The Humanist

TL;DR: Secular humanism can’t adequately ground objective moral values. If moral values are to be drawn solely from what we observe in nature, then they would need to align with the observed “ultimate purpose” of our universe…that is, heat death.

Bronze age tripe, that’s all it is
The scribblings of a goatherd
To call this tome a “holy book”
One must be quite the dotard
It’s full of nonsense, myths and lies
I hear it calls for slavery
My plain contempt can’t be disguised
Free Thought takes much more bravery

Free Thought, you say?
Do tell me more
You really have intrigued me
A system without creeds, you say?
No room for touchy-feely?

That’s right, he smirked
I need no God
My reason is sufficient
The Scientific Method guides my path (and it’s sufficient)
I draw my morals from within
Human nature never fails me
Deep down inside all men are good
And frankly,
Blind faith scares me

Blind faith, you say?
That’s not unique
To buildings with a steeple
Surely, then, you have a way
To ground your faith in people?

My faith in mankind needs no grounding
Surely you can see so
Empathy
Kindness
These things are Good!
Everyone agrees, no?

Not everyone
Said I to he
Though that would make me merry
The problem with your view, you see
And not to be contrary
Is that the virtues which you cite
Come off as arbitrary
You say that we’re the product of a mindless game of chance
Our fleeting lives in tune with Nature’s odd and wondrous dance
Yet if you think this through, sir, and use science as your guide
Then ought not moral virtues work toward Nature’s sure death slide?

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14 thoughts on “The Humanist

  1. You know, I have to say, you’re a very smart guy, and I frequently read your posts, but honestly you always overestimate the stance of the atheist/agnostic/naturalist. It’s very often the case that we “deny” a god because we can’t prove it, not because it doesn’t make sense. We are comfortable with not knowing, and we deny the existence of the Christian god only because we are pressed to do so by people like yourself. I mean no offense when I say this, but I think we can agree that for every Dawkins, there are twenty people who are his antithesis. Neither of them does any good for humanity at large, they simply propagate the current polarization and intolerance that exists between the major religions and atheism.

    In many ways the existence of a creator of some sort – some overarching being which symbolises that which is perfect – is very much a valid hypothesis, even for most atheists. The problems arise when you start taking seriously man’s interpretation of this perfection or the physical manifestations of it on Earth. Just recently I’ve been reading up on the life of Gandhi, and to be honest, if he had not specifically said that he was not a religious figure, everyone would have thought of him as such. In many ways, his teachings align with those of every major religious figure, and if we had been in a time of relative ignorance (for instance, ~2000 years ago in Galilee) he could’ve easily been another Jesus, Muhammad, or Buddha.

    You really do make some good arguments, but I truly wonder sometimes whether you’re aware of the validity of these other systems of thought. Christianity is, at its essence, no more valid than any metaphysical system of thought as all of them conform to reason while simultaneously satisfying the intrinsic need of man to be more than a physical entity.

    • I actually agree with much of what you say – just not the conclusions, haha. I agree, for example, that many different systems of thought have valuable things to say. I just wouldn’t say that they’re equally valid. There can really only be a single, objectively true explanation for our universe (and our place in it). I’m not a Christian because I think it offers great (or even “the best”) advice on how to live, but because I believe that the explanation that it offers for our existence is objectively true.

  2. “Secular humanism can’t adequately ground objective moral values.”

    That misrepresented word ‘objective’ again.

    If by ‘objective’ you mean some absolute objective existence of morality, either ‘out there’ in the universe, independent of human beings, something that is to be discovered in the universe, or perhaps ‘objective’ in the sense of being objectively observably determined by God, then quite right, humanist morals are not grounded in that objectivity.

    But neither are your morals. You only possibly think and claim they are; but such claims are no more than unsubstantiated assertions.

    But morals are ‘adequately’ grounded, and objectively, in two main sets of evidence: one that shows that we are evolved animals, and that other animals have what can be considered precursors to human moral feelings; and the other that shows that human morals are advanced conceptual adaptations of such feelings and behaviours into cultural rules that aid the smooth flowing of society, more or less.

    “If moral values are to be drawn solely from what we observe in nature, then they would need to align with the observed “ultimate purpose” of our universe…that is, heat death.”

    Quite right. And they are. When all humans have gone from this earth, then so too will all morals, for there will be no need for them – unless of course some other species develops to an extent that they acquire intelligence and culture enough to develop morals that seem to go beyond their biological beginnings. And when all animal life has gone, then there won’t even be the prospect of biological precursors.

    Morals will be gone from this planet entirely long before the heat death of the universe: when the sun engulfs this planet.

    But then humans, or their descendant species, or some other replacement Earthly species, might escape this planet before that. And there might be other forms of life that have some similar behavioural rules that we might recognise as morals – though they might be quite different. The only reason killing is immoral, to humans, is that humans generally don’t like to be on the receiving end, and generally have sufficient empathy to not like to see others on the receiving end – though ‘objectively’ and observationally this clearly isn’t a strict rule.

    There’s no reason to suppose many of the behaviours we see in animals yet would deplore in ourselves are not just fine and dandy for some other intelligent species: cannibalism, eating one’s mate after coupling, infanticide of a new mate’s children by another. Empathy and altruism seem to be biologically favourable in some cases, but not always. Why should morals not adapt to the biology of whatever species might evolve anywhere else in the universe?

    “A system without creeds, you say? No room for touchy-feely?”

    Without unsubstantiated scriptural rules? Yes. But plenty of room for rules, and for touchy-feely. You really think atheists don’t love their partners, friends and family? This is bizarre propaganda. It reminds me of an anecdote from my mother. In WWII she was a young girl who heard all sorts of expressions about the ‘monster’ Nazis, and took it a too literally. When a German plane was shot down she imagined some grotesque creature would emerge. Instead, a very young very handsome pilot climbed out of the wreckage. Atheists seem to be the imagined monsters of many theists. It really is quite pathetic.

