The Nature of Natural Rights

Self-ownership1

There are no natural rights— rights one has just by virtue of being human. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 288)

This runs very counter to what most people believe, but, given atheism, it seems very hard to deny. After all, the materialism which is the basis of nearly all modern atheism denies the reality of any moral truth or value.

Most atheists I know would agree with this, but would emphasize that a person need not believe in moral truth in order to be a nice person. One can claim that morality is simply culturally relative, biologically advantageous, or otherwise subjective, and still be a good person.

This seems true enough, but is a side issue. Whatever I may think of a particular atheist, or even the impact of atheism on social health, the question is over truth. Is it more likely that humans have rights, or that God does not exist? Personally, I think most of us wouldn’t be confident enough of God’s non-existence to accept the idea that people don’t have rights beyond what governments happen to give them. Rather, I think we would say that a government which enslaves its people, or slaughters a racial minority, is in the wrong.

And this is because we have a sense of the moral that is as basic as our sense of the physical. The fact that there is no physical evidence for the moral no more refutes the moral than the lack of moral evidence for the physical refutes the material.

All this, when understood, makes materialism seem rather arbitrary. It would be very tidy if we could reject all knowledge that isn’t reducible to mathematics. But, setting aside the convenience of it, and the rhetorical value of claiming to be “scientific”, I don’t see any reason to think that it is true.

Rejecting a basic fact of human experience as illusory requires a reason that is more palpably true than the experience itself. This could be done in theory, but no one has yet offered a reason to believe in materialism (or in atheism) that is nearly so obviously true as the fact that it is wrong to torture innocent people.

And, if one agrees that there is such a thing as moral truth, it is very hard to escape the conclusion that God exists.

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16 responses to “The Nature of Natural Rights

  • Eduardo

    Title with typo dude…I think it is at least.

  • Salar

    As soon as one rejects absolute morality they must accept the possibility that today’s politically correct morality may not be good.

    But I imagine there is a strong psychosocial pressure to do so because the alternative invokes accountability.

    • Debilis

      I’ve often wondered at that. The moral argument seems very effective if you can ask it in terms of your listener’s morals (“Do you think the inquisition was wrong–even if those who did it thought they were doing the right thing?”, etc).

      But I suppose it is human nature to want to avoid the idea of God as king. I definitely feel the need to get away from that in my own life (and am, hopefully, getting better about it).

  • Atheist Crusader

    Regardless of what is written in ancient books, the imperative to act morally and ethically stems from the fact that humans require other humans to survive (for the first 7-8 years at the very least), and we have developed to act in socially beneficial ways to ensure our own survival.

    It is the emotion of empathy, not religion, which is the key to moral and ethical behaviour (and hence why we see sociopaths devoid of empathy committing the worst crimes as serial killers). Think of others as similar to yourself and you will treat them more positively and equally, like you (hopefully) treat yourself.

    Babies are born with basic instincts, which (despite some theistic wishes) are neither moral nor immoral. Complex feelings and emotions develop as the child learns about the world and the rules of socialising with other humans. Neurobiology, psychology and evolutionary processes have more plausible and verifiable explanations for why humans act or do not act in moral ways, and these do not require supernatural beings or an objective morality to exist outside of the organism (in this case humans).

    Believers just wish there was a paternal omnipotent being watching over them, however this is a double-edged sword. If children are taught that one way of thinking, a world view or specific doctrine is the only way, and the only thing keeping them from behaving immorally is the threat of judgement by an invisible force and unspecified punishment after they die, then they risk not internalising moral behaviour (since they have been taught they are naturally immoral and sinful) and less likely to be empathetic to others, especially if they are taught differences like sexuality and other beliefs or viewpoints are also wrong and immoral.

    This may (and has) lead to persecution of others, unequal rights, and – if believers act immorally and think they can’t control it – can result in negative ideation, guilt, depression, self-harm and further immoral, unethical or socially undesirable behaviour (the “acting out” Americans in particular are so keen to diagnose).

