your religious FAITH (aka belief without evidence) that what the bible says is true gives it moral authority over you, you still have to agree to abide by that authority anyway.

    So, you can believe that “urge” comes from God all you want. That is your baseless religious belief that you cannot demonstrate and not everyone shares. There are thousands of other religions who have just as strong as claims as you do, with no evidentiary bases themselves, either. Secularists, on the other hand, base their morality on reality and how it truly affects the real world.

    I love how you guys create the false dichotomy of theism v. evolution, as if they’re necessarily mutually exclusive. There are MANY theists who accept evolution. Or are you now going to employ the No True Scotsman fallacy? Also, you get evolution wrong (as usual): considering that there are evolutionary advantages to cooperative teamwork and empathy for others, then it would actually be AGAINST evolution to commit harmful acts like murder, theft, rape, and pillaging.

  64. nybgruson 07 Jan 2013 at 6:19 pm

    @philosofrenzy:

    At your own peril:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWHUmuDFXjc

  65. rezistnzisfutlon 07 Jan 2013 at 6:22 pm

    One example of arbitrary rules based on meaningless religious morality is the idea that homosexuality is a sin and an abomination, and that they should not have the same rights as everyone else. There simply is no good reason for this whatsoever. Homosexual marriage does not affect anyone whatsoever, nor is it harmful to society. The only harm that EVER comes from such unions is from the bigots, religious fundamentalists, and homophobes, and that’s THEIR problem, not the homosexuals.

    So, the idea that same-sex marriage is wrong and that marriage is only valid between a man and a woman has no basis in reality. In fact, there’s evidence that it’s helpful – it promotes familial stability, long-term monogamy, a stable environment for children (any couple wanting to adopt is typically more ready to raise children than those who have unexpected children), more fulfilled careers, greater societal happiness, etc. There is also evidence that restricting equal rights and respect under the law is harmful.

    How is this relevant to this conversation? It goes to illustrate the superiority of secular morality. Whereas religious morality is derived from the authority of ancient religious prophets who were steeped in superstition, fear, and scientific ignorance, secular morality is based on what is actually realistic for the greatest societal happiness and stability for ALL citizens, and what is least harmful. Since there is no real-world evidence that same-sex marriage is harmful nor does it affect opposite-sex marriage in any way, there is no need to reduce the happiness of a segment of the population, and therefore increases the happiness and stability of the population at large. Reducing the rights of others is nearly always denigrating.

  66. JJ Borgmanon 07 Jan 2013 at 6:24 pm

    Wow is right. The only conclusion I keep coming back to is that this has got have those rascals Novella, Jay and Bob, behind it.

  67. nybgruson 07 Jan 2013 at 6:29 pm

    @ rezistnzisfutl:

    As usual, spot on.

    I also pointed out the inanity of claiming evolution = mass murder and do whatever you please. There are so many examples of animal cooperativity for the benefit of the group at the expense of self it is mind boggling. And the mathematics of population genetics explains and predicts it perfectly, including K vs R selection. Unless God also has commandments for Ground Hornbills who can’t reproduce except at the reproductive expense of relatives that does seem to fall apart, doesn’t it?

    But even then all you need is one example to completely shatter the argument to pieces. And if you look at my med school class you’ll have a few hundred atheists who work hard to bring good to humanity – many of them even above and beyond med school duties.

    Or just look at me – as anti-theist as they come, yet somehow I am not filled with the urge for wanton murder and rampage and find the idea of rape and abuse of children to make me physically ill.

    Of course, that is why a theist like Marvin Olasky can write (and scores of theologians can think) over at Christian World Magazine that:

    Atheists don’t exist. Everyone believes in a god of some sort. Atheists even know that God exists. Chapter 1 of Romans tells us that, and so does a piece of lesser evidence: “Hallelujah,” a song written by Canada’s Leonard Cohen, initially released 28 years ago but decade by decade resonating ever more powerfully.

