Thursday, March 06, 2008

Naturalism and Nihilism

In an article based on his recently published book God and the New Atheism, theologian John Haught argues that the new atheism is just as bad as “the politically and culturally insipid kind of theism it claims to be ousting.” He says the new atheism is essentially faith-based, replacing faith in god with faith in scientism. It’s “creedal,” dogmatic, without a stiff cognitive spine, a “life-numbing religiosity…religiosity in a new guise.” It’s therefore epistemically and morally inferior to the theism Haught champions, which has no truck with faith, at least not the insipid, life-numbing kind. Haught’s belief in god is instead based in what he calls a “richer empiricism” which goes beyond science, as explained in his book Is Nature Enough?, reviewed here.

But is Haught being fair to tar atheism, and therefore naturalism, with the brush of religiosity and faith? Are naturalists creedal about scientism, which Haught defines as the idea that “science alone is a reliable road to true understanding of anything”? No. Naturalists don’t (or shouldn’t) suppose that all truths are scientific truths, only that science is our best guide to understanding the ultimate constituents of reality and the things they compose – the “furniture of the universe.” (More on distinguishing science from scientism is here, here and here.) Naturalists’ commitment to science in this regard isn’t a matter of faith, it’s based on experience – the widely shared experience that beliefs about the world based in science are generally more reliable than those that aren’t. If we want reliable beliefs, then it’s rational to stick with science, not a matter of faith. So it isn’t, as Haught says, self-contradictory to assert we shouldn’t base beliefs about the world on faith, but rather on science, since this assertion isn’t based on faith.

Haught takes the new “soft-core” atheists to task for accepting mainstream values and modern lifestyles, saying that they aren’t being true to the real implications of atheism. The old hard-core atheists such as Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre saw that “a full acceptance of the death of God would require an asceticism completely missing in the new atheistic formulas.” They would advise, as Haught puts it, that

If you're going to be an atheist, the most rugged version of godlessness demands complete consistency. Go all the way and think the business of atheism through to the bitter end. This means that before you get too comfortable with the godless world you long for, you will be required by the logic of any consistent skepticism to pass through the disorienting wilderness of nihilism. Do you have the courage to do that?

For Haught, true atheism and naturalism necessarily end up in nihilism. Since the new atheists obviously aren’t nihilists, being good bourgeois and all, they aren’t real, rugged atheists. He asks

Has [Sam] Harris really thought about what would happen if people adopted the hard-core atheist's belief that there is no transcendent basis for our moral valuations? What if people have the sense to ask whether Darwinian naturalism can provide a solid and enduring foundation for our truth claims and value judgments? Will a good science education make everyone simply decide to be good if the universe is inherently valueless and purposeless? At least the hard-core atheists tried to prepare their readers for the pointless world they would encounter if the death of God were taken seriously.

The equation of naturalism with nihilism is a standard scare tactic, but it doesn’t bear on the truth or plausibility of naturalism or theism. Even if Darwinian naturalism can’t provide “a solid and enduring foundation for our truth claims and value judgments” this isn’t proof that it’s false, or that god exists. It’s only a reason to hope god exists, on the questionable assumption that his authority provides a secure basis for moral values (see here).

It turns out, however, that the hard-core atheists (at least as Haught describes them) were wrong: an atheistic naturalism doesn’t end up in nihilism, so we needn’t run scared into the arms of god. Without a transcendent, theistic basis for our moral valuations, there are still compelling reasons for naturalists to be moral: we are animals whose flourishing within a society critically depends on behaving morally toward others. Moreover, we are built by evolution to take moral rules as universally binding (see here). This explains why the new atheists are just normal folk, not nihilists, when it comes to values and lifestyles: they, like pretty much everyone else, are moral by nature.

Haught closes with a question:

Belief in God or the practice of religion is not necessary in order for people to be highly moral beings. We can agree with soft-core atheists on this point. But the real question, which comes not from me but from the hard-core atheists, is: Can you rationally justify your unconditional adherence to timeless values without implicitly invoking the existence of God?
The answer, as we’ve seen, is an unequivocal yes. Of course it isn’t that naturalism avoids value conflict and moral ambiguity, but patently neither does theism, whether it’s what Haught considers the insipid, faith-based varieties, or the more "empirical" theological varieties. Since he admits that belief in god isn’t necessary for being moral, this puts naturalists and theists on at least an equal moral footing. That naturalists are not nihilists doesn’t implicitly invoke the existence of god, it’s simply evidence that morality is a natural phenomenon. As Dan Dennett would say, thank goodness!


