Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Illusion of Moral Guidance from God

When we consider only our own cases and our own experience, it is easy to make serious errors in our reasoning that we wouldn’t if we approached the question from a more objective, empirical, and scientific perspective.  I take a large dose of vitamin C when I feel a cold coming on, the cold seems to be abated, so I conclude that megadoses of vitamin C prevent colds.  The anecdotal evidence and reasoning isn’t born out by the facts, however.  Large doses of vitamin C have not been found in large scale, double-blind, control group clinical trials.  

Something similar is going on when the Christian who is contemplating some serious moral question, studies his Bible, listens intently to his preacher, prays, and feels that he has received moral guidance from God.  

Some peculiarities of the human psyche are contributing to a powerful illusion that then feeds into the widespread view that it’s not possible to be moral without God, or that God provides the pious with moral guidance. 

Recent studies prove the point.  People change their moral views when asked to consider alternatives, then they cover up the change and portray their view as the same all along.  And people are more egocentric in their attributions of moral views to God than they are to other people.  That is, with God, not knowing so clearly what his view is, they are more likely to attribute their own moral view to him than someone like George Bush where they acknowledge that Bush has his own, likely different views from their own.

Believers' estimates of God's beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people's beliefs.

People often reason egocentrically about others' beliefs, using their own beliefs as an inductive guide. Correlational, experimental, and neuroimaging evidence suggests that people may be even more egocentric when reasoning about a religious agent's beliefs (e.g., God). In both nationally representative and more local samples, people's own beliefs on important social and ethical issues were consistently correlated more strongly with estimates of God's beliefs than with estimates of other people's beliefs (Studies 1-4). Manipulating people's beliefs similarly influenced estimates of God's beliefs but did not as consistently influence estimates of other people's beliefs (Studies 5 and 6). A final neuroimaging study demonstrated a clear convergence in neural activity when reasoning about one's own beliefs and God's beliefs, but clear divergences when reasoning about another person's beliefs (Study 7). In particular, reasoning about God's beliefs activated areas associated with self-referential thinking more so than did reasoning about another person's beliefs. Believers commonly use inferences about God's beliefs as a moral compass, but that compass appears especially dependent on one's own existing beliefs.

In one of the most revealing studies, the researchers manipulated the subject’s moral views about some topic by having them write and deliver speeches for or against some position. The subjects’ attitudes about the position varied in parallel with the position they were assigned to defend, not suprisingly.  When you have to actually think hard about the other side, you tend to soften your stance or change your mind.  Have them deliver a speech in favor of the death penalty and their views shifted in favor of it, and have them present a case against it, and their views shift against it.  And when they were tested before and after the manipulation, it became clear that their assessment of God’s view of the position shifted too.  According to the subjects, God (and the subject) favored the death penalty more before the subject wrote and delivered a speech opposed to it, and then God’s view of it shifted against it afterwards along with the subject’s. 

But this shift in us and in our view of God tends to be invisible to us.  We don’t notice that we are changing our minds.  And then we don’t notice that we are rewriting history by attributing our current view to our former self and to what we previously thought about God’s views.  What we think God’s moral guidance is depends on what we are currently thinking about, and when our current thinking changes, God’s views do to, but we tend to see God’s views and our own as monolithic, unchanging.  “What I believe now, that’s what I always believed.  And that’s always been God’s commandment too.”  One of the places where you can actually observe this moral confabulation going on is in the shift of people’s attitudes about homosexuality, gay marriage, and civil and women’s rights.  Our culture has undergone a rapid shift on all of these views—in just a few generations many people have gone from being passionatly opposed to many of these developments and giving powerful religious justifications for them, to being much more liberal and subsequently arguing that the new views are in fact God’s views too. 