    Really? I don’t exist? I guess I don’t when you so desperately need to justify your world view. It’s pitiful really.

  68. nybgruson 07 Jan 2013 at 6:43 pm

    JJB and AM:

    Right? Wow indeed.

    ——

    I also forgot to add that it makes much more sense that morality is doing good things regardless of who is watching, promise of reward, or fear of punishment. Not because some authority told you.

    It doesn’t even pass the sniff test:

    Little Timmy: I don’t want to hit Jimmy even though nobody will ever catch me because that would be mean.

    Little Johnny: I don’t want to hit Jimmy because my dad is watching and he will ground me if I do.

    Which little boy is more moral?

    I am also often genuinely shocked and afraid when I hear that argument from Christians. It has happened to me in person. Are you really telling me that you have a seething desire to kill me and literally the only thing stopping you is your sky fairy saying you’ll go to hell if you do? What an incredibly horrible person you must be! If I think about what it would be like to kill someone intentionally and then think about how my mother, father, sister, and fiance would feel if I was the target of that murder and the pain and angst they would undoubtedly feel literally wells up inside me. I just couldn’t imagine doing it, law or not, sky fairy or not, Ceiling Cat or not.

    And they sit there and feel morally superior because the only thing constraining their vicious horrible selves is a book written by bronze aged goat herders in the most intellectually backwards part of the world at the time. Bah.

  69. rezistnzisfutlon 07 Jan 2013 at 6:43 pm

    @nybgrus

    Yea, I’ve heard that justification before, that there are “no real atheists”. Considering the passage that’s so often thrown at us that “only a fool in his heart says there is no god”, as well as the fact that the bible claims that disbelief is the one unforgivable sin, that would contradict the notion that there are “no real atheists”. If we truly believed in God, then there would be no need to add such passages or level the threat that disbelief is the one true sin, because disbelief in God would not exist.

    The bit about evolution is again a strawman and a false dichotomy. Strawman in that they get what Theory of Evolution is and says wrong, which stems from their scientific illiteracy, and the false dichotomy that if somehow evolution were disproven, that must mean the bible is true and God is real.

    If they only knew how utterly absurd and laughable their beliefs are to us, they’d probably quite trying so hard. I’ll always respect their right to believe whatever they want (as long as it isn’t harming anyone), and I’ll respect them as human beings, but I cannot respect their insane beliefs, especially when they allow those beliefs to inform their actions.

  70. rezistnzisfutlon 07 Jan 2013 at 6:47 pm

    @nybgrus

    If you haven’t already done so, check out Matt Dillahunty’s “Superiority of Secular Morality” series.

    What it comes down to for me is, even IF I believed in the christian god of the bible, I wouldn’t worship him for moral and ethical reasons. I’m better than that.

  71. tmac57on 07 Jan 2013 at 7:24 pm

    Philosofrenzy-

    You have to wonder how an intelligent man can honestly say things like that without hearing how absurd and terrible it sounds.

    Craig (and Zach) are two of the people I had in mind when I said that we should be careful that they NOT ever become atheists,for surely they will have no moral compass at that point, and are most likely very dangerous people who are projecting their inner ‘demons’ on to us.

  72. nybgruson 07 Jan 2013 at 7:37 pm

    If they only knew how utterly absurd and laughable their beliefs are to us, they’d probably quite trying so hard. I’ll always respect their right to believe whatever they want (as long as it isn’t harming anyone), and I’ll respect them as human beings, but I cannot respect their insane beliefs, especially when they allow those beliefs to inform their actions.

    I agree fully. Although sometimes I make myself laugh imagining some contrived movie scene where I am the fearless protagonist yelling at a hypothetical Congress about to pass thought-crime laws, “No damnit! This man deserves the right to believe in absolutely crazy and stupid $hit!”

    If you haven’t already done so, check out Matt Dillahunty’s “Superiority of Secular Morality” series.
    What it comes down to for me is, even IF I believed in the christian god of the bible, I wouldn’t worship him for moral and ethical reasons. I’m better than that.

