No objective morality without God

Hi cogitators, this post is coming out of an existing comment thread on the relationship between God and objective morality on my “About” page.  I’m moving it here for tidiness and greater visibility.

To get you up to speed.  It started with a comment I made at blogging compatriot A Reasonable Faith: “What basis does the work of clay have to judge its Maker?”

I received a response from a third blogger that “a work of clay can judge its maker if it’s better than its maker.”  While denying God’s existence, the blogger continues:

There are indeed objective standards for morals, in that they are those that allow civilization to move along smoothly e.g. the ideas of property and laws about the handling of it, the ideas of individual freedom, etc.

In turn, I characterized these as subjective:

Laws and customs about personal liberty and property rights, as you’ve mentioned do exist, but are only “subject” to limited enforcement. If for some moral duty a person can evade the long arm of accountability, then the moral duty is properly characterized as subjective.

In the subsequent reply, my fellow blogger defined objectivity:

If a law is uniformly found by humanity to be advantageous and can be demonstrated as such by facts, then one can call it objective, not beholden to personal beliefs that are not supported by facts.

Now we’re caught up.  This use of the word “objective” circumvents the conventional definition.  In Merriam-Webster Dictionary defintion 1b, “objective” is descriptive of something “having reality independent of the mind.”  Basing morality on laws “found by humanity” depends on mind twice, first to recognize it, and then to codify or normalize it.  This is not objective, but subjective, completely subject to human minds.

Besides this, restricting moral duties to what is advantageous to humanity is an arbitrary distinction.  Why not extend the limit to all animals, or even lichen?  Or, why not restrict it to only those humans in your halpogroup?  And what is “advantgeous” has been and will continue to be highly controversial among the ranks of humanity.  Say if the People’s Republic of China successfully spread the practice of one-child policy so that it was “uniform” throughout the world, would it then become right?  Finally, I am interested to know what specific moral values and duties are uniformly found to be advantageous?

What my fellow blogger is describing doesn’t quite get to the crux of objective morality.  He is focused on the epistemology of morality, that is, how we come to know moral values and duties. But the ontology of morality, the question of whether morality itself really exists, requires a logical grounding.  Otherwise, morals cannot be more than a subjective illusion.  After all, values like charity and fairness are immaterial, and “facts” themselves are incapable of pointing to their reality.

Speaking of facts, there is another distinction.  Right and wrong are descriptive of duties, while good and bad are descriptive of values.  An action that is right entails moral obligation.  No set of facts derived from observation of the material world can tell you what you are morally obligated to do.  In this sense facts are morally neutral.  But most people will affirm the reality that some actions we ought to do, regardless of the circumstances.  That which is deemed advantageous to humanity is at most a value but not an obligation, and thus fails to meet the full, common experience of morality.

Escaping subjectivity and achieving objectivity is indeed a high bar.  Moral values and duties are immaterial things that can’t exist in the natural world.  The only way objective morality might exist is supernaturally.  If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

*****

Now in the course of this post I will need to address some challenges from my fellow blogger, but these stand apart and are not necessary to support the above argument.

Challenge:

I’m guessing you think that your god enforces laws with no limit. That would be a good response *if* you could show that this was the case and that your god existed *and* did something. There is no evidence for this or any other god being a law enforcer. Thus, your claims of objectivity coming from god fail.

Response:  If God exists, he is the maximally greatest being.  As such, he is among other things perfectly just and omnipotent.  Whatever justice you do not see delivered in this world he is perfectly capable of administrating in eternity.  Obviously, he is very capable of “enforcing laws,” or our moral obligations, without limit in eternity if not here and now, as he often does through the providence of governments, natural disasters, and other things in his creation.

To show that God exists, I will build on the above premise about objective morality.  This is a version of the moral argument used by William Lane Craig.

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.

3. Therefore, God exists.

I have laid out some reasons for premise 1 prior to the challenge section, and you, my fellow blogger, have assented to premise 2 twice already.

Challenge:

I need to see that you can show me that the Christian god exists and is the only one responsible. Can you do that? You seem to have ignored my point that most, if not all religions, make the same claims, that their god/gods created the laws of mankind. This makes your claim simply one among many. Do you understand the weakness of your position?