Anonymous Jonathan Blake said...

I think the advocates for theism forget that while the universe taken as a whole might be amoral and purposeless, humanity definitely has purpose and a sense of what is good and bad behavior. Centering our morality on our own goals is more honest (how could we know the mind of God, if God existed?) and doesn't allow us the arrogance of absolutism.

Mar 7, 2008, 1:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
Humanity doesn't have a purpose- people do. The good of humanity is an aggregate of the goals of every person on this planet. Minor distinction, but it is important to keep track of it.

Mar 8, 2008, 11:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems to me that morals is about people getting along with people. Better to get along, than not get along!

Mar 28, 2008, 8:05:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Clark said...

Wih John Haught's permission, I'm reproducing a note to me, then a response to letters on his article.

Dear Tom,

Thanks so much for your comments. Unfortunately, because of demands on my time at the moment, the best I can do is refer you to my book and my response to letters in the Christian Century, including yours. I will just say that I agree with you that the naturalist's privileging of science, which even Dawkins is willing to call "scientism," is based on experience. I don't deny this. The question is whether it is *adequate* to experience. On top of this the fiduciary aspect of scientism also consists of the naturalist's believing in science's all-encompassing cognitional scope without being able to demonstrate this empirically. I have no problem with faith. I just want the new atheists to come clean about the faith aspect underlying their own world-view, so that they won't think of religious believers as so totally different from themselves. We are a believing species, and I *believe* that different kinds of belief require different kinds of justification. But much more needs to be said. . .

Thanks for your interest and concern. Best,


Haught's response to letters:

One of the perils of publishing a book excerpt is that it inevitably excludes much more than it can include. So my best response to the letters here is to invite their writers to read my book God and the New Atheism. They will find there, as well as elsewhere, that I am anything but an anti-evolutionist; that I do mention and comment on Bertrand Russell; that, contrary to Mr. Dawson, Richard Dawkins does use the term “scientism” to characterize his perspective on truth; and so on. Moreover, in neither the excerpt nor the book do I deny that atheists have values or that they can be deeply moral. Nor do I believe that most atheists, including hard-core atheists, or self-styled naturalists such as Mr. Clark, are de facto nihilists. I have never maintained anything of the sort.

However, it is theologically interesting, and worthy of ongoing discussion, that people who call themselves atheists or naturalists usually do surrender their lives to values that will outlive them, values that undoubtedly grace their lives with meaning and joy. If they object to my essay or book it is precisely because they are measuring my claims against what they take to be inviolable truth. But then what needs exploring is the ground of this inviolability. Contrary to what several respondents here have implied, there is nothing at all defensive about asking whether an explicitly atheistic world-view implicitly contradicts the uncompromising seriousness of the new atheists’ moral commitments and their instinctive devotion to truth. Believers and atheists alike do well to ask whether their formal world-views are in congruity with what actually goes on in their moral and cognitional lives.

My reason for bringing the hard-core atheists such as Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus into the discussion is that, unlike the new atheists, they too demand formal consistency: We should not carry on in our actual lives in a way that denies the logical implications of what we say with our philosophical lips. If you’re going to be an honest atheist go all the way. This means that if there is indeed no inviolable ground for what you take with absolute seriousness, then why do you take it so seriously? Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus actually tried to be consistent, but it didn’t work. The paradoxical fact that even the hard-core atheists cannot exorcise an unconditional seriousness from their own demand for consistency represents what theologian Schubert Ogden has rightly called “the strange witness of unbelief.”

Finally, at least to someone who has spent the larger part of his life teaching very bright undergraduates, the comments by Rev. Burciaga and Mr. Newsome about these young students seem both uninformed and condescending.

John F. Haught, Georgetown University

Mar 29, 2008, 8:53:00 AM  
Blogger Otis said...

I must respond to Kenonline. He said that "morals is about people getting along with people. Better to get along, than not get along!"

I will leave it up to the imagination to try to visualize what he would have done in order to "get along with people" if he had lived in Nazi Germany. From the point of view of naturalism, what other people are doing is all that he has as a guide.

In contrast to Kenonline, morality is making the right choices in spite of what everybody else is doing.

Now how are we to know what is 'right'. Will science tell us? Not a chance.


May 7, 2008, 12:01:00 PM  
Blogger Tobias said...

Tom, thanks for the link. I'm not going to attempt to address all of your assertions in the article, but I'll say that your summary idea that human morality can be easily explained as an evolved survival instinct suffers in the light of others' claims that humanity's war-like nature can be easily explained as an evolved survival instinct. So which is it, are humans moral because it promotes survival of the fittest, or is that why they're war-like? You can't have it both ways. And incidentally, the "hard-core atheists" were much more consistent in the application of their faith in acknowledging that it leads one logically to nihilism.

In regards to whether or not athiesm/naturalism qualifies as a faith, let's look at the surprising discovery of red blood cells and still-flexible blood vessels in dinosaur fossils a few years ago. Why was this surprising? Because the hemoglobin in the red blood cells should have broken down within thousands of years, but it was found in bones claimeded to be millions of years old. But what was the scientists reaction to this discovery? Did they question the evolutionary dogma that dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago? No, by a leap of blind faith, they assumed there must be some way to preserve hemoglobin for millions of years. These scientists demonstrated an amazing knack for ignoring the evidence against millions of years due to their creedal assertion that evolution requires those millions of years. And gives the lie to your claim that "Naturalists’ commitment to science in this regard isn’t a matter of faith, it’s based on experience – the widely shared experience that beliefs about the world based in science are generally more reliable than those that aren’t."

For more on the dinosaur red blood cells story, read this follow-up article that refutes claims that what was found was not actual hemoglobin and red blood cells.

Aug 6, 2008, 10:27:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Clark said...

Tobias, thanks for the comments.

1) Re explaining morality: Scientific naturalists suppose that *both* our cooperative, ethical inclinations and our war-like, competitive inclinations are evolved traits, each of which promoted survival in different sorts of situations.

2) Re naturalism as a faith: To disparage or belittle naturalism by calling it merely a faith is an interesting tactic on the part of those who espouse faith as a virtue. But in any case, we can agree that there’s a difference between faith (belief without evidence) and empirical science (belief backed up by intersubjective, public, reproducible evidence). Religion generally takes faith as its grounds for belief, naturalism takes science. That you appeal to an empirical claim about there really being hemoglobin in the dinosaur bones suggests that you agree evidence is a better ground for belief than faith, at least in this instance.

The vast preponderance of the evidence points to dinosaurs dying out millions of years ago. So it isn't a "blind leap of faith" to hypothesize that hemoglobin, if in fact it was present, was somehow preserved over millions of years. Rather it's normal scientific practice, which takes all the evidence into account when forming hypotheses.

Aug 6, 2008, 8:59:00 PM  
Blogger Tobias said...

I'll let you have the last word regarding moral living vs. war-like nature, though I do not concede your point. If I understand the concept of macro evolution properly, you can't have it both ways.

On the other account, though, I was not actually belittling faith. I was simply demonstrating how faith in naturalistic creeds leads scientists to presuppose millions of years, in spite of evidence to the contrary. The problem is, there's is only a "vast preponderance of the evidence" for the notion of millions of years when you decide to ignore or reinterpret the evidence against it.

Your assertion that faith is "belief without evidence" is preposterous. Perhaps what you meant is "blind faith", but it is disingenuous to equate faith and blind faith. Faith is belief, and must be based upon evidence. To believe something for which you have no evidence, or in spite of the evidence, is folly. Furthermore, I would submit that the cited dinosaur hemoglobin example does, in fact, amount to a leap of blind faith on the part of the scientists in question.

It turns out, you are setting up a false dichotomy when you pit faith against empirical science. They are not comparable. Essentially, what you’re asserting is that science is the only way we can know truth. This is a patently false notion. We can determine truth through logical reasoning, examination of history, or first-hand testimony, to name but a few examples. What’s more, science can in no way address questions of a metaphysical nature, as they are outside the realm of physical science.