    It sounds a lot like much of what Hitch has said in his debates and writings, and something I fully agree with as well. If you proved to me – to my own scientific satisfaction – that Yawheh of The Bible actually existed and was exactly as described in the book I still wouldn’t worship it.

    I liken it to the movie Independence Day. When faced with an overwhelming threat of death and eternal slavery, we don’t roll over and bow down… we fight damnit! It is such a common plot in movies I can’t fathom how no theist draws the parallel. Even if we talk about “creator” vs “magically or technologicall superior” (recall Arthur C. Clarke: Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic) there are heaps of movie plots revolving around righteous rebellion against unfit parents.

    No matter how you slice it the god and religion hypothesis fails and fails spectacularly. But as the other saying goes, if you are going to lie, lie big!

    As for Dillahunty – I have heard of him, have watched a bit of him, and absolutely respect him and his work. I just have enough on my plate that I don’t feel I can justify another rehash of the same stuff I’ve learned and read elsewhere. Nothing against Dillahunty – just that I happened to read others and have just about had my fill. After all, unlike science where there is always more to learn, religion gives us nothing new so once you learn all the arguments it becomes rote tedium.

    Craig (and Zach) are two of the people I had in mind when I said that we should be careful that they NOT ever become atheists,for surely they will have no moral compass at that point, and are most likely very dangerous people who are projecting their inner ‘demons’ on to us.

    Indeed. What a scary thought. Though I reckon that the deconversion would (most likely) be accompanied by an understanding of the humanistic underpinnings of why to deconvert as well. Though an abandonment of belief in isolation would be a truly frightening thought.

  73. HHCon 07 Jan 2013 at 7:39 pm

    So Steve, you don’t like the Old Testament book written about 5,773 years ago? Did you know that European and Americans claimed they were reading a New Testament during the years 1933 through 1945?

  74. Zachon 07 Jan 2013 at 8:19 pm

    RickK, nybgrus, Philosofrenzy, tmac57, and the others.

    If you are interested, Tim Keller deals with some of the issues I am trying to explain below. It’s his talk he gave at Google followed with a Q&A session. I’d really be interested to hear your critique of him – but bear in mind he realizes that some points he doesn’t have time to make properly and fairly, but he does acknowledge that to one of the questions that is brought to him. I like Keller, he huge into philosophy and history. Quotes from modern skeptics all the time and doesn’t demonize them. I really dislike it when Christians demonize anyone who doesn’t agree with them as evil Satan possessed banshees.

    Tim Keller at Google doing a talk
    (A bit longer – but good, especially the Q&A at the end.)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kxup3OS5ZhQ

    nybgrus
    “Not a peep from any of the theistic contingent we see here today.”

    Well, I’m not sure about IAmNotAnAtheist, but the only reason you are hearing a peep out of me on this is because an skeptic agnostic friend of mine pointed me here to read the article on the light travel problem. After I provided my thoughts in a critic he encouraged me to engage in a conversation with Steven directly. So here I am. I had never heard of Steven or this blog until now.

    Nybgrus said,
    “It truly is a challenge to figure out how to get the likes of the theists we have here to realize that the “facts” and “truths” and “accepted premises” they keep laying down are only accepted by those who have had it driven into their heads to do so unquestioningly and that to anyone rational – or even irrational but not of their faith – they make no sense, let alone can be accepted as axiomatic.”

    Well, I am not trying to be stubborn headed, I am convinced on what I am convinced on and so are you. We are in the process of dialog and trying to convince each other of our own views. If this isn’t your thing you don’t have to jump in, but I for one REALLY enjoy it. If it wasn’t for my skeptic/agnostic friend, I would not have the interest in these conversations I do today. Iron sharpness iron and all that sort of thing. So I enjoy these conversations – they can get a bit heated, but it’s a discipline to not confuse disagreement with stupidity and get frustrated over the fact that someone doesn’t agree with you. If someone doesn’t at least understand my point of view I strive to not get frustrated with them, but work at being a better communicator. Now if someone understands my view and disagrees, well that is what it is and is still usually profitable conversation.

