On Gratitude to No One

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It is a sort of atheist right of passage: the first time you’re told that, without a god, you have no one to thank. It’s said as if to make you feel bad about yourself or, perhaps, to make you jealous. To be fair, the sentiment motivating the comment is quite understandable. We experience moments that elicit a genuine sense of appreciation, but there is no one to whom we can direct our thanks. Well, for the atheist, at least.

The blogger at Teal Tomato recounts just such an occasion. She shares the story of an amazing day that compels her to say, “Thank you.” She is clearly grateful, but as the title of her post asks: grateful to whom?

For me, I’ve never felt an urge to say thank you. Instead, I laugh. Be it a quick moment or the culmination of a full day, when events conspire to swell within me a great appreciation, I get a huge smile across my face and I laugh.

The thing is, until someone suggested otherwise, it never occurred to me that my undirected gratitude should be odd. It never struck me that I would need a “thankful to” if I wanted to express a “thankful for.” Quite frankly, I still don’t think it odd. Moments and memories don’t have to be gifts to qualify as treasures. Perhaps our appreciation makes them gifts, in a sense, but they are gifts without a giver. Or, in the acceptance of our appreciation, we give them to ourselves. We permit ourselves to acknowledge the joy in our lives.

The same works in reverse. When uncontrolled events conspire to harm me, I don’t find my anger, frustration, or tears to be unwarranted just because there is no one to blame. Surely, if I should feel bad about lacking someone to thank, I should feel equally bad without someone to blame. But it doesn’t work that way, does it? Somehow, we’re comfortable with a series of unfortunate events, but the fortunate ones must be by design.

Certainly, when there is no one to blame for harm I experience, I can use this realization in the healing process. Again, the same works in reverse. If there is no one to thank, then I am not special. I am not protected. So it is.

To tealtomato, do not hesitate to say thank you. Have no shame in the appreciation you feel. Appreciation is the right response to the moments you treasure. A lack of someone to thank in no way diminishes their luster.

And thank you for sharing your story.

On Hayes’s Agnostic Argument for Faith

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Hemant Mehta, at Friendly Atheist, posted an excerpt from a new book by Shane Hayes. The book is titled The End of Unbelief: A New Approach to the Question of God. The book discusses Hayes’s conversion from atheist to Christian and why other nonbelievers should consider belief in God. The excerpt is brief, probably 2-3 pages of a 200+ page book, but it covers what Hayes calls an agnostic argument for faith.

I would summarize Hayes’s argument as: Considering we lack certainty of knowledge, we should believe in God because believing in a universe with God is transformatively better than a universe without God. To be less kind, I would summarize my understanding of his thesis as: believing in a universe with God gives you warm fuzzies more so than believing in a universe without God, so believe in God.

The whole excerpt reads a bit pollyannaish. It reads like Hayes doesn’t think atheists have ever really thought about the social, political, and ethical implications of living in a godless universe. Mehta notes, “Shane Hayes is an [sic] Christian who believes he can reach out to atheists in a way that’s far more effective than the usual breed of apologists…in part because he used to be an atheist, too.” With full recognition that I have an incredibly small sample size, this excerpt suggests Hayes has a patronizingly myopic notion of the worldviews held by atheists.

Overviewing the Excerpt

Hayes situates the human condition when he notes, “We all grope in existential darkness.” He provides some detail of this darkness, explaining, “We’re in this mess together — we’re all human, vulnerable to illness, crushing accidents, the carnage of war, calamities of every kind. We’re aging, and we’re mortal.” It is in this setting that we find the question of belief in God.

Hayes describes his experience of atheism as “…like Antarctica — glacially cold and wind-lashed, an ice-bound waste devoid of tree, shrub, or flower, no hint of blossoming life visible to the horizon, and beyond the horizon . . . nothing.” It was something he “endured for more than a decade.” Most notable about this description is that there seems to be nothing in atheism to address our existential darkness.

Now we have the groundwork for the argument. It may be that Hayes cannot prove God exists, but if God did exist, as Hayes notes, “…if there is a God, that reality makes a huge difference in the character of the universe and of human life.” Life does not have to be the bleak, barren wasteland as was Hayes’s experience of atheism. Instead, as he explains, “…faith can enrich people’s lives and its rejection can impoverish them. Since we can’t know whether the world is Godless or God-filled, why not embrace the radiant view and enjoy its benefits?”

The Myopic

Lacking certainty of knowledge, Hayes suggests we should believe in God because a universe with a personal, loving God offers joy, love, and radiance. On the other hand, atheism is cold, devoid, and offering of nothing. However, Hayes’s account of a godless universe is myopic, and he makes this very point himself. Consider, again, his description of our condition:

“We’re in this mess together — we’re all human, vulnerable to illness, crushing accidents, the carnage of war, calamities of every kind. We’re aging, and we’re mortal.”

Those first words, “we’re in this mess together….” We are together. Together means we are connected. We share. We co-own. We relate, sympathize, empathize. We join with each other. This simple acknowledgement of our togetherness has planted seeds of love, caring, connection, culture, and art in our godless universe. Far from Hayes’s barren wasteland, our togetherness means our landscape teems with joy, love, and radiance.

But, what about that horizon, beyond which is “…nothing“? Well, there isn’t nothing. There are my children, grandchildren, and so on. The kin of my friends. Since we are in this together, there are our children. There are us. We lay the foundations on which they build. We take in the wisdom of those before us, build from it, and pass it on to our children. We are in this with them, as well.

We may not know if God exists, but we can know that a godless universe is not a barren wasteland. Hayes’s myopia does not strip the universe of the existence of joy, love, and radiance. It simply means he was too short-sighted to see it.

The Patronizing

“But, wait,” you might say. “That’s not what Hayes meant of there being nothing beyond the horizon.” And you would be correct. When Hayes discusses the nothingness beyond the atheist horizon, he means the lack of an afterlife. So what if you experience love, joy, and radiance? Once you die, that’s it. It is permanently and completely over.

