In my last post, I asked the question, can science tell us what we ought to do. My short answer there was “not really.” I’d like to elaborate and modify that answer. Science is a far better method for answering all of the questions that concern human flourishing than any other approach we have, including religion.
Consider this question: What are the valuable questions to have answered in our efforts to live a good life? And once we have a sense of what these questions are, let’s think about the different approaches we might have to answering them. Here are a number of candidates in no particular order:
How can I live longer?
What will make me healthy?
Which vices am I prone to?
Which virtues are the hardest to obtain?
What are the best methods for achieving virtues and avoiding vices?
Which cognitive practices are best for cultivating happiness and fulfillment?
What sorts of lifestyle choices will produce the most happiness and fulfillment?
What sort of education and treatment will be most effective in my children’s education?
What sorts of treatment and what kind of parenting will do my children the most good? The most harm?
What are the best ways to discourage criminal behavior in myself and others?
What are the relative harms of various behaviors?
What are the benefits of various behaviors?
What sorts of social environments are most conducive to human flourishing?
Which social circumstances are the most detrimental to human flourishing?
What sorts of social relationships do humans need in order to flourish?
What are the most effective means for avoiding and defeating addictions?
What sorts of choices are most effective at preventing addiction?
If we seek to improve the lives of others, where are our efforts most productively directed?
What are the dangers of technological innovations?
How can we best prevent and treat disease?
How can we rectify famines, plagues, droughts, floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters?
How can we build the best infrastructure for human societies?
What sorts of job pursuits, and working conditions are most conducive to human flourishing?
What are the best methods for establishing public safety?
What are the best methods for education?
What are the most effective methods for rectifying inequalities and bias?
What are the best methods for eliminating human pain and suffering?
What makes humans sick?
Which treatments can cure them?
Which are the best medical treatments?
What harms does poverty do to humans?
How much alcohol is good for humans?
Is smoking a healthy habit?
Do drugs do harms to people?
What are those harms?
Which methods of birth control work?
What sort of family structure and family relationships are most conducive to human satisfaction and success?
What are the differences between people’s perceptions of the truth and the truth?
What are the best methods for achieving mental well-being?
What are the negative and/or positive effects on humans of environmental factors such as air, water, and noise pollution?
Which political systems achieve the high degree of human freedom, fulfillment, and happiness?
What are the effects of various features of an economic system on the welfare of the humans in it?
It seems to me that science is vastly better qualified and demonstratively successful at giving us answers to all of these questions whereas religion fails horribly, or just has nothing to say about most of them. What resources are available to the Christian religion, for instance, for addressing these questions? The Bible is a collection of scattered writings from a variety of Iron Age authors that contains some opinions about some of these matters. But as the idiosyncratic views of just a few under-informed writers from pre-industrial, agrarian cultures, they are of limited use and often just flatly mistaken. Personal, anecdotal opinions about empirical matters are notoriously unreliable, even when these opinions come from wise, experienced sources. We won’t take seriously the claim that the views about these matters in the Bible can be trusted because the authors are channeling some infallible divine source. There are far too many gaps, confusions, contradictions, and flat out mistakes for that to be true. If the Bible authors got their information from some supernatural source, that source has proven himself to be highly unreliable. The musings of a church leader, or the recommendations from a pastor’s sermon aren’t much better since they too are subjective, biased, and anecdotal.
But carefully constructed, double-blinded clinical trials on medications, or large scale, objective analyses of data from scientific investigations give us real, accurate answers. When we gather large amounts of data with methods that are designed to prevent filtering and bias, and then when we evaluate that data actively looking for disconfirmations of a hypothesis using the established principles of sound empirical research, we do a far better job at getting at the truth than any other method.
If you care about human well-being, including your own, it is hard to imagine a single topic where science is not prepared to give you a better answer that is based on the facts. And what is a moral system if it doesn’t take the well-being of humans or sentient beings as its central aim?