    The best conversations are ones that are actual conversations – as opposed to games of “Gotcha”, which usually is what internet conversations turn into – hence why I am trying to shy away from commentators here who simply just want to argue and not have a friendly conversation.

    I hope that clarifies your concerns.

    Mufi,

    You said,
    “Sure, you can call this a “game” if you like. But, unlike in football, playing is not optional. It’s a game that we were all born to play and which society requires that we play in one version or another, whether we like it or not.”

    Hey Mufi, I didn’t mean to say that the conversation of morality is game – it was just an analogy that I tried to use that someone else used to help me once in the situation. If it doesn’t help with understanding my point, feel free to drop it. Analogies are hit or miss for a person.

    RickK

    Hey RickK,

    You said,
    “People with no experience of anything you’d call a God, Zach, still develop moral codes. Even other primate species demonstrate rudimentary moral behavior – fairness, reciprocity, etc. Do you deny this?”

    No, I do not deny this at all. Would be pretty silly of me if I did huh. But this is a good question.
    My point is not that without God people will have no morality, every person alive clearly has some moral system whether they articulated it.
    The point I have been seeking to drive home is whether you hold to a certain morality or not, without a foundation it is only a personal opinion – and I have major concerns that that is an explainable way to justify moral nature.

    You said,
    “Zach – what are you arguing? You keep criticizing Steve on the basis that not everybody agrees to a given society’s set of morals. So what?”

    This is another great question. I’ll try to explain it.
    My entire point sums up to this – how do we differentiate which moral system is right – and how do we decide our morals.
    Steven appeals to a sort romanticized appeal to the common good will of mankind to work together and to perfect this over time. I believe he is mistaken for several reasons. I don’t think logic and science can direct our morality to a foundational basis for deciphering right from wrong.

    Let’s take this point to the practical application of it. I have already broken Godwins law so I guess I will just continue to do so. The Nazi’s believed they were morally right for exterminating the weaker races. They were a very modernized and scientific culture, this is unfortunately true. So on what basis do we tell them to stop doing what they believe to be right?

    As a Christian I argue that all human beings are created in the image of God and therefore have inalienable human rights. Now as Steven has pointed out, he think’s that’s a bad foundation for human rights and morality since God kills people, etc. etc.
    The point is not that my view is correct – a point which comes around to be argued later, the point is that even though I might be wrong, I at least have a logical foundation in which to rest my morality on. You might argue that it is bad morality, or w/e, but it’s the foundation that is the point. My question to Steve is what is his foundation for deciphering right from wrong? I assert he doesn’t have one that can be rooted in logic. That is VERY different from saying he has no morality. Sure he can say he believes that humans should be treated fairly, but on what basis does he say that? I have provided my basis, though you disagree with it, you must replace it otherwise you enter the realm of subjective morality based on different competing logical fallacies. I.E. Ad Populum (majority rule), appeal to emotion, etc. etc.

    You said,
    “Do you think “God” is a solution to that? How many Christian sects are there? How many other versions of God and of religion? There’s a lot of people out there that think God will reward them for jihad against infidels – will yours?”

    Yes I believe God is a logical sound conclusion to that. Notice I did not say that God is the absolutely necessary conclusion for that – there is a difference. But at this point I simply would like Steven to provide another possible sound conclusion for morality that takes all the different claims of his world view into the picture without cherry picking the applications of that. For example, evolution thrives on survival of the fittest – it is necessary that the strong eat the weak. Now, Steven doesn’t like this when it happens among humans…. ok, neither do I, but what does it matter what I like or what Steven likes? Reality is reality whether we like it or agree with it. The universe is a very cruel place full of death – everything dies. So based off Steven’s world view (and I assert he is a philosophical naturalists) how does he account for the “ought” of reality when the “is” is all his world view can accommodate?