Response: I just offered arguments for God’s existence through the moral argument above.  Are there other Gods?  Occam’s razor advises us not to multiply causes beyond necessity.  One deity is sufficient to cause our existence.  The one triune God has revealed himself through the Bible, which includes multiple, reliable historical narratives attesting to the death and bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, fulfilled prophecies concerning the messiah, and is internally consistent.  It’s clear in this body of evidence that there is only one real deity.

Challenge:

If there were any objective laws from your god, then why did we have Christians on both sides of the slavery debate? Which side was on your god’s side? Why do we still have Christians who cannot agree about women’s issues, homosexuality, etc?

Response: Through the noetic effects of sin, the ability for all humans to know truth accurately has been impaired but is not without recourse.  That Christians, or anyone for that matter, may not apprehend objective morals with accuracy doesn’t affect the reality of objective values.  You have also assented to objective morality, so you share a similar burden to the Christian in justifying your specific stance on morality in contradistinction to the many others on the table.

Challenge:

I suspect you will invoke “free will” and claim that those Christians who disagree with you are not Christians at all and that your god is allowing them to make the mistakes they make. Again, this requires you to show me that your version is the only true version, and that your god exists at all.

Response: Free will is irrelevant to disagreements within the church.  There has been a recognizable pale of Christianity throughout the church’s history, sometimes captured by the idea of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.  There does exist a “true version” though it is obviously impossible for a human to know all its detail fully and accurately.  God’s grace is sufficient for a church whose constituents hold varied beliefs on secondary issues.

Advertisements

The Low Info Express

20130101.lowinfoexpress

Happy New Year!  We’ve gone over the fiscal cliff, thanks to the capable leadership of President Barack Obama.  It was just a tiny pipe dream when Democratic senator Patty Murray urged it a couple of months ago.  Now, it’s a reality.

Republicans have been pretty miserable in the midst of this journey.  Fingers have been pointed at Mitch McConnell and John Boehner.  But who could blame them when the real problem is the weight of public opinion?  Polls showing the public blaming Republicans more than the White House tell us all we need to know.

Among conservatives, the calls for more backbone and a greater articulation of ideas continue.  But Democrats will maintain leverage as long as “low information voters” are in their corner.  They’ve got the bully pulpit and the media.  Meanwhile, the majority of  Americans continue to be concerned with less . . . pressing things.  How can conservatives rally to get America out of its bind?

I was inspired by the simplicity of a book I received as a gift over Christmas: Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing your Christian Convictions by Gregory Koukl.  If you’ve followed this blog you know that I freely mix politics and apologetics.  I’m not a fan of preaching to the choir, or of drawing out the secret army of people who think like me.  Rather, I take the long view in hoping to persuade others as to their basic beliefs.

As you can surmise from the title, Tactics is primarily about having discussions with others.  What’s striking about Greg Koukl’s approach is that the goal is modest.  When he engages someone in conversation, he’s not out to completely change their views in a half hour.  Rather, he wants to jump start their thought process, or put a stone in their shoe, as he so often says.  After all, most people have not sat down and thought through their most basic beliefs.

Whether it’s politics or religion, the majority of folks are not staunchly rooted in one camp of belief, but are just content to go along for the ride.  Epitomizing these are the low information voters who ushered in President Obama’s second term with all its fallout.

The long slog that conservatives should embrace is the everyday task of gently questioning their neighbors’ assumptions.  This is something that comes on all fronts, from the messages of movies watched and songs listened to, to expectations of government and understandings of human nature.  It helps to be studied up on history and statistics, but even someone with incomplete knowledge, when armed with the right outlook and simple tools of logic, can make a real difference.

On this New Year’s Day, I’d like to propose a toast for a more carefully thought-through 2013.

The shell game of postmodernity

This week I’m drawing disparate threads together from recently digested media.  Hopefully these will inspire some critical thoughts on worldview, whether it be your own or of those around you.