Science is absolutely central to informing us about what we ought to do.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Monday, December 14, 2009
The standard theist answer is an emphatic no. They’ve repeated the answer countless times without really looking at the evidence. The first problem is that the claim is confused about several different distinctions. Let’s separate some questions:
Can the theory of evolution give us an account of how natural selection might have worked on humans (and other animals) to endow them with a moral sense? Yes. Even since Darwin, people have put forward ideas about how evolutionary forces could have selected for certain kinds of cognitive constitution in early hominids over others. The answer will depend on what we mean by moral sense. Perhaps the question is: Can evolution give us an account of why we care about each other, or why to do good things for each other, why we are generous or compassionate, why we have a sense of justice? Yes, it does. Barbara Kind, Frans de Waal, Marc Hauser, Patricia Churchland, Philip Kitcher, and many others have given careful accounts, supported by empirical observations, of how the process of evolution might have selected for individuals with some behaviors, preferences, and sensitivities and not others. As with any scientific theory, more empirical research and investigation will make progress on figured out which theory best accounts for the facts.
Can the theory of natural selection make us want to be better, more moral people? No. The theory is neutral in this regard. It just tells us what we are. But the process of natural selection does appear to have left us with some very strong desires to be better, more moral people. So evolution has made us want to be moral. But it has also made us favor foods that have very high calorie densities. In the wild, nuts with their high fat content were an important find when food is scarce. But I shouldn’t be following that same preference by ordering another slice of calorie rich cheesecake.
But can divine command theory make us want to be better, more moral people? No, it can’t. What believing that God commands X and forbids Y can do, especially if it is coupled with a threat of punishment or the promise of reward, is give you some incentive to engage in more behaviors that appear to be moral. But acting for the sake of reward or out of a fear of punishment isn’t moral behavior. That’s save-your-ass behavior. That’s utterly selfish, amoral behavior. Moral behavior requires other directed, other concerned, non-self interested motivation. Kant argues that in order for an act to be morally good, it must arise from the right sort of principled motivation that recognizes the autonomy and value of another person as a self-governing being. Real moral actions are one’s that transcend concern about yourself and that recognize others as beings who make choices, employ reason, and have freedom. Following orders from God either because he issued them or because of fear of punishment actually thwarts individual responsibility, freedom, and reason. Even if God commands that we act in selfless ways that acknowledge the rational autonomy of others, doing so isn’t moral if your motivation is that God commanded it.
Socrates showed us in the Euthyphro that whatever God commands, the question of whether that commandment is the morally right thing to do is a completely separate matter. Deciding either to do what God commands (because you are free) itself is a decision that concludes “What God commands is good.” And that is a moral decision that must be made on the basis of grounds other than the mere fact that God commanded it.
Can evolutionary theory tell us what we ought to do? Not really. It can tell us what we are and how we are built. It can tell us what sorts of behaviors are favorable to survival, and so on. But whether or not you ought to do any of the things that you are built to do is a separate question. You’ll have to have some better reasons to do it than the mere fact that we are biologically inclined to do some things rather than others. Biology may have endowed us with inclinations that themselves are immoral. This is the infamous is-ought problem. But the mistake is thinking that this problem is confined only to naturalized accounts of ethics. The is-ought problem is everyone’s challenge, especially for those that think morality comes from God.
Thinking that God wants us to do some things and not others can’t tell you that you ought to do it either. First, the diversity of religious views and the countless instances of doctrinal in fighting over every moral and religious question makes is obvious that there are no clear answers about what God wants us to do, especially among the people who are most convinced that we should do what God commands. Second, even if someone (mistakenly) concludes that God clearly wants us to do this and not that, whether or not you ought to do what God commands remains to be seen. It doesn’t become something you ought to do merely from the fact that God commands it, or you’d be busy right now committing genocide against the Midianite men, women and boys, but saving 32,000 virgin girls for your own use (Numbers 31), or wiping out the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Prizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites. (Deuteronomy 7 1-2). You’d be fulfilling the command to perform human sacrifices (Leviticus 27: 28-29, Judges 11:29-40, II Samuel 21: 1-9.) Or you’d enslave other humans (Exodus 21: 2-6). Or you’d be following God’s commandment to punish witchcraft, heresy, violating the Sabbath, adultery, blasphemy, and back talking your parents with death. (Exodus 22:20, 31: 14-15, Leviticus 20:10 and 24: 16, and Exodus 21:17). If women seriously thought that we ought to follow God’s commands, then they’ he’d this one: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife. . . Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let wives be to their own husbands in everything.” (Ephesians 5:22). (I wish my wife believed that, then I could order her to go make me a sandwich right now.)