That’s true. But my response is just the same. So what? In fact, it is this finitude that makes our lives and how they’re lived so precious. An afterlife that is exceedingly more grand, more important, and better than this life renders this life insignificant. At most, this life is a utility for determining one’s fate in the afterlife. Contrary to Hayes’s comments above, it is the God-filled universe that makes this life cold. This life becomes a mere tool: functional, narrow, and subservient. Certainly, a personal, loving God may share his love and beauty with you in this life. But would it matter if he didn’t? Wouldn’t the afterlife still be what’s important? A universe filled with a loving God is certainly preferable to that of an indifferent or hateful God. However, all make this life an impoverished landscape when compared to life in a godless universe.

Which brings me to why I find Hayes’s account patronizing. He asks three questions he claims that “we can’t escape”:

“1. When faced with problems or troubles that seem overwhelming, is supernatural help available or not?

2. Are we ephemeral creatures who expire utterly with our last breath, or is there a spirit in us that survives physical death?

3. If death is not the end of human consciousness, if there is a whole realm of being beyond that, is it good or bad — or might it be either, depending on how we relate to each other and how we relate to God . . . while we’re here?”

It is the final question that tips Hayes’s hand. The conciliatory tone and appeal to agnosticism are mere pretense. Hayes reminds us that we don’t certainly know if a god exists, yet he expects us to be concerned that we may suffer in hell for the eternity of our afterlives. That’s not what he says, directly, but that’s what he means. He could have had the decency to be direct about it; however, it is hard to sell your loving God’s joy and radiance with threats of how that God will punish you with eternal suffering.

No, I do not like that I will die. I don’t like that the universe will cease being capable of supporting life. But I certainly don’t fear these things. Unfortunate as they may be, they do not erase the value of my life. They do not diminish the love and joy that I experience. They only serve as reminders that said love and joy must be cherished, for they are not forever. They are not taken from me, mind you. I cease.

Being godless, the universe isn’t going to provide me with love and joy. Remember, we’re in this together. I bring love and joy. I share love and joy. I may cease, but I can live in a manner that sustains and grows the garden of radiance that is our togetherness. In a godless universe, we plant the seeds that blossom into a valuable and fulfilling existence. We do this by the manner in which we live our lives.

To be fair, I can live my life just the same in a God-filled universe. However, it is not clear that I should. What I should do is live a life that gets me into heaven. At least, that seems to be where Hayes is directing my concern with his final question. In both universes, we can plant seeds of love, joy, and radiance. In the godless universe, we do so because it makes the universe better, because it is the right thing to do. In Hayes’s God-filled universe, we do so to garner future rewards.

So, remind me again, which universe is impoverished?

On the Cutting Room Floor

I have 25 unfinished posts sitting in my Drafts. Some of these have been there since late 2012. It’s time I bite the bullet and delete them. For posterity’s sake, I’ve decided to give some of them a moment in the spotlight. Below are excerpts from 9 posts that will never see the full light of day. They appear, roughly, in reverse chronological order.

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On Breaking from Tradition

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I started this blog in July of 2012. Over those two years, I’ve posted 90 times (this is 91). That isn’t a blistering pace, to be sure, but there’s very little I do at a blistering pace. The main reason I don’t have a higher number of posts is that I am inconsistent. I regularly disappear for weeks at a time. I even had an extended absence from February through June of 2013. Also, I tend to start blogging projects without finishing them. Though, as far as I’m concerned, I’m still working on the ‘Books Men Must Read’ project. I just get easily sidetracked by books not on that list.

However, there is one thing I have consistently maintained throughout the two years of this blog: I start every post title with “On.” As I near the brave new world of triple-digit post counts, I’m thinking about abandoning this tradition. My primary motivation is creative. I just want to broaden my options for what I can use as post titles. I often find the “On” is superfluous or makes the post title technically inaccurate. Likewise, I will occasionally come up with a witty title, but I don’t use it because it doesn’t start with “On.”

Alternatively, I’m multiple years and nearly 100 posts into this thing, and I’ve maintained this tradition throughout. That’s kinda cool. Fine, maybe it’s not cool, but I certainly fancy it as neat. For all my inconsistencies with the blog, this is what I’ve maintained, and I suspect I should value that more than a post title with a witty pun or clever portmanteau. It’s just, I really freakin’ like witty puns and clever portmanteaus.

At this moment, I have not decided if I will make the change. I am on the precipice, however. Should I step back, close the door before me, and fully embrace “On?” Or, Should I step forward, close the door behind me, and enter the new world of non-formulaic post titles?

Sometimes, life is complicated.

On a Quick Thought about Fine-Tuning and God’s Motivation

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I am reading Gary Gutting’s interview with Tim Maudlin for The Stone. The focus of the discussion is on modern cosmology and its implications for theistic belief. In their exchange, Gutting makes reference to God’s motivations (namely, not assuming we know God’s motivations) as responses to points made by Maudlin. The first use made sense to me; however, the second use seemed to undermine the force of the fine-tuning argument.

Here’s the first use:

Maudlin: No one looking at the vast extent of the universe and the completely random location of homo sapiens within it (in both space and time) could seriously maintain that the whole thing was intentionally created for us. This realization began with Galileo, and has only intensified ever since.

Gutting: I don’t see why the extent of the universe and our nonprivileged spatio-temporal position within it says anything about whether we have some special role in the universe. The major monotheistic religions maintain that there is a special spiritual relationship between us and the creator. But that doesn’t imply that this is the only purpose of the universe or that we’re the only creatures with a special relationship to the creator.

Here, I think Gutting makes a very good point. When we note something like the apparent fine-tuning needed for intelligent life, one explanation is that a designer manipulated things such that intelligent life would arise. It makes sense to look at the universe and suggest that the universe wasn’t fine-tuned for us because the universe doesn’t show any special preference for us except that we can exist within it (e.g., it is vast, we aren’t at the center of it). Gutting’s point, highlighted above, is that intelligent life may not have been God’s sole purpose for creating the universe, so things like the vastness of the universe or our non-privileged position may be the result of some other of God’s objectives.

This is a perfectly good response. We may not know all of God’s motivations, so these concerns may only be apparent. They may not be actual problems for the ‘God as fine-tuner’ argument.

Here is the second use (sorry, this will involve more extensive quoting, but I want to keep context):

Gutting: …Some theists have appealed to scientific cosmology to argue that there’s a “fine-tuning” of physical constants that shows that the universe is designed to support living beings and, in particular, humans. It’s said, for example, that if the ratio of the mass of the neutron to the mass of the proton were just slightly different, there couldn’t be sufficient structure to allow for the existence of organisms like us.

