Sunday, September 7, 2008

Nature gives us morality, not God. And science reveals it, not religion.

Despite the fact that the claim has been dealt with thoroughly by countless authors, the idea that there can be no morality without God keeps popping up, like some tired rubber ducky. It’s like the urban myth that we only use 10% of our brains. Everyone has heard it, everyone repeats it, it doesn’t make any sense at all, it has no empirical support, but it just won’t go away.

So here’s a quick way to characterize the hopeless mess that the claim, “There can be no morality without God” gets you into.

Ambiguities abound here. First we need to separate the ontological claim from the epistemological one. The ontological claim suggested by the tired platitude is that unless God creates or establishes it, morality would not exist in the natural world. Morality does exists in the natural world. Therefore, God created it. Therefore, God exists.

But there are serious problems with both premises. Consider the second claim that morality exists in the natural world: What is the source of ones belief that morality exists? A gut instinct, moral intuition, reasoning, some external source?

If it is a gut instinct or intuition, the problem is that it seems possible to be able to have gut instincts that are unreliable or inauthentic. That is, one could have a powerful intuition that morality is real, but be mistaken. Einstein had a gut instinct that quantum mechanics and indeterminacy was wrong. Newton had an intuition that lead could be turned to gold if he understood the principles of alchemy. If one is having a powerful gut instinct that something like morality is real, then how would one go about confirming or disconfirming that that instinct is a veridical one? Not the instinct itself, or another gut feeling. That’s circular. And that gives no one who doesn’t have the feelings any grounds to accept them. Futhermore, non-believers are desperately tired of having to explain and give details about how notoriously unreliable and dangerous gut instincts are.

So maybe it is reasoning. But if we can reason through to the conclusion that morality is real, if reason can open the window to it, then it would seem that the original claim that morality must come from God is mistaken.

If we can’t reason to it, then it’s not clear how one could have any grounds or reasons for thinking the claim is true. Why should we accept the claim that morality is real then?

Now consider the first premise. Suppose someone claims that the source of their knowledge that God is the source of morality is God himself, by way of the Bible or some religious documents. Now we’ve got a circularity problem again. Now we’re arguing that morality must have come from God because God says that it comes from God. First, how do we know what God says? The Bible and all the other religious documents we’ve been offerred are pretty poorly written, contradictory, patchworks of ideas. It’s certainly not obvious that they are to be trusted as always accurate. In fact, in lots of cases we know that they are mistaken about important historical details that we have investigated independently. Second, even if we think that the documents like the Bible accurately reflect what God said, what are our grounds for thinking that those claims are true? Those sources again? We know that what God says in the Bible is true because the Bible says that what God says there is true? Establishing that the record is accurate about what God said is one thing, establishing that those claims are also true is another matter. (Those two are frequently conflated.) If I want to check to see if a book actually contains the words that the author wrote, I might check with the author—but even that might not work if the author gets confused or has a bad memory. But we can’t do anything like that with the Bible. Checking with other copies of the Bible might establish at most that what one copy contains matches what another one contains. (When we have done this with the different copies of the Bible have been shockingly different.) And clearly it won’t do to simply point to the book itself to confirm that what the book says is true. Circular reasoning doesn’t give anyone grounds for accepting a conclusion.

Now let’s consider the epistemological claim reflected by “unless people believe in God, they won’t be moral.” By “epistemological” I mean that maybe people cannot know morality without God’s involvement in some way. But there’s another ambiguity here. Does the claim mean that people won’t behave in a way that outwardly appears to be decent and moral, or does it mean that even if appear to be behaving themselves, they really aren’t moral because of their failure to understand or think about morality and God in the right way? If the idea is that people who don’t believe in God won’t even appear to be decent, moral people by their actions, then obviously that is mistaken. There are and have been billions of people on the planet who do not believe in the classic monotheistic God of the Bible, Koran, or Torah, who have perfectly decent lives that, aside from some particulars, look just like the lives of Bible believing Christians, or Koran citing Muslims. It would be preposterous to suggest that billions of Buddhists, which by most accounts is an atheistic doctrine, don’t even act morally. It seems absurd even to suggest that on the whole their behaviors tend to be less apparently moral. But that would be an empirical question that could be readily settled, and it’s a question that the defender of the “No morality without God” claim most likely has not investigated.

So is the claim that even though all of those billions of people might look like they are decent people, but really, in their hearts they are wicked because they are not motivated by God or don’t have the right sort of ideas about their moral decisions? Again, this is preposterous. The problem defaults to the dilemma above. How does the believer come to have this knowledge about the proper source of ideas about morality? A gut instinct? Of course, a lot of those Buddhists and other non-believers have powerful gut instincts about what’s right and wrong too. What informs us that their moral intuitions are mistaken but the God believer’s are correct? Another intuition? That’s a painfully tight little circle the believer would have to defend. Is it reasoning? So we can determine with reasoning that unless people have the rightly Godly ideas about morality, they aren’t really moral—they only look like it? But now the believer has contradicted the original claim. This means that one’s source of knowledge about morality actually arises from reasoning, not God. Oh, reasoning ultimately comes from God you say? How do we determine that? With more reasoning (which would be self-refuting), or by appealing back to God (circular)? And notice that now we’ve left the question of morality, or traced it back to something else entirely, which means that morality isn’t really based on God directly, and the whole point of this was to prove that it is. So again, the believer’s claim that morality requires God falls apart.

As it turns out, the only method we have ever come upon that isn’t flagrantly circular or patently false for establishing that something is real is by forming hypotheses about it, making predictions, testing those predictions against empirical observations, repeating the testing, and then confirming or disconfirming them on the basis of carefully scrutinized, peer-reviewed argument and data. And that method has shown us that morality is an objective, real phenomena. We have found basic moral behaviors across all human cultures. We have found proto-moral behaviors in many animals. Stephen Pinker, Frans de Waal, Jonathan Haidt and many others have produced compelling research that shows that the analogs of all the basic human moral behaviors can be found in other animals and there are a number of theories about the evolutionary mechanisms that would have produced them. More importantly, these theories can be empirically investigated, they can make predictions, and they can be confirmed or disconfirmed without committing the mistakes that the God believer falls into here.

So in the end, the claim that without God there can be no morality is either hopelessly circular, or its patently false. And ironically, it’s science and evolution that show us that morality is objective and real, not religion.


Eric Sotnak said...

Matt McCormick wrote:
" some tired rubber ducky."

Thanks for that. You just made my morning.

Anonymous said...

Second, even if we think that the documents like the Bible accurately reflect what God said, what are our grounds for thinking that those claims are true? Those sources again? We know that what God says in the Bible is true because the Bible says that what God says there is true?

Actually, a plain reading of the Bible (Gen 2:17) tells us that God is a liar.

Aspentroll said...

There are a lot more people in the world who do not believe in the "god of the desert" than do and I include Islam. It is common sense to believe that these people have a morality similar to ours.

Morality happens because most people are not comfortable with the undesirable acts of others. Then rules are made to prohibit these acts.
Criminal codes are not acts of any gods.

Who, in their right minds these days, would want to have to live under the laws of the of Yaweh or Allah?

Josh May said...

It is shocking how the no-morality-without-God argument is one of the preferred arguments peddled around by theists in the U.S. these days and yet it is such a horrible argument.

But I do have two comments/worries about some of your points:

(1) In discussing the second premise, you write that their arguments for it are typically at odds with the first premise. That seems right in many ways. However, you say:

"...if we can reason through to the conclusion that morality is real, if reason can open the window to it, then it would seem that the original claim that morality must come from God is mistaken."

I'm not sure this is right. Why can't the theist just say that morality is a divine sort of thing (so it has to have been created by a God) but reason is an epistemic route to knowledge of the nature of morality at least (not the correct first-order moral theory)? They would need some of argument for this, but it seems like your criticism alone can't block it.

It seems like you're thinking that the claim that God is the source of morality precludes the claim that we can know something about the nature of morality through reasoning. I guess I'm just not sure that that's right. Compare: Suppose a French citizen says "The content of the U.S. constitution depends on the activity of some humans, though I'm not one of them." This person just has the concept of the U.S. constitution and knows that its content depends on some people other than her, and she knows this by thinking clearly and reflectively about the concept she has of the U.S. constitution.

(2) You say toward the end that science is the "the only method we have ever come upon that isn’t flagrantly circular or patently false for establishing that something is real." This is a common theme in current atheism. However, I think there is a serious worry here about making the scientific method the only route to the truth or knowledge about what's real. Of course, I loves me some science. But I think it's clear that not everything is known through the methods of the natural sciences.

And I think this is a bad sort of assumption to make especially when debating with theists about morality. I worry that the theist is just going to win if we accept the burden of explaining the existence of objective moral facts through science. I think theists would likewise win the debate (just in the sense of having a more powerful or convincing argument) if we allowed them to saddle the atheist with the burden of explaining the existence of objective mathematical truths by empirical science. I just think there are plenty of ways to show that the no-morality-without-God argument is flawed without resulting to the claim that we only know stuff through science.