    If children are taught all humans are equal to themselves regardless of ethnicity, skin colour, gender, sexuality, ability, language, or even beliefs, then they will be more likely to treat everyone with equal respect, as they wish to be treated. Give them the ability to question and reason in an open-minded, rational manner and they will be able to more easily discern when others’ beliefs are discriminatory and immoral, and to act in an ethical manner. They will also be more likely to empathise with other humans and less likely to engage in behaviour which negates others rights, be that robbery, rape, assault, murder, or other socially negative actions.

    A religious education is an oxymoron and can only create internal and external discordance and divisiveness, not true acceptance and equality amongst humans, which is surely the most moral and ethical existence possible.

    Religious indoctrination is therefore not just potentially harmful to the individual and an equal society, it is tantamount to intellectual abuse, especially of children.

    • Debilis

      Nothing I claimed was based on “what is written in ancient books”, however. In fact, this seems to be based on a misunderstanding of what I’ve actually said. Let me explain:

      1. I don’t deny that some cooperation is needed for survival; I deny that this is the basis of morality.

      The most obvious reason for this is that cooperation is not always needed for survival. Racism, for instance, can often cause a family group to unite, destroying their resource competitors and thereby reproducing more plenteously–but this is hardly moral.

      In any case, its still simply a subjective morality, based on instinct, rather than any actual fact.

      2. Empathy is a big part of moral behavior, but I wasn’t talking about moral behavior.

      Rather, I was talking about the rational basis of morality. Any number of things can make people behave in a moral way, but that doesn’t make it objective or rational.

      Nor do I deny that science can offer a lot of explanation about why humans behave the way we do. That is obvious, but it says nothing about whether a particular behavior is right or wrong. That is a judgement call–which science does not make.

      3. This is a complete strawman with respect to theists.

      No, “believers” don’t “just wish there was a paternal omnipotent being watching over them”. This seems like armchair psychology, rather than a real engagement with what theologians have actually argued.

      More important is the treatment of theistic ethics. It isn’t remotely “the threat of judgement by an invisible force and unspecified punishment after they die”. I know of no theologian or theistic philosopher which has presented anything remotely like this.

      The reason why one behaves morally as a theist has nothing to do with fear of punishment. It is the fact that, when one realizes the truth, one will have far too deep a sense of gratitude to be demanding, hurt others, or refrain from helping.

      But this is simply the motivation. It is not the theists rational explanation as to why morals exist in the first place.

      4. You cite negative behaviors of the religious, but not of the non-religious

      I don’t know how proven it is that religious belief has led to the things you claim (rather than simply being used as the excuse), but advancing the cause of secularism has done as much as well. It seems a moot point, then.

      5. Believing in equal rights or open questioning does not require atheism.

      In fact, claiming it does is a close-minded view. Yes, we should be allowed to question, but that includes the materialism of modern atheists.

      There is simply no good reason to think that secular people are more ethical than religious people.

      6. To claim that religious education is an oxymoron only reveals an ignorance about what religion actually is.

      Whether or not you can cite some particular religious education that was a poor one (particularly if it’s as reported by a propagandist for secularism), I know of no legitimate study which has found that being raised in a religious home is detrimental.

      If you have any scientifically gathered data which supports the idea that raising a child religiously is “abuse” in a way that raising a child as a materialist is not, present it. I’ve never encountered anything of the sort.

      Really, that seems anathema to the idea that people should consider one another equal. It seems simply to be an unquestioned pre-judgement.

      • Atheist Crusader

        You seem to be mixing moral behaviour which is subjective and can be studied, with debate around the concept of morality which is philosophical and created by humans (not necessarily a deity).

        Let us examine a few of your quotes:

        “Nothing I claimed was based on “what is written in ancient books”, however.” Then where does your “moral truth” come from, how does it operate, and how does it prove god exists? If it is an objective discussion about a concept called morality then it is philosophical but not necessarily caused by or requiring the existence of a supernatural being. How is a deity the most probable explanation?