Maudlin: At this point, our physical theories contain quite a large number of “constants of nature,” of which we have no deeper account. There seem to be more of them than most physicists are comfortable with, and we don’t know for sure whether these “constants” are really constant rather than variable. This gives rise to questions about “fine-tuning” of these constants. One thing to keep in mind is that the true number and status of the “constants of nature” is not part of any well-established physical theory: It is part of what we don’t yet know rather than what we do know.

Gutting: So are you saying that we don’t know enough about the relevant constants to get a theistic argument started?

Maudlin: Yes, since we don’t even know if the “constants” are constant, we certainly don’t know enough to draw any conclusions about the best account of why they have the particular values they have right now and around here. Since we don’t know how the various “constants” might be related to each other by deeper physics, the game of trying to figure out the effect of changing just one and leaving the rest alone also is not well founded.

One thing is for sure: If there were some deity who desired that we know of its existence, there would be simple, clear ways to convey that information. I would say that any theistic argument that starts with the constants of nature cannot end with a deity who is interested in us knowing of its existence.

Gutting: Once again, that’s assuming we are good judges of how the deity would behave. But suppose that a surprisingly narrow range of the relevant constants turns out to be necessary for humans to exist. Some critics would say that even so, cosmological inflation would provide a satisfactory explanation with no reference to a creator. What’s your view on that?

The comment from Gutting that I’ve highlighted is about Maudlin’s suggestion that fine-tuning is not a good way for God to make His existence known. In response to this point, Gutting is fine to suggest that we are not good judges of God’s motivations. However, doesn’t the whole fine-tuning argument rest on a judgement of God’s motivations?

The fine-tuning argument suggests that, among any number of motivations, one of those motivations was that intelligent life would arise in this universe. This is evidenced by the idea that the likelihood of intelligent life arising in this universe is so unlikely, it must have been the motivation of an intelligence. But, if we’re not good judges of God’s motivations, haven’t we undercut the whole argument? How can we even say intelligent life was one of God’s motivations? If it isn’t, then the apparent fine-tuning is irrelevant.

This doesn’t even eliminate the possibility of a god existing. Perhaps God created the universe for some other purpose entirely, and intelligent life was an accident. Perhaps, there is a God that could create the universe and fine-tune it for life, wants to create the universe and fine-tune it for life, but just hasn’t done it. But, by coincidence, a universe arose through natural means that was fine-tuned for intelligent life. If we aren’t good judges of God’s motivations, I don’t know how our perception of fine-tuning can differentiate between these various scenarios, and all of these scenarios include a god.  However, the last one is indistinguishable with atheism. So, if we’re not good judges of God’s motivations, we simply can’t propose God as an explanation for apparent fine-tuning. We don’t have the epistemic warrant.

It seems to me, if the fine-tuning argument is to carry any weight, it requires that we be reasonably decent judges of God’s motivations. If we are reasonably decent judges of God’s motivations, then we can offer critiques of God’s motivations/behaviors. Gutting was correct to point out that we may be missing something such that our critiques are misguided, but I’m not sure one can say we’re poor judges of God’s motivations while maintaining the fine-tuning argument.

Thoughts? Am I way off?

Other thoughts:

Two posts in one day? Nonsense.

On the Objective Morality vs Subjective Morality Debate

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I’m a few posts behind, but I’ve been reading through the multi-part review of Mere Christianity over at hessianwithteeth. In the comments section of part 3, a discussion broke out regarding objective and subjective morality. In particular, I want to highlight two comments: one by hessianwithteeth and a reply by Michael Nicholson at the Tides of God blog.

I am isolating this conversation because it strikes me as the quintessential comment/reply when it comes to the ‘objective morality vs subjective morality’ debate. My goal in this post is not to provide a response or rebuttal to either comment. Instead, I simply want to unpack the conversation a bit, providing some conceptual clarity. This will involve answering some of the questions Nicholson poses, but again, the purpose is to clarify concepts. Likewise, I don’t want to claim that I am clarifying hessianwithteeth’s views on the issue. I’m not even suggesting that the conversation suffers from a lack of conceptual clarity. This is an exercise in clarifying my understandings, and I’m using the conversation as a prompt. Lastly, I am an amateur at best (a pretend amateur is probably more accurate). I am doing this for my own edification, so, if I’m misrepresenting/misunderstanding anything, please correct me.

The Comment Conversation

To start, here is the comment and reply:

hessianwithteeth-

“I don’t believe i[n] objective morality. I believe morality is subjective.”

Michael W Nicholson-

“Really? So on what basis have you made the several moral distinctions in your previous replies? Your own subjective sensibilities? And if that’s the case, why do you express moral outrage at actions that offend your personal sensibilities? If morals are subjective, then condemning someone else’s moral actions or sensibilities is about like condemning their taste in pie. I prefer key lime and you can’t tell me I’m wrong. If morals truly are subjective, they are merely a matter of taste. On your basis for morality, you can’t really say Hitler did anything objectively wrong, you can only say you find it distasteful.”

If you’ve engaged in this debate before, you’ve surely heard something very close to this exact conversation. Anyway, let me get to the questions.

So on What Basis Have You Made…Moral Distinctions? Your Own Subjective Sensibilities?

First, I want to start by clarifying the objective and the subjective. To do this, I want to add two more concepts, the absolute and the relative. It is easy to conflate these concepts, so I want to make sure I distinguish them.

To begin, let’s give a definition of objective and subjective.

Objective: Mind-independent. By this, I mean it is not dependent upon a subject’s thoughts, feelings, attitudes, interpretations, or biases.
Subjective: Mind-dependent. By this, I mean it is dependent upon a subject’s thoughts, feelings, attitudes, interpretations, or biases.

It is important to note, objectivity and subjectivity are opposites of each other, only. Neither is inherently absolute or relative, though they may be more likely to fall into one these subsequent distinctions. Typically, we associate objectivity with absoluteness and subjectivity with relativity, but these associations are not inherent.

Consider a statement about a physical comparisons: Jeff Peden (that’s me) is the tallest. In a room of toddlers, I am the tallest. In a room of professional basketball players, I am not the tallest. There is nothing mind-dependent about being tallest. It is an objective measure. However, my being the tallest is relative to the group to which my height is compared. This is an example in which the statement is objectively true or false, but its truth or falseness is relative.