In anticipation of the first Hobbit movie, my wife and I re-watched The Two Towers and The Return of the King.  This insightful quote by Gandalf struck me:

The old wisdom that was borne out of the West was forsaken. Kings made tombs more splendid than the houses of the living and counted the names of their descent dearer than the names of their sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry or in high, cold towers asking questions of the stars. And so the people of Gondor fell into ruin. The line of Kings failed, the White Tree withered, and the rule of Gondor was given over to lesser men.

Can you think of a place like this?  Perhaps the ivory tower of the academy.  Or better yet, Europe.  This image captures the predicament of the post-industrial world.  There is a concerted effort among elites of the “West” to unlearn its culture and traditions.  The great project of social democrats in Europe, Canada, Japan, and beyond has built an edifice that’s more a civilizational masoleum than a regime to edify humanity.  This is the modern welfare state.

Rather than be bothered with commitments of marriage, the raising of children, and the fruits of free enterprise, people are more concerned with securing their siestas and thirty-five hour work weeks, to the exclusion of the dwindling numbers of youth annually pouring onto the unaccommodating labor markets.

And even those jobless youth lap up the same tired ideas.  I recently caught a few episodes of Portlandia, the sketch comedy that pokes fun at a city where the young move “to retire.”  The program, often crude and in keeping with the laughing-at zeitgeist of The Daily Show, illuminates nonetheless.  In gentrified cores of our cosmopolitan metropolises an army of grown kids paste pictures of birds on objects to self-soothe and are more concerned for the welfare of animals than of children.

This inversion of priorities gets to some of the news of the day.  We have a citizenry that is more concerned about feeling good than getting it right.  And so the silly story that Obama’s pardoned turkey ended up being euthanized anyway.  It speaks to the lesson that liberal intentions don’t guarantee results.  Take heed the next time a politician proposes to spend some trillions to end poverty, restore jobs, or save the environment.  That which was to be prevented will probably pass, and we’ll only have more debt to show for it.

All the while, the ethic uniting the masses of the well-intentioned is tolerance, or as is often seen on California bumper stickers, the relativistic imperative to “Coexist.”  But everyone’s got a dogma in the fight.  Just look at the controversy of Republican Senator Marco Rubio’s GQ interview.  Being asked what he thought the age of the earth was, he ducked with “I’m not a scientist, man.”  In this day, scientism–a narrow view where science is the only deliverance of truth–is a cudgel secular liberals deploy against any threat to getting absolutely everything they want.

Yes, the 24-7, self-reinforcing materialist culture is ascendant.  To quote another sage of Middle Earth, “What can men do against such reckless hate?”

There are baby steps.  In the hopes of starting an apologetics study group in my church community, I’ve been scouting William Lane Craig’s On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision.  The second chapter launches a reductio ad absurdum, a negative apologetic that comes from asking, what would be the implication of God’s nonexistence?  Dr. Craig notes Jean-Paul Sartre’s concession that life without God has no meaning.  Yet, he took up for himself Marxism.  The choice was subjective and merely arbitrary.   Without an objective point of reference, no life lived can be both happy and consistent in its worldview.

The great work of reshaping society to foster lives both happy and consistent remains before us.  Humanism will only find its logical end in a re-commitment to the sanctity of marriage and a valuing of children.  The partnerless Julia will discover her Obama-daddy culture to be utterly unsustainable.

There is a parallel reformation in showing that fulfilling livelihoods come not from the cold top-down transactions of the welfare state, but from an embracing of free markets under the rule of law.

There are those who will try hard to thwart this course correction.  A culture of relativism enables ultimate shell game.  If we point out the shell that holds objective truth, whether it be policy or morality, the Phrygian-capped ideologue can deny it or question whether there is even a game going on.  The task for the civic-minded will be to figure how to effectively expose and counter such silly moves.

Mourdock’s “God intends” comment; or, Much ado about sovereignty

A new abortion/rape gaffe broke out this week, this time from Republican senate candidate Richard Mourdock.  His offending words:

I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

As with an earlier comment by fellow GOP senate candidate Todd Akin, unmitigated outrage poured from certain corners.  But Amy Sullivan, at The New Republic, is to be commended for at least taking some time trying to see through the liberal cloud of anger.