So what’s happening is that our moral inquiries are actually more rudderless than we know, and to ill effect.  There’s nothing wrong with changing our minds, or reflecting on new evidence.  Quite the contrary, we should gather as many relevant considerations as possible for moral decisions and then be prepared to alter our views.  What’s dangerous is being oblivious to the organic nature of how our cognitive faculties produce these ideas and being ignorant of our tenedency to create revisionist histories.  And what’s even more dangerous is the tendency to attribute these shifting moral decisions to an almighty, supernatural being who will enforce them, whatever they happen to be that day, with eternal damnation.  Putting God into the process adds a level of false certainty, and ignores its fluid, constructive nature.  It also ignores the fact that our moral judgments should be defeasible and that a moral principle or judgment that seemed to work well in the past may not capture the subtleties of evolving moral situations.  It would be insane to think that the moral principles that served a nomadic band of Iron Age peasants will serve us equally well in navigating the complicated moral status of different classes of embryonic stem cells in a 21st centurey Berkeley laboratory.
The irony is that neither the Bible, nor God are actually making the substantial contribution to the content of the judgments that many people think.  The Christian is finding his own way through the moral problem, with the vague, metaphorical, and diverse ideas from theology and the text providing some opportunities for cognitive riffing.  The same thing could have been done just as well, and probably with better results, by studying Shakespeare, or George Elliot’s literature.  We approach a text and ponder some passage, “What does this mean?”  We talk about it, read other passages, think about things we’ve heard about it, draw connections, and out of this activity some lesson or theme emerges.  You’ve probably heard a preacher, priest, or rabbi engage in this very process out loud in a sermon. 

What the studies show is that God’s moral positions, because he’s not a concrete person who we know much about, are more or less a blank slate for this process of moral extemporizing.  And the studies also show that when our moral views drift, as they inevitably do, we tend to ignore or not notice the shift in our views, and we cover it up by thinking that God’s view was the same all along.  People can and do justify anything they like with any text they like.  And when the text is as convoluted, diverse, ambiguous, metaphorical, and large as the Bible, the opportunites are endless.

The persistent myth that the Bible is the inerrant, consistent word of God excacerbates this cluster of mistakes.  The text is a hopeless mashup of contradictions that have been documented over and over again.  Then if we were to carefully record what the fundamentalist Christian avows as God’s moral judgment on one day, and then compare that to what he insists is God’s perfect moral judgment about the same topic a year or 5 years later, the further inconsistencies of this faulty textual exegetical process would be even more apparent.  Going to God and the Bible for moral guidance the way many people do it piles contradictions, fallacies, and mistakes on top of fleeting and rationalized errors.  And yet the Christian insists through this convoluted mish mash that God is the only true source of morality.  This mistake is thinking of the moral query as a matter of just checking the divine rule book as if there are discrete, unambiguous, and consistent answers there, and then refusing to acknowledge that the process that produced the answer was highly subjective, variable, and contingent.  


howerymd said...

I don't know how far I want to take this, but this is probably the most interesting article (to me) on this entire blog.

You have completely captured the essence of what I call 'constant moral fluidity' that is the changing or evolving morality and the inherent contradiction between that and the belief that the rules guiding that morality are constant.

I know that anytime I suggest that someone's morality is internal they are horrendously offended, as they see it god has always determined what is immoral and what isn't, but it's actually the quite the opposite, they determine what is moral and then pick and choose texts to support it.

I actually shared this article (and a few others) with my parents and got the response, "God is above reason." *sigh* Not much you can do with that, it's a complete non-starter. They also said, "God does not change and neither do my beliefs." which is simply denying the truth and refusing to look at the big picture.

Again, thank for posting this, this is seriously one of the most eye-opening articles I've ever read.


Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Matthew. There's no denying that moral decision come from inside, as you say. Even the people who insist the most adamantly that they get all their moral guidance from God cherry pick the judgments they want while ignoring all the inconvenient ones like the commandments to send menstrating women away into the desert and to execute anyone who violates the ten commandments.
My response to the "God is above reason/logic" thing: God is not beyond logic

Jon Hanson said...

