Why be Good?

shutterstock_38222407Following up on my earlier post on the moral argument for God’s existence, I wanted to address a tangent that I’m usually forced to let alone for the sake of sticking to the point.  That is, most of the objections to it show a marked confusion about the nature of Christian morality.

That is, if you think that threats of Hell are the basis of Biblical morals, you aren’t talking about Christianity.

One would think that the fact that Christianity is about forgiveness would be well-known enough that “You are good because you’re afraid that God will send you to Hell” would be widely recognized as a terrible argument.

But it is tragic that more people don’t know what the actual motivating force of ethical behavior is within Christianity. Far too many people, even many Christians, are missing out on the brilliance of the idea. So, what is it?

In a word, gratitude.

Christianity, though not necessarily the Christian, recognizes that reward-punishment systems tend to make us either arrogant or terrified, judgmental or guilty. This is a death-trap. Those who think they are good enough tend to be condemning to anyone not living up to their standards, and those who know we could be (and should be) better are very often plagued by self-accusation.

Terrible as it is that so many have fallen into this trap, this is a very big part of what forgiveness was meant to dispel. Forgiveness is meant to drill home to the arrogant person that he didn’t earn any right to claim to be good–and isn’t better than other people–while simultaneously showing the guilty person that she is indeed accepted.

Those who understand, and believe in, this truth will naturally begin to become a better person.

The process is simple, if difficult to live out: the one who knows she has more than she deserves is grateful, and genuinely grateful people do kind things without expecting to get something back, without hoping or demanding that she’ll be rewarded, but just because the thankfulness overflows out of her.

I, for one, believe that gratitude is the core of all human virtue. It is how we can help others without being secretly condescending or selfish. And that is the brilliance of the (actual) Biblical approach to morality.


Amoral Morality?

morality_croppedIn addition to not talking about Christianity, I’ve noticed that quite a few respondents to the arguments for God’s existence don’t actually talk about those arguments, either. Obviously, every argument is going to suffer from evasive responses to some degree, but it definitely occurs to some more than others.

My vote for the winner in this category is the moral argument for God’s existence.

Overwhelmingly, there are two basic responses to the moral argument that one is likely to encounter. (But, as a side note, I’m not sure whether the atheists who happen by would rather I made these responses sound calm and thoughtful or punchy and full of memes. I’ll  go with the typical New Atheist version I hear, but apologies in advance to the more genteel and thoughtful atheist.)

The first response usually reads a lot like this:

“I don’t need the Bible to tell me to be moral! It’s full of awful, terrible things, and only a complete sociopath would need that anyway. Are you a sociopath? I can’t believe how messed up you religious types are if you can’t be moral except because God threatens you with Hell. I do the right thing because it is right–not (like you) because I’m trying to avoid punishment.”

I don’t think there’s a book long enough to deal with all of the errors in this paragraph, but for those inclined to agree with it, let me point out the main issue.

Simply put, the argument isn’t for sociopaths. It is for people who agree that there is such a thing as moral truth. This is how reasoning to a conclusion works–we see something that is, then wonder how it could be explained. In this case, we see morality, then reason to the conclusion that God is the best explanation for it.

Of course, there are some wild claims about the Bible (and why theists are moral) here as well, but I’ll not get into that because it is beside the point. An attack on a very particular (and bad) interpretation of the Bible neither offers us a secular basis of morality, nor shows us that there isn’t such a thing.

But what of the claim that the atheist does what is right because it is right? That always struck me as a bit self-righteous, but the bigger issue is the second typical response:

“Morality is simply the result of empathy, which was put into people by evolutionary pressures. This kind of herd thinking helped our ancestors to survive, and it still helps us today. Cooperation is very powerful, and being good to others is what is best for you, in the long run.”

This is a pretty blatant contradiction of the first response, which is why I’m so often surprised to run across people who give me both responses in the same conversation–often in the same paragraph.

To say that morality is what is best for one is to deny that one does what is right because it is right. It is, specifically, to claim that one has selfish motivations for doing what is right. It is also to deny that there is any objective morality at all.

That’s fine, if one wants to do this, but this is precisely what the theist was claiming: that theism is the best explanation for objective morality. To respond with “well, as an atheist, I don’t believe in objective morality, but only that people have empathy” is to concede that point.

But, of course, the proponents of this response like to underline that empathy is “good enough”, and that nothing else needs to be explained. But I find that impossible to square with another claim these same persons make.

Namely, that we shouldn’t believe things without a rational reason to do so.

To say that we should have all kinds of moral attitudes, not because those things are really true, but simply because we feel a certain emotion (empathy), is to deny outright that one only believes based on reason and evidence.

At this point in the conversation, I’m usually treated to long, and increasingly impatient descriptions of how empathy might have arisen in the human species–as if proving that would counter anything I’ve said here.

One can reject objective morality in the name of atheism, or reject atheism in the name of morality. What one can’t rationally do, however, is claim that “are you a sociopath”, or “evolution made us empathetic” has much of anything to do with the moral argument for God’s existence.


Materialsm or Your Lying Eyes

groucjoAfter defending the argument from evil, Mackie turns to the theistic argument from religious experience. This is probably the argument that comes the closest to the average theist’s reasons for believing: some personal experience of the divine presence. Though it is not an often used argument in academic discussions, it warrants attention for this reason.

I entered the chapter expecting to largely agree with Mackie. I expected that he’d focus on the entirely reasonable point that one person’s experience is not necessarily evidence to another (though even this isn’t really right). But he didn’t seem interested in doing so. Rather, he precedes to argue that having a religious experience is not a good reason to become a theist.

He does so first by posing the question as to whether or not such experiences are real. Of course, all people agree that it is possible to have artificial experiences (hallucinations or the like), but this is not much of an argument on its own.

That is, anyone who eats and moves in the real world implicitly agrees that one should take experience for valid unless there is a reason to suspect it.

As such, Mackie has the burden of proof on this particular point, but it is not clear whether he understands this.

As is often the case with Mackie, goalposts seem to shift around as he writes. He points out that people have experiences of different, contradictory beliefs (referencing the different religions of the world). Of course, this is a genuine issue for any particular religion. What it is not is a reason to be an atheist. After all, people disagree on matters of fact all the time; saying that people disagree doesn’t prove that all of them are wrong.

Evidence for one religion is indeed evidence against another. What it is not is evidence for atheism, and the “many religions” argument really adds up to no more than variations on this logical fallacy.

Mackie, however, moves on to better points. He claims that there are other explanations for religious experience–namely, the subconscious. This definitely shows the trends of his time; today we’d speak in terms of evolutionary psychology (though I’m not convinced that’s an improvement).

The trouble with this is that it proves too much. One can use the same argument to “disprove” any experience whatsoever. This is the classic case for solipsism. We can explain all experience in terms of subconscious motivations, or evolutionary spin-off, or useless epiphenominon, or mad scientists stimulating your disembodied brain, or whatever fanciful idea one prefers. That doesn’t remotely mean that the universe is all an illusion.

But, if it doesn’t, then the same sort of explanations don’t mean than any particular experience is invalid. We don’t know that hallucinations are invalid not because we can explain them in terms of the unconscious (that’s quite a bit harder than it sounds, anyway), but because they are inconsistent with our other experiences.

But Mackie can’t seem to point to anything about religious experiences as such that are inconsistent with our other experience. Assuming one has a religious experience, one is perfectly rational to accept it as valid.

This is why many religious people feel a little like Holocaust survivors listening to denials of the event. Claiming that we can explain why a group of oppressed people would have an emotional desire to invent such stories–or even come to believe in them does not remotely give a survivor good reason to deny the Holocaust. It is blatantly ad hoc.

And it definitely doesn’t appreciate that the deniers, too, have emotional motivations for their position.