    Your poem fails also in the distinction between blind faith and trust. The blind faith of religion really is blind. There is no evidence to support religious faith. The trust in science, in human behaviour generally, is one earned or lost as we learn to travel the path of life. Sometimes we’re over-trusting, and learn the hard way; and sometimes we’re over sceptical and learn to our delight that science can deliver new and useful knowledge. But remaining moderately sceptical allows us to continue to adapt to what we learn.

    This adaptation is no different that when many Christians trusted the many ministers of faith that have betrayed that trust. Humans learn to trust people, or not. Scientists are people. We learn to trust them or not through their behaviour. We learn to trust their results in as much as they are shown to be useful and consistently right. And scientists lose our trust when the cheat, and we stop using a scientific result that is shown out be wrong, or we adapt our use to a more refined understanding.

    All this is quite natural behaviour for humans. It’s religious blind faith, the insistence in believing no matter what, that is the rather odd behaviour for an adaptive evolved species.

    “Human nature never fails me. Deep down inside all men are good. … Surely you can see so Empathy, Kindness. These things are Good!”

    Straw man. No sensible atheist thinks this. If anything it’s something you’d hear from the overly romantic religious that have ‘faith’ in human beings. To atheists that understand evolution we know that we are adapted animals with intelligence and advanced culture; but we still have many animal behaviours (that we have come to label as moral flaws). We have brains that are varied, both across individuals and even within an individual over time and environment. Sociopathy stems from a brain condition where empathy is not strong; and environmental conditions can either encourage such a brain to be a killer, or merely a user of people. We are a varied species and varied individuals. It would be stupid to think ‘all men are good’. This is why the religious notions of ‘objective’ morality are such hopeless notions – ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are labels for what we like or don’t like. And, given our variety, that’s why one man’s good can be another’s evil.

    “Is that the virtues which you cite come off as arbitrary.”

    That’s an excellent point! In the scope of the universe, in terms of the planet Earth, human morals are arbitrary. They could have been otherwise – as I expressed when considering alien morals. So, yes, in that sense they are arbitrary. But within the context of humans here on Earth our morals are objectively grounded in biology and in cultural development – albeit variable in accordance with the variety of human biology and cultural diversity.

    “You say that we’re the product of a mindless game of chance.”

    You are forgetting Natural Selection – as theists who make this point usually do. The failure to grasp how this works is the cause of your misunderstanding.

    “Then ought not moral virtues work toward Nature’s sure death slide?”

    Eventually, yes. But you then also fail to understand the second law of thermodynamics fully. While the system as a whole heads towards the heat death there is plenty of room for momentary spikes in complexity. Just think of the waves on the ocean. A simplistic understanding of water would say it always levels out, falls flat into a glass-like surface; but we know that other forces external to the water can whip it up into waves that overcome gravity. The immense power of the Sun, as it itself unwinds, heading for its own death, drives all life on Earth.

    We are not merely random events, but events driven by the power of the Sun. The power that drives the planet, that causes oceans and land plates to move and react started chemical reactions that didn’t simply fizzle out. One replication starts it seems difficult to stop. When complex objects emerge and change some survive and some don’t. The complexity of life and evolution are understood in part. We have yet to discover a good model for why this is so, why complex systems behave such as they do.

    But the God of the Gaps isn’t a good answer. It’s an answer from ignorance, and argument from incredulity, and ancient myth. The current religious stories have no more credibility than those of the Egyptians. At least some ancient religions guessed right in admiring the power of the Sun and the Moon. Their mistake was to attribute human characters to them, to anthropomorphise.

    That’s all you are doing in your religion: anthropomorphising the cause of the universe, as some entity that is vaguely modelled on humans, minus the human frailties. It’s pure fantasy.

    This post demonstrates a gross failure to understand evolution, natural selection, the second law of thermodynamics, and even secularism.

    I think your (mistaken) points here are really aimed at atheist humanists, which is what Humanists generally are. Secular Humanists are Humanists (atheist humanists) that are also secularists, which means they accept that their views are not grounded in absolute beliefs, in faiths, and so acknowledge that as crazy as religious ideas are there is no absolute proof they are wrong.

    As such, secularists acknowledge that it is sensible not to discriminate against other belief systems. Many religious people are also secularists, because although they happen to put personal faith in their beliefs they acknowledge their own fallibility and possibility of being wrong. I have many Christian acquaintances that would laugh at your portrayal of Humanists here.

    So, in all, a bit of a disastrous post.

    • “There’s no reason to suppose many of the behaviours we see in animals yet would deplore in ourselves are not just fine and dandy for some other intelligent species: cannibalism, eating one’s mate after coupling, infanticide of a new mate’s children by another. Empathy and altruism seem to be biologically favourable in some cases, but not always. Why should morals not adapt to the biology of whatever species might evolve anywhere else in the universe?”

      See, I find this kind of biologically-grounded morality appalling. Even if I *thought* it were the only legitimate system of morality (which I obviously don’t), I would honestly prefer to live in self-deception. See #1 from this article: http://www.shenvi.org/Essays/ThreeParadoxes.htm

      “You really think atheists don’t love their partners, friends and family?”

      Uh…no. That’s not a very generous interpretation. I was referring here strictly to the “free thought” system of determining morality based upon mere observation.

      “You are forgetting Natural Selection – as theists who make this point usually do.”

      Does natural selection have a “mind”? No? Then it’s mindless. That doesn’t mean “random”…just “mindless”, undirected by any kind of intelligent, causative agent.

      “The failure to grasp how this works is the cause of your misunderstanding.”

      I’m actually a PhD candidate in molecular genetics, so I’m very familiar with how natural selection works.

      “But you then also fail to understand the second law of thermodynamics fully. While the system as a whole heads towards the heat death there is plenty of room for momentary spikes in complexity.”

      Stay tuned for my next post.

      “So, in all, a bit of a disastrous post.”

      Well…at least it’s only “a bit” disastrous. I think that’s an improvement over your past evaluations. 😀

  3. Matt,

    “See, I find this kind of biologically-grounded morality appalling.”

    I would think it far more appalling if there were actually a God who had anything at all to do with the way humans behave. If there really was good and evil then I would see God as an evil God for allowing so much evil. The naturalistic perspective is quite indifferent to the causes of human behaviour, but only observes how the world, and we animals, work. But then, acknowledging our animal and cultural history we can consciously decide which moral codes we value. This seems entirely a natural and common sense thing to do – and seems just how in fact we all do it, even the religious – see below.