        “And, if one agrees that there is such a thing as moral truth, it is very hard to escape the conclusion that God exists.” Again moral truth can exist as a philosophical concept, but does not lead to the conclusion that a deity either created the concept or is even needed for it to exist as an objective concept. Human philosophers more probably created it.

        “In any case, its still simply a subjective morality, based on instinct, rather than any actual fact.” And this is a key point, moral behaviour is subjective, as is any discussion of objective morality – humans created the concept of deities, as well as “moral truth”. Just saying that moral truth exists does not lead to the logical conclusion a god created it.

        “That is a judgement call–which science does not make.” The judgement call of objective right or wrong in this case again is a philosophical one and will still end in a subjective debate, moral behaviour is factual, morality is just a concept.

        Historically objective morals could be said to be culturally subjective, once slavery and racism was accepted, today it is not. Was slavery objectively wrong back then? By today’s “moral standards” yes, but not necessarily at the time, and if that behaviour was seen to be “religiously sanctioned” then the argument that morals must come from a deity’s wishes codified in doctrine doesn’t hold.

        Look at it from another perspective, we can say with secular certainty that humans evolved to act in subjectively moral ways which are beneficial to survival, and which do not require supernatural existence or intervention to operate.

        We can also name any number of hypothetical situations which present moral dilemmas and thus debate the possible behaviour as right or wrong (eg. if I kill to stop my child being killed is that more objectively immoral than not acting to stop my child dying? Taken to it’s broadest sense, if aliens arrive and are about to wipe out all life on the planet, is it more wrong to destroy them first or not act and be destroyed?). None of these hypothetical situations or the judgement about the “moral truth” behind the behavioural options require a deity in either creating the objective concept of right or wrong, or guiding the subjective actions.

        If a supernatural being IS responsible for objective moral truth (and it is not just a philosophical concept created by humans), how does this truth operate materially on the world to change subjective human behaviour? If it is codified in ancient texts then it was more probably made up by humans, not divinely inspired. If it is not from ancient texts, where is it from, churches? Their human rights records are so dismal (Islam with regards to treatment of women and Catholicism in the case of child sexual abuse) that they can’t possibly be operating reliably or in any way that proves a supernatural being is behind the church’s actions or those of it’s leaders.

        At which point does moral truth cease to provide objective judgement of an individual’s actions? Can a child who kills an innocent animal or another child be held morally responsible? Is accidentally killing or maiming someone immoral if there was no intent to injure? If the objective moral truth comes from judgement of someone’s intended behaviour then this goes to their competency to make decisions, if they are not conscious of their actions then there is no intention and their subjective behaviour is neither objectively moral or immoral. You might say then that consciousness leads to understanding of objective morality, but does not need a deity for it. Is your “conclusion that god exists” based on the unproven assumption that consciousness is divinely placed? The neo-mammalian cortex behind our foreheads evolved giving us higher conscious functioning compared to other mammals and is a more probable non-supernatural explanation of this ability.

        Finally, since it is possible to educate a child in moral and ethical behaviour without reference to a deity, then religion can’t claim some kind of superior position or ownership of “moral truth”. As for religious education being intellectual abuse, any time someone uses their theistic beliefs as reason to discriminate against others because of their sexuality, gender or any other aspect which creates inequality, then that person’s religious indoctrination has done a disservice to their own intellectual development as well as the ideal of universal equality.

    • Debilis

      Greetings and best to you!
      (And, otherwise, apologies for the length of this one):

      I’m open to correction, but I do not think I was mixing moral behavior and moral ontology. I what specifically trying to separate those subjects.

      Lets have a look:
      First, I should clarify that nothing I’ve claimed in this discussion is based on ancient books. Of course I have opinions about the writings of antiquity. But, in this conversation, I’ve only claimed that materialism entails moral nihilism. Granted, I also suggested that theism follows from belief in morality (which is a very similar comment).

      But none of this requires any claim about any particular book (ancient or otherwise). It is a common misconception that theistic ethics are simply lifted from the commands recorded in the Bible, Koran, etc. This is not correct; much less is it true that theistic moral ontology (which is the subject I was discussing) follows from such a reading.