    You said,
    “There’s no question that inventing a divine authority as a sort of omnipotent “Big Brother” is a great way to get people to be more moral when nobody is looking.”

    Sure, but that’s largely not my point as i demonstrated above. it’s not directly about getting people to fall into line (the mistake Steven keeps charging me of, saying if I appeal to religion then I will violate religious freedoms), but it is about a logically sound foundation from which to assert the “ought” of morality.

    Daedakys2y

    You said,
    “NaA, I don’t need an authority to tell me that beating people to near death is immoral.”

    I agree with you. You can tell yourself that you simply don’t believe this is correct behavior, but then you will be left without a logically sound foundation from which you can charge that mankind “ought” to not mistreat other human beings. You can believe it as hard as you want, that’s the not issue. The issue is where do you get off telling another human their morality that is different that yours is wrong. As I said, I have no problem telling another human being this, because I believe my foundation (which is logically sound) allows me to fight for human rights regardless of whether the nazi’s agree with me or not. If you believe morals stem from logic and basically comes from a consensus (as Steven does), how do you logically justify that? I don’t see how you can.

    You said,
    “Applying the reasonable person criteria, and my empathy as a human being, I presume that servants being beaten such that they die in 2 days consider being so treated to be unacceptable and immoral. I presume that the servants being beaten to near death did not grant permission to be so beaten. It is not the presence of an authority that dictates that beating someone to near death is immoral to render such actions immoral, it is the lack of authority from the person being beaten that renders the action immoral.”

    Now, I have to ask and I’m really not trying to be obnoxious about this, but it is a serious question I have, what do you do if someone say the same thing back to you but believes the exact opposite? They could argue logically that mankind is nothing more than the result of blind chance and unbiased processes that have created him to be exactly as he “is”, so what’s with the “ought”? He could argue that he is an animal and he can do as he feels and pleases – this is logical, but repulsive to you and I, but what do you about it? How do you justify your views as superior to his? Some appeal to an idea of what’s best for humanity as a whole? He will likely respond that why should give a damn about society as a whole except for when it happens to suit his tastes and benefits?

    You said,
    “Your idea that an authority can authorize a behavior and by so doing it render it “moral” is called the “appeal to authority” fallacy when it applies to facts, it is no less a fallacy when it applies to moral actions.”

    I think this is wrong. Here’s why. I don’t believe God authorizes behavior one day to be moral, and the next day to be immoral at a whim/roll of the dice. I believe morality stems from the nature of God – I linked a pretty good article explaining how
    Euthyphro dilemma’s is a false dichotomy. If you get the time to read it, it might make my position a bit clearer.

    Autumnmonkey

    You said,
    “You’re analogy fails in respect to the difference between the OT and NT. A proper analogy would be: A 14 year old drives a car, he gets stoned to death. Two years later, the driving center says we’re not stoning people anymore; people of all ages can now drive. The rules AND morality have in fact arbitrarily changed whether you can see that or not. The change makes absolutely no sense. There’s a rational sense between forbidding a 14 year old from driving on the streets and allowing a trained 16 year old. There’s no sense in killing children and then saying we don’t do that anymore because of a mythical zombie.”

    I don’t think you are right here, I’ll explain why. As I stated before, I am not attempting to prove with this analogy that the morality of the Bible is correct (that’s a different conversation), I am attempting to show that the morality of the Old Testament and New Testament is not one of the options of the Euthyphro’s dilemma.

    You might not “like the morality of Yahweh, and to be honest much of the things he does I don’t like either, but unless I have some other objective standard from which to say, “X is wrong, it should be Y”, I am really just giving an emotional response which I admit is largely a part of my cultural preferences and raising.