    “Even if I *thought* it were the only legitimate system of morality (which I obviously don’t), I would honestly prefer to live in self-deception.”

    That sounds like outrageous dishonesty; the sort that appeasers of Hitler indulged in; denying facts because you don’t like them.

    If we are stuck with the inconvenient brute fact that our morality has a biological source and a cultural development, then this is a mere fact of life with no moral implication of its own. There is no more inherent immorality in the fact of biologically sourced human morality that there is in the fact of gravity. That’s just the way the world works. If there is this natural morality then there’s no use bleating about it just because you don’t like it. Far better to get on with it, try to understand it, take advantage of our biology, in this case our empathy, and make it work for us.

    Of course I think you do live in self-deception, for this very reason: you cannot come to terms with the natural nature of the world, and of humans as natural components of it. Do you have this same distaste for every natural aspect of the world? Do you attribute ‘evil’ to tornados or volcanos or other natural disasters? Many superstitious people once did. It seems that the last remaining superstition for the modern theist is the sin of humanity born out of the myth of the supernatural and the fear of the appalling prospects of the natural world.

    But the natural it seems appalling only if you buy into the delusion of religion and its myths. Discovering how the world works, including human biology and its sources of our morality, has its own beauty. It’s inspiring to think that humans have the capacity to derive so much good from what is an indifferent world. We live in a co-evolved environment just a few meters in depth. We cannot survive naturally outside our limited environment on this earth. Most of the earth, and all the rest of the universe we have discovered so far is entirely and indifferently inhospitable to us. These are observable facts. The ancients who though this thin atmosphere was the whole of the natural universe had some excuse for thinking the world special, designed for us. Any modern observer is struck by the fact that it is not.

    Whatever was the reproductive benefit that resulted in a praying mantis biting off the head of its mate, it’s quite possible that this is now non-beneficial behaviour. But the praying mantis has no intellectual capacity to consider the suffering of its mate. It probably has nothing corresponding to empathy toward its mate, that it might have towards its offspring. But humans have both empathy, which, acted upon by reason, allows us to project suffering, and dislike it, so that we generally do not want to inflict it. Humans have an intellectual capacity that allows them to reason, even if somewhat fallibly, about their behaviour, and to construct moral codes.

    But again, this is not universally the case, in that many human brains lack sufficient empathy to cause emotional distress at the suffering of others. All this makes for a quite consistent correspondence between the morality, that we observe humans conforming to, and the biology and culture, that we observe – the variety of behaviour is quite consistent with this. What the religious observe, regarding morality, are very simplistic stories, of kinds that vary somewhat from one religious sect to another, but which are not consistent at all.

    “Does natural selection have a “mind”? No? Then it’s mindless. That doesn’t mean “random”…just “mindless”, undirected by any kind of intelligent, causative agent.”

    But regarding the, “That doesn’t mean ‘random’ …”, in your poem you expressed only the mindless game of chance:

    “You say that we’re the product of a mindless game of chance”

    Here the word ‘mindless’ is qualifying the term ‘game of chance’, which is randomness. In evolution the various changes are considered to be random, in that it is difficult to determine them: they are statistically random, generally indeterminate of any pattern (except when we do find patterns, as with some diseases). Some may be very specific – such as a copying error in the replication DNA process, or an error in the production of proteins; but they are considered random, as in a game of chance.

    But once those changes have occurred they have consequences for the organism; and those consequences, in the current environment, may be detrimental, neutral, or beneficial, with regard to the process of reproduction. If such changes are inherited by surviving offspring and go on to alter the chances of their reproductive success in turn, in their environment, then the organism (that group) has micro-evolved. Eventually there will be a tendency for beneficial changes to spread in the population, in that more of those individuals carrying the change will tend to succeed in reproduction. Over time, and typically with some separation of groups, you get evolution into distinct species. In this regard I have made the point before: if each woman could hold hands with her mother, back in time, there would be an endless chain where each child is the same species as the mother, any yet over long enough parts of the chain one woman would be a different species than a distant ancestor. This is the aspect of evolution you are missing.

    So, it’s both these aspects of evolution together that cause changes to species. It’s not *only* a mindless game of chance, but a mindless game of chance, and a mindless and natural selective process leading to difference in species. But mindless it surely is, for there is no evidence of intervention.

    “I was referring here strictly to the “free thought” system of determining morality based upon mere observation.”

    But that’s what we all do. You do it by determining morality by the observation of the scriptures of some ancient religion, predominantly codified in an ancient book(s), and as interpreted by whatever your predominant authority is – the Pope for many Roman Catholics. That you attribute some specialness to this source does not alter the fact that you are determining morality based upon mere observation.

    “I’m actually a PhD candidate in molecular genetics, so I’m very familiar with how natural selection works.”

    Molecular genetics is a very specific science about how genes work now. I’m sure you can get by ignoring many other facts of science if so motivated. A molecular biologist need not buy into evolution (the connected chain leading to different species) – as indeed some Intelligent Design biologists don’t. But that makes me wonder how you can accept so many aspects of science, as you must in order to do your work, and yet portray evolution merely as ‘a mindless game of chance’. What makes you think your religious beliefs are immune from scepticism, investigation, rational argument? Why would you neglect to tell the full story and misrepresent evolution by such an oversight?

    • “I would think it far more appalling if there were actually a God who had anything at all to do with the way humans behave. If there really was good and evil then I would see God as an evil God for allowing so much evil.”

      But what is “evil”? How would you define it?

      https://wellspentjourney.wordpress.com/2012/01/03/concerning-the-problem-of-evil/

      “But then, acknowledging our animal and cultural history we can consciously decide which moral codes we value.”

      So is morality a matter of personal preference, then? Can we shed the notion that “child rape is morally wrong” like a species might shed its feathers? Again, I can only describe this perspective as appalling.

      “That sounds like outrageous dishonesty; the sort that appeasers of Hitler indulged in; denying facts because you don’t like them.”