      In lay terms, one can figure out that one needs to believe in some kind of transcendent reality in order to rationally believe in ethics–even if one has never heard of the Bible.

      I am confused by something, however. You’ve said that morality can exist as a “philosophical concept”. Do you mean to say that this is objective morality? If so, I strongly disagree. Anything can “exist” in that fashion. To be objective, a thing has to be real as something more than a concept. I’ll address this further below.

      I completely agree with you, however, that I did not give an argument for theism based on objective morality. I merely hinted at the idea that there are such arguments. However, I do think I am in good company here. Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre all agree with me on this point.

      And it’s fairly easy to understand why. Morality, to be founded in something other than subjectivity, must of necessity be founded in something other than human drives. Nor can the purely descriptive statements of science suffice.

      As such, whether or not that leads all the way to a god, it definitely leads one well out of materialism (which is no small point in the current debate between materialist atheism and theism).

      To get to a deity, one would have to show that theism is more plausible than platonism. But, as almost no one in the modern world accepts atheistic platonism, I’ll let that alone unless you specifically wish to discuss it.

      I thought this was a particularly significant issue:
      “The judgement call of objective right or wrong in this case again is a philosophical one and will still end in a subjective debate, moral behaviour is factual, morality is just a concept.

      Historically objective morals could be said to be culturally subjective, once slavery and racism was accepted, today it is not. Was slavery objectively wrong back then?”
      The short answer is “yes”.

      But the more fundamental problem here is the implication that anything which is philosophical “will still end in a subjective debate”. I don’t know if this is what you meant to claim, but it is hard to see any reason here to assume that morality is subjective. Even if it were true that debates over it become subjective, that does not show morality itself to be subjective.

      I’m worried that there is a confusion here between ontology and epistemology. Whether or not it is true that epistemological knowledge about morality (i.e. “what do we do in this situation?”, “How do you know what is moral?”, etc.) is subjective, this does not mean that morality’s ontological status (Its actual nature, regardless of what we know or don’t know) is subjective.

      Of course, I’m not convinced that all epistemological talk about morality is subjective in the first place, but that’s a different point.

      I agree, however, with the basic idea that a deity who issues moral commands that can be shown to be false undercuts any idea that that deity is the source of morality. However, there are at least three major problems with this argument as it is presented here.

      First is the fact that it undercuts only that deity. Any other deity (including a concept based on the same religious beliefs, but interpreting the teachings differently) is not affected.

      Second is the fact that this still has not defended materialism. It is, at best, an argument for platonism.

      Third, and this is an oft missed point, specific moral commands can be contextual and relative in a way that fundamental moral principles are not. The principle that it is wrong to do harm to others, for instance, can lead one to “harm” a person in performing surgery.

      Even the popular example of slavery assumes that all slavery is essentially like the modern forms of it, and that (for instance) there are never circumstances in which pressing for the abolition of premodern forms of indentured servanthood would do more harm than good.

      As such, it is important to be clear that I defend morality as objective, not as absolute. An objective principle may call for different actions depending on the social, historical, physical, and spiritual context.

      Beyond this, it seems that moral behavior and other physical things are being conflated with morality. That is the only reason to expect that moral truth should operate materially on the world to change subjective human behaviour. Moral truth determines whether a behavior is good. It does not determine what behavior occurs.

      Nor do ethical puzzles like those you present harbor any problem for the claim that morality is ontologically real (that is, objective). I could offer my personal position on those issues, but the underlying point is that showing that we lack a perfect understanding of a thing (have not settled issues about it) in no way shows that the thing in question is not objective. The easiest way to refute that idea is applying the same logic to science, and asking one’s self if scientific puzzles is evidence that the study of the physical is subjective.

      Getting, at last, to the closing point, this is simply another conflation of moral behavior with objective moral principles. Certainly it is possible to teach a child ethical behavior without reference to a deity. It is also possible to teach a child to use the internet without reference to transistors. The former no more shows that God cannot be the basis of objective morality than the latter shows that transistors cannot be the basis of the modern computer.