Sullivan is charitable and sympathetic to Christians of various stripes.  But clearly, her beliefs about God are not orthodox.  And like the anthropologist who reported with amazement on a strange tribe called “Evangelicals,” she’s addressing an audience to whom the basic tenets of Christianity are alien and confounding.

We see this most clearly in her disagreement with “the understanding of God as an active, interventionist deity.”  She also believes that Christians often misread scripture, in a way that leads to frustration at God’s unfilled promises.  Now this is a valid observation and an appropriate concern.  We’d do well to heed apologist Greg Koukl’s advice, “Never read a Bible verse.”  The implication is to not read a verse in isolation by itself, but in context, including with an appreciation for the genre of literature being read.

Sullivan illustrates her concern using part of Jeremiah 1:5 where God states, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”  Her take is that God is describing his own intention as specific to Jeriamiah alone, and that Christians are applying it, without warrant, to their own lives as well.

Later in the piece, she challenges the idea of a sovereign God who is strongly concerned with each of his created beings, proclaiming “it is hard to square this interpretation of Jeremiah 1:5 with miscarriages or stillbirths or fatal birth defects.”  This is leaning hard on the problem of natural evil.

But on Christian orthodoxy, it is true that God “loves you and has a plan for you” despite any natural evil that may befall “you.”  And surely, bodily death will befall us all, whether in the womb or after a century of walking around on this Earth.  At least, God’s salvific intent is clear when Jesus speaks to a broader audience of the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to find the one (Matthew 18:12-14).

Still, there are those who can’t reconcile that “God intends” much of anything given the fact of evil.  Take Open Theism.  On this view God is winging it, with no certainty of how things will wrap up in an eschatological sense.  But holding this belief robs the Gospel of its power.  Despite God trying his best, Christ’s faithful might still end up in Hell, or ultimate justice might go undone.  We might as well be Vikings stoically anticipating the defeat of the gods.  Contrary to this, we know better as to what “good news” is supposed to mean.

A strongly sovereign God is much more consistent with the Christian message than a weak God who either doesn’t care or isn’t able to act on evil.  Simply combining God’s omniscience and perfect benevolence means he does know each of us in the womb, and has a positive intention for each of us.  It may not be what Aunt Edna saw in her quiet time last Tuesday, but surely, it’s there.

Sullivan’s dismissal of the classically sovereign God paves the way for her pro-choice policy view.  She’s entitled to that view.  But to chalk the orthodox understanding of God up to a widespread, long-running exegetical error seems incredible given the moral stakes.

The authority of science

Cosmologist Sean Carroll garnered considerable buzz recently with his contribution to the Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity.  Launching off of an interview with Carroll, LiveScience made a big splash with the headline: “Will Science Someday Rule Out the Possibility of God?”

A few days later, an AP story mined societal anxiety about growing fraud in science.  And in the year-end issue of my local university campus newspaper, the science columnist made an earnest and zealous attempt to distinguish scientific “education” from religious “indoctrination.”

Examining the language and underlying assumptions in popular science writing reveals an often narrow and uncritical school of thought that has an outsized, unwarranted, and perilous grip on our culture.

Let’s start with the LiveScience article on Sean Carroll.  If we take it seriously, and try to discern from its own contents whether science will “rule out the possibility of God,” we’ll be disappointed to find only an abundance of ungrounded suppositions and a string of logical fallacies.

The surest presupposition that pops up is a philosophical hard naturalism or materialism.  It is simply assumed that the natural world or matter/energy are all that is.  Accordingly, only “domains of science” are considered serious fields of inquiry.  “Theologians,” to say nothing of philosophers, are cast as attempting to “seize upon” as yet-unanswered sticky points and rhetorical flips.

A deeply rational theist like William Lane Craig–a cosmological rock star of sorts–couldn’t get billing in a pop science piece like this.  To do so would turn off those readers who’ve placed faith in science’s ability–given enough time–to answer everything; a faith in science-of-the-gaps if you will.

Folks like Carroll and LiveScience offer succor for those who hope to  ignore any kind of truth that is not empirically derived.  But there are non-empirical truths each of us take for granted everyday.  There are properly basic beliefs, such as the belief that one did not spontaneously come into being five minutes ago with memories implanted to give the false impression of living prior to that time.