Similarly, assume the following statement is true for all times and places: the best food to eat is that which Jeff Peden thinks is the tastiest food. This is mind-dependent. It depends on what a subject thinks is the tastiest food. However, it holds absolutely. Whichever food I think is tastiest is the absolute best food to eat. This is an example of subjective absoluteness.

Let’s set two more definitions:

Absolute: Not circumstantially dependent. By this, I mean that a proposition can be true or false in itself. It does not depend on other circumstances.
Relative: Circumstantially dependent. By this, I mean that a proposition cannot be true or false in itself. It does depend on other circumstances.

To get to Nicholson’s questions, from the standpoint of moral subjectivism alone, the basis on which a moral subjectivist determines something’s moral standing is to consult the relevant subject’s moral view on the matter. Is it one’s own subjective sensibilities? It could be, but that is not necessarily the case. The moral subjectivist may appeal to something absolute (e.g., a god’s moral attitude, an ideal observer’s moral attitude) or something relative (e.g., one’s personal moral attitude, a culture’s moral attitude).

Why Do You Express Moral Outrage at Actions that Offend Your Personal Sensibilities? If Morals are Subjective, Then Condemning Someone Else’s Moral Actions or Sensibilities is About Like Condemning Their Taste in Pie. I Prefer Key Lime and You Can’t Tell Me I’m Wrong. If Morals Truly are Subjective, They are Merely a Matter of Taste.

One of the assumptions I made throughout the previous section was that moral statements, be they objective or subjective, can actually be true and false. This passage in Nicholson’s response questions the motivation of subjective moralities, but to get to that, I want to begin by discussing the truth-aptness of subjective moralities.

From here, I want to introduce two more terms:

Cognitivist: Has truth-aptness. By this, I mean a sentence can be true or false.
Non-cognitivist: Does not have truth-aptness. By this, I mean trueness and falseness do not bare on a sentence.

Consider the following two sentences:

1. This is the start of the game.
2. Play ball!

The first sentence is cognitivist. If it is the start of the game, the sentence is true. If it is not the start of the game, the sentence is false. The second sentence is non-cognitivist. It can be neither true nor false. It is a command for the game to commence.

Returning to morality, objective moral sentences are always cognitivist. Subjective moral sentences are a trickier matter. Some argue that they are cognitivist and others argue that they are not. The difference comes down to the nature of subjective moral attitudes. To quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the difference comes down to whether or not the moral attitude of the subject “has truth conditions which are also the truth conditions of the sentence uttered.” If you think they are the same, then subjective moral statements are cognitivist. If you do not think they are the same, then subjective moral statements are non-cognitivist.

To try and unpack this, consider this sentence:

Stealing is wrong.

Since we’re only discussing subjective morality, we’re treating this sentence as mind-dependent. So, on a cognitivist account of a subjective morality, the above sentence is reporting something about the subject’s moral attitude that is truth-apt. As such, the above sentence is akin to saying “I disapprove of stealing” or “God disapproves of stealing.” These expressions of disapproval are truth-apt. So, we might say something like: morality is those attitudes one has related to one’s views on the how to behave appropriately. An individual’s attitude is – I disapprove of stealing. Therefore, it is factually the case that stealing is wrong, for this individual. As such, the subjective moral statement is truth-apt.

On a non-cognitivist account, the above sentence is not reporting a moral attitude that is truth-apt. There are a number of non-cognitivist accounts. Two common examples are emotivism and prescriptivism. I will focus on emotivism, as prescriptivism is not necessarily suited to subjectivity. An emotivist account argues that the moral attitudes are emotional attitudes. So, the above sentence is akin to “Boo on stealing.”

It is important to note that the nature of one’s moral code doesn’t change based on how one words a moral statement. The question is about which semantic structure better accounts for the nature of moral statements. So, a person might say, “I disapprove of stealing,” but they’re actually just expressing their emotional sentiment via a declarative statement (as non-cognitivism might argue). Similarly, a person might blurt out “Boo on stealing,” but they’re actually emotionally expressing their disapproval of stealing (as cognitivism might argue).

Before I directly address the question in the heading, I want to provide one more definition:

Morality: A code of conduct designed to guide behavior and action.

I mention this definition to draw out how a subjective moral disapproval is different then a mere disagreement of preference. Let us start with a question:

What is the most enjoyable flavor of pie?

Because enjoyment is mind-dependent, the answer to this question is subjective. Likewise, I feel safe in asserting that the correct answer to this question will depend on the individual providing an answer. As such, the answer is relative. Although both may be subjective and relative, a subjective moral attitude is not the same thing as a mere preferential judgment.

Nicholson’s answer to the question is key lime pie. I disagree. Though I enjoy all pies, my favorite is apple pie. The key point to note, though I disagree with Nicholson, I am not expressing disapproval of his preference. Moral attitudes, be they based on something objective or subjective, are attitudes about a code of conduct. Preference disagreement, alone, is not related to a code of conduct. As such, a subjective moral disapproval is not the same thing as a disagreement about pie.

This is not to say that one could not express moral disapproval for a preference. If my favorite pie were a savory, meat pie, someone may disapprove of the making/consumption of meat pies as well as the preference for meat pies on moral grounds related to harming animals. And, again, this moral wrongness for a preference for meat pies would hold in both an objective account of morality as well as a subjective one. The key is that the disapproval is moving beyond the mere disagreement in preference. The disapproval derives from the preference falling afoul of the moral code of conduct in use.

A Matter of Motivation

One of the primary concerns when exploring morality is related to the issue of motivation. Because morality is a code of conduct for behavior, if it is to carry any normative weight, it needs to motivate behavior. This is the heart of Nicholson’s question from the preceding heading – “Why do you express moral outrage at actions that offend your personal sensibilities?”

As it is, a subjectively relative morality has no problem explaining why a moral attitude would be motivating – the subject holds the moral attitude. Remember, a moral attitude is an attitude about how to act or behave. Moral attitudes are inherently imperative. So, an individual subject expresses certain moral approvals/disapprovals because that individual holds the relevant moral attitudes. Non-cognitivist accounts tend to emphasize this point, directly connecting the moral attitude to the motivating sentiment (e.g., the emotion in Emotivism).

On a subjectively relativist account of morality, motivation is not a problem. The issue is consistency. It is straightforward as to why I would express moral approval/disapproval; I hold moral attitudes. Likewise, it is straightforward as to why Nicholson would express moral approval/disapproval; he holds moral attitudes. The issue is, Nicholson and myself do not need to hold identical moral attitudes. Again, to drive the point home, this state of affairs doesn’t hinder motivation. If your moral attitude is that the Holocaust is wrong, you should act to prevent it. That is the imperative nature of morality. Moreover, that act of resisting is justified, either by a mind-dependent sentiment (on a non-cognitivist account) or a mind-dependent fact of the matter (on a cognitivist account). However, your attitude that the Holocaust is wrong is not correct in any objective sense. There is no mind-independent moral justification. It can only be correct in relation to your actually holding the moral attitude that it is wrong. This is why moral relativists often promote an approach that emphasizes tolerance of others.

A subjectively absolute account of morality circumvents the issue of consistency. Consider Divine Command Theory. It is God’s subjective moral attitudes that establish what is morally permissible/impermissible. God’s subjective moral attitudes hold for all times and places, so they are absolute. Finally, presumably, we consider God to be authoritative on the matter. Likewise, there may be additional factors like a reward system (e.g., heaven and hell). These can function to motivate the behavior of subjects that are not God.

One of the principle concerns of subjective moralities, and the central point of Nicholson’s key lime pie comment, is that they are arbitrary. As such, there can be no final resolution to the matter. Even though a subjectively absolutist account of morality will establish consistency, it is not establishing anything ultimate. God could approve of stealing. God could disapprove of stealing. There is nothing external to God on which to measure the accuracy of God’s moral attitudes. If God approves of stealing, it is morally permissible unless it is demonstrated that God actually disapproves of stealing.

A relativist account offers another way to resist the moral attitudes of others, namely one’s own moral code. However, there is still no ultimate fact of the matter to which one can appeal for arbitration. Though it is not correct to say that a subjective moral attitude is the same as a mere preference for key lime pie, Nicholson is correct to note that they share the same characteristic of being arbitrary. Just remember, an action can be properly motivated even if that motivation is arbitrary.

 Not Letting Objective Morality Off the Hook

Though I concluded the last section by drawing attention to one of the primary concerns of subjective accounts of morality, they have a number of things going for them. As mentioned above, subjective moral attitudes are straightforwardly motivated. Likewise, though I don’t want to say they obviously exist, they are straightforward to ground, ontologically. Lastly, what we find in the world, descriptively, is what we’d expect to find if the nature if morality was relative.

The principle issue facing objective accounts of morality is the ontological grounding of moral facts. Since objective morality requires there to be mind-independent facts of matter, someone arguing in favor of an objective morality must account for these moral facts in their ontology. Theists attempt this by grounding moral facts in God. Two hurdles theists face in this account are breaking the horns of the Euthyphro Dilemma and establishing that a god exists.

Atheistic accounts of moral facts can be in two broad categories, supernatural and natural. A supernatural account of moral facts would involve an appeal to something supernatural that isn’t a god. For example, a supernatural, teleological state like Nirvana could provide a godless grounding of moral facts. Whether or not an action is moral is whether or not the action moves you toward Nirvana. The primary hurdle for such an argument is demonstrating the existence of the supernatural ground (e.g., demonstrating there is Nirvana).

Natural accounts typically try to collapse the fact-value distinction, or they will place moral facts into the category of abstract concepts and broaden their definition of natural to include such concepts. Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape falls in the former category, and Erik Wielenberg’s Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe falls into the latter category. Some of the hurdles facing naturalist accounts of objective morality include avoiding the naturalistic fallacy and cashing out a broadened natural ontology.

Another issue facing objective accounts of morality is epistemic in nature. Even if we assume there are mind-independent moral facts, it is not clear that we know these facts. This is demonstrated by the diversity of moral codes current and past. The moral status of slavery, abortion, clothing, sex before marriage, and so much more differs based on time and location. The fact that there is descriptive moral relativism isn’t a defeater of objective morality, by any means. Nonetheless, it is a concern.

On Your Basis for Morality, You Can’t Really Say Hitler Did Anything Objectively Wrong, You Can Only Say You Find It Distasteful.

I want to close with a mind toward broadening my scope. We hold behaviorally normative attitudes, and we express these attitudes. Our cultures and societies establish expectations around normative behaviors and practices. We create laws to enforce acting upon these values and expectations. The ‘Objective Morality vs. Subjective Morality’ debate is a metaethical question. In short, it is a debate about part of the answer to the question, “What is the nature of morality?”

This question of metaethics is one I’ve explored, casually. Every time I explore it, I come away thinking a different metaethical theory is correct. Also, though I suspect I completely misrepresent everything, I’ve learned that there are a lot of layers to the metaethical onion. When I think back on my past discussions on morality, I was clearly under-informed as regards the arguments I made in those discussions. For example, calling it a debate between objective morality and subjective morality just doesn’t cover the breadth of options available. For example, it leaves out those awkward, middle-ground options like prescriptivism and constructivist positions like that of Rawls. If we want to create a debate dichotomy, realism vs anti-realism is probably the better dichotomy, but even this is too broad to meaningfully cover the options that have been proposed.

The one thing I can say, in my casual exploration, I’ve become untroubled by the implications of the heading of this section. I find cutting in line distasteful. I find chewing food with your mouth open distasteful. I even find supporting the Seattle Sounders distasteful. And, I find Hitler’s/the Nazi’s actions distasteful. But, I find the last one very distasteful.

Every time I am convinced that a new metaethical theory is correct, I’m never convinced that Hitler was correct. I’m never convinced I should approve of Hitler’s actions. My disapproval of the Holocaust does not change. What changes is the metaethical nature of my disapproval. This is the limit of the rhetoric of the comment in the heading. When we think about what morality is supposed to be, what it is supposed to do, I understand why we want a robust, objective moral code. We want to be able to approve/disapprove of an action and actually be correct. We want to be able to act rightly. Unfortunately, what we want may not exist. It may turn out that our moral codes are arbitrary, at least from a cosmic point of view. But they are not arbitrary to us. They matter to us. So, until someone demonstrates to me genocide is morally permissible, objectively, I’m not going to feel much existential angst if my strong distaste for Hitler is all I’ve got.

I just hope you find Hitler distasteful, too.

Other Thoughts:

1. I need to make a blanket citation of John Danaher’s two-part exploration of William Lane Craig’s Definition of Objective Morality (part 1 and part 2). I gained a lot of insight and understanding from those posts.

2. I understand that many apologists argue for a Divine Command Theory that is objective. I am not addressing these arguments because that’s just not the point of this post. Whenever I say Divine Command Theory, assume I mean an obvious and explicitly subjective version of Divine Command Theory.

3. The distinction I attempt to make between a subjective moral attitude and a mere preference of pie is why David Enoch suggests there has to be objective moral facts. He says that the distinction I’m attempting to make is insufficient to account for moral statements. Like Nicholson, he suggests their shared arbitrariness is unacceptable.

You can find an interview with him at 3:AM. He was also interviewed on the Elucidations podcast (this interview includes a nice, though brief, overview of metaethics). In short, Enoch argues that moral facts fall into a larger category of “normative facts” that are needed to resolve deliberative questions. Per the 3:AM interview, it seems Enoch falls into the ‘broadened definition of natural’ camp. I listened to podcast interview this morning and thought it was interesting/relevant, so I’m sharing it.

 

 

On a Quick Sharing of Links

I really appreciated Ryan Bell’s review/response to Frank Schaeffer’s book Why I am an Atheist who Believe’s in God

Bell includes a rather extensive quote from the book, of which I want to isolate one part:

“Lucy’s [Schaeffer's young daughter] sense of time, place and scale is no more or less misinformed than mine. The only things in life I have fairly complete information about are minor household appliances. As for when to die, what to believe, whom to marry, where to live, whether or not God exists, when to have children, and what work to do, I think all this big stuff—stuff as “big as a tree!”—is best left to chance. My illusion of control over my life is long gone. I am part of a story; I am not the story. I’ve given up on planning. Rather, I plan while hoping that my plans won’t work. I’ve experienced the serendipity of my plans failing. Then my failures sometimes open doors to things better than those I’d wished for (17-18).”

On the one hand, I can appreciate Schaeffer’s sense of recognizing that random events happen because they are, in fact, random. However, this plays into a common canard against atheism that, sans a God, we are free to act as we wish. To this canard, I link to Michael Burgess’s post about Inverting the Gaze. What I particularly like is the end note that, without a god to judge and punish, we don’t discard rules or ethics. Instead, we feel a personal responsibility to instate them.

   

On Some Questions for Supernaturalists

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As luck would have it, a series of questions on beliefs and the supernatural were posted by Brent Arnesen writing at his blog Atheist Catalyst (his is a blog I just recently found, followed, and have been perusing – as I’m wont to do, I like to share the link as well). Though the questions are directed toward believers of the supernatural, Brent invites everyone to answer. Since I’m in the answering mood, I figure I’ll give it go.

On to the Questions

1. What is the best argument that defends the proposition:  The following don’t exist: Pixies, Santa Claus, Past lives, Lizard People, Greek Gods, Alien Visitors, Witches, Dragons and Atlantis? (Take out the ones you believe exist)

Since this discussion was framed around the supernatural, I don’t think it’s clear that all of these would be supernatural. I want to make a distinction between natural/supernatural and real/not real. If we’re only talking natural/supernatural, here’s how I’d break them down:

Almost Obviously Supernatural:

Pixies (they use magic dust)
Witches (they use magic spells and fly on brooms)
Greek Gods

Probably Natural:

Lizard People
Alien Visitors
Atlantis

Tricky/Depends on Definition:

Past Lives (is there a way to make past lives natural? Perhaps with a multiverse? I’m asking, not suggesting. Or, is there a reason to think a soul/life essence is actually supernatural? I don’t know.)
Dragons (the tricky part for dragons is the fire breathing, but I lean toward natural)

Supernatural but Obviously Not Real:

Santa Claus (we know the origin of Santa Claus)

As such, the best argument against their existence differs. Santa isn’t real because we know we made him up.

The best argument against natural examples is a lack of physical evidence (Atlantis, alien visitors) or physical limitations that greatly inhibit their likelihood (evolutionary history of lizard people or the travel time of alien visitors).

The best arguments against the supernatural is to point toward alternative explanations of our proposed experiences of them and combine them with a lack of more tangible evidence for them. Pixies, witches, and dragons all have physical bodies, so they could leave physical evidence. Greek gods could potentially leave physical evidence; however, there may be outs surrounding their godly ability to hide this evidence. Past lives will rely most heavily on providing alternative explanations for professed experiences of past lives.

2. What would you require to believe in any of the above enough to give you “Rational Warrant” to believe in one or others?

Well, alien visitors is easy. I know it has happened. Aliens (humans from Earth), visited another celestial body (Earth’s moon). Likewise, we have sent proxies to other planets (e.g., Voyager, the Mars rover). There is already warrant to believe in alien visitors. We’ve done it. What’s open is whether aliens from another celestial body have visited us. I’d argue it is rational to believe that aliens have visited Earth, I’m just not sure it is factual. Therefore, to believe, I want evidence of aliens visiting Earth (e.g., an unambiguous photograph of an alien craft–ship, satellite, whatever or evidence of panspermia).

Likewise, I think there’s rational warrant to believe in Atlantis. The city of Troy offers a good example of a city known via fiction that was unknown to be an actual city until it was discovered by archaeologists. It is reasonable to think Atlantis could be the same. One area where you may run into issues is how far advanced Atlantis was at the time of its destruction, but if we assume a reasonable level of advancement over other societies at the time, Atlantis doesn’t really pose an issue with rational warrant. Like alien visitors to Earth, the issue with Atlantis is factual. I need conclusive evidence that Atlantis actually existed (e.g., archaeological finds, other mundane literary sources).

For the Greek Gods, perhaps we can answer the whole “is it reasonable to believe in the Greek gods” with something like Reformed Epistemology to grant us warrant for belief. Prometheus giving us the fire of the gods instilled in us a warmth-based sensus divinitatis (I mean, is it not the case that bodies radiate heat?), and from that we can consider belief in the Greek gods properly basic. From there, say, a swan seducing my partner would provide pretty convincing evidence the Greek Gods are the pantheon in existence. I’d also probably accept a burly man hocking his ability to clean my stables in a day.