      I think that, so long as one is careful to distinguish between objective moral principles (ontology), particular moral questions about history or hypothetical situations (epistemology), and theories of moral behavior (psychology), the point is a very strong one.

      Okay, that is quite long enough, except to say that I appreciated the thoughtfulness of your approach.

      • Atheist Crusader

        I appreciate you taking the time to reply so fully, however please forgive me if I still can’t see where the debate about objective moral truth existing (beyond a philosophical concept or perspective) leads to either the existence of deities or requires deities to have created that concept. And also please forgive my own lengthy response!

        You say “the underlying point is that showing that we lack a perfect understanding of a thing (have not settled issues about it) in no way shows that the thing in question is not objective.” But the “thing” here being “objective morality” is just as easily a concept human philosophers have created, not necessarily supernatural beings or deities. Saying we lack understanding could just as easily be because we are trying to objectively explain and understand something which has evolved from a subjective perspective, and is actually the simpler and more probable answer (to use Occam’s razor).

        For instance, in the example of killing to stop more killing, taking action or not taking action can both be judged as moral, and claimed by both the person who chose to kill, and the one who did not. Just because we can objectively conceive of moral dilemmas does not mean that moral truth about the nature of possible actions actually exists outside of those actions, or that judgemental deities created morality and sit in judgement of us. The “judgement call of right or wrong” is just as much a reflection of our human ability to objectively analyse subjective actions, than it is the existence of a deity.

        You go on to say “The easiest way to refute that idea is applying the same logic to science, and asking one’s self if scientific puzzles is evidence that the study of the physical is subjective.” As you likely well know the scientific method disproves the null hypothesis until enough experimental evidence has been produced to reliably conclude it exists. Ideally this occurs with peer reviewed consensus, which assists in minimising subjective decisions and creating a process which is as independently objective as possible. Of course history shows it has often failed when the consensus reached turns out to be false by better or different experiments, this is how science progresses.”The physical” is objective (to most worldviews, eg some Buddhists and others believe we create reality by perceiving it) but always subjectively perceived. To apply the same logic to abstract concepts which can be objectively considered would require repeated independent experiments (in this case to prove moral truth exists), which of course can’t be done since they are only philosophical in nature, they are only ideas.

        Without humans judging other humans actions, the rocks floating in space would be neither right or wrong. A bacterium eating another is merely operating to self-replicate. Equally a tiger killing a gazelle in a slow and painful death is doing it to not starve, and then going on to mate is again fulfilling the drive to replicate. In addition to these instinctual urges, humans have evolved the ability to self-reflect on our actions and the actions of others, and judge them to be right or wrong, as well as philosophical views of reality, some of which include the concepts of supernatural beings.

        Considering your initial post “no one has yet offered a reason to believe in materialism (or in atheism) that is nearly so obviously true as the fact that it is wrong to torture innocent people.” This is easily explained that it is wrong because we would not want it done to us or people we know (sociopaths and some psychopaths excused), we are generalising our subjective response and objectively applying it to “innocent people”. In fact since most people would not like to be tortured (except masochists, to a degree), then it can be easily assumed that everyone will think torture of the “innocent” is wrong, and those who are “guilty” would not be expected to agree it is right if they fear torture themselves. The debate can continue, is it wrong to torture guilty people for specific goals or at all? How do we objectively prove guilt? What constitutes an appropriate punishment, etc. These are still subjective responses generalised to an objective perspective.

        We have secular laws to protect the majority from the minority who cause harm, and the judicial system of most developed countries is a continually evolving one based on codified legislation and precedents, which judges refer to and make subjective decisions in many cases. I could go on but the point is that all of our objective laws are created by humans due to evolved social experiences and repeatedly tested and revised over time, not delivered by deities. Moral judgement or truth sits within the same framework.