This is a great article on one of the main issues that lead me to leave Christianity. I couldn't figure out how I could argue the Bible was our source of "objective morality" when we modern Christians would all agree that murdering homosexuals while Yahweh not only allowed it but commands it in the Old Testament. I'd see homophobic preachers and homosexual preachers use the same texts to argue opposing positions, and they'd both persuade me that their position was God's. Ultimately I just had to be honest that I was ultimately deciding my moral positions and going to the Bible after the fact.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Jon. That shows some honesty and some intellectual integrity that you could acknowledge that that's what's going on in these cases.

The phenomena is not confined to Christians going to the Bible for moral guidance, of course. Lots of people are frequently guilty of believing something first, and then going out in search of arguments that they can make if favor of it. Backwards believing. The challenge is to be rationally committed enough to doing an adequate search for evidence and THEN believing the conclusion that the evidence points to second to actually follow through. It's more important to adopt the right method than to have the right beliefs.

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KT said...

The claim by thoughtful theists is not that God speaks directly to us and provides moral guidance in some mysteriously mystical manner, but that a theistic metaphysical framework provides a metaphysic consonant with natural law and the notion that certain things are right or wrong independent of finite human beings. Theism is consistent with a teleological conception of the universe, while materialism is not (at least prima facie). In a materialistic metaphysical framework, there is no right or wrong independent of the beliefs of finite, fallible human beings. A theist is capable of holding that truth, goodness, and beauty are objective realities, even if we are deeply epistemically limited.
While certain moral issues may require fluidity and compromise, there are certain basic principles that can properly be called universal, which are the foundation for all our moral reasoning. For example, the abortion issue is difficult because the objective goods of freedom (the mother's right to her own body) and intrinsic human dignity (the baby's right to life) conflict. If moral reasoning were as groundless as you seem to suggest, then such moral issues should not trouble us, as they are arbitrary anyway.
What basis for moral values is there in an atheistic universe other than mere "herd morality?" The motives for adhering to such a morality are not very noble, but a theistic universe can account for the nobility of a Marcus Aurelius, an Epictetus, a Socrates. Humans were made to be rational, virtuous, and lofty, as we have a faculty (Reason) greater than the flesh.

KT said...

Additionally, it is a common misconception among atheists that the Bible (or God's commands) is the source of objective morality for a theist. Rather, the claim is that natural law is the source of objective moral values; humans have rational faculties which are capable of apprehending objective moral truths if they apply themselves to search for such truths in a rigorous manner.

By reading such works as the Platonic dialogues, the Nicomachean Ethics, Epictetus' Discourses, and Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, my natural intuitions are guided to apprehend universal, timeless ideals which are good-in-themselves. Such ideals are ontologically queer in a materialistic universe.

I derive my morality from intuition (what the Stoics called "impressions")guided by reason. In a teleological framework, I am discovering objective, timeless truths. Given atheism, these ideals merely supervene on blind, irrational matter in motion.

With regards to methods for ascertaining truth, a theistic universe gives grounds for trusting one's reason in a way that a materialistic metaphysical framework does not. Natural selection does not directly select for faculties capable of forming veridical beliefs; it may be the case that our reason mirrors objective reality, but given materialistic commitments, one has no reason to assume that this is the case. One must provide cogent arguments for this assumption, while a theist can safely assume that their reason is created for forming true beliefs.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for thinking about this KT. The answer you're offering won't work for a number of reasons. Some ideas:

KT: it is a common misconception among atheists that the Bible (or God's commands) is the source of objective morality for a theist.

MM: It is a misconception, but not mine. Well over 100 million people in the U.S. alone hold this view. You're argument is with those Christians.

KT: By reading such works as the Platonic dialogues, the Nicomachean Ethics, Epictetus' Discourses, and Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, my natural intuitions are guided to apprehend universal, timeless ideals which are good-in-themselves. Such ideals are ontologically queer in a materialistic universe.

MM: Of course, the first problem here is that these magical intuitions you're talking about vary across all of these works, and they vary depending on which person is reading the works. I hope you're not going to insist that anyone who reads those works, like me, and who has different intuitions than you is misinterpreting the work. That would be to miss the point of my post altogether. You can't think that divining the ultimate moral principles of the universe is this easy? I can take a classroom of undergrads in an ethics course and by telling different stories and emphasizing different points and I can get them to passionately avow diametrically opposed moral intuitions in about 10 minutes.