It think it shouldn't be that atheists have to hold that a truth is known only through science. And it likewise shouldn't be that theists have to hold that things are known through either science or religious intuition/revelation/hope/faith. We should, I think, all just be able to agree that we need reasons or justification for our beliefs. Science often provides that, but so do other methods. And mere faith, hope, etc. do not.

Just some thoughts. I'd be interested to see what you think. Thanks for the post!


Anonymous said...

Matt, do all arguments deduce to circular reasoning? For example, why do we rely on our sense experience when in fact it has been unreliable many times. Or the notion of our existence.

Anonymous said...

"it’s science and evolution that show us that morality is objective and real".
My reading of the scientific evidence is not that it provides an objective morality, but rather a subjective ones. Different moralities arise in different conditions and advantage different types of individuals.

I don't share your optimism with respect to science. It may be able to tell us how to act in order to achieve what we want, or what the probability is that certain actions will prevent the worst case scenario, but it will never be able to tell us what we should want. At some point it becomes more important to know who the scientists are working for.

Anonymous said...

I still do not understand the claim that morality is from evolution. How does a instinct or intuition tell us what is right or wrong?

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks to all who have commented. This seems to have gotten some people stirred up.

Josh, great comments. I always tell my students not to turn in their first drafts--I should heed my own advice. I think you're right about the science claim. I guess I'll say that science is the best method we have for determining what's real. And it's really just a side comment. Studies in biology and anthropology have been able to confirm the existence of analogs of human moral behavior in animals. Community, fairness, sympathy, and other rudiments of human moral systems are present in a number of "lower" animals.

On your first point. I put that wrong. Notice that I'm addressing this argument:

1. Unless God creates or establishes it, morality would not exist in the natural world.
2. Morality does exists in the natural world.
3. Therefore, God created it.
4. Therefore, God exists.

If the principles of morality can be revealed by reason, then the theist has got a problem in this argument. The argument alleges to show God's existence from the existence of morality. If an inquiry by reason produces the fundamental principles of morality (as Kant said it does), then the inexplicableness of morality can't be invoked to prove God any more. It won't do for the theist to say, "Well, God produces morality, reason is just our route to it. Therefore God exists." That's circular again. What we're trying to do is find some independent grounds for God's existence. They can't argue from the premise "God produces morality" to the conclusion "therefore God exists." Maybe that's a better way to put my point.

Anonymous, again, take a look at the work of Frans de Waal, Jonathan Haidt, and Stephen Pinker. I've cited them several times here.


Josh May said...

Hey, MM. Thanks for clarifying. I take your point. However, I still think the theist might have some sort of response.

I'm imagining the theist distinguishing very strictly between morality and the concept of morality. Most of us have the concept of morality. Presumably, we need it to debate the issue at all. So can't the theist say the following?

"We've got this concept of morality. And if we think carefully about it, we notice that it is divine in a certain sense---namely, if there is something in the world that falls under the concept, then it must have a divine source."

Of course, after endorsing this sort of divine command theory, the theist has to claim that some things do fall under the concept---there are instances of morality or moral actions or whatever---to then claim that God exists. And this is what you contend she can't do since she will have to abandon divine command theory to show that morality exists. I take it that one way to summarize your point is: divine command theory is incompatible with a moral rationalism like Kant's. That seems right, unless one has a very implausible view of our rational faculty according to which our rational moral judgments always accord exactly with God's will.

But I'm imagining the theist as distinguishing also between the correct principles of morality and morality itself. I'm thinking that "morality itself" is something like a property, perhaps of actions. In this way, I think the theist doesn't have to endorse moral rationalism in order to support the second premise of the argument (the premise that morality does exists in the natural world). She can deny having any knowledge of the correct fundamental principles of morality by anything other than God's will; she simply holds that she does have some very general knowledge about the nature of this property of moral wrongness.

So, I guess I'm assuming that it's not implausible for the theist to hold divine command theory, deny moral rationalism, but still hold that morality exists (where I'm thinking of this as the claim that there are moral facts, properties, etc.). After all, we don't tend to think that we must have a correct first-order ethical theory in hand in order to make the general, meta-ethical claim that morality exists---that certain things are morally right or wrong, good or bad.

Now, I think there is plenty to object to in this theistic response. But I'm just trying to play devil's advocate (no pun intended) to see if one could get around your argument. Frankly, if you're right and I'm wrong, you've got a nice argument here---one that I'd love to endorse. :)


Matt McCormick said...