        Finally atheist’s main issues generally are not with theologians and scholars like yourself who argue cogently about abstract concepts and divine existence, but bigots who use ancient texts to justify discrimination and inequality. Given that you recognise the ability to teach morality and ethics without reference to ancient texts or a deity (and the reward or punishment that comes with the concept of divine judgement), as well as how immoral those who hide behind dogma can be, why do we need to mix morality and religious doctrine? Atheists say the evidence for deities is limited and more likely a concept made by humans, if we can agree morality can be taught without reference to improbable omnipotent beings, why can’t we do away with the dogma until a deity actually turns up to prove us atheists otherwise?

    • Debilis

      Greetings once again!

      Hmmm… Let me see if I can organize this:

      1. Why Believe in Objective Morals?
      This seems the best place to start.
      Personally, I consider morals to be part of our fundamental experience of reality. There’s no argument that convinces me that the physical universe is real (as opposed to being a cartesian delusion), or that my own thoughts exist (as opposed to the eliminative materialist position on mind). These are simply the basic “data” that our philosophy must explain.
      That moral truth exists seems to be equally axiomatic from my perspective (and, I assume, most everyone else’s).

      2. Objective Morality is Philosophically Unnecessary
      The main argument materialists put to this one stemming from Ockham’s Razor. This is actually why I spent some time in this blog arguing that more than the material must exist (via philosophy of mind) before addressing morality. The principle that it is experience more generally, and not simply sensory experience, that is the basis of our knowledge, takes nearly all of the force out of the objection from Ockham’s Razor. So long as morality is being proposed to explain something about the physical facts of humanity, I agree that it is superfluous.

      3. Subjective Morality as Better Explanation
      Closely tied to this is the concept of subjective, consequence based morality. Sociobiological evolution, human reason as applied to our basic instincts, or some other theory is generally put forth as a superior alternative.

      Very rarely do I have much disagreement with these other options. My only objection to them is that they address a different topic. They answer questions like “Why do humans behave as we do?” or perhaps even “Why do humans tend to believe in morality?”. But they don’t answer the question “Is there an objective morality?” As such, I find them mostly a different subject.

      I can understand the materialist who says “But I can explain your sense that there is such a thing as objective morality in physical terms. Isn’t that a reason to suspect that there’s nothing more to it than that?”.

      Still, I disagree. We can explain nearly anything in nearly any terms. The solipsist can explain my sense that there is a real physical universe in purely mental terms, but I don’t take this for a reason to doubt my experience. Rather, I have to ask myself which is more plausible–my experience, or the philosophical basis for the alternative explanation?

      In both cases, I’ve not seen a good backing. In fact, I’ve offered a number of reasons why materialism fails. That being the case, it is not on strong ground.

      But, this does not show that morals exist in themselves. After all, there may be more than the physical without some of that “more” being objective morality.

      That brings us to the fourth (and, perhaps, main) point:

      4. Why Would this Entail God’s Existence
      If it is true that all human sense of morality could be explained in physical terms (through evolutionary psychology or whatever), then it follows that human morality is not objective.

      We have a sense of morality, just as we have a sense of the physical world. But, in both cases, it has been shown that our subjectivity influences those perceptions. Nor can anything else about us be an objective moral. Certainly, the physical facts cannot. (And neither can mental facts, but that is a longer argument. I’ll not get into it unless you want to discuss.)

      Nor can the physical facts of the universe. This is precisely why the materialist doesn’t believe in objective morality, of course: there is no morality to be found in physical facts.

      So, if we were to find objective morals, they would need to be in something non-physical. This leaves us with platonism and theism.

      I’ll not attempt a full-scale rebuttal of platonism (because no one is arguing for it). I’ll simply say that, given that it entails infinite numbers of forms, anyone committed to the use of Ockham’s Razor will point out that theism is far more parsimonious.

      In fact, it requires the proposition of only one well-defined, simple entity, which can explain all of the issues I’ve raised (Not only morality, but cartesian skepticism and eliminative materialism as well).

      Of course, that is a deeply abstract concept that, if not well understood, could strike one as being far less explanatory than it is. Which leads well into the final point of discussion:

      5. But Most Theists Believe in a Much Cruder God than That.
      Atheists have often replied that, even if I’ve defended my view of God, their complaint is with people like the Westboro Baptists. And I’ve definitely done nothing to show that these people are correct.