But if this doesn’t answer the question of validity, what does? Even if it isn’t a case for atheism, religious experiences do often contradict one another. What of that?

This is where I agree with Mackie. He points out that all such experiences happen in a context, and are interpreted in terms of the individual’s prior knowledge. I think there is great cause to be careful about what such experiences actually say in terms of particular doctrines and beliefs.

It is far too easy to presume that a particular doctrine is true because one’s religious experience that has been interpreted in a particular way. All of the most spiritual people I know have advised caution in reaching too many conclusions on these grounds.

And that is the answer, I think. No one is making the argument that such experience, considered in isolation, is a rock-solid proof of any highly-specific theology. Rather it is taken as evidence for the spiritual in the same way that any experience is evidence.

It is those who want to overstep the bounds of that experience, and extrapolate wildly (like some theists do with their experiences, and some atheists do when watching science documentaries) who are making the mistake. Those who simply report an experience of the spiritual.

As hard as it is to imagine anyone who takes a careful approach taking this as proof of minor doctrinal points, it is much harder to imagine a fair-minded person concluding that her spiritual experience is to be completely dismissed as evidence of anything.

And that is precisely what Mackie is asking those who have had such experiences to do–and without offering any clear reason why.


The Blame Game

self-righteous-hippieContinuing on with the ways in which the New Atheists misrepresent the religion they claim to see through, we come to a moral objection.

So the topic this time: If you’re claiming that religion is the cause of nearly all the wars and conflict in history, you aren’t talking about Christianity (or any other religion, or all religion, for that matter).

The most obvious objection to this meme is that it simply isn’t true. Though many atheists like to take us on a tour of the crusades, and put strange glosses on wars that were clearly not caused by religion, these “arguments” only ever reveal an ignorance of the historical facts.

The best evidence such a person could muster here is the crusades themselves, and even they have many socio-political roots that are simply ignored by this popular meme. Once we get out of the Crusades, however, it becomes clear that war (and, really, all human killing of one another) is almost always over land, money, and power. Religion definitely takes a back seat.

This, it seems to me, is so obvious that what is most interesting here is how anyone can seriously deny it. Personally, I expect that the reason is something along these lines:

There have been many times in history that a zealous group decides (on flimsy evidence) that it has found the source of nearly all the evil in the world, and can eradicate most of life’s problems by eradicating that thing.

There are countless examples of such scapegoating, from the rationale behind Jim Crow laws, to the Reign of Terror, to the Holocaust, to the overblown rhetoric of partisan politics. But the point is that it is scapegoating. There is always this curious fact that it is someone “out there” who is the problem, and that “we” don’t have that same weakness–that same evil can’t possibly be in “us”.

I suppose that this is why there is, inescapably, a strain of self-righteousness in these groups that leads them to create the very evils they began by decrying. And I’ve seen a lot of this sort of thinking in the New Atheist rhetoric. It is amazing how similar Richard Dawkins and Jerry Falwell sound. Neither one seems at all aware what happens when an angry “them” hating group actually gets the power they seek. It’s never been pretty.

So much has been said, but let us move on to the second, and much more serious, objection.

Christianity (and many other religions) specifically forbids this kind of thinking. Christ speaks against judgment and self-righteousness, and insists that no one can be his follower unless she first admits to having that same inner darkness that lives in others.

To see others as worse, even to the point of being willing to make war when one is facing no threat to innocent life, is to contradict Christianity.

True, Christians contradict Christianity all the time. But this hardly means that it is “religion” that causes the wars that Christians wage for other reasons.

Nor is it enough to say that people often couch their war cries in religious language. What people couch their war cries in hardly reveals the actual reasons for the war (particularly when so many of the reasons are too shameful to publicly admit). And I highly doubt that couching one’s war cries in the language of democracy, freedom, or safety (which has also been done) will lead anyone to think that those things are an evil cause of war.

