On Yesterday’s Tears

Yesterday, somewhere in the world, a mother and father cried tears of joy, love, and happiness while watching their daughter get married. Just the same, yesterday, there were parents crying tears of sorrow, pain, and loss because their daughter died of cancer before her 16th birthday. Something else happened yesterday. My favorite soccer team gave up a two-goal lead in an important game. They lost 3-2 and, as a result, are sitting outside the playoff positions with only a small number of games remaining. There were no tears, but it was a punch to the gut.

Ask a group of people in what order would they wish these events upon another person, and the answer would likely be unanimous: daughter’s marriage, soccer team’s loss, then daughter’s death. Each option seems genuinely better than the one that follows it. If we’re being particularly callous, we may well wish these events upon our greatest enemy, just in reverse. Likewise, each option seems genuinely worse than its predecessor.

Today, we wake up to news that it has been unquestionably determined that there are no gods. What are we to make of yesterday’s events? Were yesterday’s tears cried for nothing? What of the order in which we’d wish yesterday’s events upon others?

The answer, according to many theists, is that those tears become meaningless. What we would or would not wish upon others becomes arbitrary. Consider Rick Henderson’s comment from his HuffPost piece I discussed previously:

“Anything and everything that happens in …a [godless] universe is meaningless. A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value.”

Henderson insists, in no uncertain terms, that goodness, meaning, and value cannot exist if there is no god. This is an interesting situation. In a godless universe, we have wildly different reactions and responses to different events, and we hold strong views about which events we prefer, but we don’t do this by referencing goodness, meaning, or value.

Well, obviously Henderson isn’t entirely correct. If we can assign a preference to things, then those things have value. Of course, noting this doesn’t establish much for a godless universe, as this value may be of a purely arbitrary sort. Love may only be more valuable than an untimely death because I think so or because the culture in which I live holds it to be so. There may be value, but Henderson would be within his rights to argue that it is not a meaningful value.

In his piece, Henderson contends that “[a]ny atheist who recognizes objective meaning and morality defies the atheism that he contends is true.” This leads straightforwardly to Henderson’s conclusion: “If your worldview can’t makes [sic] sense of the things that make most sense to you (like objective morality), then it’s not worth your allegiance.” In other words, we should accept that there is a god. We know there are goodness, meaning, and value. Atheism cannot account for these. Therefore, theism. Well, there is a question we can ask: how does God account for goodness, meaning, and value?

God’s Omnipotence

For God to account for goodness, meaning, and value, he must be sovereign over them; otherwise, God is not that which accounts for them. Well, that’s easy. God is omnipotent. God can just make it such that something is good, meaningful, or valuable. So, God can make love good. That is why parents cry joyful tears when their daughter celebrates love in the form of a wedding. Similarly, God can make an untimely death bad. This is why parents cry sorrowful tears when their young daughter succumbs to cancer.

But God could also reverse the above. Untimely death could be good and love could be bad. The reason for yesterday’s tears would swap. The parents who lost their teenage daughter to cancer would be crying tears of joy, and those parents seeing their daughter get married for love would cry tears of sorrow. Moreover, God could deem a Portland Timbers victory the greatest good and a Timbers loss the greatest evil. None of yesterday’s tears would matter in comparison to the evil brought upon the world by Toronto FC’s comeback win over the Timbers. If goodness, meaning, and value come from God’s omnipotence, then that which is good or meaningful or valuable is so simply because God made it so. There is no reason God should make love good. Likewise, there is no reason God should make love bad. This is clearly not correct, as it is just as arbitrary as something being valuable because a culture says it is. As such, it is not God’s omnipotence that accounts for goodness, meaning, and value.

In fact, this basic recognition eliminates a lot of the ways we might think God could account for goodness, meaning, and value. God’s will, desires, passions, and beliefs all suffer from the same concern of arbitrariness. God may will for, desire, be passionate for, and believe in the goodness of love. However, it is not clear why he should. For God to account for goodness, meaning, and value, he must be sovereign over them without being able to actively choose which things are ultimately good, meaningful, and valuable. This appears paradoxical, but there may be an explanation: God’s nature.

God’s Nature

If God is to account for goodness, meaning, and value, he cannot have a say over those things which are good, meaningful, and valuable. Presumably, we cry tears of happiness at a wedding because love is good. God is loving. Perhaps love’s goodness has to do with it being a part of God’s nature. Let us presume that God’s ultimate nature is good. We may argue that God’s good nature makes love good. At bottom, God is good. God has other qualities: loving, merciful, and so on. God’s at-bottom good nature can cause goodness to supervene on his other qualities, making those qualities good.

This frees us from arbitrariness. Love isn’t good because God chooses love to be good. Likewise, love isn’t good because God is loving. Love is good because goodness supervenes on love via God’s ultimate nature. Moreover, love cannot cease to be good, for God’s nature is eternal and non-contingent. Lastly, this makes God’s commands reliable, for God does not choose his good nature, but his good nature will always inform his commands. It appears that God can account for goodness. We are left with one last question: Considering goodness is God’s at-bottom nature, what is goodness?

Yes, those are crickets you hear. To maintain God’s non-arbitrary sovereignty over goodness, we have to strip goodness of all its content. However, in doing so, we’ve rendered goodness a completely vacuous concept. Anything you say is the content of goodness will strip God of his sovereignty over goodness, as it would be a constraint on God’s nature that is external to God. That concept must get its goodness via God’s at-bottom nature supervening upon that concept. So, the theist can claim that God’s existence accounts for goodness, but this has added nothing to the universe for God’s sovereign accounting of goodness means goodness is a vacuous term. That’s a Pyrrhic victory if ever there was one.

In the Wake of Yesterday’s Tears

Henderson asks an important question:

“How do we explain objective meaning and morality that we know are true?” 

He insists that such things cannot robustly exist in an atheistic universe. However, as we’ve just seen, they cannot exist in a theistic universe; at least, they cannot exist without being completely vacuous and unintelligible. Henderson informs us that “[i]f a worldview can’t answer this question, it doesn’t deserve you.” Hence, Henderson wants us to abandon atheism. Well, we must now abandon theism as well. But this is impossible. Atheism is the logical opposite of theism. Atheism and theism account for 100% of the options. What are we to do?

One thing we can do is acknowledge that robust, objective versions of goodness, meaning, and value do not exist. If we’re following Henderson’s suggestion, this is not an option. As he says, robust, objective versions of goodness, meaning, and value are things “that we know are true[.]” All we’re left with is to acknowledge that, whatever accounts for the existence of goodness, meaning, and value, it has nothing to do with God. Thankfully, this is untroubling for everyone. We get goodness, meaning, and value in a godless universe as well as a universe with god. We may not know what accounts for their existence. We may have to admit that goodness, meaning, and value just exist. But we can rest assured that yesterday’s tears were not cried for nothing.

On Not Not Wanting to Believe

In my WordPress reader, I follow the tag ‘atheism’. I check it on occasion to find new blogs to follow. Unsurprisingly, there are posts tagged ‘atheism’ that are written by believers of various stripes. Giving the feed a quick skim, I noticed a number of recent posts about or mentioning that the reason atheists don’t believe in God is because they don’t want to believe in God. Setting aside the way this suggestion can reinforce belief, I’ve always found it an interesting suggestion. It is obviously false. Most atheists want to believe. More accurately, they wanted to believe. Most atheists are former believers and wanting to believe is a common thread of most deconversion stories.

But, I was never a believer, so I did not deconvert. Acknowledging this, I got to wondering, is it true that I don’t want to believe?

Well, if you consider this blog, the answer may well be yes. I mean, I go out of my way to comment when people besmirch the good name of godlessness. This includes the occasional post about arguments for/against God. However, I engage the for/against arguments because I find the puzzle of them interesting. I don’t engage them to resist belief. Heck, I was defending a William Lane Craig argument in a comment thread a while back. The other posts are more focused on defending/espousing the positive aspects of my worldview, which happens to be godless. Anthropologically, atheists tend to be defensive, and this is understandable considering they are generally in the position of social outsider. I am no different. However, any defensiveness is borne out of commitments to my positive beliefs, not a resistance to believing in God.

There’s also something weird about the suggestion. Do I want to believe in God? Well, no. But, do I not want to believe in God? No, that’s not the case either. I just don’t believe in any gods. The suggestion that I don’t want to believe embeds a motivation that is not present. It would be more accurate to say I am unmotivated to believe in God.

Considering I do not believe in any gods, I want to understand and define the things I do believe: how to be good, how to live well, enjoying life, helping/supporting others, and so on. In other words, I want to focus on being a good person, on living a good life. The snarky believer may scoff at these aspirations, and have at it. May your eyes roll like the raging river. But feel free to put to bed the notion that I don’t want to believe. Wants just don’t enter into the equation.

On No Good Atheists

Yes, I am going to respond to the polemical HuffPost article going around about why there is no such thing as a good atheist. Yes, I’m pretty sure it speaks poorly of my character that I feel compelled to reply to this post. This isn’t to say that the post doesn’t deserve a reply. It certainly does. My reply is simply superfluous, but I can’t help myself. To ease some of my self-imposed shame, I am going to start with a snarky response.

Here is THE Good Atheist. He’s Canadian. QED, Pastor Henderson.

Also, if you haven’t read it, I want to direct you to the response at Amusing Nonsense.

Finally, I love how smug this article is considering it makes no attempt to address the scope of the literature out there on the topic. Perhaps Pastor Henderson would like to read Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, for starters.

My Response

1. Thank you, Pastor Henderson, for telling me what my atheist worldview must entail. I really appreciate your clarifying that for me. Unfortunately, you are not the arbiter of atheistic worldviews. That right belongs to Ricky Gervais, alone. Because of his accent. And The Office.

2. Atheism does not equal materialism. However, even a fully material universe can exist with other, non-material objects. The question is whether or not those other objects are natural. Remember, just because something is non-material does not mean it is supernatural. So, just because an atheist thinks the universe is material does not mean the atheist cannot think there are other, non-material but natural objects. It is in this realm where we might find our goods, bads, virtues, and vices.

3. The universe is scientific. Yup. Until science started to disagree with their religion, many Christians thought the universe was scientific too. In fact, many still do think the universe is scientific. So, what’s your point?

4. “Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless.”

Somehow, in his 1255 words (yes, I counted), Pastor Henderson doesn’t feel the need to defend this statement. He quote mines from a few authors and then claims those quotes represent “the nonnegotiable premises of atheism.” However, he offers no actual argument in support of his claim. The quick bio-blurb under Pastor Henderson’s name says he is a “grace addict.” I suppose this juicy tidbit of intellectual honesty is the kind of grace Pastor Henderson’s God peddles.

5. It’s weird to read an article critiquing atheism without seeing mention of relativism. Unfortunately for Pastor Henderson, relativism is a perfectly acceptable response to his claims. As such, I can be good because I say so. 😛

6.  Pastor Henderson’s whole article falls apart in his final section where he claims that atheists try to establish a ground for objective morality through logical argumentation. You see, since Pastor Henderson knows that objective morality is not a part of the nonnegotiable premises of atheism, he makes no attempt to understand how an atheist might ground objective morality. To be fair, he did quote mine Richard Dawkins. That’s roughly the atheist equivalent of a commandment from God.

You see, Pastor Henderson, try as you might, you can’t just declare objective morality and atheism are incompatible. You have to demonstrate that. Just as an atheist would need to demonstrate how there can be objective morality without a god. Many atheists have. Pastor Henderson does not refer or respond to any of them. Not a single one. He doesn’t have to. He’s already decided that atheism can’t have objective morality. Why should Pastor Henderson spend any time responding to something he already decided can’t be the case? That’s right, I can’t think of a reason either.

But, hey, look on the bright side. There is no bad atheist, either. There are only bad Christians. And bad arguments. Of that last category, Pastor Henderson’s argument is a good example.

On Hayes’s Response at the Friendly Atheist

I recently posted my thoughts on Shane Hayes’s Agnostic Argument for Faith, as excerpted from Hayes’s new book and posted at the Friendly Atheist. Hayes’s initial post received a lot of feedback in the comments of Mehta’s blog, and he has offered a response to some of that feedback.

I suspect he did not read my post nor is there any reason he should have read my post. However, one of the points he makes is relevant to my response, and I want to review it here.

The Supposed Pragmatism of Hayes’s Argument

Here is the section of Hayes’s response that seems relevant to my response (emphasis in original):

If one hypothesis (either God — or No God) will make you happier, stronger, more resilient, more at home in this brutal universe, more able to cope with life’s setbacks, tragedies, and the inevitable decline or plunge toward death, it is prudent, pragmatically sound, and entirely rational to embrace that view. Agnosticism assures us there is no rational barrier to either view. Neither can be known. Either may be true.

Many of Hemant’s commenters say it’s irrational to even weigh such factors as what makes us happier, stronger, more hopeful, more serene. It’s not. Others say that when they weigh them, atheism wins. Fine. I admit that atheism can be a rational choice, and as an agnostic I can’t argue with it. But be sure that you weigh all the benefits of belief that I mention — including those you’re most inclined to scoff at — because they all matter. In his book Pragmatism, William James said: “The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true?” The practical consequences are huge!

In my response, I made two basic points: (1) that Hayes’s account of a godless universe was myopic and (2) that his conciliatory stance is pretense to a basic threat of hell. Hayes more or less concedes my first point. He does this in greater detail in a different part of his response, but you get the gist when he says, “Others say that when they weigh them, atheism wins. Fine. I admit that atheism can be a rational choice, and as an agnostic I can’t argue with it.”

Regarding my second point, his response only seems to reinforce how patronizing the argument is. He starts by noting that what he is arguing for is the prudent pragmatism of believing in a worldview that allows one to deal with “this brutal universe.” If this were the extent of his argument, we could just agree to disagree while holding the same conclusion: that we both, individually, adhere to the worldview that allows us both to deal with this brutal universe.

However, Hayes brought heaven and hell into the equation. In fact, he called them unavoidable. This changes everything. There is no amount of love, joy, happiness, brutality, or suffering in this life that could ever be significant in relation to the eternity of joy and suffering proposed in the existence of heaven and hell. We are no longer talking about the prudent pragmatism of believing in a worldview that allows one to cope with this brutal universe. That doesn’t matter. What matters is which belief gets you into heaven and which belief gets you into hell.

That’s why the whole argument about pragmatic belief for this universe is patronizing. Hayes’s argument isn’t really about this universe. This universe is irrelevant to the threat he levels by warning us about hell. I just wish he’d be honest about this. His “Agnostic Argument for Faith” is nothing more than “believe or you’re going to hell.”

He doesn’t want to come right out and say, “believe or you’re going to hell” because it completely undermines the whole set up of his book. He wants to argue that one can move from atheism, to Pure Theism, to Christianity. However, in his first damn chapter he’s already threatening us with hell. Sorry, I don’t find his threats all that, well, threatening. Also, if he has to conceal his threats in the pretense of conciliation, I find him careless at best and dishonest at worst.

As I noted in my initial response, what I’ve read is a small portion of his book. It is quite possible this is a poor first step, only. The rest of the book may even out into a straightforwardly honest argument for belief in Christianity. Captain Cassidy, at Roll to Disbelieve, is blogging a review of the book, so you can find out how the rest of Hayes’s book fairs (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

On Gratitude to No One

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

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, they are our children. They 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

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

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

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:


“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.