    I think the analogy works very well once you understand the point I am trying to make with it. God is not inconsistent and he doesn’t change his moral nature. Are the rules somewhat different at different times, yeah, but that’s not a shift in moral nature, it’s a difference like the one I stated above with the driver’s license, or the rules of the house changing depending on your age. If my analogy doesn’t work for you, I urge you to check out the one Paul himself employed when speaking to Old Testament Jews who had the same concern you do. In Romans he talks about the law extensively and how Christ is the end of the law to all those who believe. I really don’t want be dismissive and pontificate here, but it really is a huge conversation to explain how the death of Christ fulfilled the requirements of the law. It’s complex, but just because it’s complex doesn’t mean it’s illogical.

    Let me know if you want more information on that. I hope that helps make my position more clear – even if you don’t accept it.

    Rezistnzisfutl

    You said,
    “Let me pose you this question: why is it that you don’t see atheists constantly in the news committing all sorts of horrific crimes? ”

    Do you have any evidence for this? Also, do you really buy into the Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens argument that religious basically causes all the problems in the world?

    I mean I agree with you, religion is a major vehicle of problems in our world. But where I would disagree is that it is the main or only cause. I assert that the problem is with mankind who uses his beliefs to feel superior to others and then justify their mistreatment of them. This is not a religious only process.

    You said,
    “The “authority” comes from a self-realization that I don’t want to live in a society where murder, stealing, raping, and pillaging are acceptable and expected.”

    If this is all morality truly is, what do you with societies who don’t agree on this? Kill them? (Might makes right).

    You said,
    “I love how you guys create the false dichotomy of theism v. evolution, as if they’re necessarily mutually exclusive. There are MANY theists who accept evolution.”

    I don’t think anyone did this. Tim Keller (my second favorite author who majored in philosophy) is an old earther who believes that God used different aspects of evolution. I linked his video above. I high nothing but respect for him.

    Gentlemen, would this help if I agreed that many atheists and agnostics are just as if not more moral as many “Christians”. I know Muslims who are much better persons/fathers than I am. Its really not a matter of which system allows you to be better at rule keeping.

    Now… if one of you would be so kind as to inform on how to do these fancy quotes that look so fancy.

    Zach

  75. HHCon 07 Jan 2013 at 9:16 pm

    Unfortunately, none here will understand the concept, I am that I am.

  76. rezistnzisfutlon 07 Jan 2013 at 9:20 pm

    “Do you have any evidence for this? Also, do you really buy into the Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens argument that religious basically causes all the problems in the world?”

    Why yes. According to 1997 Federal Bureau of Prisons Statistics, approximately 0.2% of respondents identified as atheist. The rest of the respondents replied that they have some sort of religious affiliation that includes theism.

    I’m not aware that Dawkins or Hitchens ever said that they believe ALL the problems of the world are caused by religion. I’ve heard this claim by many theists, and nearly always they are either quote mining or misquoting. If you have citations, please post them. I do believe religion causes more problems than it solves, that there are no things religion can do that can’t be done by secular means, and secular humanity can have all the good trappings of religion while abandoning many of the bad ones. So in that light, I do believe that secular humanity is better, and that religion causes a lot of problems.

    “I don’t think anyone did this. Tim Keller (my second favorite author who majored in philosophy) is an old earther who believes that God used different aspects of evolution. I linked his video above. I high nothing but respect for him.”

    ” ‘I believe that urge comes from God. Others may believe that urge comes from evolution…’ ”

    Even with your first statement, it’s still a false dichotomy. I’m glad that you acknowledge that there are theists who accept evolution (in some form at least). However, your statement that “I don’t think anyone did this” is refuted by the last quotation by NotAnAtheist, which you said you agreed with. So, while at least you acknowledge that many theists accept evolution, and that there are many evolutionary biologists who are also theists, there are MANY theists who do not accept evolution because of their religion (YEC). Are you telling me that you do accept evolution? And to put it out there, accepting only some of evolution and rejecting other aspects is not accepting evolution, because it’s not a piecemeal proposition. One of the basic arguments of YECs is to attempt to undermine and overthrow evolution, as if by doing so will make their theism true. So, instead of trying to support their argument that theism is true, they instead argue that evolution isn’t true. That is a false dichotomy.