Moral philosophers have offered us a number of powerful theories about what we ought to do based on reasoning about morality. These accounts do have the potential to show us what we ought to do. Here are very short statements of just ten of them. There are many more and there are in depth background discussions of each in the authors’ works. One point to note is that none of them mention God. Another is that these philosophers are making an earnest effort to give a reasoned, principled, consistent, and convincing account of why we should do some things and not others.
1. Treat others as ends in themselves, never as mere means. (Kant)
2. A man [should]be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defense of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be content with as much liberty with others as he would allow them against him.(Hobbes)
3. “If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. . . . The principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering of any other being.” (Singer)
4. Eudaimonia, or flourishing, for humanity can only be achieved by acquiring virtue with regard to that which sets us apart, or our capacity to guide our own behavior by reason. Fulfillment can be achieved by living well according to this essential nature over the span of a whole life. (Aristotle)
5. Act according to that principle that will promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number.(Mill)
6. Only have aversion for those things that are in your control If you are averse to sickness, or death, or poverty, you will be wretched. . . .If you desire any of the things which are not in your own control, you must necessarily be disappointed; and of those which are, and which it would be laudable to desire, nothing is yet in your possession. (Epictetus)
7. “Man first of all is the being who hurls himself toward a future and who is conscious of imagining himself as being in the future. Man is at the start a plan which is aware of itself, rather than a patch of moss, a piece of garbage, or a cauliflower; nothing exists prior to this plan; there is nothing in heaven; man will be what he will have planned to be." (Sartre)
8. It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. (Epicurus)
9. Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others. And social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that : a) they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society b) offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity (Rawls)
10. Refraining mutually from injury, exploitation, and putting one's will on a par with others, may lead to a certain degree of good conduct among individuals. But to make it a fundamental principle of society is a will to the denial of life, a principle of dissolution and decay. (Nietzsche)
Many people think that it is a serious blow against atheism and evolutionary accounts of human origins that they cannot explain morality. The problem is that in many regards, evolutionary theory does explain morality. But even if moral behavior was a mystery from an evolutionary standpoint (it isn’t), we still wouldn’t have any grounds to prefer a divine explanation for moral behavior. Adding God to the discussion just doesn’t do any explanatory work for us in helping us understand what is right and wrong, what the human moral conscience is, or what we ought to do. We will all encounter challenging, morally complex situations. And in order to get through them, we will have to think about the reasons we have for various actions. And we will have to decide which reasons are better and which are worse. Thinking that God commands something won’t help us decide if it really is morally good to do that. That is, no one can escape the burden of moral responsibility for their actions. And the only tools we have for solving those dilemmas are our powers of reasoning. Some of the very best reasoners among us about moral matters have been philosophers advancing theories of morality. Those accounts do much more towards answering the question of what we ought to do. And they can supplement the evolutionary accounts that we are developing about what sorts of creatures we are. The answer to the lead question is that evolution and philosophy can explain morality, but appeals to God cannot.
Saturday, December 12, 2009
For decades, the patent offices have been besieged with applications for patents on perpetual motion machines, anti-gravity devices, and other kooky contraptions. Eventually the offices in the U.S. and Britain had received so many and had wasted so much of their resources investigating them, they made a policy that they would not consider any application for a perpetual motion machine patent unless the author could produce a working model.
We could say that the offices migrated from being agnostic about their possibility to being defeasible atheists about them. The laws of physics are not completely known, and we could always be surprised, but countless failed attempts to produce such a machine and their knowledge of the laws of thermodynamics have made it reasonable for them to conclude that such a thing is naturally impossible. I also think we can agree that this conclusion is eminently justified and for them to remain agnostic about the existence of such a device would be silly, unnecessarily cautious, and disingenuous.
We’re in similar position about God. Agnostics have the view that they don’t know whether or not God exists. So the ordinary agnostic acknowledges that none of the various cases that are often presented for the existence of God is sufficiently compelling. The question is, in an epistemic situation where there is no compelling evidence for the existence of a thing, what are the circumstances that warrant deciding that no such thing exists versus merely suspending judgment about it.