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin's_law

      But anyway, here’s the point I was trying to make (taken from the Shenvi link): “Most atheistic theories of morality appeal to human flourishing as the ultimate good. On this view, what is good is whatever leads to human flourishing. And while that definition does solve some problems, it leads to the very difficult conclusion that truth and truth-seeking are not ultimate goods. Indeed, if seeking the truth on any given subject would diminish human flourishing, then seeking that truth would be evil; we would be morally obligated to avoid or suppress knowledge of that truth. A simple example is an elderly Christian woman on her deathbed who faces death joyfully because she believes she is going to be with God and her dead loved ones. Assuming for the sake of argument that atheism is true, is it good for her to seek to know the truth of atheism? It would seem that the answer is no. Learning that atheism is true would only make her miserable without providing tangible good (i.e. flourishing) to anyone else. Moreover, it seems that if she were to accost a passing atheist with the question “Is atheism true after all?”, that atheist would be morally obligated either to lie to her or at least to steer her away from the truth of atheism, lest he lead her into misery.

      Examples can be easily multiplied, but the essence of the problem is that no atheist can claim that truth-seeking is an intrinsic good or a moral obligation. As a Christian, I can affirm that truth is good and morally obligatory because God loves the truth and commands us to seek it. But if an atheist were to urge me to throw off my religious delusions and embrace the truth of atheism, I would respond “Why? I am happy as a Christian and Christianity has made me into a more loving, compassionate, and generous person. If Christianity is true, then I understand why I am obligated to seek the truth. But if atheism is true, why am I obligated to find out?”

      “So, it’s both these aspects of evolution together that cause changes to species. It’s not *only* a mindless game of chance, but a mindless game of chance, and a mindless and natural selective process leading to difference in species.”

      The poem said nothing about evolution. I’m happy to concede that evolution is non-random (as I stated previously)…but that doesn’t change the fact that our universe’s *mere existence* – on the atheist’s view – must be a matter of sheer, mindless chance. So whatever happens *after* that event is irrelevant, as far as the poem is concerned. If random chance produces system X, which then goes on to produce entity Y via non-random processes (evolution, for example), then that doesn’t change the fact that entity Y is the product of random chance…because entity Y could only exist within system X…which is itself the product of random chance.

      “That you attribute some specialness to this source does not alter the fact that you are determining morality based upon mere observation.”

      From the atheist’s perspective, sure. From my perspective, the source *is* special. I think you might be confusing ontology and epistemology here. For the theist, moral absolutes *do exist* – even if our *knowledge* of those moral absolutes might be flawed (being based upon observation, and all).

      “Molecular genetics is a very specific science about how genes work now. I’m sure you can get by ignoring many other facts of science if so motivated.”

      That’s fair enough. I’ll grant you that I only have a basic working knowledge of population genetics, for example, since my work is more molecular in nature. On a technical level, though, I do have some squabbles with how you portray evolution – as if natural selection somehow implies that we have an “answer” for how non-life could produce the biological complexity that we observe today, with no intelligent agent necessary.

      “What makes you think your religious beliefs are immune from scepticism, investigation, rational argument? Why would you neglect to tell the full story and misrepresent evolution by such an oversight?”

      You’re not trolling, are you? I think you must be trolling here.

      I will say, though, that as I’ve progressed in my career in science, my religious faith has been profoundly strengthened by what I’ve learned.

  4. Matt,

    “But what is “evil”? How would you define it?”

    From my perspective ‘evil’ is a label we apply to human behaviours we don’t like. It can be, and has been, attributed to animals and natural events, by conflating it with ‘suffering’, in that anything that causes suffering is ‘evil’. Extending this notion, and looking for absolute sources of good and evil, is why I think the religious mistakenly attribute both good and evil with some external objective reality. But really, good and evil are human contextual labels for human behaviours we like or dislike.

    In “…I would see God as an evil God for allowing so much evil.” I was throwing your use of the term back at you. If there really were some universal measure of evil, then God’s allowing humans to behave, as he does if he exists, is in itself an evil act by that measure.

    From your link to your discussion: “What about free will?” Yes, what about it. It’s not at all clear we have it at all, and there’s no evidence we have it to any extent that is religiously meaningful. Not that there’s any evidence for God, so that makes the free will problem one that is independent of any God.

    And, “I sometimes think of evil as being “the absence of God”.” This is rather a convenient definitional escape that involves a larger circular argument that still presupposes a God without any reason to do so. Plantinga is a self-declared presuppositionalist, but never gives any explanation for his presupposition other than convenience – the convenience of supporting his other assertions.

    “So is morality a matter of personal preference, then?”

    Yes, driven by biological empathy, cultural development, pesonal education. Sociopaths have no personal preference for being moral towards others, other than personal benefit, because their biology predisposes them against empathetic responses to other humans. They can rationalise what is required to appear moral, and can manipulate people without any remorse. Yes, it’s all personal preference. You prefer to rely on Christian scripture.

    “Can we shed the notion that “child rape is morally wrong” like a species might shed its feathers?”

    Possibly – but it would depend on how a natural evolutionary change might play out; and since it’s unguided we’d just have to wait and see. But on consideration I’d say it is something that could be learned quite easily, with only minor biological changes. In some cultures arranged marriages to children amount to rape by cultural norm – or rather we would classify it as rape and child abuse. On the other hand, try this link on moral enhancement:

    http://philosophypress.co.uk/?p=1177

    So, I suppose it would be possible for humans to acquire, through natural evolution and cultural changes, or through biological changes, the capacity to tolerate behaviours we now find morally objectionable. But if we are already a fairly biologically moral species, why would we choose to go down that route? Sometimes we all feel anger, and occasionally the will to do harm, even if only emotionally through some choice words; but we try to resist it. So, even if we might be changed to tolerate child abuse, why should we want to?

    And just because you can identify problems with natural human morality doesn’t mean that it is not actually how the world works. We are stuck with making the best of how we are. Religious social coercion may work for some people. It can be a crutch for alcoholics. But as I responded to another point: just because it feels better, living a delusion, doesn’t make it true.

    “Most atheistic theories of morality appeal to human flourishing as the ultimate good. On this view, what is good is whatever leads to human flourishing. And while that definition does solve some problems, it leads to the very difficult conclusion that truth and truth-seeking are not ultimate goods.”

    Yes, I agree with all that. Our seeking of truth seems to be a practical matter. Is it true that what I see before me is food and not something poisonous? That’s a pragmatic search for truth; a correspondence theory of truth. But truth is a tricky business; a philosophically pure notion that has no clear counterpart in the practical world, where most of the time we’re dealing with vagueness, multiple similar options, complex problems where we can’t get at any ultimate truth, even if there were such. Moral dilemmas dreamed up by philosophers are always simplifications that explore morality, but are totally hopeless as we pile on practical reality – as we see when exploring the trolley problem.

    “Indeed, if seeking the truth on any given subject would diminish human flourishing, then seeking that truth would be evil;…”

    Evil only by your presuppositional definition of evil and the association of behaviours with it. Human flourishing itself is complex, in that different people, and even the same person under different circumstances, can easily change what they value for their flourishing. Western liberals, and many Christian conservatives, see the Muslim burka as an evil repressive symbol of female subjugation; and yet many Muslim women who buy into Islam, just as you buy into Christianity, see it as essentially good. Human morality is very messy and tied to human flourishing in a very complex manner.

    “… we would be morally obligated to avoid or suppress knowledge of that truth.”

    And the dangers of the suppression of knowledge is one of the worst ‘evils’ ever to plague mankind. The suppression of knowledge has been one of the greatest tools of repression. Mind you, I can understand how corrupt Roman Catholic popes might have wanted to suppress Martin Luther’s attempts to express his understanding, his knowledge, of God.

    And it’s odd that the suppression of knowledge is often a matter of supressing someone else’s knowledge. But even with self-suppression, what a dishonest notion. Why not face up to the realities we discover and deal with them instead of running away from them, which is what self-suppression amounts to.

    “A simple example is an elderly Christian woman on her deathbed who faces death joyfully because she believes she is going to be with God and her dead loved ones. Assuming for the sake of argument that atheism is true, is it good for her to seek to know the truth of atheism? It would seem that the answer is no.”

    It would not seem the answer is not no, to me. If I were her I’d be much more satisfied in discovering a truth. If atheism is true then the dying person will soon be gone and will no longer have any worries. There are no worries about how the loved ones are coping in some after life, what form they take, what age they are and so on. Of course the religious fool themselves further here, by imagining the afterlife one is at one’s best, or as some perfect and nebulous entity – the guesswork is all rather sketchy.

    What perhaps is more significant is the point Dawkins often makes. At a time of suffering he is not going to disabuse anyone of their beliefs, because at that time, at the moment of death, the dying person, or their family, doesn’t need some intellectual challenge. But this isn’t the suppression of truth that you are suggesting. This is merely compassion for the comfort of a person at a difficult time. If atheism is true then what they believed about an afterlife makes no difference to what they will be in death – ashes or maggot food.

    I have relatives who attend spiritualist meetings to communicate with their lost parents. I have been torn between not making it any more painful for them by pointing out the quackery, and letting them come to the slow realisation that they are not talking to the dead. Morality is messy, because human brains and how they deal with suffering is complex. In this case I defer to their personal belief and avoid trying to persuade them of their error; but I certainly don’t consider that to be the suppression of knowledge.

    “Learning that atheism is true would only make her miserable without providing tangible good (i.e. flourishing) to anyone else.”

    Yes. It would be a short term pain, with no future benefit, because she’d be dead. This is the pragmatic issue of when to benefit from knowledge, and is not about its suppression. We don’t teach four year olds calculus. Apart from failing, it could derail their confidence as they fail to understand it. That isn’t suppression but the timely introduction of knowledge. How can any adult with any reasonable intellect, who isn’t suffering right now in the face of death, be so fearful of having their beliefs challenged?

    How could you turn away from a truth (presuming atheism is true for sake of argument) just because you don’t like the consequences. We have an instinctive reaction to danger by turning from it. We might be in the path of inevitable death, from an oncoming train, with no means of escape, and yet we flinch and turn away, even though that response is pointless. But we’re not talking about instinctive reactions. We’re talking about intellectual reflection. If a reality of personal biologically driven morality seems awful to you, then why not face it. I can appreciate that you have intellectual reasons not to believe it, based on your own preferences for a religious explanation. But I can’t see how you would supress a knowledge of natural morality, if you did come to believe it intellectually.

    “Examples can be easily multiplied, but the essence of the problem is that no atheist can claim that truth-seeking is an intrinsic good or a moral obligation.”

    It depends on your use of ‘intrinsic’ – like ‘objective’, one of those variable use words. It seems truth-seeking is not an ‘intrinsic’ good, out there in the universe. But, it is an intrinsically biological behaviour for humans to seek truth, as a correspondence between what we think is the case and what is the case. It’s evolutionarily beneficial to be able to spot the truth of oncoming danger. We don’t always succeed. The revolving mask optical illusion is an example – we know the truth, intellectually, but our brains fool us. Getting the correspondence right isn’t always easy. It’s an intrinsic, biological, desire, to seek that correspondence, and good in the sense that achieving it is generally more beneficial than not.

    “As a Christian, I can affirm that truth is good and morally obligatory because God loves the truth and commands us to seek it.”

    Your affirmation is only a self-assertion, something you are doing to yourself. You cannot affirm it through reason or evidence. You affirm it to yourself by asserting it to yourself and persuading yourself to believe it. Praxis has always been a key element in religious belief. Keep telling yourself it’s true and you’ll come to believe it, whether it is true or not. Personally I’d rather discover what the truth is, in as far as I can, rather than assert a truth and look for affirmation (and ignore contradiction, which goes hand in hand with affirmation).

    “But if an atheist were to urge me to throw off my religious delusions and embrace the truth of atheism, I would respond “Why? I am happy as a Christian and Christianity has made me into a more loving, compassionate, and generous person.”

    That’s fine. That’s why I’m a secular atheist. I’m quite happy for people to believe what they want, with the secular proviso that they don’t impose those beliefs on me and other unwilling parties. This is my objection to religious prescriptions and proscriptions on the behaviour of others – such as your arguments against homosexual marriage, to take one example. I can see why ancient religions were obsessed with sex: the need to procreate; to increase the population; and the need to avoid procreation when not required; the need to control procreation, particularly in females. But those times have passed. If anything, in this time of dangerous over population contraception seems a good idea; and with contraception and safe sex a lot of the ancient limitations go away. But sex remains an obsession of the religious, and the more fundamental, the more obsessive.

    But sadly we have popes that still would rather AIDS ridden areas of the world go through untold suffering rather than simply use contraception. The religious are too busy telling other people how to live their lives. It’s not just about “I am happy as a Christian”.

    I am happy as an atheist. I don’t insist you come along that route with me. I gratefully argue with you here on two grounds: the intellectual attempt to understand your perspective and to express mine, but also to argue against some of the points you make that discriminate against minorities.

    “If Christianity is true, then I understand why I am obligated to seek the truth. But if atheism is true, why am I obligated to find out?”

    You’re not so obliged, under atheism. It’s merely a benefit you might want to indulge in, or not, as your preferences take you. I can see how living a delusion can have some benefits, for you, if you buy into the belief. But unfortunately the delusion is detrimental to others if you impose your beliefs on others who don’t buy your delusion.

    And if atheism is true you are living evidence that you are not required to seek out truth. No one is demanding to submit to a truth of atheism. An atheism informed by science and philosophy doesn’t even require that there is an ultimate truth. It’s all about getting by with life, improving it only if you want to.

    “The poem said nothing about evolution.”

    Evolution is so obviously the most common context in which this notion is expressed (incorrectly). But, I now I take your point about the wider context. And I agree.

    We have no idea how it all came about, this universe and any wider context in which it might exist. But that same lack of knowledge applies to you too. God, if he exists, is not planned, is he? Who planned him? Is he a product of mindless chance? This gets back to the same problem. You invoke God to explain the universe; but what explains God? If God does not need explanation, if there is an entity that does not need explanation, then on what grounds do you reason that a non-intellectual entity, the natural appearance of universes, needs an explanation?

    The difference is that we find ourselves in a natural universe. We have no communications from God that we know of. All communications claimed to be from God can be explained in a naturalistic context. There is no evidence for God, no argument for a God, not even any need to desire a God. God is an imagined entity that has taken on many forms, from multiple invisible gods, to material entities like the sun. You have to presuppose there is a very specific God to make all the biblical stuff meaningful at all, and then you have to use the bible to justify and explain God’s nature. It’s all circular made up stuff. It all requires a presupposed God, in order to reveal truths, in holy books, that are then used as evidence for that God. It totally discounts the possibility that these books and their stories are as made up as Zeus.

    “From my perspective, the source *is* special.”

    How do you know that? Faith? Just deciding it’s true and believing it? Praxis? Making yourself believe it by affirmation?

    “I think you might be confusing ontology and epistemology here. For the theist, moral absolutes *do exist* – even if our *knowledge* of those moral absolutes might be flawed”

    I think you are confused. If your epistemology is unreliable, how can you be sure of the ontology you derive through that epistemology? You observe the bible and its history. That’s all you’ve got. Everything about Christianity comes from that one book, plus a few odd interpretations by theologians along the way. Poor epistemology standing on the shoulders of flaky sources.

    “as if natural selection somehow implies that we have an “answer” for how non-life could produce the biological complexity that we observe today, with no intelligent agent necessary.”

    Natural selection doesn’t determine that. Abiogenesis is required. I agree that it’s not yet been successfully emulated, but the principle is straight forward.

    “You’re not trolling, are you? I think you must be trolling here.”

    No, not at all. It’s a genuine set of questions. I hope you’re not looking to end this debate by such a diversionary tactic. I’m not suggesting that you are, necessarily, but it’s a pattern I’ve seen before, so forgive me if I mistake your motive.

    Above you assert, “From my perspective, the source *is* special.” So, really, how and why is it special? Again, how do you know that?

    “I will say, though, that as I’ve progressed in my career in science, my religious faith has been profoundly strengthened by what I’ve learned.”

    By which bits of science? Cosmology has a very limited reach within this universe and has only speculative theories about the universe as a whole and any context it resides within; and no hint of God. Microbiology? Well, some of the molecular ‘machines’ that operate within cells do look impressive; but they are mechanistic, just bunches of molecules, as I’m sure you know, relying entirely on the chemical interaction of atoms. Physics is currently struggling with the quantum nature of reality, but still no sign of God. Is it a persuasion from incredulity, that such complexity could come about by natural unguided means?

    • I’m not really sure where to start – and a bit short on time – so I hope you don’t mind if I stick primarily to the questions that you asked.

      “God, if he exists, is not planned, is he? Who planned him? Is he a product of mindless chance? This gets back to the same problem. You invoke God to explain the universe; but what explains God? If God does not need explanation, if there is an entity that does not need explanation, then on what grounds do you reason that a non-intellectual entity, the natural appearance of universes, needs an explanation?”

      I did some thinking about this last September: https://wellspentjourney.wordpress.com/2012/09/25/free-will-and-uncaused-causes/

      “How do you know that? Faith? Just deciding it’s true and believing it? Praxis? Making yourself believe it by affirmation?”

      “Above you assert, “From my perspective, the source *is* special.” So, really, how and why is it special? Again, how do you know that?”

      A few reasons. If you had asked me a year or two ago, I probably would have emphasized the *evidence* (fine tuning, argument from morality, historical arguments for the resurrection, etc.).

      I’m still 100% convinced that the available evidence points most compellingly to theism (generally) and Christianity (specifically). But it’s really way more than that. The plain answer, I guess, is that I’m in love. I’ve had personal encounters with my Lord, and I have been profoundly changed as a result; I’m more confident in His existence and nature than I am in the existence and nature of the keyboard that I’m typing this on. I live and breath because He allows me to live and breath. So in a sense, trying to explain “how I know that my faith is true” is like trying to explain “how I know that my wife and I love each other”. I can say that I’m utterly certain of the fact, and I can provide solid reasons for my belief…but any attempt to “prove” things on intellectual grounds is going to feel woefully inadequate…even a little disrespectful and sacrilegious.

  5. Matt,

    Thanks for your link to your other post on Free Will and Uncaused Causes. There were many comments that challenged the points of the OP, so I would hardly think it a response to my comment here. But, just to make it clear where I think that post is at fault I responded to the Kalam cosmological argument, Occam’s Razor, and Free Will – starting here:
    https://wellspentjourney.wordpress.com/2012/09/25/free-will-and-uncaused-causes/#comment-2988

    So, my questions remai: Is he a product of mindless chance? The timeless spaceless first cause prime mover doesn’t work because you don’t show how such can’t be a non-personal natural phenomenon. There is a problem too, in that if the prime mover is timeless, ‘when’ does he create his creation? It would sort of suggest that he exists in time, or that his creation process is as timeless as he is, in which case the universe is timeless, in which case it could just as well have been its own timeless uncaused cause. Of course this all is a bit woolly and is unconvincing support for religion.

    “A few reasons. If you had asked me a year or two ago, I probably would have emphasized the *evidence* (fine tuning, argument from morality, historical arguments for the resurrection, etc.).”

    The fine tuning argument is easily dismissed on the grounds that there is no evidence the universe is fine tuned specifically for us – there are many ‘tunings’ that might make a universe, and we are bound to be in one that can contain us. The mud puddle argument is a good analogue from Douglas Adams:

    “This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in – an interesting hole I find myself in – fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for. We all know that at some point in the future the Universe will come to an end and at some other point, considerably in advance from that but still not immediately pressing, the sun will explode.”

    He was making a wider point about being more cogniscent of our place in the universe, but it also emphasises the point that thought we might feel the world was made for us, it wasn’t. We, our shape, our biology, just like the water in the puddle, were made to fit this universe, and made, as far as we can tell, by the natural forces of evolution.

    The argument *from* morality isn’t. The argument is the other way round: we can argue what morality is, from what we understand about the world and about how we evolved in it.

    There are no historical records of the resurrection. Really there aren’t. There are historical records of a story about a resurrection. In fact there are historical records of many resurrection stories, and of many other stories, that apply to many gods. But there is zero evidence that they are anything but myths.

    Note the significant differences between these stories and reports about the past which we call historical fact:

    a) the strength of the historical fact is weighted by all the other supporting evidence, while there is no direct evidence at all to support the Christian story – while it’s quite possible Jesus the man existed, there is no evidence to support any of the stories about him;
    b) historical facts are changed with changes in the evidence that emerges over time, while religions try to work around any new facts to maintain their stories (much apologetics is spent on this, and lots of bogus ‘arguments’. like KCA, fine tuning, etc.);
    c) if a historical fact is wrong the consequences are not so important, while if the religious story is wrong a lot of people have suffered at the hands of the overly pious, and many social prescriptions and proscriptions would simply stop being a nuisance to the freedoms of so many individuals.

    You have a post that lists your main arguments, and every one of them has been debunked, or has been shown not to provide the evidence you claim it does. Not just in comments on your posts, but thoroughly all over the internet. So, this is a bit of a puzzling statement:

    “I’m still 100% convinced that the available evidence points most compellingly to theism (generally) and Christianity (specifically).”

    In fact the more specific you are the less compelling the arguments and evidence are. Only some speculative notional ‘intelligent manufacturer of universes’ remains as a respectable hypothesis – the most general of all deistic claims. The more specific you get (Christianity) the more convoluted the stories are, and the less they succumb to what evidence there is (zero); and the more contradictory they become.

    Belief can only be explained by the remainder of your points:

    “The plain answer, I guess, is that I’m in love.”

    So, you may even love the science you do. But if you have a hypothesis X, but a result doesn’t come out the way you expect it, it shows Y, do you ignore the result because you love the hypothesis of X? That happens to be how many abused people put up with an abusive spouse, and we know that in such cases, where the love is blind to the facts, that they would be better off seeing the reality staring them, hitting them, in the face. One such reality for the religious is that the very same love and faith that you use to ignore all opposing data and to affirm your belief, is exactly the method that religious fundamentalist terrorists use. The susceptibility to incorrect belief in human love is compounded when that love is directed towards invisible gods, because in that love you can pretty much invent any story you like to support that love. But I get that if you are so in love then you will convince yourself of the existence and value of the object of that love.

    “I’ve had personal encounters with my Lord”

    This is where the “How do you know that?” is not being addressed. The human brain is capable of making us believe all sorts of nonsense. You know this, when it comes to all the nonsense you don’t buy that you see others falling for. Yet your belief gets a pass?

    It’s at this point that the argument completes the circle:
    1) I believe in God because of the proof and evidence.
    2) Mmmm, individually those arguments do seem to be incomplete, or weak even. Proof and evidence may not be sufficient, so I have faith, love.
    3) Well, yes, faith and love alone does seem a bit like blind faith; but what about all the proof and evidence.

    You only have to give this a cursory thought to realise the inescapable logic of it. And replying, “Well you too atheist”, doesn’t answer the question for your beliefs, it’s a diversionary tactic to deflect the original question: “How do you know that (you had a personal encounter)?” Again, abused people really believe their abusive spouse loves them. It’s crazy when you witness such blind belief in others, and you know it. Why does your specific belief get a pass?

    “I have been profoundly changed as a result”

    I’m sure you have. Belief, in anything, is bound to change anyone. That’s not in question. What is in question is the correspondence of what you believe with reality. And all we can do, as limited humans, is examine the evidence and arguments. And there are none to support your beliefs.

    “I’m more confident in His existence and nature than I am in the existence and nature of the keyboard that I’m typing this on.”

    Two points here. First, what you personally have confidence in is obviously determined by what you believe, so that isn’t saying anything new. I get that you believe in a Christian God. Second, there’s no problem being doubtful about the nature of the keyboard before you, since all the best science we have is trying to determine the nature of reality – what are the particles that make up the keyboard? Yes, we should be sceptical, but that scepticism should be applied even more so to ideas that are not supported by any reality we can examine. Even though quantum physics challenges our belief that particles exist as solid forms, the experimental measurements continue to confirm that on our familiar scales of experience material objects are as real as it gets.