And individuals have faculties beyond the senses.  The faculty of morality comprehends objective moral truths, and the faculty of reason allows one to know “A” is not identical to “not A.”  These ways of knowing reside entirely outside the “domain of science.”

Yet, science writing subsists on a de facto “verificationism,” a trust only of propositions that can be empirically verified.  Of course, the foundational proposition of verificationism fails its own test.

On top of naturalism and verificationism, the LiveScience writer treats theories like the multiverse as settled matters rather than metaphysical conjectures.  This kind of assumption thrives in columns that can’t take the space to unpack the ideas they reference.

And then there are the fallacies in the article.  Consider this passage:

Other versions of quantum gravity theory currently being explored by cosmologists predict that time did start at the Big Bang. But these versions of events don’t cast a role for God either. Not only do they describe the evolution of the universe since the Big Bang, but they also account for how time was able to get underway in the first place. As such, these quantum gravity theories still constitute complete, self-contained descriptions of the history of the universe.

This passage is simultaneously a tautology and an appeal to authority.  Notice cosmologists must “cast a role” for God.  The theory cannot escape the constraints of the theorist’s inborn bias.  And for the writer to qualify the theories “as such” only  undermines the idea the theories are actually “self-contained.”

As the piece progresses toward its end, the stubborn question of ultimate meaning is dismissed as a failure to see the universe itself as unique and not in need of an answer.  But Carroll offers no real reason beyond a lyrical twist.  Dr. Craig likens this cessation of reason to the taxicab fallacy: once the questioner reaches his destination (that God is not required), he dismisses the cab of critical inquiry, namely by abandoning the principle of sufficient reason.

There is an attempt to invoke the testimony of a psychologist to explain away religious phenomenon as arising out of psychological need.  This is classic genetic fallacy.  How one might come to have a belief has no bearing on the truth of the belief.

The consequences of letting such suppositions and fallacies thrive in the thought life of scientists and their admirers are considerable.  Look at The Aggie‘s piece on education and indoctrination.  The author fills a column with generalized disdain for the excesses of “evangelical religion,” perhaps not realizing that he is harboring a zeal equally in need of its own justification and defense.

A remarkable irony emerges when the columnist pegs “indoctrination” to Western culture.  It was in large part the values of Western Antiquity and the Bible that supported the critical thinking needed to produce modern science.

The collegiate composition is alarming in its take away that “Religion has no place in schools, and science has no place in churches, synagogues or mosques . . .”  This reminds of the woefully dismissive bumper sticker that reads, “I won’t think in your church if you don’t pray in my school.”  Simply a false dichotomy.  Sometimes it’s the laboratories and the halls of the academy that could use a little more critical thinking.

The Aggie column concludes with a call for an education that will produce “un-indoctrinated” citizens.  Here we have the error of Locke, that humans are tabula rosa and there is some pure Science that can properly inform the citizen.  The prescription also bears a whiff of the tyranny of tolerance.  All ideas are equally valid except the one that proposes to be true to the exclusion of others.  As with verificationism, it’s a paradigm that defeats itself.

We are in an age where science is upheld, unrealistically and with poor justification, as some final arbiter of knowledge.  Though some think we live in a postmodern society, the underpinning beliefs are still very modern indeed.  Just looking back to the twentieth century, we know all too well the tragedies modernity begot: eugenics, gulags, genocide, rampant pollution, spiritual alienation.  What a downer.

But the search for hope is unyielding.  Like a hokey Star Trek episode, the LiveScience article concludes by waxing lyrical, quoting an evolutionary psychologist: “We’re not designed at the level of theoretical physics.”   Not even a scientist can avoid language invoking the agency of a creator.  He goes on to say that things like interpersonal relationships are what matter on the “human scale.”

Is there some grand, unifying worldview that best satisfies questions both on the cosmological and the “human scale?”  Look no further than the many ready witnesses who make a reasoned, coherent and consistent case for a God who is revealed in the Bible and intervenes decisively in human history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

In light of abundance

I caught this Facebook conversational snippet originally as another reblog. I talked about it briefly with my wife, which yielded some clarification. That’s more oft the result than not :-)

(Update: for your convenience, here’s the conversation from the original blogger.  Pardon the language.)