Our situation is very much like the situation with regard to perpetual motion machines. We have countless examples of gods that people have thought were real, but turned out to be mistakes. See 500 Dead Gods. We have a good understanding of what is often really going on in those mistaken cases. People are subject to enthusiasm. They are prone to make mistakes. A variety of psychological phenomena seem to contribute to the occurrence and powerful character of religious experiences. Science has offered us natural explanations that supplant the divine explanations. And so on.
Furthermore, like the perpetual motion machine, the God hypothesis, if true, would fly in the face of countless other physical facts that we know about the world. We have never been able to corroborate a single instance of an immaterial soul that exists without a body. There has never been a single observable case of a consciousness, human or divine, that was able to exist without a functioning brain and nervous system. In every case where a supernatural, spiritual, or spooky cause or entity has been alleged to be real, our investigations have found nothing. Prayers don’t work. Nature is causally closed such that events within it are always precipitated by other physical causes.
There are things we do not know, of course. But there is every indication that we will continue to uncover the physical, mechanical, chemical, and biological causes for those things with empirical science just like we have done with everything else. Given what we do know about nature, discovering that there is an invisible, being with a consciousness that exists beyond the natural realm and who interacts with the natural realm would be about as plausible as finding out that the moon really is made of green cheese. We can’t say that such a thing is deductively impossible, but it is completely absurd. And someone who insisted on being agnostic about the possibility is being only marginally less irrational than someone who insists that it is true because they have a magic book that says so.
Being agnostic when the evidence for God is so poor and the evidence in favor of naturalism is so good amounts to a sort of ad hoc foot dragging. That same agnostic would never claim that the only reasonable position is to suspend judgment about a cheese moon, or invisible elves, or Thor, or Santa. In order for agnosticism to be justified in such a situation, there must be some evidential considerations that elevate the remote possibility into the range where the claim is nearly as likely to be true as false. The mere possibility that it is true never justifies treating it as a live enough hypothesis to warrant suspending judgment. There must be more going for the claim before we can give it that sort of respect.
So if atheism about Sobek, Paluga, Thor, Gefjun, Krakus, and all the others is justified, then which hypothesis is left standing and what are the considerations that boost it up out of the class of already rejected ideas? If, against all the odds, you’ve got a perpetual motion machine then by all means let’s see it. Otherwise, the only reasonable position to take is that no such thing exists.
Monday, December 7, 2009
Larry Brand, a documentary film maker, just interviewed me for a film he’s making about atheists. Our discussion got me to thinking about agnosticism. Here’s a clearer statement of my view of it than I think I’ve given of it before.
There are a lot of thoughtful people out there who claim to be agnostic about the existence of God. They will acknowledge that many of the more evangelical and traditional conceptions of God do not make sense. They are not comfortable with the more literal readings of various religious texts or with a strongly anthropomorphic god because they acknowledge the host of problems associated with that position.
But as they see it, there is still a live possibility lingering here that the atheist has been too quick to dismiss. It’s the idea of an absolute ground of being, a source of meaning, a force, a power, or something that exerts influence on the universe with some purpose in mind. It is something that is greater than us, and it is more than can be explained or understood in merely naturalistic or material terms. We’ll call this a supernatural force, or SF. And the omni-God that so many people believe but that this agnostic doesn’t accept is the OG.
First, we should note that we’re not really talking about any sort of recognizable belief in God any more. We’d be hard pressed to even call a belief in an SF a kind of theism. In mainstream religious movements in the West, God has (at least) five essential features. He’s all powerful, all knowing, all good, there’s just one of them, and he’s a personal, conscious being. This last one is the most important for this discussion. Traditionally, God is anthropomorphic—he has a mind or thoughts, he has a plan, and he forms personal emotional and loving relationships with humans. And it’s really this aspect of God that the SF agnostic has moved the furthest away from. This is probably because to the extent to which we endow God with personal, caring, teleological, and conscious motives we make it harder and harder to reconcile that God with the facts. In many people’s minds, suffering, evolution, randomness, and the relative unimportance of humans in the big picture seem to indicate that the world just doesn’t have one of those sorts of beings in it. If it did, there are too many things about the world that would be different. So the SF agnostic has, more or less, conceded the atheist’s point about the sort of God that the vast majority of humans believe in. The SF agnostic is actually an atheist about God, Allah, Jehovah, Zeus, Thor, Sobek, Puluga, and all the rest. She only has reservations leading to suspension of belief about some much more nebulous, non-traditional and non-anthropomorphic thing. If she and the wide atheist are disagreeing about anything, it is about the conditions under which it is reasonable to suspend judgment about a hypothesis vs. simply disbelieving it.