KT: With regards to methods for ascertaining truth, a theistic universe gives grounds for trusting one's reason in a way that a materialistic metaphysical framework does not.

MM: Suppose we grant the Plantinga style response you're presenting here. Notice that there are an infinite number of supernatural hypotheses--The Great Pumpkin, Sobek, Gefjun, The Absolute Purple, the Flying Spaghetti Monster--that can all have ad hoc provisions that "assure" the veridicality of human cognitive faculties. You can build any metaphysical provisions you want to into any supernatural claim you want, but the remarkable fit that you then find between your supernatural thesis and the world you tailored it to doesn't offer any justification that the thesis is true. That's not how confirmation and disconfirmation or justification work.


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Matt McCormick said...

Sorry for all of the deletes, folks. Google was freaking out on me.

There's a circle lurking in KT's posts, I think. It resembles the one that I've commented on in Plantinga before.

Once all of the related theses are asserted, it will be problematic, to say the least, if the theist's long winded explanations boil down to these sorts of claims:

1. I can detect universal, absolute moral truths with my intuitions.
2. How do I know that they are universal, absolute moral truths?
3. They feel really, really true in my head.
4. How do I know that the things that feel really, really true in my head are veridical?
5. God made me and insures that my faculty of intuition is veridical.
6. How do I know that God exists and made me?
7. I can detect that with my cognitive faculties too. It really, really feels like God is real and is present in my life.
8. Furthermore, since materialism does not have these circular and self-referential ways to prop itself up, it is inferior to my theism and must be rejected.

(Never mind that physical science has offered us a number of much more plausible explanations for why people have these powerful intuitions.)


KT said...

Dr. McCormick:

First Point:
With all due respect, you are a philosopher, so you are well aware that theistic philosophers have traditionally grounded morality in natural law, which is grounded in the nature of God. Why should you concern yourself with the beliefs of theists who lack the time, inclination, rational faculties, and/or opportunity to familiarize themselves with the philosophical foundations for their beliefs? Engage the very best in an earnest attempt to discover truth. Truth, of course, exists apart from any human awareness or conception.

Second point: Again, I am not concerned with the opinions of your undergraduates. Diversity of belief does not mean that universal truths do not exist. As Epictetus noted, we all have moral preconceptions which require rigorous training in order to correspond to nature (or the natural law ordained by Providence). The opinions of the average person should be completely irrelevant, as many intriguing psychological studies indicate that most people can be pressured into engaging in sadistic acts (in other words, the average person is not an incredibly morally principled individual). What does matter is what corresponds to natural law; this is why the Nazis were wrong to slaughter Jews during the Holocausts, and why we can objectively denounce their actions as evil-there is a Law above the law. Where is "the standard" if metaphysical naturalism is true?

Please separate the epistemological from the ontological with respect to morality. If Homo sapiens evolved to be emotionally inclined to engage in altruistic acts (or at least be decent guys and gals), that does not explain morality-it explains it away. Moral values do not exist-they are merely biological processes which we can obey or ignore. Using reason alone (not our feelings or sentiments), we are plunged into moral skeptism.
How would you respond to Nietzsche's elucidation of the implications of the "death of God?"
Don't you find the meta-ethical theories of your fellow atheists dubious? (See Michael Martin's "Ideal Observer Theory" in "Atheism, Meaning, and Morality.")

I find it incredible that you consider rationalism and idealism (held by such "intellectual lightweights" as Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Leibniz, etc.) on par with the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Empiricism and materialism DO dissolve into skepticism, as Hume's philosophy clearly demonstrates. What is your solution to the problem of induction on empirical grounds? :)

mikespeir said...

I keep hoping you'll make some kind of response to KT's last comment, Matt. Does he have a point or is what he has to say too lame to merit rebuttal and I'm just not clever enough to see it?