    But by comparison all the efforts of all of science, being as difficult as it is, far outweighs the efforts theologians and believers generally have put into examining their beliefs. Sure, they put effort into the believing bit, the affirming, the commitment; but the effort put into actually discovering what their God amounts to is no more than a dozen flimsy trumped up arguments that are easily shown to not show what they are claimed to show.

    “So in a sense, trying to explain “how I know that my faith is true” is like trying to explain “how I know that my wife and I love each other”.”

    Yes, it is a bit like that – but not exactly. I say I know my wife loves me, when what I really mean is that I trust she loves me; and I base that trust on direct experience, the empirical evidence for how she behaves around me. I might wonder, what if she’s having secret affairs behind my back? Well, technically, that would be possible. She goes to work each day and I have no real evidence that she’s being faithful. But on the whole, all the evidence is that she does love me. And yet in what science is discovering about the human brain we are learning more about complex behaviours, like love; and psychologically there are many aspects to love. It’s even possible to believe in love mistakenly, even when the counter evidence is staring us in the face empirically.

    But given we can be mistaken about love even in the face of direct evidence, what makes you sure your love for God is not also lacking the reciprocity you imagine is there? How do you know that the love is not constructed, imagined, for an entity that isn’t there at all. Your love for your wife, and hers for you, in the end isn’t at all like your claimed love, and supposed returned love, relationship with God. The love from your wife is inferred, but on a great deal of immediate empirical evidence, and no counter evidence you are aware of – but like all evidence available to humans, it’s not absolute confirmation. We live with that uncertainty because what evidence there is, is enough. But with God you have no evidence and only flimsy failed arguments. All the commitment is in your head, in your brain.

    “I can say that I’m utterly certain of the fact, and I can provide solid reasons for my belief”

    You have given good reasons for your *belief*, and in the words you write I find them sufficient evidence for your *belief* and the strength of it. But you do not in any way give good reasons *to* believe what you believe. You have no evidence or argument to support the existence of the *content* of your belief – God. All your reasons are poor logical errors, based on tired old arguments still being dragged round the debating circuit by the likes of William lane Craig, or presupposed by Alvin Plantinga.

    “but any attempt to “prove” things on intellectual grounds is going to feel woefully inadequate”

    All the arguments you have given are woefully inadequate. They are easily shown to be so, and are shown in comments where you present them, and throughout the internet generally. But still they are presented as if they were new and unchallenged.

    “…even a little disrespectful and sacrilegious.”

    The ‘respect’ argument is the last ditch plea that I’m surprised to see you even hint at it. It is the most stifling of debate; a means of shutting up opposition, or even one’s own questioning. Of course it is only sacrilegious to those that believe. You do realise that for a non-believer, sacrilege has no meaning, so while you might consider your own acts of providing arguments in these pages sacrilegious, to non-believers they are just debates about ideas. Verbal sacrilege is, of course, blasphemy; and when that term is used it becomes even more obvious that the intent is to stifle debate, even using the power of the law historically. I never got round to figuring out how the Roman Catholic church, among others, managed to avoid charging itself with sacrilege, when burning at the stake what were supposed to God’s own creations – anyone who opposed the church. Respect and sacrilege really are divisive tools used by those with weak arguments.

    Salmon Rushdie:

    “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”

    “The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas – uncertainty, progress, change – into crimes.”

    • I have ready responses to all of your main points, but I honestly can’t keep up with the length of your comments. I have a very time-consuming job and lots of other commitments, so at most I have maybe 30-40 minutes of “online time” each evening.

      Don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining, and I really do value our dialogue. Where we go from here, I think, is up to you. You’re more than welcome to keep leaving lengthy comments (I think it’s absolutely for the best that anyone visiting this blog be exposed to opposing viewpoints). If you want me to respond, however, I’ll have to ask that you try to be more concise. At the very least, indicate which 1-2 paragraphs you would *most* like me to respond to. That’s about the most I can handle on any given day…but hopefully we can eventually cover everything by doing this in smaller chunks. 🙂

      So from your previous comment, could you maybe indicate which 1-2 paragraphs you’re most interested in hearing my response to?

  6. Pingback: Objective Moral Values: Two Views | Well Spent Journey

  7. Hi Matt,

    No problem. The reason for the lengthy replies is that simple one liners rarely go into enough detail when offering a counter argument. To use simple replies without explanation would indeed seem like trolling.

    Hi Matt,

    I appreciate you’re short on time, so I have no problem if you don’t respond. But if you can, when you can, that would be great.
    Hi Matt,

    I’ll break down why I comment into the following:
    1) Arguments for God – this is an entirely intellectual disagreement with your arguments.
    2) Your use of faith – this is an entirely intellectual disagreement about the usefulness and validity of faith as a tool for human thought.
    3) Prescriptive and proscriptive statements that are based on your faith that you think those that don’t share your faith should still comply with – this is a political disagreement about the use of faith in the public sphere, in that it confers no privilege.

    Examples of 1:

    From my perspective there are severe errors in the main arguments for God, and I’m most interested in addressing those. They are easily shown not to support the notion of God, or even if they did imply some intelligent purposeful creator there is no reason to suppose a particular kind.

    Let’s take just the KCA. It’s a logical argument, and as such requires some thought and explanation. I’ve given you the details here: https://wellspentjourney.wordpress.com/2012/09/25/free-will-and-uncaused-causes/#comment-2988

    I’d be happy to address that over on that post.

    Or, how about Occam’s Razor here: https://wellspentjourney.wordpress.com/2012/09/25/free-will-and-uncaused-causes/#comment-2989

    These arguments for God are presented in overly simplistic ways that are incomplete, often relying on unsupported premises. These arguments do not support a case for God, so I’m interested in why you continue to think they do. If you could address just those two for now that would be great. But no rush.

    I could give examples of 2 and 3, but I’d rather focus on the arguments for God (or equally, those against atheism – see your next post where you misrepresent Naturalism).

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