We should allow that some of the difference in epistemic policy here can be legitimately due to different personal preferences. Experience may have led one person to want to be more cautious about lending her assent (or dissent) to hypotheses and generally taking her time in gathering evidence and formulating opinions. While another person may have more of a shoot first, ask questions later approach and be less inclined to suspend judgment about anything unless some relatively specific conditions are met. But if the former person’s policy leads her to think she should be agnostic about Zeus, Sobek, and Gefjun (the Norwegian goddess of agriculture), instead of simply disbelieving them, then she’s being too skittish, unrealistic, or just pretentious. And if the latter person is inclined to just reject everything unless some substantial evidence can be produced in its favor, then he’s being thoughtless and injudicious.
Personal preferences aside, what should it take for a hypothesis to warrant a serious agnosticism? I cannot be merely that it is might be true or it is some conceivable possibility. There are a host of other things that are possible, but reasonable people are not agnostic about them: elves, Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and Chupacabras. It is possible that the Holocaust didn’t happen, or that opening an umbrella indoors is bad luck. But it would be silly to be agnostic about any of these on the grounds that they are possible. In order to warrant a considerate agnosticism, there must be more in favor of a claim. There has to be at least enough evidence in its favor to elevate its likelihood from the merely possible into a range where it could turn out to be true. If the probability that a claim is true ranges from 0 to 1, and the tipping point from probably not true to probably true is .5, then surely the reasonable range for agnosticism for a hypothesis is in the vicinity of .5. Let’s just stipulate that it’s .4 to .6. Greater than that and you’ve got grounds to believe it, and less than that you should disbelieve it. You wouldn’t assign a .5 probability to the existence of Santa, or to the claim that wearing a raw steak hat wards off illness. Those are probably way down in 0 to .1 range. And you would assign a very high probability to the claim that Barak Obama is the President of the U.S.
So what does it take to elevate a claim into the .4 to .6 range? The agnostic we are considering has granted that the anthropomorphic, traditional conceptions of God that so many other people believe in are not real. So those fictions, and those people’s beliefs in them shouldn’t count as someone boosting the supernatural force hypothesis up into the suspension-of-judgment range. The widespread beliefs in Santa, or ghosts, or the view that having sex with a virgin will cure HIV don’t do anything to make those claims even slightly more likely to be true. So widespread belief in an OG shouldn’t influence the probability that we assign to an SF.
This hypothesis will seem ad hoc, nevertheless, I’m going to put it out there because I think it really is at the heart of agnosticism that some people claim to subscribe to. Some agnostics are actually people who want to be believers, but they just can’t bring themselves to disregard all the counter indications.
To be honest, I think that what happens for a lot of agnostics is that they started out believing in an OG. They were raised religious, participated in religion with their friends and family, and they even enjoyed it or found it fulfilling. But as they explored the question intellectually they came to acknowledge that really what’s entailed by those religious doctrines can’t be true. They couldn’t reconcile the religion that they knew with the rest of what they know about the world. So they, perhaps grudgingly, gave up on that notion. But a desire to be religious in some form lingers, and there is still a great deal of appeal in the idea of some transcendent, supernatural force that holds out hope for something more than just matter and the reality we are faced with here. So these agnostics back off of the traditional notion of a thundering, judging, Biblical creator God but hold some optimism for an SF. They remain agnostic about that possibility because that idea doesn’t have the glaring inconsistencies that sabotaged traditional belief for them. If it is these sorts of personal desires that have led to a person’s elevating the possibility of an SF to the agnostic range, then I think this sort of agnosticism is ill-founded. If what’s really going on in their heads is that they wish they could believe in God, but they can’t bring themselves to buy into the deeply problematic being who is the center of belief for so many other people, then they don’t really have any evidence that would warrant suspension of belief about an SF; they are, more or less, religious believer wannabees. Subjective motivations like desire, need, hope, or psychological affect should not be permitted to influence the objective probability value that we assign to some claim about reality. My wanting to win the lottery, no matter how bad, doesn’t actually change the odds in the slightest—Oprah and The Secret notwithstanding.