In fact, Christians and Naturalists have the same empirical evidence – the world we see around us, experience through our senses, examine through the scientific method, and come to conclusions about using our reason & intellect. Christians base their faith, essentially, upon examination of the evidence in the Bible for the truth claims it holds. In addition, there is much extra-Biblical evidence that can be examined, including the historical records from New Testament time frame, modern archeological evidence and textual criticism, which all give good reasons to believe the Biblical accounts. However, that does not mean we disregard the empirical evidence from science. Instead, we examine the evidence and make logical conclusions about it that uphold the Bible, and we critically examine the conclusions derived by the secular scientists (which conclusions, generally, are biased in favor of naturalism due to their presuppositions). So, it's really a matter of presuppositions: Christians presuppose the Bible is correct, Naturalists presuppose millions of years and macro evolution, and interpret the evidence, and we each interpret the evidence consistent with our faith.

Aug 19, 2008, 11:52:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Clark said...


It’s good to know you put no stock in belief without evidence; we at least have that in common, along with reliance on logic and reason. But we continue to disagree over what finally constitutes grounds for reliable beliefs about what’s real, since you believe in what the Bible says, and I don’t.

Science gives us grounds for trustworthy beliefs since it doesn’t depend on hearsay, intuition, revelation, tradition or scriptural authority, all of which are notoriously unreliable. Instead it tests claims about reality empirically, using publicly available evidence in repeatable experiments and observations. In this way science insulates our claims about reality from the biases introduced by wishful thinking, psychological and perceptual distortions, myths, fables, etc. The Bible is a collection of purportedly factual claims about historical events, natural and supernatural, but skeptics like myself want to know why we should believe these claims. Why should we suppose they are reliable? Are there good grounds for thinking that the accounts in the Bible are accurate? To me, it seems like there are no such grounds, but you will disagree. For you, the Bible is just as secure a basis for belief about what’s real as science. As you say, Christians presuppose that the Bible is correct.

But is it? After all, you yourself look to sources outside the Bible to confirm what it says, so it seems in the end you *don’t* believe the Bible is an infallible source of truth on its own – it needs empirical back up by archeology, etc. If so, then you should stick with what the established scientific consensus has to say on the matter, and not simply cherry pick empirical findings that “uphold the Bible.” You can’t do honest science and presuppose any result, since to do so would be for your wishes and presuppositions to influence the findings.

You say that “Naturalists presuppose millions of years of macro-evolution” but this isn’t the case. It’s good, hard, honest *science* that has established the facts of biological evolution over the eons, based on methods of inquiry that specifically try to *eliminate* the influence of presuppositions and wishful thinking. Naturalists simply stick with the conclusions of established scientific theory, which of course are subject to change in the light of new evidence. We do so because science, not faith or religious tradition, is by far the most reliable route to an objective view of things, which is what we’re primarily after.

Aug 19, 2008, 10:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Eggbert said...

You respond with an “unequivocal yes” to Haught question about whether we can “rationally justify your unconditional adherence to timeless values without implicitly invoking the existence of God?”. But you don't demonstrate any such thing. Instead you mention how behaviour which we deem moral could have evolved because its adaptive (an I idea I hold too). But these behavioural traits are not the sorts of “timeless values” Haughts is concerned with. Your argument falls prey to Hume's fork. Further Nature, being a mindless entity, cannot logically provide us with any sort of moral imprimatur. How can simple, senseless particles and forces inform us of transcendental moral directives? You mention that “we are built by evolution to take moral rules as universally binding”, but just because we take these subjective moral rules to be universally binding it doesn't follow that they actually are (it doesn't get us from subjective to the objective). Haught is quite correct in his conclusion that atheistic naturalism considered seriously and honestly necessarily leads to Nihilism. It doesn't reflect well on atheists that we have to throw up such chaff to disregard and escape from the harsh implications of our worldview. There is most certainly a degree of cognitive dissonance going on in the minds' of many new atheists. This wouldn't be such a vice if most of new atheists (I call them cocktail party atheists) didn't lay such puffed up claims to being courageous freethinking skeptics following the treacherous trail of reason.

Sep 17, 2008, 5:25:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Clark said...


You’re right that the values atheists commit themselves to aren’t “transcendent moral directives” and hence not “timeless” in the sense Haught has in mind. But as evolved creatures we have the naturalistic equivalent: robust, ineradicable proto-moral dispositions that ground our sense of fairness and aversion to inflicting unnecessary harm. The moral imprimatur is carried within each of us as part of our biological endowment. It gets leveraged and shaped by culture to produce moral systems necessary for social life, hence these systems aren’t merely subjective, they are binding.