3. If the One True God represents 100%, what percentage of the qualities of God do you know? (Is God as you, basically, imagine? Or are His morals, his ways, his path to righteousness, etc.different that you imagine?)

I’m not totally clear on what this question is asking for, specifically. Here’s how I understand the question: Assuming there is an actual God, how much does this God comport to your expectations/image of God (please correct me if I’m misunderstanding):

As I briefly covered in my previous post on questions for atheists, I don’t think we know much of anything about God. Obviously, I would attribute this to God not actually existing, but assuming a god exists, it’s not clear our methods of knowing about God yield confirmed knowledge.

Approaching this differently by channeling a believer, I can think of three responses to this questions:

(1) How I imagine God to be is pretty accurate as my picture of God adheres to the image provided in my holy book as well as what has been demonstrated through philosophical theology.

(2) I would not develop a picture of God or hold a set of expectations about God’s image, path, morals, etc. That is not my place. God is not beholden to me or my expectations. It is my responsibility to follow God.

(3) God cannot be contained in a percent, perception, or image. God is infinite and without definition. Therefore, my picture of or expectations of God may all be accurate, yet defining God as such would be completely incorrect.

4. What argument do you use to defend #3?

For my personal response, I called it “sophisticated guess work” in my previous post. I really don’t mean that to sound like the work was a joke. The classic, Western conception of God was developed by or referenced some of the heaviest hitters of Western philosophy. The reason I question our actual knowledge of God is that there’s far more faith involved in the work to develop this concept of God than seems to be admitted for the assuredness of the description.

As for arguments for the three responses:

(1) Our greatest faculty, as humans, is our rationality, and this is the description of God at which we arrive when we apply our rationality to God. It is surely not 100% accurate, but it is as close as we can get.

(2) The activity bears rotten fruit, spiritually. By putting expectations on God when I have no right to do so, I risk both losing God’s grace and harming my own spiritual growth.

(3) The question simply misunderstands God. It is asking a question of God that has no answer.

5. If God exists, why is understanding anything more than “God Exists” important?

I can take this question in two directions:

A. If God exists, why is it important to understand anything theological beyond “God exists”: This probably depends on one’s conception of God. A deistic God or a chill pantheistic God probably doesn’t require further theological understanding. The Abrahamic religions’ conception of God requires further theology because it is relevant to human salvation.

B. If God exists, why is it important to understand anything at all beyond “God exists”: Again, believers of the Abrahamic religions might point out the importance of that human salvation stuff, but all could also make appeal to enjoying the beauty God has created/the beauty of God while we’re here and able to enjoy it.

6. How are people who believe in “crazy” supernatural beliefs different than you (assuming you are both sane)? What qualities between you and others lead you to have more accurate beliefs?

Actually, this is one of the areas where I find atheists can be a bit too easily dismissive of believers (and, to be fair, believers can be too easily dismissive of those who don’t believe in their particular brand of religion). I touched on this in my answers to the questions for atheists, but I don’t think believers of all stripes use fundamentally different ways of knowing from each other and nonbelievers.

I think the disagreements lie in emphasizing different areas and having different starting assumptions. I think this is what allows us to have such radically different subjective experiences yet we are able to relate to other’s experiences and convince/convert each other to our own worldviews.

7. What are the differences between other supernatural events? How do you disprove a supernatural event (aka, miracle)?

This is similar to question 1. It’s a quick and dirty list, but here are three areas for disproof: the evidential, the experiential, and the logical.

You can challenge the evidence or provide counter evidence (e.g., Sanal Edamaruku’s disproving of the crying statue). You can challenge the experience that people claim to have had (e.g., switcheroos like those Pizza Hut commercials where people thought they were eating fancy Italian but were actually eating Pizza Hut pasta). Finally, you can challenge the logic of something, showing it to be logically impossible (e.g., how a free-energy machine is logically impossible considering the law of conservation of energy).

8. How does anyone test their ability to have accurate beliefs about the world?

We can try to replicate our experiences to find consistencies. We can turn to external measures like other people or instruments. We can explore our beliefs rationally, examining how they hold up, logically. Also, we can apportion the certainty we have in our beliefs to the amount and quality of evidence for said beliefs.

9. How does one judge values in this world? How do you know if Honesty is better than Valor in a certain situation, or the other way around? Is it situational or absolute?

Ontologically, I’m not sure if it is situational or absolute (or something else). However, I think it is epistemically uncertain which values take precedent in which situations. To combat this, I take particular care to learn the lessons of my own actions and the lessons of others’ actions. The desired outcome is to grasp living with good character and virtue.

I may not know if choosing honesty over valor (for example) is the correct choice, but at least I can make it with reference to the best of my understanding of how these virtues apply to the situation at hand. In other words, I don’t strive to act with proper virtue, but as a person who is generally virtuous.

10. Are most people objectively sane and rational, and capable of reasoning beyond their emotions or ingrained beliefs?

Yes. Again, I think the seeming extremes in differences come from where we place different emphasis and focus when experiencing and coming to understand our experiences.

11. Can you disprove Solipsism? What problem does this present to any other possible world view?

Solipsism starts by noting that the only thing we have direct access to is our own mind. The external world is only experienced through your mental states. Metaphysical Solipsism proposes that the reason this is so is because only your mind exists. If the only thing that you have direct access to (and, subsequently, if the only thing that exists) is your mind, then the perceived external world is your mind. But, if it is your mind, you have access to it. However, Solipsism is supposed to provide an answer to why you don’t have direct access to the “external world”. If Solipsism is true, you’ve always had direct access to the “external world”–it is your mind. So, what was this thing you claimed we didn’t have direct access to? This thing was the whole point of proposing Solipsism.

I would couple this with an argument to undercut weaker forms of Solipsism. One might leave open the possibility of an external world but emphasize that we have no assured epistemic access to it. However, we can create warrant for treating the external world we experience as roughly the external world that exists by positing that our minds have to be somewhere, so why not the external world we experience?

I don’t think too much about Solipsism, so I’m happy to receive feedback.

On Some Questions for Atheists

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I suspect they’ve been around, but a series of questions for atheists once again appeared in my reader. I encountered the questions on Noel Onyongo’s Random Thoughts blog. I tend to like these kinds of things. First, I like to talk about myself. I mean that in as non-narcissistic a way as possible. I enjoy that I have to explain/defend myself. It is an opportunity to assess what I think I understand and how I think I understand it. Second, I really enjoy reading other people’s answers – see where we agree and don’t agree.

[Update: Other bloggers' answers can be found here and here and here (part 1 and part 2).]

A Little Background

The questions come from the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (or CARM). From their homepage: “CARM is a 501(c)3, non-profit, Christian ministry dedicated to the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ and the promotion and defense of the Christian Gospel, doctrine, and ministry.”

The questions were posted by (and, presumably written by) Matt Slick, a relatively well known apologist. The questions are transparently tied to CARM’s approach to arguing against atheism. This can be gleaned from the questions themselves, but a sidebar on the right underlines this point by linking to all of atheism’s supposed failures (e.g., accounting for existence, morality, or rationality).

Interestingly, among its various projects, CARM “analyzes… movements and compares them to the Bible.” Under the heading of ‘Secular Movements’ they list: abortion, atheism, creation evolution debate, evolution, government, homosexuality, the Raelians, and relativism. I’m pretty sure the inclusion of the Raelians was just CARM trolling touchy secularists. However, I hope they comment on other key secular movements like the common core, the war on Christmas, and Beatlesmania. Continue reading

On Identity and Personal Experience

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A recent article for RELEVANT Magazine, by Mike McHargue, has prompted some interesting responses that really reveal the politics of personal identity and experience. The article in question is titled “How Being an Atheist Made Me a Better Christian.” In short, McHargue describes the lessons he learned while an atheist that are now informing his being a Christian, and he sets the stage by briefly covering his de-conversion to atheism and re-conversion to Christianity. Despite being the central point of the article, few of the responses McHargue has received address whether or not the lessons he learned while an atheist are worthy lessons for Christians. Instead, much of the feedback of the post has been to question (if not outright deny) the various identity claims McHargue makes in the article.

We’re all familiar with the fallacy of such denials (kilts, anyone?), but when it comes to people talking about identity experiences, it is very difficult to not personalize (and subsequently be bothered by) others’ experiences of your shared identities. If you feel convinced there is a god, hearing another believer share why they de-converted can be troubling. Likewise, if you also de-converted, hearing someone say they re-converted can give the impression that de-converts are just wishy-washy. To protect ourselves, we deny that this other person was ‘truly’ a de-convert or re-convert.

Hell is Other People’s Stories

One of the first responses to McHargue’s article (in fact, how I even found out McHargue’s article existed) came from Ryan Bell. Bell uses what McHargue describes as the motivating factor in his re-conversion to discuss what to make of experiences of the transcendent. Obviously, this avoids the principle content of McHargue’s article (i.e., the lessons he learned as an atheist), but that makes sense considering Bell is blogging about his year as an atheist. McHargue’s story of de-conversion and re-conversion is relevant to Bell’s project.

McHargue never claims that the cause of his re-conversion is “proof of God” or “solid evidence of God” in his article, and he makes this doubly clear in a comment on Bell’s post. However, Hännah Ettinger, writing at the Friendly Atheist, asks if his story is believable. At bottom, Ettinger wonders if he was “ever really an active atheist.” As she notes, her cause for de-conversion couldn’t be “fixed by looking at the Pacific coastline three blocks away from where I work.”

And don’t get me wrong, it’s not just atheists playing the denial game. Comments on McHargue’s article deny his claim to Christianity both before de-conversion and after re-conversion. The one thing that seems clear is that no one believe’s McHargue is really who he says he is. So much so, that McHargue posted on his own blog saying that he really was an atheist and a Christian.

There’s Only One True Scotsman and that’s Me

If I can armchair psychologize for a moment, this tendency to deny that someone is ‘really’ a part of our group comes down to securing our sense of personal identity and the salience of our worldview.  Intellectually, any atheist understands that McHargue’s story is not a metaphysical threat. It is simply his story. But, emotionally, it threatens our own stories. As Ettinger said, “looking at the Pacific coastline” doesn’t convince someone God exists. How could it convince McHargue? It surely can’t, not if he was ‘really’ an atheist.

At least, that’s the defensive maneuver we make, and let’s give it the due it deserves. We don’t live our lives flippantly. How we understand ourselves and our places in the world matter to our self-esteem, how we live our lives, and the meaning in our lives. We don’t just want our identities and worldviews respected. We want them to be correct.

Even Worse Hell is Other People Telling Our Stories

As I mentioned above, intellectually, we understand the No True Scotsman fallacy. Barring evidence of deceit, there’s not much we can muster to prove McHargue was never ‘really’ an atheist. His re-conversion due to an experience of the transcendent does not speak to the experiences of many (dare I say most) atheists. It certainly doesn’t speak to my experiences and intuitions influenced by my atheism, especially how I understand experiencing the transcendent. But, so what? I might interpret his experience differently, and I might draw different conclusions. What I cannot do is deny his experience. It is not mine to deny.

Nor would I want to deny his experience. You’ve probably heard it claimed that no atheists truly exist; they are simply fools who stubbornly ignore God’s existence.  Well, no. I do exist, and I don’t really appreciate you telling my story. And this returns us McHargue’s story.

Was McHargue really, truly an atheist? I don’t know. I have no reason to doubt him, but I can go one step further. I can offer genuine evidence that he was an atheist. Ironically, it rests in the part of his article everyone seems to ignore – the lessons he learned as an atheist. He provided three lessons: (1) Don’t let doctrine become dogma, (2) Increasing well being and reducing suffering in this life matters, (3) it is never wrong to question.

I think it is fair to say these are lessons the atheist community tries to teach. I certainly feel comfortable being associated with these lessons. Sure, it may still be the case the McHargue was never truly an atheist. That whole story may have been a conceit to justify claiming to learn the lessons first hand. But I doubt it. Even so, atheists are often misunderstood and poorly stereotyped. At least the lessons McHargue’s attributing to atheism ring true. If nothing else, that’s appreciated.

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