Thanks again Josh for reading so closely and thinking hard about this. A few comments:

first, you're right, there will be some theists somewhere who won't be convinced about this. You're not really doing this, but I often get comments from people who outline some new, convoluted position that my argument seems to have pushed the theist back to, and then they say, "Well, what do you say about that? huh? smarty pants?" I can only take on so much at one time, and I've opted for fast, loose, and provocative in these blog posts, not careful and bulletproof. (But that's no defense of my argument, of course.)

What about the divine command theorist who denies a rational theory of morality? Well, once someone has been pushed back to here, I think they've got a whole shit load of new troubles having to do with DCT, but not so much the argument I have given here. They'll need to deal with the Euthyphro dilemma, obviously. And a lot of what I have to say about Divine Command Theory I've written up in all the "Morality and Atheism posts over on the left side. As far as I can tell, divine command theory is just a non-starter. I think there are VERY few serious moral theorists, not just a hack like me, who take it seriously. And I always have this very simple point to make. Deciding to act according to one divine command instead of another is itself a moral choice that one has to make on your own. It really doesn't matter that some magical being in the sky commanded it--you've got to find some grounds other than that for deciding that it is the RIGHT thing to do. Believers do this on a regular basis when they opt to abide by some commandments but ignore others, like the ones about executing anyone who violates the 10 commandments.
Thanks again.

* Heroism and the Duty to Rescue Show that there is No God
* The Believer's Moral Double Standard for God
* The New Ten Commandments
* No Moral Truths, No God
* Monkey Morality, or Goodness Isn’t Magical
* Stephen Pinker: Instinct for Morality
* Trying to be Moral Through the Distorted Lens of the Bible
* Incoherent: I believe because it makes me moral.
* Believing in God is Immoral
* Does the Theist Have a Moral Advantage over the Atheist?
* Can Atheists be Moral?

Anonymous said...

If nature gives us morality, then the reason we have morality is due to the way the natural world is.

If the natural world was created, then it follows that, our morality was given by that creator.

Pinker's argument is strongest for an objective moral sense, which is very different than what is commonly called an object morality.

Eric Sotnak said...

If the theist wants to claim that morality has a divine origin, I think it is incumbant on the theist to say just how this happens. How does God CREATE morality, and how can the theist maintain this thesis without running afoul of the Euthyphro problem? If the theist is pressed on this point, I think a better answer is called for than "well, I think that reason is a way we can know about the nature of divinely created morality, but at the same time I deny that the nature of morality is completely arbitrary in the way suggested by the Euthyphro problem". The theist can even say, "I don't know the details of the story that needs to be told to meake sense of things here, but I accept on faith that such a story can be told". But this admission weakens the claim that God MUST be posited as the source of (objective) morality so much as to render it impotent. It reduces to the mere assertion that God is necessary for morality, and provides no positive grounds undergirding such an assertion.

I think this is substantively the same point Matt makes.

Anonymous said...


is that list in your last comment to other blog entries of yours? I've notice you also post entire URLs in your comments elsewhere. The problem is that they sometimes get cut off for not fitting on one line. You should use a little html in your comment (the "a" tag) to turn them into links, and with long URLs to just hyperlink some text. It makes it easier to navigate and connect your blog entries. I've also found just putting in a "further reading" kind of list of links at the bottom of an entry related to other topics does the job too; plus you can throw in off-site links in that list as well. Just some logistics stuff I thought I'd throw out there, from one blogger to another!

Matt McCormick said...

Yeah, you're right Bryan. I'm sometimes in a hurry, and the blogger software doesn't make doing that as easy as I wish it did. I'll see if I can fix it.

Anonymous said...

The comment below is a false dichotomy. It could be true

"So in the end, the claim that without God there can be no morality is either hopelessly circular, or its patently false"

Anonymous said...

Science is descriptive whilst morailty is prescriptive. How can you get moraility from science?

David Hume's counterfeit spirit

Becky said...

I just came across a really interesting website in which it was announced that a book concerning this very topic, science and spirituality,
is going to be released in October. The book is titled, “Healing the Rift,” by Leo Kim.
I was really encouraged when I read what this book entails. Apparently the author of this book has extensive experience working in cancer wards. He writes about his experiences and analyzes them on a scientific and spiritual level. This book just may help answer the question as to whether or not science and god do coexist. Definitely sounds interesting no matter what your beliefs are.

Anonymous said...

"Consider the second claim that morality exists in the natural world: What is the source of ones belief that morality exists? A gut instinct, moral intuition, reasoning, some external source?"

I wonder how you would answer this. I suspect you ultimately would reason from some gut instinct.