And, to some extent, even the battle cries betray the lie. No one ever ran through a battlefield crying “transubstantiation”, because no war was ever primarily about doctrinal differences. War is either a terrible necessity against an unreasonable foe, or motivated by the greedy, prideful, and heartless parts of our nature.

And it is only a self-righteous refusal to admit having such a part that leads one to point to an institution and say “war is all their fault”. One even suspects that this is connected to the frequent inability to understand any need for salvation, but that’s a post for a different time.


The Argument from Personal Misunderstanding

AF5WTAI seem to have gotten a bit sidetracked from Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism”. The quick refresher is that Mackie had been discussing the problem of evil, and that he is now turning to Alvin Plantinga’s famous free will defense.

And, for those unfamiliar with it, the best summary of the free will defense I’ve ever encountered is in a short video.

Mackie counters Plantinga by attacking the idea that it is logically necessary that people have something wrong with our “essences”. As Plantinga himself points out in his response, he was never talking about essences. But this isn’t the key issue.

Mackie keeps insisting that it is logically possible that even a finite person could always choose to do the right thing, but this simply misses the point. What he needs to show isn’t that this is logically possible, but that it is logically compatible with the other requirements facing God (such as more that a few people in existence, spiritual growth, etc). He doesn’t even address this response.

But, personally, I’m more concerned about the fact he hasn’t even shown that this really is logically possible. He’s simply claimed this, but not taken a terribly close look at the situation.

That is, he seems to have a very sloppy understanding of morality. “Choosing to do the right thing”, after all, is pretty misleading. As finite creatures, we are all incomplete; none of us understand all spiritual truths perfectly. Hence, nothing we do, say, or think is ever purely good (or purely evil). While we are certainly capable of being more or less good, I don’t see how it is possible to be perfectly good while still being finite.

And any moment in which one isn’t being perfectly, absolutely, completely good is a moment where one isn’t “choosing the good” in the sense that Mackie needs it to be for his argument to work.

Of course, Plantinga and others have added that there are feasibility issues, even for an omnipotent being, that exist above and beyond this. Mackie is free to believe that these issues will someday be solved, but he has not solved them.

Mackie then goes on to discuss the idea that God may not know what actions people will take until they are taken. I’ll let this alone, as I reject that view. Rather, I’ll skip to his conclusion. First, he claims that every defense against the problem of evil has failed. Again, he is free to believe what he likes, but an unsupported assertion of a claim that doesn’t actually counter Plantinga’s argument is hardly a reason to think this.

And, second, I use the phrase “believe what he likes” advisedly. Mackie goes on to say that, while he admits that there are forms of theism that could get around this attack, the argument is practically useful because “each of the changes that would make theism more coherent would also do away with some of its attraction”.

This is where we begin to see something less objective than a detached search for the truth. None of us really are detached, of course. But (as overtures of objectivity are often made in such debates) it needs to be pointed out that Mackie is, like any of us seeking to “win converts”–seeking to dissuade people from a position he agrees is coherent.

And, personally, I find the more coherent versions of theism more attractive (not the least because I find coherence attractive). Those who seek to “refute” theism this way can only do so by arbitrarily demanding that we ignore the best (and most attractive) forms of it.

I don’t, by the way, think one should judge Mackie too harshly for this. He’s only doing what any one of us would do. I think it would would be much more helpful if all sides would simply admit this–that we all have emotional motivations.

Pretending that personal zeal and trendy memes are the same as the results of objective research is, after all, one of my chief complaints with the New Atheists.


Materialism vs Reason

NO THANKS!Let’s assume for a moment that the imagination is physical. That is, let’s assume that Thomas Nagel is completely wrong in his famous argument that qualia (sensory experience as it feels to the person doing the sensing) cannot possibly be reduced to brain-functions without seriously altering the definition of brain-function (and even science).

Of course, I think Nagel’s argument is obviously true, but I’ve argued that point elsewhere. For now, I’m interested in a different aspect of the mind: intellect.

People who haven’t thought about the subject, and even too many modern philosophers, conflate the imagination and the intellect. It is easy for people to simply assume that rational thought and picturing things in one’s mind is the same thing. But a little rational thought shows this to be false.

Take, for instance, the classic example of geometry. It is perfectly obvious, even to a child, that the concept of triangularity is different from any particular triangle one can imagine. An imagined triangle, after all, will be either isosceles, scalene, or equilateral. It will be of a particular color. It will be either hollow or filled in. And so on it goes.

But the rational concept of a triangle is not like that. It is not particular, but universal. It applies equally to any triangle one can picture.

In addition to this difference, there is a precision in rational thought that isn’t present in the imagination. It probably isn’t possible to produce a mental image of a crowd of 10,000 people that is different than a mental image of a crowd of 10,001. But the rational mind has no trouble understanding the difference.

What this shows isn’t that there is no connection between the imagination and the intellect. Of course there is. Rather, it shows that they are different things.

And this is problematic, because it is even harder to show that the intellect is material than to show that the qualia of the imagination are material.

Before I get to the reasons, I do want to interject with something that can’t be said often enough. This is not because science hasn’t been able to do this yet. It is because it would contradict science to ever do this. To argue that future science will answer the problem of intellect is no more rational than arguing that science will one day overcome the need to do math. This argument, as in other places, is borne out of a misunderstanding of science.

As to the intellect, there are at least two problems for the materialist:

First, all materialist takes on thought, matter, brain-function, etc. have failed to account for the universality of rational concepts. Even given the dubious claim that they can account for this or that imagined object, they can only account for a particular instance of a thing. Actual universal abstraction is a completely different kind of thing from qualia.

To grab a quick illustration, what counts as a valid response from a computer program depends entirely on what the programmers and users of the computers want it to do. (Some eccentric person, after all, could build a computer that is meant to melt its wiring, and to respond to every input with “5”.)

There is simply no fact of the matter about what counts as proper computer functioning apart from the human minds that design, build, and use computers. And this is because physical systems (like computers) don’t reference abstract, universal concepts. They merely operate in patterns that humans interpret as representing universals.

And this has, it seems, drifted into the second reason why the intellect is not material: there is absolutely nothing about the physical facts of a system that make it about anything in the way that thoughts are about things.

We may say that the aforementioned computer is adding, but that is only because we take certain symbols and patterns of electron movement to represent adding. The idea that what it is doing counts as adding is an arbitrary decision made by computer engineers and accepted by computer users.

A useful fiction, indeed. But it is a fiction all the same to say that the computer is adding simply by virtue of its physical properties.

Real thought has intrinsically what computers have only by convention. And this, as above, is not because our current technology isn’t yet sophisticated enough. This is a difference of kind–rather than degree.

But the real point here isn’t about computers. It is about rational thought: it is something altogether different from what we find in the material world (as science defines the material).

And then, of course, there’s this irony:

Demanding that rational thought is nothing more than physical processes is, for the reasons mentioned above, demanding that there is no good reason to trust one’s thoughts. After all, saying that thought is nothing but chemical reactions in the brain is to say that there’s no place for rationality to be involved in the process.


Plug: The Experience of God

If you’ve not already heard the buzz about David Bentley Hart’s “The Experience of God”, be sure to have a look. It is a book worth reading: both for the thoughtful theist who wants to draw clear lines of distinction as to what she means by asserting that God exists, and for the thoughtful atheist who wishes to know exactly what it is that she’s rejecting.

Hart takes the New Atheists to task for their deep misunderstandings of what theists actually claim–and points out that their arguments all hang on making these errors.

I don’t, of course, agree with everything that Hart writes (I suspect it would worry him if I did), but he’s definitely right about this much: the current, often shrill, popular debates over theism are only very rarely ever talking about God at all.

God, as educated theists have always understood him, has simply been ignored–and thoughtful people will seek to rectify this in their own thinking.