Maybe if we consider a paradigm case of suspension of belief about some other hypothesis it can shed some light on the appropriate circumstances for agnosticism about God. Not everyone will agree with me, but the existence of intelligent alien life seems like a hypothesis that it would be wise to be agnostic about. It is certainly possible that it exists, and there are many considerations that lead us to think that the probability could be much higher than zero. We know life developed in our case, and given the enormous numbers of stars and planets in the universe, those conditions could be found in many other places. But there is too much we don’t know about the prevalence of planets with life conducive conditions. Even when life develops, it may be extraordinary for it to develop into intelligent life. Evolving to the point where they can engage in space travel or interstellar communication may be very, very difficult even if life turns out to be relatively common. Some thoughtful people conducting the search for extra terrestrial intelligence are divided about the issue. And so on.
What does this example show us? The idea can’t be merely consistent with what we know. If we make goblins undetectable, or give Santa a cloaking device, those hypotheses can be made consistent with everything else we know. There has to at least some plausibility to the hypothesis such that it could fit in with the known facts. We need to have, at least in outline form, a sketch of how that thing could be true and how it might dovetail with the rest of what we know about the world. We can anticipate several different ways in which aliens could fit in the world we know. Xeno-biologists (how about that for a cool job?), physicists, chemists, and cosmologists can give us a number of plausible accounts for how they could exist (not merely that they might possibly). Liquid water does appear to occur naturally on other planets in the universe. And some of those planets and stars appear to be the right temperature, age, and type to support life. The molecular construction of life could take a number of different forms, and so on. All of those considerations lead us to give it higher initial probability than we would to an invisible elf hypothesis.
So if we can take a lesson from the example, what the SF agnostic owes us is some account of an SF that fits comfortably with the rest of what we know or experience. Or put less confrontationally, if order for the SF hypothesis to warrant agnosticism, there must at least be enough evidence in its favor and some account of how the existence of such a thing could comfortably fit in with the rest of what we know.
What do we have regarding an SF that might lead us to give it this status? We’ve already seen that it cannot be the prevalence of belief in an anthropomorphic God among other people. And it can’t be our hoping that there is something else that leads us to give the real thing a greater probability. Are there phenomena, experiences we have, or other evidence that could be explained by an SF? Here the SF agnostic may say yes. She may point to internal phenomena: human consciousness, feelings of the sublime, transcendent experiences, our moral facilities, or religiousness. Or she may point to external phenomena: the advent of life on Earth, fortuitous circumstances, or the alleged fine-tuning of the cosmos.
But it cannot be merely that it is possible that these things are brought about by an SF that will warrant agnosticism about it—they could possibly be the work of Sobek too. There has to be sufficient evidence in favor of the SF hypothesis over the others to elevate it to the neighborhood of .5.
Do we have that? Here’s why I don’t think we do. We have many natural (non-supernatural) hypothesis that are either the probable explanation of each one of these phenomena, or we know enough about them to know the vicinity where the natural explanation will be found. None of our substantial efforts to understand these phenomena and others in natural terms have pointed in the direction of a supernatural explanation. Quite the contrary, in every case where we thought there was some supernatural force or cause at work, investigation revealed a natural one. There are no ghosts, no evil demons, no spiritual possessions that cause disease. The alleged miracles that we have investigated have turned out to be the result of human fallibilism, enthusiasm, or deceit. 10,000 supernatural hypotheses have given way to natural explanations.
So the burden on the SF agnostic is to point to evidence that would warrant our not lumping the SF hypothesis in with all the rest of the non-natural forces or beings that have failed. The world, all of it, looks to be a natural place where everything can be accounted for in natural terms. What’s left to be agnostic about?
Saturday, December 5, 2009
Many people believe that in some fashion it is not possible for a person to be moral without God. So the charge that atheists are somehow lacking morally in this regard is brought up again and again.