  77. Peter T. Hansenon 07 Jan 2013 at 9:31 pm

    This isn’t supposed to be a deep philosophical comment where every word is “proven”, but..

    Every time I read Novellas posts and comments they just seem so straight forward and make sense logically and “emotionally”. Where I see a round hole, Novella has a round peg.

    However, every time I read Zack and Nat my brain almost hurts, much in the same was as when reading conspiracy theorists and CAM arguments. Everything seems upside-down. It seems they try to find (or create) any tiny crack in the argument and then give the crack and the original argument the same plausibility, without any self-criticism. Zacks comments don’t even provide me a square peg, but something of a whole different class of objects.

    Are peoples brains wired together in so different ways? Can we say something from a neuroscientific point of view about this?

    Best regards,
    Peter

  78. rezistnzisfutlon 07 Jan 2013 at 9:32 pm

    “Its really not a matter of which system allows you to be better at rule keeping. ”

    While it’s true that individual morality is, well, individual, how we govern societies is not. What I’ve seen here all along is you insisting that God exists, that absolute morality exists, that it comes from the abrahamic God of the bible, and that’s not only preferable, but demanded on the threat of hell, and that’s how everyone should live.

    There are numerous problems with this when it comes to how to morally behave. First, all of those listed above are unfalsifiable and unprovable – it’s your specific religious belief that not everyone shares. Secondly, there is no evidence that absolute morality exists. The history of humankind is evidence against any sort of absolute morality. Thirdly, even if you demonstrate that absolute morality exists, what does it consist of? You have yet to demonstrate that your abrahamic God exists and that what is written in the bible is what he says they are and that that is better than what we could come up with otherwise.

    The burden of proof is on you to demonstrate a) your specific abrahamic God exists, b) that biblical scripture is indeed his written word and how he desires for us to live today, and c) this is preferable to what we could come up with independently as humans.

  79. rezistnzisfutlon 07 Jan 2013 at 9:37 pm

    @Peter T. Hansen

    “Are peoples brains wired together in so different ways? Can we say something from a neuroscientific point of view about this?”

    I used to BE those guys in my younger days, a creationist. While I didn’t outright deny evolution and science (I didn’t know much about it at the time), I did believe that God created the world and humans in his image as they are.

    Since then, I’ve grown up and become an agnostic atheist. My brain is still the same, it’s just that I went through a long, and sometimes painful, process of uprooting my confirmation biases. My intelligence didn’t increase nor my brain chemistry change, I just got an education.

    Sorry for the personal anecdote, but to be fair, most atheists in America started out in some sort of theism, and what I’ve seen is that they too have had similar experiences.

  80. Zachon 07 Jan 2013 at 9:49 pm

    Hey rezistnzisfutl

    “Why yes. According to 1997 Federal Bureau of Prisons Statistics, approximately 0.2% of respondents identified as atheist. The rest of the respondents replied that they have some sort of religious affiliation that includes theism.”

    That’s a super narrow view of the question, and I doubt your atheist/agnostic friends would agree with you on this. It’s pretty bad cherry picking of data.

    You said,
    “Are you telling me that you do accept evolution? And to put it out there, accepting only some of evolution and rejecting other aspects is not accepting evolution, because it’s not a piecemeal proposition.”

    Part of the problem is that the definition of evolution is not universally agreed upon. Now I’m not even talking about YEC boys, I’m saying, I accept the aspects of micro evolution of course, but if one supposes that this implies that all creators trace back to a common ancestor then I will depart from evolution there.

    You might say that’s the same thing as rejecting all of evolution, but I don’t think that’s accurate or fair.

  81. rezistnzisfutlon 07 Jan 2013 at 9:51 pm

    @Zach

    “For example, evolution thrives on survival of the fittest – it is necessary that the strong eat the weak”

    This is NOT what Theory of Evolution says, nor what survival of the fittest means. Fitness does not mean that the strong necessarily prevail. It means that organisms tend to survive and flourish better than others that are the most fit to live in whatever niche they live in. The