The idea of divine command isn’t necessary to back up moral systems, as evidenced by the fact that atheists don’t fall into nihilism. This isn’t chaff or brave talk, but simply the facts. An external, extra-human moral authority would only be binding on us if we *already* agreed that its values were more or less correct (“Thou shalt not kill”). But since we already agree, we don’t need its authority. Values are necessarily a function of creaturely motivations, so there’s no chance of us falling into nihilism, only of discovering ourselves in moral quandaries. Such is life.

Sep 19, 2008, 9:49:00 AM  
Blogger dandiacal said...

HI Tom:

I think the best critique of the new atheists comes from Chris Hedges in his new book: Hedges puts his finger on the progressivism and moral ceertainty at the heart of its project. Following Berlin, Neibuhr, and others, Hedges says the new atheists make the same mistake as theiststic fundamentalists: the assumption that history is moving in a unidirectional manner and that all knowledge is accumlative and moral progress quantifiable. While I am an atheist I do not share the political and moral certainty of the new atheists. ( A certainty that is ironic, given their reputation for being nihilist).

Nov 9, 2008, 4:17:00 AM  
Anonymous Ed LaBonte said...

The central idea of this Naturalism = Nihilism thing is that since nature is not driven by moral purpose, people who believe that there is nothing outside of nature must not be driven by moral purpose either. That's simply a non-sequitur. Why must we emulate the universe? At most it's a reason to be depressed about the world. I don't think it's possible for a non-comatose person to be a nihilist.

Dec 26, 2008, 1:16:00 PM  
Blogger Alberto said...

You guys, the adepts to these new labels composed of a mix of terms "humanists" "naturalist" "secular" etc seems as if you adhere to science without entering in their hard facts. You mention darwinism without bother into extract their consequences. In fact you take evolution as a theory when in fact the theory is Natural Selection, that evoques far more distress than "evolution" that is a descriptive, not an explicative term, and, as such, is neither an explanation nor invoque any fact except itself. That is what you exactly want to debunk the idea of a creator. You seems to adopt to evolution but your penetration into the consequences of natural selection are swallow. You regret on creationists not accepting evolution, but in this article, Only a creationist mention hard facts of natural selection. A few years ago, Dawkins was an enemy of the politically correct left for his defense of neodarwinism, and most of you agree with non darwinist explanations of evolution such are the lewontin-Gould Dialectic evolution and others, thinga have not changed too much except to admit in your naturalistic pantheon Darwin and its prophets, as personal authorities but without accepting the hard facts of the theory. It seems that the philosophy oriented naturalists as you practice a sort of sophistry mixed with cult to personality. If you are champions of science, I wonder why you do not enter in the hard, valueless facts and theories of natural selection to answer the only person here that has put in the table some facts of it, Tobias, a creationist. I regret my tome when I re-read this, but I need you to awake from your comfortable sophistry. Haught is rigth in the idea that you are soft core atheist. Camus or nietzche would have gone deep in the question if they had articulate theories of natural selection applied to humans at hand. You prefer to stay vague for your own sanity, but you do not agree with the high respect for science that you claim for yourselves in every first paragraph of every post when you argue such vague things like "moral is in our nature shaped by natural evolution" This is something that is not enough, and is not accurate. It´s not sicience. It´s not even philosophy. Period. In any case it is belief founded in interested interpretation of naturalistic scriptures of the fathers of xxxxx-naturalism, equally dishonests. You mix a personality cult with a set of candles in your virtual pantheon. the candles are phrases like the former about morality.

I´ll do the hard thing for you: What morality are you talking about? The morality of the founding fathers - all men are created equal? ... or...the morality of John Dillinger? (he never leaved their mates usupported. It was considered deeply moral by the members of his gang. Most of the conversatión in a mafia group is about moral issues: who was wrong on doing what, why is someone not worth confidence. Who needs a "lesson" to behave well next time, to demand friends to give back a favour by collaborating in the next bank assault etc.

Unfortunately for you, the moral that is deeply rooted in our human nature by natural-selection (NOT evolution) is the second, (not the "all men are created equal by evolution") and you know it in the deep. That´s the reason you don´t go deeper in the issue.

Dec 5, 2009, 8:40:00 AM  
Blogger Alberto said...

Our moral sense includes revenge, uncritical love for the tribal group, sectarianism, tribalism as such. It also includes friendship and fairness, but friendship can be in the context of helping a friend for the violation of a woman or planning anything else bad. Fairnes can be in the context of the distribution of a robbery lot. We have a strong innate sense of "we" and "others". We have envy deep in our nature. We self deceive about our moral virtues. We deceive other without even knowing it consiouslly. We reason with deep unconscious prejuices toward our own positions and interests. All of this does not become apparent if you don´t performa a nietzchian explotation on the implications of natural selection in a social, non clonal animal as we are. The exploration of MS in humans are So valueless that many especialist in NA like Dawkins, refuse to do. Or they answer that we "can choose" Really? Do we have self determination beyond naturalistic causes? good It´s good to know that you believe in men as more than matural things . You have your religion, and is respectable. But, please, if so, please leave others denominations live their lifes. And, please, stop calling yourselves naturalists and science champions.

If instead you want to live your preach, I recommend you to read something about evolutionary psychology, multilevel evolution, specially something about sloan wilson and Richard E. Michod, you will start to glimpse that cultural evolution is nothing but an integral part of the natural evolution, that natural selection is the theory that explains both and that the great religions are definitively a key in our depart from, and continuous keeping away from the small nepotistic alien psychopathic groups where we evolved as hominids and inherited our natural moral sense.

I recommend also to deeply understand the prisoner paradox, in game theory. You will know that belief beyond proof in some key assumptions is a condition sine qua not for the collaboration between selfish beings.

Please don´t take my comments as offensive. I think that, some rhetoric apart, there are much argumentation that can and must be taken seriously by you here.

Dec 5, 2009, 8:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I am an atheist, I know beyond every possible doubt that there is neither God nor afterlife.
I think that belief in God can not provide us with an objective morality, as shown clearly by these examples, which more generally illustrates the Euthyphro dilemma g : is something good just because God stipulated it is (in which case it is arbitrary, for God could state one ought to love ones foes as well as ordering the slaughter of the folks of Canaan. ) or did God ordered it because it is good (in which case there exists an objective standard of goodness independent of God) ?
However, I believe that the same challenge could be posed to any form of atheistic moral realism.
Over the past decades, numerous discoveries in neurology and evolutionary psychology have shown beyond any reasonable doubt that our moral intuitions ultimately stem from the shaping of our brain by evolution and that WITHOUT any such emotional intuition, no moral system can be built from reason alone.
This is well illustrated by the study of the brains of psychopaths: since they lack the moral emotions, they don’t consider as true most fundamental moral principles (like avoiding to create suffering, trying to promote the happiness of others) although they are quite able to reason well.
This shows the truth of David Hume’s famous principle that moral truths are the projection of our gut’s feelings on an indifferent and cruel reality : since one can not derive an “ought” from an “is”, moral truths are the expression of our emotions which we mistakenly consider as features of the objective reality.
No moral system can be created without the appeal to at least one kind of intuitions, the brute facts of nature never lead to moral duties and obligations.
Now, I want to state a version of the Euthyphro dilemma which shows the impossibility of defining an objective atheistic morality: is something good just because Evolution hardwired this conviction into us (in which case it is arbitrary, for Evolution could have lead us to believe that murder and torture are right ) or did Evolution produce our current beliefs because they are good (in which case there exists an objective standard of goodness independent of Evolution) ?

Jan 13, 2010, 1:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let me now develop the first point: there is an extremely great number (perhaps even an infinity) of planets where intelligent beings like us could have evolved. Given the huge dimension of the sample, it is more than likely that many such intelligent beings have evolved conceptions of morality which would appear completely disgusting to us.
Imagine for example a species of giant lizards ( or whatever else if you’ve more imagination than I who were shaped by natural selection to value power, violence , selfishness in so far that it remains compatible with the interests of the group. When invading a city and killing or enslaving all its inhabitants, their brain generate a warm feeling of happiness, satisfaction.
When however confronted with weakness among their own folk, they feel an overwhelming indignation, anger, rage which lead them to kill the individual guilty of failure , and after having done that, their brain awards them with an intense feeling of pleasure.
Now imagine such beings arrive at our earth and conclude based on their evolutionary intuitions that it would be moral and perfectly good to enslave all human beings capable of working and to kill all others.
What would an human atheist and moral realist say to these lizards? Do they ought to behave in a way coherent with the moral intuitions they have and slaughter or enslave all humans ?
My contention is that it would be completely impossible to show to these creatures that killing innocent beings is wrong: all moral systems developed by humans which would justify this conclusion can not be deduced from the mere consideration of natural facts , they all crucially depend on one or several moral intuitions , which are not shared by the intelligent lizards, so there would be no common ground upon which one could argue that something is right or wrong.
Now, a defender of godless moral realism could agree with me it is fallacious to rely on evolution to define an objective morality in the same way it would be fallacious to rely on the commandments of a deity. But he could then argue that there exists a moral standard independent of Evolution upon which moral realism would be based.

Jan 13, 2010, 1:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem of this argument is the following:
As I have said, no moral system can be grounded by mere logic or factual analysis alone, at some point moral intuitions (due to Evolution) are always going to come into play.
Take for example the possibility of torturing a baby just for fun: almost every human being would react with disgust and say it is wrong. Neuroscience has proven that such reaction does not stem from a rational consideration of all facts but rather from instinctive gut feelings.
Afterwards, people try to rationalize their belief by backing them up with arguments and mistakenly think they feel this disgust because of their reasoning although it is the other way around.
Based on rigorous experiments in the field of neuroscience, Jonathan Haidt shows that in the case of moral reasoning, people always begin by getting a strong emotional reaction, and only seek a posteriori to justify this reaction. He has named this phenomenon ‘the emotional dog and its rational tail’:
And since one can not derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, there is no way to prove that ‘one ought to not torture a baby for the fun’ by a reasoning based on fact alone, at one moment or an other , one is forced to appeal to emotions.
For example, saying to a intelligent lizard they ought no to do that because the baby is cute, because he is innocent, because he has an entire life before him would completely beg the question for our intelligent alien, which would then ask: “why does the baby’s beauty, innocence, or the fact he has still many years to live implies one ought not to kill the baby ?”. After one or two hours of circular reasoning, the honest human would be coerced to recognize it is so because these things sounds intuitively bad for him.

Jan 13, 2010, 1:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Concerning the objectivity of morality, I am neither a moral relativist nor a moral subjectivist but a proponent of an error theory: moral statements and truths are in fact nothing more than the products of our emotional intuitions , but because of the hard-wiring of our brain, we erroneously believe they correspond to some external facts of the objective reality and try to derive them from pure natural facts, committing the is/ought fallacy.
For those interested in the line of thinking presented here, I highly recommend you to read Joshua Greene’s dissertation, where he clearly demonstrates the true nature of morality and develops a coherent error-theory.
To conclude, although I am not a moral realist, I do think there is a place for ethic in each human life.
But instead of using moral absolutes such as “good”, “evil”, “right”, “wrong”, “ought”, “ought not”, referring to spooky concepts whose existence is as likely as the presence of an invisible yellow unicorn on the surface of Mars, I prefer to employ the language of desires, which correspond to indisputable facts:
We, as human being, love infant life and desire baby to growth and become happy, therefore if we want our desires to be fulfilled, then we ought not to torture babies for the fun. Contrarily to moral realism, the ‘ought’ I have used here is hypothetical and not categorical.
In the same way, I can not say the atrocities we find in the Old Testament are objectively wrong, because I don’t believe in the existence of such moral absolutes, but I can express my convictions in the following manner: if we want our intuitive feelings of love, justice and charity to be respected, then we ought to reject many books of the Old Testament as being pieces of barbaric non-senses.
The traditional moral discourse “The God of the Bible is morally wrong, we ought to fight Christianity, we are morally good whereas religious people and so on and so forth” seems to me to be completely flawed because it involves the existence of spooky moral absolutes which have no place in a scientific view of the world.
I really appreciate the critical thinking of my fellow atheists when applied to religion but I am really sad to remark they fail to apply it to their own cherished beliefs like the existence of an objective morality.

Jan 13, 2010, 1:52:00 PM  
Blogger Alberto said...


To summarize my previous two post in relation with yours:

For me, the intelligent lizars are identical to human beings void of civilizational influence. The nazis are close to intelligent lizars and to primitive, tribal human beings.

We are just intelligent lizrars after centuries of social evolution. the notion of "all beings are equal" is neiter a fact of nature nor a notion of our natural evolutionarily shaped morality. It is a cultural fact that we learn at childhood from our cultural heritage. And , in moral matters, this heritage is almost entirely the result of inherited religious thinking and religious beliefs.

Oct 27, 2010, 6:55:00 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home