There are a lot of confusions embedded in these discussions coming from both sides. We need to get clear on what the claim might mean and sort out some ambiguities. The first ambiguity concerns whether the claim is to be taken in an epistemological sense or an ontological sense. That is, do they mean that if a person doesn’t believe in God, they won’t be moral, or that if God does not exist, then morality would not exist? The second ambiguity concerns what “be moral,” means here. Does it mean act in a morally decent, law abiding manner, or does it mean ground their moral decisions on the right moral considerations?
So that gives us several different ways to interpret the sentence. At the risk of being tedious, let’s deal with them one by one. Is it true that unless a person believes in God, then they won’t act in a morally decent, law abiding manner? No. There are a billion or so Buddhists on the planet, and several hundred million atheists, just for starters, who do not believe in any sort of divine being, but it would be absurd to suggest that none of them act in a morally decent, law abiding manner.
Is it true that unless a person believes in God, they won’t ground their moral decisions in the right moral considerations? Again, this can’t be true either. Kant, Mill, Rawls, Aristotle, and many other respectable, plausible moral theories give accounts of how moral decisions should be grounded without any requirement for the actor to believe in God. If the someone wishes to defend this claim, then they will need to argue that none of the widely respected, studied, and emulated moral theories that have been developed in history are right and that no acts that are done in accordance with them are moral. That seems like an extraordinary and implausible position to take. It seems that at least one of these must be at least as plausible as divine command theory. In fact, the vast majority of expert moral philosophers have taken them all to be superior theories.
Is it true that unless God exists, then no one would act in a morally decent, law abiding fashion? It’s hard to know what the critic is getting at if they say yes. They might be thinking that it’s only the fear of God or respect for God’s commandments that makes people behave themselves. But again, this is myopic. There have been billions of people in history who don’t believe, don’t know about, or who have taken no note of God in their deliberations, but they have behaved morally. So it’s not believing that God is present that keeps people in line. Whether God exists or not, there are people who think he does not and who behave morally. So it seems implausible that his existence or non existence makes any real difference in their behavior.
Is it true that if there were no God, then no one would ground their actions in the right moral considerations? We can imagine that the critic would insist that this one is true. Sure, lots of people do ground their actions in other, non-God considerations, and they also behave in what appears to be a morally decent manner. But in fact, says the theist, none of their actions are based on the right considerations. He might insist that if there were no God, then there would be no sense of morality in humanity, or humanity would have never developed an awareness of a moral dimension in their lives, or our natures would be radically different. God is responsible for our capacity to act in moral ways, so if there were no God, then there would be nothing like morality at all. And then this moral capacity, that can’t be explained any other way is employed as evidence for the existence of God.
The problem with this position, of course, is that it is danger of being circular reasoning. How is it that the theist came to know that the moral capacity in humans could have only come from God. It’s embarrassing if the answer is “from God.” It’s even worse if that moral capacity, that God told them came from God, is then used as evidence that God exists. God tells me that only God can provide us with morality. My morality proves that God must be real.
The critic might try to go deep here and insist that even though many moral systems like Aristotle’s or Mill’s make no explicitly appeal to God, if it hadn’t been for God endowing humanity with a capacity for moral action or a moral sense, Aristotle and Mill would have had anything in human behavior to theorize about. They wouldn’t have even been aware of any moral dimension to our lives. But this argument also seems to beg the question, and it’s very hard to see how one might defend it, particularly since we have some plausible alternative accounts of how morality arose in humanity. Evolutionary biologists have given us a large body of evidence now that indicates that evolution built us, along with lots of other species to be moral. We observe proto-moral behaviors in all sorts of animals now, and we have a number of theories that about why evolution might have selected for altruism, sympathy, cooperation, and other social instincts.
It’s possible that the capacity for moral behavior that we find in ourselves came from God, but the critic needs to argue that that’s the only possible source it could have come from. And that much stronger claim is very hard to give a plausible argument for.
So it looks like whatever they mean by the claim that you can’t be moral without God, it can’t be right. Some of the things that sentence might mean are obviously false, and other interpretations fall into circularity or have to argue for some claims that can’t fit with the facts.