      I’ve always had two responses to that. The trouble is, it is almost impossible to say them both at the same time without sounding insincere about one or the other. I’ll do my best:

      First is that I completely agree that this doesn’t defend uneducated, bigoted Christians. Nor do I want to defend such people. I have to suppress an impulse to wretch when I see a photo of the Westboro Baptists trying to spread their hate (and the feeling is multiplied greatly when they’re using children to do it).

      Christianity is definitely not immune from ignorant bigots. To the end that these are the only people you’re criticizing, criticize away. Most likely, I’ll join you.

      Second, however, is that I don’t think its fair to blame this on “religion” in some general, sweeping sense of the word (as many atheists have done as of late). I’m all for criticizing “bigoted religion”, “corrupt religion”, “religious prejudice” and the like, but I don’t see why my much more benign and thought-out beliefs should get lumped in with those types. And that is precisely what the unqualified use of the word “religion” in many atheist slogans does.

      But, I hasten to add, I want to make it absolutely clear that I don’t remotely get this impression from you, personally. I’ve felt very respectfully treated in this discussion.

      So, thank you for that.

      • Atheist Crusader

        You’re very welcome, it has been a thoroughly enjoyable discussion, and a refreshing change from the “stop picking on Christianity” stoushes I usually find myself mired in! I am also heartened to see your revulsion to bigots and corrupt religion.

        I would like to examine further your assertion that “anyone committed to the use of Ockham’s Razor will point out that theism is far more parsimonious.” I actually think the theistic perspective requires far more circuitous reasoning than the atheistic conclusion that objective morality is an artefact of our ability to philosophically reflect on evolved subjective moral behaviour. To get there we must consider the full journey required to reach our current position (and yes must progress through the physical facts first)…

        A deity existing outside or at least in parallel with our four dimensional universe must have somehow created the physical properties we observe (in very simplified terms the fundamental quantum particles, the strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetism and gravity) and set them in motion in a fiery expansion (separate from or protective of itself) which grew increasingly complex via entropy. Hydrogen stars created heavier elements and star systems and the material ejected from these coalesced into planets. Some of these planets were eventually covered in elements which interacted in ways which were self-replicating, and up until this point no right or wrong actions have been made, and presumably the deity is silently observing the lifeless four dimensional space it has created (unless it/they gave life a helping hand, in which case it might have just as reasonably been aliens, not much evidence of them either).

        The terrestrial self-replicating structures formed biological systems which continued dividing and growing increasingly complex until self-sustaining organisms formed, and so on until the various types of viral, bacterial, plant and animal life as we observe today evolved (by feeding on the other life-forms – do we have the need or reason for moral truth here?).

        Up until this point the system of life in the universe is entirely self-referential and most probably devoid of divine intervention (since that must have been at the beginning).

        Finally some mammals evolved the neo-mammalian cortex that gives rise to high functioning consciousness, increased social development, communication, self-reflection and societal systems and governance (seen in humans and to a limited extent in some ape and dolphin species).

        Humans around the globe form societies, observe behaviour, reflect upon their existence with emotion and empathy, and debate concepts of right and wrong. Some humans claim to have insight into the origins of existence or actual contact with beings who created the observed world (verifiable evidence is hard to come by). Some further conclude that since moral judgements can be made of behaviour, then there must be an objective moral truth, often linked to the unseen creator(s), and reward or punishment after death. Often these claims are used to control and direct the behaviour of other humans.

        At this point the deity or beings who had patiently waited 14 billion years for the universe to contain self-reflecting intelligence could make themselves known in any number of verifiable ways beyond personal visions and improbable supernatural events, usually recorded decades later by people writing in a different language to the ones the supposed witnesses were speaking.

        After considering this 14 billion year journey from the physical to this metaphysical discussion, which is the more likely or probable explanation? That:

        a) God(s) created the physical world and metaphysical truths which wait to be revealed but not fully understood once life is sufficiently complex (and may never get that complex);

        b) Metaphysical truths exist platonically in and of themselves, yet distinct from the physical world;

        c) Metaphysical truths are just objective reflections of subjective experiences, perceived artefacts of our evolved ability to philosophise empathetically about our actions (both real and intended) and their emotive consequences in reference to others.