 

The literal devil’s advocate here has mistakenly assumed that Satan gave humans our moral and rational faculties. But I think God created Adam and Eve with those faculties already in place.

 

William Lane Craig recently defended the Abundance theory of creation on his Reasonable Faith podcast. According to this idea, God created man to extend the opportunity to partake in the kind of loving relationships that the persons of the Trinity were engaged in. And in order to love, you need some sort of ability to make moral choices.

Indeed, God’s mandate to not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil precedes the snake’s challenge of temptation.

And inasmuch as the the snake was able to persuade Eve through words to eat the fruit, she must have had some pre-existing rational faculty.

So Satan did not usher in for man the ability to think critically or know right from wrong. What he did do is help humanity commit it’s first sin, it’s own act of rebellion.

With the fruit eaten, man’s overall knowledge did grow. But not all knowledge is equally helpful for persons to know. Some truths are quite damaging to our souls.

 

D’Souza strikes (out again) on problem of evil

Dinesh D’Souza was on Michael Medved’s radio show a couple of weeks ago, promoting his new book God Forsaken.  From the unabridged (and unwieldy) title of the work, you’ll see it’s intended as something of an apologetic on the problem of evil.  Normally, I’d be positively inclined toward such a volume. But in the course of the interview, I found myself taking exception on a couple of counts.

The first foul stems from the author’s missed opportunity to affirm one of the most basic tenets of the Christian worldview.  Medved, the host, asked D’Souza and the call-in audience, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” A serious Christian theist can’t dance for long around that question before issuing the clarifying rejoinder: “Who is good?”

Indeed, Paul’s letter to the Romans makes it clear “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  It baffles me that D’Souza, a prominent defender of Christianity, could talk of how “bad things happen” without saying that God does not owe sparing us the consequence of our rebellion.

So then how does D’Souza sell his book in the course of a commercial radio hour?  On the oversubscribed basis of pop science and pop psychology.

Uninterested in traditional theodicy, that is the defense of God’s existence in light of evil, he tries to get people on board with God’s existence by a cursory dismissal of the New Atheists.  He explains away their fervor with a back-of-the-napkin psychoanalysis of the late Christopher Hitchens’ unpleasant childhood.  For all we know, psychology may play a major role in the New Atheist community, but the interviewee seems to lack the tact to avoid a borderline ad hominem attack.

Interestingly enough, Mr. Medved had previously been skeptical of D’Souza’s earlier work, The Roots of Obama’s Rage.  In one sense, that whole book was a pop psychology ad hominem writ large.

Back to the interview.  Once D’Souza establishes that God exists but people are just angry at him, he moves to science, suggesting that certain findings justify the necessity of natural evil, as distinguished from man-made evil.  That means chance calamities like earthquakes and disease, rather than suffering that results from human volition.  So as chilling as they are, mountain lion attacks must be racked up as natural evil.

With this focus on science, the author makes some nifty declarations: life on Earth couldn’t develop without plate tectonics.  If we couldn’t face the consequences of defying gravity, we wouldn’t have true free will.  But these kind of arguments don’t persuade materialistic determinists or skeptics inured to the anthropic principle.  Especially not after you’ve insulted them.

In an hour of radio, the author manages to insult atheists, avoids affirming the fallenness of man, indulges popular appeals to science and psychology, and fails to offer substance for the weighty question of evil.

Yes, he is a former fellow of the Hoover Institution, and the current president of The King’s College in New York City.  And the respectable Evangelical biographer Eric Metaxas gives glowing praise for God Forsaken, so the book may not be a wash.  But considering his previous sketch on Obama, his radio interview, and his second-place finish in last year’s Intelligence Squared debate, I have some doubts as to whether Mr. D’Souza is an effective apologist for Christians or the American Conservative movement.

Good public discourse is not built on sensational psychology or svelt scientific findings.  Whether it’s Dinesh D’Souza or Richard Dawkins answering life’s big questions, we deserve from them solid epistemology and a coherent metaphysics.  We shouldn’t expect less from our top-shelf minds.

%d bloggers like this: