bookmark_borderNaturalism, Theism, and the Meaning of Life

In the book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there is a funny scene in which an artificial intelligence is tasked with figuring out the meaning of life or, as it is called in the book, the Great Question of “Life, the Universe, and Everything.” The AI spends 7.5 million years working on the problem, until it finally reveals the answer is “42.” The AI says, “I think the problem, to be honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.” Like many others, including philosopher Erik Wielenberg, I suspect that the question, “What is the meaning of life?”, is actually several questions in one.
Let’s start with some definitions, which we can use to make some distinctions. First, let’s consider “value.”
intrinsic value: something is intrinsically valuable if the thing’s value is inherent to the thing’s own properties, as opposed to its value being derived from the properties of another thing.
extrinsic value: something is extrinsically valuable if the thing’s value is derived from the value of another thing.
Something can be intrinsically valuable or extrinsically valuable, but not both.
 
Next, let’s move onto “meaning.” Following Wielenberg, one way to think about the concept of a “meaningful life” is to apply the intrinsic vs. extrinsic distinction.
intrinsically meaningful life: a life has intrinsic meaning if the life is good for the person who lives it overall.
extrinsically meaningful life: a life has intrinsic meaning if the life if it enables other people to engage in intrinsically valuable activities.
A life can be intrinsically meaningful, extrinsically meaningful, both, or neither.
 
Another way to think about the concept of “meaning” is to think about the placement of a life within the timescale of the universe. For lack of better labels, I shall call the options “intermediate meaning” and “final meaning.”
intermediate meaning: A life has intermediate meaning if the activities of a life contribute only to outcomes somewhere during the intermediate events of the universe, as opposed to events at the end of the universe’s existence.
final meaning: A life has finite meaning if the activities of a life contribute to the final series of events.
I don’t claim the above three distinctions are exhaustive. If I’ve missed any other relevant distinctions, please let me know in the comments box.
 
With these distinctions in mind, then, consider the following claim.

(1) If naturalism is true, then life has no meaning.

But the word “meaning” in this context itself has several meanings. (1) could be interpreted as any of the following.

(1.1) If naturalism is true, then life has no intrinsic value.
(1.2) If naturalism is true, then life has no extrinsic value.
(1.3) If naturalism is true, then life has no intrinsic meaning.
(1.4) if naturalism is true, then life has no extrinsic meaning.
(1.5) If naturalism is true, then life has no intermediate meaning.
(1.6) If naturalism is true, then life has no final meaning.

Let’s go through them one by one.
(1.1) If naturalism is true, then life has no intrinsic value.
Even if we clarify (1) by replacing it with (1.1), we’re still left with a muddled statement which blurs together crucial distinctions.
First, an objectivist about value (aka a ‘value realist’)–whether a theist or a nontheist–would almost certainly say that if anything has intrinsic value, life has objective intrinsic value. And notice that the truth of naturalism has no bearing on whether anything is objectively, intrinsically valuable. The concept of “objective intrinsic value” is either:
(a) coherent (and it is necessarily true that some things have it); or
(b) incoherent (and so it is impossible for anything to have it).
But neither of these possibilities have anything to do with whether naturalism is true. Naturalism (as I define it) is compatible with both of these options.
Second, a life can be subjectively intrinsically valuable, both to the person who lives it and to the people touched by it.
Furthermore, lurking in the background behind statements like 1.1 is a corresponding positive claim about theism:

If theism is true, then life has intrinsic value.

This statement has essentially the same problems as (1.1). First, if, as I think, life has intrinsic value, its intrinsic value does not derive from God’s existence. This follows from the definition of intrinsic value: if life is intrinsically valuable, its value lies in its own intrinsic properties, not the properties of God (such as God’s valuing life). Second, if value realism is true, then it seems highly plausible that life is objectively intrinsically valuable and, again, this value doesn’t come from God. Third, whether or not value realism is true, on theism life can still have subjective intrinsic value. In short,in the context of of whether life has intrinsic value (in any of the senses I’ve defined), naturalism vs. theism is a red herring.
(1.2) If naturalism is true, then life has no extrinsic value.
This version of (1) suffers essentially the same problems as 1.1: life can have extrinsic value, objective and subjective, whether or not theism or naturalism is true.
(1.3) If naturalism is true, then life has no intrinsic meaning.
As stated, (1.3) is false. A life has intrinsic meaning if the life is good overall for the person who lives it. Life can be good overall for the person who lives it, if theism, naturalism, or “otherism” are true.
But there is a more interesting version of (1.3) which cannot be so easily dismissed:

(1.3′) If naturalism is true, then a person’s life might have no intrinsic meaning.

Some lives can be overall bad for the people who live them; such lives could be said to have no intrinsic meaning. In contrast, if theism is true–more precisely, if certain versions of theism are true–then certain doctrines about the afterlife might make it the case that some of the lives that would be intrinsically meaningless on naturalism would be intrinsically meaningful on theism.
(1.4) if naturalism is true, then life has no extrinsic meaning.
It follows from the definition of “extrinsic value” that life can have extrinsic value, objective and subjective, whether or not theism or naturalism is true. Accordingly, (1.4) is false.
(1.5) If naturalism is true, then life has no intermediate meaning.
I don’t know of anyone who believes 1.5, but 1.5 is false. The activities of a person’s life can contribute to outcomes during their lifetime. By definition, such a life has intermediate meaning.
(1.6) If naturalism is true, then life has no final meaning.
This version of (1) is true. If naturalism is true, then nothing I (or anyone else) does during their lifetime will affect the extinction of our sun, the possible annihilation of Earth, any other astronomical event which might happen billions or even trillions of years from now, or change the ultimate fate of the universe, which many scientists believe will be the heat death of the universe.
I’ve had theists tell me that this is supposed to be a “bad” consequence of naturalism, but it’s never bothered me for one moment. Why should it? Putting aside the impossibility for any human to wrap their mind around just how far off into the future such events are, it’s not like I’ll be around to experience them. When I use this reply, the theists (mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph) seem to just repeat (1.6). It’s as if they want to me to believe that, on the one hand, “Absolutely nothing matters (if naturalism is true),” and, on the other hand, “The fact, ‘nothing matters (if naturalism is true),’ itself matters” and so I should be upset about that, not noticing the inherent contradiction in their message.
 

bookmark_borderAre Atheism and Moral Realism Logically Incompatible?

I am a regular reader of Victor Reppert’s blog, Dangerous Idea. In the combox for one of his recent posts, Steve Hays claimed that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible. I wrote a lengthy reply to Hays in the combox and have decided to republish it here.
Before I republish my comments, I will make one general observation about moral arguments for God’s existence.

  1. Theists often claim that the so-called ‘problem of evil’ (read: arguments from evil for atheism) and the ontological foundation for morality are linked: one cannot ‘consistently’ run an argument from evil without having an ontological foundation for morality; morality somehow requires a theistic ontological foundation; therefore, arguments from evil are really arguments for God’s existence.
  2. In the context of arguments from evil, it is standard to make a distinction between logical arguments from evil (i.e., arguments which claim that God’s existence is logically inconsistent with some known fact about evil) and evidential arguments from evil (i.e., arguments which claim that some known fact is either improbable on theism or less probable on theism than on naturalism). Theists will often argue that there is no good logical argument from evil, based upon Alvin Plantinga’s famous critique of J.L. Mackie’s logical argument from evil. (These same theists often seem to be unaware that philosophers J.L. Schellenberg and Quentin Smith, among others, have formulated new versions of the logical argument from evil, or they are aware but assume that Plantinga’s critique of Mackie also applies to Schellenberg and Smith. But that’s another topic for another post.)
  3. In general, there seems to be a double-standard on the part of theists (not necessarily Steve) who try to link arguments from evil for atheism with moral arguments for God’s existence: these theists do not apply the same degree of skepticism to what I will call logical arguments from moral ontology (i.e., arguments which claim that atheism is logically inconsistent with moral realism) and logical arguments from evil. Just as many atheists incorrectly assume that defending a logical argument from evil is much harder than it actually is, I believe that many theists incorrectly assume that defending a logical argument from moral ontology is much harder than it actually is.

I want to emphasize that, in our exchange, Steve Hays did not employ this double standard. I mention this double standard in this introduction because, in my experience, many theists (not Steve) who claim, “atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible,” are guilty of this double standard. This is where my my recent interaction with Steve Hays becomes relevant: I think my interaction with Steve Hays shows that it much harder to adequately defend claims of the logical incompatibility of atheism and moral realism, than it is to make such claims.
 


LOWDER
Steve Hays references atheists who reject moral realism. Putting aside the obvious rhetorical value of quoting ‘hostile witnesses,’ , what logical or evidential value could these references have?
First, the references could be an argument from authority. Contrary to what some people (not necessarily Steve) think, arguments from authority can be logically correct inductive arguments. One inductive argument form is the statistical syllogism:

(1) Z percent of F are G.
(2) x is F.
(3) [probable] x is G.

The closer Z is to 100, the stronger the inductive evidence.
Arguments from authority are a form of statistical syllogism:

(1′) The vast majority of statements made by x concerning subject S are true.
(2′) p is a statement made by x concerning subject S.
(3′) [probable] p is true.

As philosopher Wesley Salmon explains in his textbook, Logic, the following are “misuses of the argument from authority:”

  1. The authority may be misquoted or misinterpreted.
  2. The authority may have only glamor, prestige, or popularity.
  3. Experts may make judgments about something outside their special fields of competence.
  4. Authorities may express opinions about matters concerning which they could not possibly have any evidence.
  5. Authorities who are equally competent, so far as we can tell, may disagree.

Suppose we charitably interpret Steve’s references to atheists who reject moral realism is supposed to be an (inductive) argument from authority. Then if we let:

X=”atheists Sharon Street; Massimo Pigliucci; Michael Shermer; Owen J. Flanagan, Jr; Alex Rosenberg; Joel Marks; Daniel Dennett; Michael Ruse; and Quentin Smith.”;
S=”metaethics” (which includes whether moral anti-realism is true); and
p=”moral realism is false”

then Steve’s argument would have the following logical form.

(1′) The vast majority of statements made by x concerning subject S are true.
(2′) p is a statement made by x concerning subject S.
(3′) Therefore, p is true.

That argument is example of what Salmon called a “misuse of the argument from authority,” for at least three reasons.
First, Michael Shermer is not a philosopher and definitely not an expert on metaethics. (One could say the same about Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, names which often appear in lists like the list posted by Steve.) Likewise, when Massimo Pigliucci made the statement referenced in Steve’s post (in his debate with William Lane Craig), Pigliucci was a biologist only, not a biologist and a philosopher. Even today, Pigliucci is not an expert on metaethics. (It may also be the case that Pigliucci has changed his views since his earning his doctorate in philosophy; I don’t know.) Similarly, Michael Ruse is a philosopher of biology and Alex Rosenberg is a philosopher of social science, economics, and science; neither specialize in metaethics. Likewise, Daniel Dennett’s areas of specialization are philosophy of science, cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of biology; metaethics is not one of his areas of specialization.
Second, what about atheist philosophers who do specialize in metaethics and reject moral realism, such as Flannagan and Mackie? I’m going to put to the side the interesting question of whether Smith and Street should even be counted as moral anti-realists; both have highly nuanced views and it would take a long blog post to give the topic the attention it deserves.
But putting those two names to the side, there are still other names available who were or are without a doubt atheists, experts on metaethics, and moral anti-realists. There are plenty of competent authorities on metaethics or the philosophy of religion—both theists and naturalists—who disagree with p (“moral realism is false”). Off the top of my head, I can think of at least ##. The atheist camp of moral realists includes: David Brink; Michael Martin; G.E. Moore; John Post; William Rottschaefer; Russ Shafer-Landau; Stephen J. Sullivan; and Erik Wielenberg.
Third, the definition of X arbitrarily limits who counts as expert: if we are interested in whether atheism is logically compatible with moral realism, the proper reference class is all metaethicists, not just atheistic metaethics. But then broadening the scope of X adds even more authorities who reject statement p. The theistic camp of metaethicists who reject the claim (“atheism is incompatible with moral realism”) includes people like Robert Adams and Mark Murphy (a Catholic and a natural law theorist). Then there are metaethicists whose religious views are unknown to me, but would join Adams in rejecting the claim that atheism is logically incompatible with moral realism: Avi Sagi and Daniel Statman.
Accordingly, as an inductive argument from authority, the argument is inductively weak and logically incorrect. The premises do not confer a high probability on the conclusion. So, rather than name-dropping a selective list of atheists (or even merely summarizing the arguments made by those names), what we need is actual engagement with the arguments made by metaethicists and, in particular, the work of Robert Adams and Mark Murphy on the theistic side and Erik Wielenberg on the atheistic side. I’ve written about some of the atheistic error theorists listed above here.
We also need to distinguish between authorities who say “moral realism is false because theism is false” vs. those who say “moral realism is false or meaningless for reasons that have nothing to do with God’s existence.”


HAYS
Jeff’s comments are a lengthy exercise in misdirection:
i) I didn’t quote Shermer, Dawkins, or Coyne. So mentioning them in response to me just a diversionary tactic.
ii) I didn’t make an appeal to authority. Rather, if you bother to read the links, many of them provide arguments for their rejection of moral realism. Pity Jeff doesn’t know the difference between quoting someone as an authority figure and quoting someone for their arguments.
iii) Furthermore, even if it were, in some cases, an argument from authority, when Christians point out that atheism is incompatible with moral realism, and some atheists respond by acting as if that’s an ignorant, defamatory attack on atheists, it’s perfectly legitimate to cite counterexamples from their own side to demonstrate that this isn’t a Christian caricature of atheists, but something that many prominent atheists concede.
And in my experience, not a few internet atheists have no idea that there are real live atheist thinkers who deny moral realism. They just imagine that must be a Christian strawman.
iv) Jeff then acts as though, unless someone is an expert in metaethics, you should simply ignore their arguments. But isn’t that self-refuting? Is Jeff an expert on metaethics? I guess we can safely discount everything he said in his two lengthy comments. What makes Jeff an expert? That he’s an autodidact on metaethics?
v) I’d add that Jeff likes to artificially compartmentalize knowledge. But when, for instance, the topic at hand is evolutionary ethics/evolutionary psychology, it’s preposterous to suggest a philosopher who specializes in philosophy of mind or evolutionary biology can’t have anything worthwhile to say on the subject. These are interdisciplinary debates.
vi) Having made a dismissive comment about “the obvious rhetorical value of quoting hostile witnesses,” Jeff does the very same thing by citing Robert Adams and Mark Murphy.
Likewise, Jeff complains about “name-dropping a selective list of atheists (or even merely summarizing the arguments made by those names…” even though his second comment is nothing but name-dropping (or summarizing) a selective list of theists and atheists.
vi) Finally, I’ve often responded to the subset of atheists who struggle to defend moral realism. It’s not as if I haven’t engaged their arguments.
But I do understand Jeff’s need to throw a lifeline to his drowning cohort, Angra.


LOWDER
It’s ironic that, in an exchange about the alleged superiority of theistic metaethics, Steve is rude to his dialectical opponents who are atheists. (To avoid any misunderstandings, I’m not complaining that my feelings are hurt or that I am offended.) Unlike Steve’s reply to me, there was no intent to be snarky in my last comment and there is no intent to be snarky in this comment.
Steve tries to dismiss the entire point about inductive arguments from authority, as if that were an idiosyncratic interpretation of his remarks. I don’t claim to be able to read his or anyone else’s mind, so if it was not his intent to make an argument from authority, then I will take him at his word. Steve wasn’t making an argument from authority. But I think the reader can be forgiven for getting that apparently wrong impression from the following exchange:

Angra Mainyu: “I challenge you to show the alleged inconsistency between atheism and moral realism.”

Steve Hays: “You could begin by reading atheists who take that very position. For starters: ….” (followed by a long list of links to blog posts).

Almost all of the linked blog posts quoted atheists, but not all. (More on that later.)
So instead of making a logically incorrect inductive argument from authority, it is instead the case that Steve has simply brought up a bunch of irrelevancies to support his claim that “Atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible.” As evidence for that claim, let’s go through the first four of Steve’s links.
Sharon Street: Steve’s first link is about Sharon Street’s paper, “A Darwinian Dilemma about Realist Theories of Value.” Street’s paper has nothing do with an alleged contradiction between moral realism and atheism. In fact, Street’s paper has nothing whatsoever to do with moral ontology. Street’s paper is about moral epistemology: she argues that if evolutionary naturalism is true, we have an undercutting defeater for trusting our second-order ethical intuitions. In plain English, it’s as if she says:

“Many people think moral realism is true because it seems like moral realism is true. But that isn’t a good reason to think that moral realism is true if you are an evolutionary naturalist. If evolutionary naturalism is true, it would ‘seem’ that moral realism were true even if it weren’t. So the ‘argument from seeming’ [my name] isn’t a good reason for evolutionary naturalists to think that moral realism is true.”

But since that is the essence of Street’s argument, it follows that Street’s Darwinian Dilemma is irrelevant to the claim that atheism is logically incompatible with moral realism. The most charitable interpretation I could give to why Steve linked to an irrelevant paper by Street is that he was giving an inductive argument from authority, based upon the proposition, “Sharon Street is an atheist expert on metaethics who denies moral realism.” Again, Steve says his argument wasn’t an argument from authority, but the motivation to categorize his argument was my attempt to be charitable to Steve. Since it wasn’t an inductive argument from authority, the alternative is that it was just an irrelevant premise. Even if Street’s Darwinian Dilemma is correct, it still would not follow that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible. To think otherwise would be to confuse moral epistemology with moral ontology.
Massimo Pigliucci:  His next link was to a quotation of Massimo Pigliucci on moral realism. As I explain here, the logical form of Pigliucci’s argument is as follows:

(7) Human beliefs about morality have changed over time.
(8) The best explanation for these changes in human beliefs is that there are no objective truths about morality.
(9) Therefore, there are no objective truths about morality.

Even if this were a good argument — and it is not — it still would not follow that atheism is logically incompatible with moral realism. Again, in an attempt to be charitable to Steve, I took him to be making an inductive argument from authority. Again, Steve says he wasn’t doing that. And again, in that case, I say, “Fine. Then it’s an irrelevant reference to a bad argument.”
Paul Pardi: His next link was to a statement by Paul Pardi. Paul is a Christian lecturer or professor of philosophy; in fact, at least for part of the last decade, he taught at Seattle Pacific University. Paul was commenting in the combox on a blog post by J.P. Moreland about Michael Shermer. (This is why I mentioned Shermer in my previous post.) So, as interesting as Paul’s comments are, Paul Pardi’s comments do nothing to show what atheists say about atheism and morality. Furthermore, Paul Pardi’s comments actually undercut Sharon Street’s Darwinian Dilemma. As Pardi points out, “To say that on evolution, our moral beliefs and practices wouldn’t track truth assumes what it’s seems to want to prove: that moral laws are something outside of the human mind that beliefs must correspond to.”
Again, the most charitable interpretation (of Steve’s bizarre decision to reference Pardi’s comment) I could come up with was that: (1) Steve mistakenly thought Pardi shared Shermer’s views (presumably because Pardi gave objections to Moreland’s argument against Shermer); and (2) what really mattered to Hays was the support that Shermer, as an atheist, lends to an evolutionary account of morality. But, putting aside the fact that Shermer is not a philosopher, the empirical fact about moral epistemology, if it is a fact, that:

A: The correct explanation for the origin of our moral beliefs involves our evolutionary history.

provides zero support for the logical claim about moral ontology that:

B: Atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible.

And so, again, instead of saying (with charitable intent) that Steve Hays was making an argument from authority, we must instead conclude that he was simply providing another link to another irrelevant statement.
Own Flannagan, Jr.: Flannagan’s sociobiological explanation for the origin of our moral beliefs is similar to Shermer’s. It is irrelevant to establishing Steve Hays’ claim that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible, and for the same reason.
Alex Rosenberg: Steve’s next link was to an interview about Alex Rosenberg. Here’s the entirety of what Rosenberg had to say about metaethics in that interview.

“What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad?
There is no moral difference between them.”

So the interview Rosenberg contains no argument proving the alleged inconsistency between atheism and moral realism; all we find is the mere assertion that moral realism is false.
The other part of Steve’s Rosenberg post includes the same basic point about natural selection tricking us into believing moral realism is true. It fails for the same reason as Shermer’s and Flannagan’s.
Again, I thought I was charitable in interpreting Steve as offering an inductive argument from authority. Again, I was mistaken. And again, the link to his blog post is irrelevant because the quoted material doesn’t even make the claim that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible, much less provide an argument for that claim.
Furthermore, if one goes beyond the material quoted by Steve and looks at Rosenberg’s journal article on metaethics, we do not find an article which tries to prove the alleged inconsistency between atheism and moral realism. Rather, what we find is an argument against moral realism which has nothing do do with an alleged inconsistency between atheism and moral realism. (See here).
Joel Marks: Steve’s next link was to an article in the New York Times by Joel Marks, in which Marks talks about his change from “moralism” to “amoralism,” which can be thought of as the change from being a moral realist to a moral anti-realist. His article was published by the New York Times, not the American Philosophical Quarterly, so his article was not written for philosophers. Based on what Marks wrote, it’s hard to tell if he even believes that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible. But, in order to be charitable to Steve, let’s assume that Marks believes precisely that. What support does Marks give for that claim in his article?
Marks makes only one statement (or series of statements) which could possibly be relevant to a claim of logical incompatibility between atheism and moral realism:

“The dominoes continued to fall. I had thought I was a secularist because I conceived of right and wrong as standing on their own two feet, without prop or crutch from God. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, period. But this was a God too. It was the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander – whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in, who at least had the intelligible motive of rewarding us for doing what He wanted.”

And later in the same essay he writes:

“Think of this analogy: A tribe of people lives on an isolated island. They have no formal governmental institutions of any kind. In particular they have no legislature. Therefore in that society it would make no sense to say that someone had done something “illegal.” But neither would anything be “legal.” The entire set of legal categories would be inapplicable. In just this way I now view moral categories.”

This is a variation of the old “laws require a lawgiver” argument. As I explain here, that argument fails because of the following negative analogy:

(8) The laws of nature, logic, mathematics, and (objective) morality did not begin to exist.
(9) The laws of nature, logic, and mathematics also do not have lawgivers.
(10) Therefore, the laws of (objective) morality do not have a lawgiver.

John Maynard Smith: Steve’s next link was to an article by John Maynard Smith, in which Smith endorses Daniel Dennett’s view that, without something like the Bible, there is no epistemologically objective way to determine moral right from wrong.
Again, even if Smith (and Dennett) were correct about that, it wouldn’t follow that moral realism is false. The sentences “Moral realism is true” and “Moral skepticism is true” are logically consistent: it could be the case that there are objective moral values and duties, but we have no realiable way of knowing what they are.
More important, neither Smith nor Dennett claim “Atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible.”
Thomas Nagel: Steve’s next link is to a blog post quoting Thomas Nagel. Quoting Daniel Dennett, Nagel endorses the view that if everything reduces to physics, then there is no naturalistic answer to a cosmic question. The cosmic question is put into square brackets. I haven’t read Nagel’s 2010 book, so I can’t tell if the words in the bracket come from Nagel or from Steve. I don’t have enough context for the quotation to make sense of the question put in the square brackets. In any case, I agree that with Nagel that naturalism is nonteleological.
I do not find, however, an argument (in Steve’s post) for the conclusion that the non-teleological nature of naturalism is logically incompatible with moral realism. To be charitable to Steve, perhaps the idea is that if physical reality is not teleological (which, according to naturalism, it isn’t), then moral realism is necessarily false. But the truth of that is far from obvious. There is no logical contradiction between “There is no cosmic teleology (i.e., the universe was not created for a purpose)” and “Moral realism is true.” First, it could be the case that God does not exist, in which case there is no cosmic teleology, but some version of Platonism is true (and so moral values exist as abstract objects). Second, it could be the case that God does not exist and a neo-Aristotelian approach to ethics like that found in Larry Arnhart’s book, Darwinian Natural Right, is correct. But Arnhart’s neo-Aristotelian (and Humean and Darwinian) approach to ethics is a realist approach to ethics.
Michael Ruse: Steve’s next link is to a post which mentions Michael Ruse and myself. Regarding Steve’s numbered points in that blog post, I will say this. I agree with Steve’s (i): it is legitimate to quote what various atheists have said about morality, in order to defend the claim that some atheists have made certain statements about morality. (ii) I agree with this also. This is why the moral anti-realist arguments of Shermer, Rosenberg, and others fail. Turning to (iii), Steve argues that I have misinterpreted Ruse. Now that would require an entire blog post of its own.
For now, I will simply point out that (1) even if Ruse’s argument were correct, it would provide no support for the claim that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible; and (2) Ruse’s moral anti-realist argument fails because it commits the genetic fallacy. Indeed, it contains the very confusion Steve described in his (ii): Ruse confuses moral psychology with moral ontology. So both Steve and I agree that Ruse’s argument against moral realism fails.
Quentin Smith: Steve’s final link is to a post which appears to quote from either the abstract or body of an essay by Smith. Steve’s post quotes from Smith’s own website, which is now defunct, which makes it impossible to get the paper from that website. (An Internet search for a copy of the paper on other websites was equally unsuccessful.) But it appears Smith’s website published an article of his 2003 essay, “Moral Realism and Infinite Spacetime Imply Moral Nihilism,” which was published in an anthology.
I find everything about that blog post fascinating. Smith wrote a book (“Ethical and Religious Thought…”) published in 1997 by Yale University Press in which he defends moral realism. But I did come across an essay by philosopher Michael Almeida, which aims to refute Smith’s essay. (See here.) Almeida’s essay begans with the following sentences:

“Quentin Smith has recently advanced an argument for ‘moral nihilism’. He derives moral nihilism, unexpectedly, from global moral realism and a principle of value aggregation….”

So, according to one of Smith’s critics (Almeida), even in Smith’s 2003 essay, Smith still accepted moral realism. Furthermore, notice how Almeida summarizes Smith’s argument for nihilism: because “global moral realism” and “value aggregation theory” are true, then nihilism is true. That shows that Smith was not defending the claim that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible.
Moving onto point (iv) in Steve’s comment, he writes, “Jeff then acts as though, unless someone is an expert in metaethics, you should simply ignore their arguments.” No. Steve is tearing down a straw man of his own creation. Steve’s objection forgets the fact that I was (mistakenly) responding to his references to other atheists as if they were inductive arguments from authority. In THAT context, it is appropriate to point out that some of Steve’s atheists do not have the relevant expertise.
I agree with Steve that if we are told that we should believe X on the basis of some argument Y (and Y is not an argument from authority), then it is of course legitimate to consider argument Y, regardless of whether the person making it has the relevant expertise or not.
Regarding (v), Steve saddles me with a view I do not hold and, again, tears down a straw man of his own creation. The issue is not whether this person or that person has something worthwhile to say on the subject of evolutionary ethics or evolutionary psychology. The issue is whether this person or that person is an expert on metaethics. Expertise in evolutionary ethics or evolutionary psychology does not constitute expertise in metaethics.
As for (vi), I look forward to reading Steve’s critiques of especially G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica and Erik Wielenberg’s Robust Ethics.
 


HAYS
Jeff says Robert Adams would reject the claim that atheism is incompatible with moral realism. Perhaps Jeff can quote where Adams has said that.
In Finite and Infinite Goods, Adams details a position in which the standard of goodness is defined by the divine nature. Finite things are only good insofar as they exemplify divine goodness. Given that framework, it’s hard to see how Adams could also say atheism is consistent with moral realism, absent the necessary source and standard of goodness. So is Jeff saying Adams has elsewhere taken a position that’s logically at odds with what he said in Finite and Infinite Goods?

“Steve tries to dismiss the entire point about inductive arguments from authority, as if that were an idiosyncratic interpretation of his remarks. I don’t claim to be able to read his or anyone else’s mind, so if it was not his intent to make an argument from authority, then I will take him at his word. Steve wasn’t making an argument from authority…So instead of making a logically incorrect inductive argument from authority, it is instead the case that Steve has simply brought up a bunch of irrelevancies to support his claim that ‘Atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible.'”

i) So Jeff is telling us that he doesn’t know the difference between testimonial evidence and an argument from authority. When an atheist reacts to the statement that consistent atheism denies moral realism as if that’s a Christian strawman, it’s both relevant and legitimate to quote prominent atheists who concede that very claim.
That’s testimonial evidence to the contrary. A witness needn’t be an authority figure to be a reliable witness.
ii) Over and above that, there are atheists who give reasons for their rejection of moral realism. So that’s hardly an argument from authority, as if you should accept their position on their say-so alone. Rather, they explain why they reject moral realism, given their commitment to atheism, and the attendant implications thereof.
Jeff’s characterization is muddle-headed.


LOWDER
Jeff says Robert Adams would reject the claim that atheism is incompatible with moral realism. Perhaps Jeff can quote where Adams has said that.
This is one of those times where a person reads something they wrote the day before, shake their head, and ask, “What was I thinking when I wrote that?”
Steve is right and I was wrong. I got my theists mixed up. I meant to write Louis Pojman, not Robert Adams.
But Adams did write something very interesting in his book, Finite and Infinite Goods. I’ll have to find the passage when I get home, but the gist of it was something like this:

“Because I define excellence in a way that relates moral obligation to the commands of a loving God, excellence in that sense could not exist in a world without God. But a naturalist or an atheist could define excellence in an objective, realistic way that would be very similar [I think he uses the word “indistinguishable”] to what I call excellence, and so there would be little practical difference between the two.”

Or something to that effect. Given my mixup on Adams vs. Pojman, I won’t blame anyone if they want to wait until I produce the exact quotation.
[A short time later, I (Lowder) posted the following:]
Found it, courtesy of Amazon’s “Search Inside” feature:

“What is true about goodness if God does not exist, or is not in fact a suitable candidate for the role of the Good? This is a conditional question about the actual world, not about other possible worlds; and I am confident of my answer to it. If there is no God, or if God is in fact not a suitable candidate for the role of the Good, then my theory is false, but there may be some other salient, suitable candidate, and so some other theory of the nature of the good may be true.
“Against the background I offer the less ambitious approach to the corresponding question about other possible worlds, which I asked on the assumption that God does exist, and is a suitable candidate, in the actual world. A deity would have to satisfy certain conditions (for instance, not being sadistic, and not loving cowardice) in order to be the salient candidate for filling the role indicated by our concept of the Good, thought it is part of the point of my theory that such requirements do not completely determine what the deity would be like. If there is a God that satisfies these conditions imposed by our concepts, we might say, then excellence is the property of faithfully imaging such a God, or of resembling such a God in such a way as to give God a reason for loving. In worlds where no such God exists, nothing would have that property, and therefore nothing would be excellent. But beings like us in such a world might have a concept subjectively indistinguishable from our concept of excellence, and there might be an objective property that corresponded to it well enough, and in a sufficiently salient way, to be the property signified by it, though it would not be the property that we in fact signify by ‘excellent’.
— Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, p. 46.
(All italics are from the original; boldface is mine)

I’ve always respected Adams’ work on theistic metaethics and this highly nuanced passage is an example of why.
I could be wrong, but I interpret Adams to be saying:

(1) Atheism is logically incompatible with moral realism, IF realist/objective moral obligations are determined according to Adams’ theory of excellence and his modified divine command theory are true.

He does NOT seem to be saying:

(2) Atheism is logically incompatible with moral realism about moral obligations.

In fact, depending upon how you interpret it, the end of the quotation I just provided seems to be either (a) Adams, saying in his own words, that atheism is compatible with moral obligation, if his theory of moral obligation is wrong; or (b) the difference between what counts as morally right/wrong/permitted on his theory vs. some secular alternative makes no practical difference.
And I think that Adams rejects:

(3) Atheism is logically incompatible with moral realism about moral value.

I think that Adams rejects (3) because he defends a Modified Divine Command Theory of moral obligation (what is morally permitted, prohibited, or obligatory), but he subscribes to a Divine Independence Theory (my name) of moral value (what is morally good or bad).
In fact, now that I think about it, the statement:

(4) Atheism is logically incompatible with moral realism.

Entails both (2) and (3). Even if it were the case that atheism were logically incompatible with realism about moral obligation, it could still be the case that that atheism is logically consistent with realism about moral value. Because (4) doesn’t make a distinction between moral obligation and moral value, showing that atheism is logically compatible with moral value is, all by itself, sufficient to refute (4).
So maybe I was correct to list Robert Adams after all.


HAYS
‪Jeffery Jay Lowder‬ 

”It’s ironic that, in an exchange about the alleged superiority of theistic metaethics, Steve is rude to his dialectical opponents who are atheists.”
i) Suppose for the sake of argument that Jeff’s allegation is true. Keith Parsons, who’s a regular contributor to the Secular Outpost, routinely makes rude comments about Christians.
Likewise, the historical library and modern library at the Secular Web contains articles by atheists that make rude comments about Christians. So it’s instructive to see Jeff’s double standard on display (even assuming that his allegation is true).
ii) But this brings us to a substantive point: Jeff thinks that he is important. That his dignity is important.
This is one of Jeff’s intellectual problems. He’s never allowed himself to appreciate the reductionistic consequences of atheism for human significance.
If atheism is true, then Jeff is worthless. Everything is worthless.
Jeff is a temporary entity that came into existence for no good reason, that will soon pass out of existence. Jeff is interchangeable with billions of other human biological units. He will be replaced.
If atheism is true, Jeff’s existence has no intrinsic value. At best, it’s only subjectively valuable–the way some Nazis (alleged) valued Jews as as raw material for lamp shades.


LOWDER

‪i) Suppose for the sake of argument that Jeff’s allegation is true. Keith Parsons, who’s a regular contributor to the Secular Outpost, routinely makes rude comments about Christians.

You can’t be serious. You’re using the same excuse my children use, “But he did it, too!”, as if that makes it okay. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
I don’t remember off the top of my head Keith Parsons making sweeping generalizations about all Christians. But if I’m wrong about that and/or if he has been rude in some other way, then he was wrong to do so and I will condemn it.

Likewise, the historical library and modern library at the Secular Web contains articles by atheists that make rude comments about Christians. So it’s instructive to see Jeff’s double standard on display (even assuming that his allegation is true).

I tried very hard to prevent this from happening in the modern library at the Secular Web while I held a leadership position and I doubt very much that this happened while I was the editor. If it has happened, that is regrettable. I am even willing to try to bring any items in this category to the attention of Keith Augustine, who is the current editor, to try to get them fixed. But, again, this is mere deflection by Steve. This doesn’t excuse Steve’s rudeness.

ii) But this brings us to a substantive point: Jeff thinks that he is important. That his dignity is important.

This is just more deflection on Steve’s part. In effect, he’s saying, “I’m justified in being rude to atheists because atheists can’t justify condemning me for my rudeness.” Even if it were the case that an atheist could not justifying a complaint about being treated rudely, it would still be the case that, as a theist, Steve is a moral realist. But as we’ve seen, Steve has been unable to demonstrate a logical inconsistency between atheism and moral realism.

This is one of Jeff’s intellectual problems. He’s never allowed himself to appreciate the reductionistic consequences of atheism for human significance.

This is one of Steve’s intellectual problems. (See how easy it is to mirror Steve’s condescension right back at him?) He’s never been able to grasp the significance of the distinction between ‘cosmic’ or ‘ultimate’ significance and non-cosmic, non-ultimate significance, or the fact that “life has no ultimate significance” allows for “life has significance.” It’s a bit like complaining that winning one million dollars or even just one hundred dollars from the lottery has no value because the money won’t last as long as you would like.

If atheism is true, then Jeff is worthless. Everything is worthless.

If everything is worthless, then the fact that “everything is worthless” is itself worthless and we should pay no attention to it.

Jeff is a temporary entity that came into existence for no good reason, that will soon pass out of existence. Jeff is interchangeable with billions of other human biological units. He will be replaced.

Analogy:
If I win a finite amount of money from the lottery, that money will not last forever.
Therefore, it has no value.
That argument fails for the same reason Steve’s argument fails. A thing does not need to have an infinite amount of value–or value for an infinite duration–in order to have value.

If atheism is true, Jeff’s existence has no intrinsic value. At best, it’s only subjectively valuable–the way some Nazis (alleged) valued Jews as as raw material for lamp shades.

Although this statement begs the question, it doesn’t work. Steve, like many theists and atheists, has confused “intrinsic value” with “objective value.” But these are separate concepts. There are four possibilities:
(1) Objectively intrinsically valuable
(2) Objectively extrinsically valuable
(3) Subjectively intrinsically valuable
(4) Subjectively extrinsically valuable
(These four possibilities become eight if you add in the possibility of having disvalue.)
A better name for “intrinsic value” might be “non-derivative value” and a better name for “extrinsic value” might be “derivative value.” If I ask you, “Why do you like to go rowing?” and you answer, “Because I love the feeling of the scull breaking through the water when the boat is at a full sprint,” your answer reveals that, for you, rowing is extrinsically or derivatively valuable: it is valuable because it is a means to an end. If you then ask, “Why do you like the feeling of the scull breaking through the water when the boat is at a full sprint?” and you answer, “I just do,” then that feeling is intrinsically (non-derivatively) valuable to you: it is an end, not a means to an end.
The point is that, as soon as you make the distinction between intrinsic vs. extrinsic or derivative vs. non-derivative types of value, it is trivial to show that, even on the most reductionistic, materialistic versions of atheism, there can still be intrinsic (aka non-derivative) value.


In fairness to Steve, I’ll mention that, as of the time I wrote this blog post, he had written a couple of other replies to me I have not quoted here. I have not quoted them because I think they are either redundant or irrelevant, but interested parties can judge for themselves. See here and here.


In summary, Hays has been unable to justify his assertion that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible. As support for that claim, he referenced the statements and/or arguments of 10 alleged atheists. But, as summarized below, none of these alleged atheists, in the statements quoted by Steve, provide any support whatsoever for his claim.

  • 1 of the alleged atheists (Pardi) is a Christian philosopher. Furthermore, nothing Pardi wrote supports Hays’ claim of a logical incompatibility between atheism and moral realism.
  • Of the 9 actual atheists:
    • 7 of the 9 atheists made statements and/or presented arguments which were utterly irrelevant to the alleged logical incompatibility of atheism and moral realism:
      • 1 atheist (Sharon Street) argues that evolutionary naturalism provides a defeater for the belief that moral realism is true. (In other words, she is making a point about moral epistemology, not moral ontology. But Hays’ argument is ontological.)
      • 3 atheists (Owen Flannagan, Michael Ruse, and Alex Rosenberg) presented an evolutionary explanation for the origin of our belief in moral realism, but, unlike Street, did not claim it was a defeater for moral realism (for naturalists).
      • 1 atheist (Massimo Pigliucci ) presented an argument against moral realism that had nothing whatsoever to do with the alleged logical incompatibility of atheism and moral realism.
      • 1 atheist (John Maynard Smith) presented a pragmatic, epistemological argument against moral realism. Smith’s argument provided no support for Hays’ ontological claim.
      • 1 atheist (Quentin Smith) is a moral realist. The paper referenced by Steve provided no support whatsoever for the claim that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible.
    • 2 of the 9 atheists which might be charitably interpreted as making an argument relevant to the alleged logical incompatibility of atheism and moral realism.
      • 1 atheist (Joel Marks) presented the discredited, “Laws Require a Lawgiver Argument.”
      • 1 atheist (Thomas Nagel) made the observation that naturalism is non-teleological. It was difficult to understand Nagel’s point without having additional context about the passage from which Hays quoted. But Hays’ quotation of Nagel did not contain an argument for the conclusion that the non-teleological nature of naturalism is logically incompatible with moral realism.

bookmark_borderNaturalism, Theism, and Moral Ontology: A Reply to William Lane Craig

(Reposting since this seems to be so popular. So far as I am aware, neither WLC nor anyone else has responded to this.)
Abstract: This paper considers William Lane Craig’s metaethical argument for God’s existence. Roughly, the argument is that the existence of objective moral values provides strong evidence for God’s existence. I consider one by one Craig’s various reasons in support of the argument’s major premise, namely, that objective moral values and the nonexistence of God are at odds with each other. I show that Craig’s supporting arguments play fast and loose with the meaning of objectivity, and that they have no force whatsoever. I conclude that Craig’s argument does not succeed in showing that the existence of objective moral values, by itself, makes God’s existence more probable than not.

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bookmark_borderAn Example of Why Atheists Need to do Effective Counter-Apologetics and an Example of How Not to Do That

1. An Example of Why Atheists Need to do Effective Counter-Apologetics
You could call this post a sequel to my earlier post, “On Caring about Whether Other People Become Naturalists.”
Christian apologist Greg Koukl has released a video arguing that, yes, atheists suppress the truth in unrighteousness. For those of us who are familiar with the Christian apologetics literature, it will come as no surprise that Koukl states that Romans 1 teaches this position, a position which Randal Rauser has called the “Rebellion Thesis.” I am no Biblical scholar, but if I were to attempt to translate that meme from ‘Christianese’ into ordinary English, it is roughly the position that atheists intentionally suppress the truth of God’s existence because they are in rebellion against God and want to live a sinful lifestyle.
While I don’t care that much about whether other people become naturalists, I care much more about people who harbor the prejudice that the Rebellion Thesis are true, since that prejudice is harmful to naturalists and atheists. We are fortunate, therefore, that Randal Rauser has directly challenged Koukl online. (See also the combox on Koukl’s website for an exchange between Rauser and someone who appears to agree with Koukl.)
Of course, atheists cannot and should not rely upon a lone Christian scholar to combat this prejudice, as helpful and welcome as his efforts are. Atheists also need to provide examples of why the Rebellion Thesis is false through their own examples. Part of this is by striving to be as moral as possible and part of this is by doing (or supporting) effective counter-apologetics. This leads to my second example (and point).
2. An Example of How Not to Do Counter-Apologetics
Some atheists seem to be opposed to the very idea of counter-apologetics for the same reason they are opposed to the very idea of even using the label “atheist”: they think it gives theism credibility it does not deserve. They dismiss things such as counter-apologetics as ‘god-bothering’ and, as the pejorative term suggests, they argue that atheists (of all people) should stop ‘god-bothering.’ With all due respect to such atheists, I find such notions to be out of touch with reality. The scientific evidence suggests that humans have a widespread tendency to form beliefs about invisible agents, including gods. (And notice this is true even if–especially if–God does not exist.) I can think of no reason to think such tendencies will go away with a contemptuous sneer.
Not all atheists refuse to do counter-apologetics, however. In fact, one might argue that some of the atheists in the first group, when they let their guard down, will occasionally do counter-apologetics. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, however, that often the same atheists who are so dismissive of theism tend to use such awful arguments and objections against it. In a sense, this is understandable. If you’ve concluded that belief X is not only false but stupid or even irrational, then you’re unlikely to spend much if any time trying to understand the best arguments for X. Furthermore, you just might come across as rude or patronizing when talking or writing about X.
Jerry Coyne’s recent diatribe against Catholic philosopher Edward Feser is an example of this. Feser has replied to Coyne. If I were to sum up Feser’s reply in one word, it would be, “Ouch!” I think Feser’s reply is simply devastating to Coyne and I found myself in agreement with most of his points.
But rather than pursue that line of thought, instead I want to offer some positive advice. To provide an atheist twist on another Bible verse often quoted in the Christian apologetics literature (1 Peter 3:15), atheists need to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks to give the reason for why you are a naturalist or an atheist, but do this with gentleness and respect.” To this I would add (but not nearly as eloquently), “And if addressing the arguments or objections of someone who disagrees with you, be informed about their actual position, arguments, and objections.” (Cf. a related comment by Erik Wielenberg on the ‘Courtier’s Reply’ here.)

bookmark_borderChristian Pastor Writes in HuffPo, “There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist”

Pastor Rick Henderson wrote en editorial in yesterday’s Huffington Post provocatively titled, “Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist.” While he does correctly state, “it is true that there is no definitive atheistic worldview,” there is very little else in this article which he gets right.
Here’s Pastor Henderson:

While it is true that there is no definitive atheistic worldview, all atheists share the same fundamental beliefs as core to their personal worldviews. While some want to state that atheism is simply a disbelief in the existence of a god, there really is more to it. Every expression of atheism necessitates at least three additional affirmations:
1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces).
2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.
3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will.

His first point is confused. Probably even most Christians believe the universe is purely material. Presumably what he has in mind instead is this statement: “Reality is purely material.” If that is what he means, however, he’s wrong. The belief that all of reality is purely material is called materialism. 
Atheism is not materialism. (I, for one, am an atheist but not a materialist.) In fact, atheism isn’t even about materialism. Atheism is simply about the (non)-existence of God/god(s). There are many atheists who are open to the existence of immaterial, impersonal entities (so-called “abstract objects“).
So Henderson could not be more mistaken when he writes, “Denial of any one of those three affirmations will strike a mortal blow to atheism.” A denial of materialism does not strike a mortal blow to atheism.
But let’s keep going and see where he goes from here.

Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless.  A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value.”

Even the sort of materialism Henderson has in mind doesn’t lead to the conclusion, “the universe is meaningless.” In the context of his article, there are two kinds of meaning: objective/cosmic/meaning-with-a-capital-“M” and subjective/personal/meaning-with-a lower-case-“m.” Materialism does seem to rule out the first kind of meaning; it does not rule out the second. The second kind of meaning is all we need in order for life, the universe, etc. to be meaningful.

A good atheist — that is, a consistent atheist — recognizes this dilemma. His only reasonable conclusion is to reject objective meaning and morality. Thus, calling him “good” in the moral sense is nonsensical. There is no morally good atheist, because there really is no objective morality. At best, morality is the mass delusion shared by humanity, protecting us from the cold sting of despair.

Like many moral apologists, Henderson is confused about the distinction between entailment and consistency. Consider the question, “Which fast food restaurant is the best?” Suppose there are only two possible answers: McDonald’s and Burger King. Suppose I am a McDonalds-ist, i.e., someone who believes McDonald’s fast food is the best.
Now suppose someone asks me, “Which team will win next year’s Super Bowl?” There are thirty-two teams in the National Football League (NFL) and so thirty-two possible answers. McDonalds-ism is consistent with all thirty-two possible answers:

  • McDonaldis-ism could be true and Seahawks-ism could be true (i.e., the Seattle Seahawks could win);
  • McDonalds-ism could be true and Colts-ism could be true (i.e., the Indianapolis Colts could win); and
  • so forth.

My belief in McDonalds-ism tells us precisely nothing about what I must believe about the next Super Bowl if I want to be consistent. Thus, McDonalds-ism does not entail any answer to the question about the next Super Bowl winner.
Along the same lines, atheism tells us nothing about whether objective morality is true.  Atheism is neither moral nor immoral; rather, it is amoral. By itself, atheism does not make it obligatory, permitted, or forbidden to do anything. It is neither an ethical theory (like utilitarianism) nor a meta-ethical theory (like moral objectivism or moral realism). Atheism entails only one or two conclusions about ethics or meta-ethics:
(1) any theological ethical or meta-ethical theory (such as Divine Command Theory) is false; and
(2) depending on how atheism is defined, then atheism may also entail that noncognitivism is false.
If atheism is defined positively as the belief that God does not exist, then atheism presupposes that the sentence “God does not exist” expresses a proposition and so can be true or false. If, however, that sentence expresses a proposition, that in turn entails that the sentence “God is perfectly morally good” expresses a proposition. But if the latter expresses a proposition, then ethical noncognitivism is false. (See here.)
Let’s move on. Henderson writes:

For those of you who think you’re about to light up this supposed straw man and raze me to the ground, consider the following:

I do think Henderson is tearing down a straw man. His mistake, typical of many moral apologists for theism, is that he uncritically latches onto quotations from atheist nonphilosophers (specifically, biologists) who support his position, while revealing no evidence he is even familiar with the work of atheist philosophers who reject his position.

“Modern science directly implies that there … is no ultimate meaning for humans.”
–William Provine

We’ve commented on biologist William Provine’s claims about morality before. (See here.) I’ll summarize the most important here: It’s far from obvious why Provine thinks that “Modern science directly implies that there … is no ultimate meaning for humans.” At first glance, this seems very implausible because meaning lies within the domain of philosophy, not science. One can’t help but wonder if Provine presupposes scientism and that his statement about the purported conclusions of “modern science” are really just a statement about the implications of scientism. That really doesn’t matter one way or the other, however. All that matters is whether Provine has given a good reason to think that modern science leads to the conclusion that there is no ultimate meaning, which he hasn’t. Provine has provided nothing more than a mere assertion of bias for the non-existence of ultimate meaning for humans.

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. … DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”
–Richard Dawkins

What properties does Dawkins have in mind when he claims that the universe has the properties “we should expect” if there is no objective meaning or morality? And why would those properties be expected? Again, we have a biologist making sweeping claims about philosophy (specifically, metaethics) and, again, we are given no argument for those claims.
Finally, Henderson quotes E.O. Wilson:

“No species, ours included, possesses a purpose beyond the imperatives created by its genetic history.”
–Edward O. Wilson

Like Provine and Dawkins above, this summary sentence by Wilson offers no argument for thinking that its claim is true.
Moving on, Henderson then considers (and rejects) two ways in which atheism and objective morality might be reconciled:
(1) Morality is the result of socio-biological evolution. (I’ve commented on this before. See, for example, here.)
(2) Morality is logical, by which Henderson means that atheists can behave morally. I agree with Henderson that atheists who make this objection have completely missed the point.
What we don’t find in Henderson’s piece is even a hint that he’s aware of serious defenses of objective morality without God by philosophers who specialize in meta-ethics, such as Erik Wielenberg, Quentin Smith, or G.E. Moore (to name just a few).
In short, while Henderson has repeated all of the main talking points for a theist trying to score cheap debate points in a debate about morality without God, he hasn’t even come close to giving a logically correct argument for the claim that “There is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist.”
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bookmark_borderNaturalism, Theism, and Moral Ontology: A Reply to William Lane Craig

Abstract: This paper considers William Lane Craig’s metaethical argument for God’s existence. Roughly, the argument is that the existence of objective moral values provides strong evidence for God’s existence. I consider one by one Craig’s various reasons in support of the argument’s major premise, namely, that objective moral values and the nonexistence of God are at odds with each other. I show that Craig’s supporting arguments play fast and loose with the meaning of objectivity, and that they have no force whatsoever. I conclude that Craig’s argument does not succeed in showing that the existence of objective moral values, by itself, makes God’s existence more probable than not.

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bookmark_borderImportant New (Advanced but) Must-Read Book on Ethics without God by Erik Wielenberg

Image of Book Cover
Oxford University Press has just published the latest book by Erik Wielenberg, entitled Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism. Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that I am a big fan of Wielenberg’s work; his previous books include Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and God and the Reach of Reason: C.S. Lewis, David Hume, and Bertrand Russell (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
As you would expect from with any philosophy book published by a respected academic publisher like OUP, this book is more advanced than, say, Richard Dawkins’s God Delusion or Dan Barker’s Losing Faith in Faith. But I think even nonphilosophers could read and understand this book, and it would be well worth their time and effort to do so.
Here is the table of contents for the book:

1. Metaphysics of Morals: Intrinsic Value, Reasons, and Obligations
2. Cudworth’s Revenge: Answering Theistic Challenges
3. Moral Psychology Meets Reliabilism
4. Answering Evolutionary Debunkers

In chapter one, Wielenberg addresses such foundational topics as intrinsic value, the meaning of life, reasons, obligations, three different types of moral supervenience, and the foundation of ethics. The philosophers he discusses in this chapter include Mackie, Schroeder, Jackson and Brown, and McPherson.
In his next chapter, he confronts head-on various theistic challenges to nontheistic metaethics, including values without God, meaningful lives without God, obligations without God, reasons to be moral without God, empirical evidence about atheism and morality, supervenience without God, theological stateism, and the connection between God and intrinsic value. In this chapter, he discusses the work of philosophers Baggett, Craig, Cudworth, Wainwright, Walls.
In his third chapter, Wielenberg addresses two different systems of epistemology, the “hidden principles claim,” a model of moral knowledge and its virtues, moral emotion (especially disgust), Greene’s rationalization argument, and Greene’s argument from morally irrelevant factors.
In the final chapter, he presents objections to various evolutionary debunking arguments, including those by Harman, Ruse, Mackie, Street, Joyce, and Kahane.
I have only begun reading this book, but my initial impression is that it appears Wielenberg has done his homework and done it very well. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it becomes a classic in the field–the atheistic counterpart to Robert Adams’s excellent book, Finite and Infinite Goods. I think it is essential reading for anyone interested in the interface between metaethics and atheism.
The book is available now from Amazon and other sellers; for those of you who like to read digital versions of books, a Kindle version is available! You can order the book here.
(Thanks to John Danaher for the tip)

bookmark_borderCan Atheism Support Ethical Absolutes? A Reply to Roger Olson

Roger Olson, a fellow Patheos blogger who can be found in the Evangelical channel on Patheos, has recently written a post entitled, “Can Atheism Support Ethical Absolutes? Is Ethics without Absolutes Enough?” In that post, he appeals to what has been called “Karamazov’s Thesis,” which is the claim (attributed to Dostoyevsky), that “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”
For readers who are interested in academic refutations of Karamazov’s thesis, see refutations by Christian philosopher Wes Morriston (here and here)and atheist philosopher Erik Wielenberg (here and here). But for everyone else, this post is for you.
Olson writes:

My point has always been, and I will keep saying it, that only belief in God provides good reason to criticize the bad actions of those who claim to believe in God or who claim to be Christians. The reason I can criticize their practices is precisely because we both believe in a higher power, God, whom we both believe stands above us all as the standard of moral behavior.

In other words, Olson seems to implicitly this.

(1) The only way an objective “standard of moral behavior” can exist is if God exists.

Why should anyone believe that? Olson writes this.

Of course atheists can choose or claim absolutes, but their assertions of the absoluteness of their ethical norms are empty because everything except God changes.

So another premise seems to be:

(2) Everything except God changes.

But it’s crucial to notice that (2) begs the question. If, for example, moral truths are logically necessary truths, which is the case if some form of nontheistic non-natural moral realism is true, then it is false that “everything except God changes.” If it’s a necessary truth that “It’s wrong to torture babies,” that is just an unchanging truth. So Olson can claim “everything except God changes” only by assuming that “an objective standard of moral behavior cannot exist unless God exists.” But “everything except God changes” is supposed to provide the argument for “The only way an objective ‘standard of moral behavior’ can exist is if God exists.” Thus, Olson’s argument is question-begging.
To put this into perspective, consider this. If you’ve read or listened to many theists on so-called “logical” arguments from evil against God’s existence, you’ve probably heard them say that “God” and “evil” are logically compatible. In other words, there is no contradiction between “God exists” and “evil exists.” It’s too bad that many of these same theists, like Olson, often fail to apply the same skepticism to so-called “logical” arguments from morality to God’s existence. In other words, there is no logical contradiction between “There is no God” and “An objective standard of moral behavior exists.”