        This last option is not platonic since it is not arguing abstract concepts actually exist. It is probably best described as evolutionary psychology. If we were to all have lobotomies of our frontal lobes tomorrow, our behaviour would be no more or less moral than the other mammals on this planet, and the currently available evidence suggests there is probably not an omnipotent being sitting in judgement, let alone a heaven or hell for those whose intentions were bad.

    • Debilis

      Okay, apologies about the delay.
      But, otherwise, let’s jump right in here.

      Regarding Ockham’s razor, I suspect I’d agree with you if it were simply the matter of morality alone that God explained. But, given that theism is also a good explanation for other things (contingent reality, teleology, etc.), I think it is more parsimonious.

      In fact, I think your brief sketch of the history of the universe is apt. It is self-referential if:

      1. We aren’t considering the beginning or the reason why any of it exists in the ultimate sense, and
      2. We are simply discussing science (there are philosophical issues even in a lifeless universe that would be explained by a transcendental deity).

      That being the case, we do need an explanatory model. And a single entity that answered both of these questions (whatever its other strengths or weaknesses) would be more parsimonious than separate explanations.

      Regarding your statement about the evolution of morality, I do want to interject the point that we should be careful to separate “How did humans come to believe in morals?” and “Is there moral truth?”. The materialist’s answer to the first question is parsimonious, following reasonably from the processes they’ve already accepted elsewhere.

      The answer to the second question is not. This is a metaphysical claim that is not touched on by evolutionary psychology, and is an additional axiom (where the theist needs no comparable axiom).

      Regarding the idea that the creator “waited 14 billion years”, this seems to presume both that God is inside of time and that he has no other purpose for the universe than humans (both of which I doubt).

      But I suppose that isn’t your main point.

      Nor, probably, is the idea that God could have made his existence known in “verifiable” ways. But, to address it:

      Personally, I think God’s existence is more verifiable than materialists, and am not sure that making his existence intellectually verifiable is nearly as high on his list of priorities as many others seem to think.

      As to your final question (which is very well put), I’m sure it is obvious which view I hold. Still, I should offer something more specific:

      Regarding a): Beyond what I’ve already said, there is nothing strange about the idea that life doesn’t fully understand a truth. Given many forms of theism, life has an infinite amount of time to grow toward an infinitely deep truth. As such, it doesn’t seem to be a point against.

      Regarding b): I don’t think this is plausible, but as (I assume) you don’t take this view, I’ll not get into it.

      Regarding c): I agree that this is not a platonic view. Rather, I’d make these challenges of it:

      First, the existence of the a subjective view (mind) is itself something that is very difficult for the materialist to explain. I’ve written quite a bit on that on this blog, actually.

      I’m not sure I agree that a materialist view can even speak meaningfully about a subjective experience. As such, I don’t find this a good explanation.

      Second, if one accepts the metaphysical claims of science, it is very hard to see why one isn’t implicitly accepting that metaphysical objects are the basis of those claims.

      This would be something like the Leibnitzian Cosmological argument. If contingent things require an explanation, and material things are contingent, we seem to need a metaphysical object.

      Third, this doesn’t seem to be explaining our basic experience, so much as explaining it away. I could equally write a story about the fallibility of the mind, using that as a reason to argue that our sensory experience is illusory.

      In that case, it would be obvious that this isn’t a positive reason to accept that view. In fact, it works precisely by undermining the experience on which our thought is based.

      I don’t yet see that there isn’t a parallel to moral relativism. I’m a believer in the idea that philosophy should explain our basic life experiences, and call “illusion” only when a very strong argument is present in support of it.

      Those are my thoughts, anyway.
      But, mainly, best to you out there.

  • Atheist Crusader

    Reblogged this on Atheist Crusader and commented:
    Robust discussion of objective morality vs subjective moral behaviour…

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