More on morality and atheism

This post follows up on the discussion on my prior post, Moral reasons for atheism, in which I suggested that many atheists choose not to believe in God because of moral issues – they don’t want to change, acknowledge sin, or acknowledge any absolute moral code – not because of intellectual issues.  Modern atheists typically try to pass themselves off as being rationalists, discounting a belief if God because God is not possible in the universe they have invented to believe in – one is only material in nature.

To perhaps oversimplify the argument (but not by much):

  1. the only evidence we can accept is that which is verifiable in accordance with the modern, scientific approach.
  2. we cannot verify the existence of any non-material being according to the method.
  3. therefore we must assume God does not exist.

It is, of course, self-fulfilling; but in the absence of any greater understanding, this argument “works” for them.  Most, for example, simply ignore the fact that “the method” is not itself something which can be proven to work. There are foundational issues with a reliance on reason itself which I’ve discussed before.  The only way that atheism functions in its current state is really to sidestep these issues completely.  But, if belief in God is merely an intellectual issue, why would anyone not want to deal with these issues?  It begs the question of what, then, is the real issue.

Now, I am not saying that atheists are immoral and Christians are moral; nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth. We are all immoral creatures.  At the very heart of Christianity is the acceptance that “all have sinned” and that we are saved “by grace and not by works, that no man should boast.”   Martin Luther coined the phrase, simul iustus et peccator – simultaneously saint and sinner; we are made perfect in Christ, but on our own we stand condemned by the law.  To deny that we are in any way righteous, or even morally superior, is to have a false gospel; Christians who claim a morally superiority are frauds (I’ve just finished writing a book on this).

One of the problems with modernism – which, by the way, we were all “baptized” into, whether we like it or not – is dualism, in its many forms.  We separate the physical from the spiritual, mind from body, and mind from emotions.  Slowly doctors are discovering that we are more internally connected than modernism would want us to be; many physical ailments are in fact known to have emotional causes.

This dualism is handy if we want to ignore our emotional or moral components; we can pretend to be totally objective, we can create wonderful logical arguments, and we can use lots of fancy-sounding words to sound intellectual. However, I do not think that any of us can reduce the choices we make about what we believe about life and God to mere intellectual issues. We are more complex than that.  A lot is said about intellectual dishonesty – arguing things we know are not correct – but not much is said about emotional or moral dishonesty when talking about a belief in God (except, it seems, by Christians who are unable to grasp the intellectual issues; it’s that dualism thing again).

In discussing one’s choice of beliefs (and I insist they are choices), I believe we have to take more of a gestalt approach.  We all have our issues; that is, those things we acknowledge as maters for discussion. We also have our interests, the things that really matter to us, that may be unconscious motivators, and the more substantive of the two.   Morality – not “being good,” but how we view what is good or bad – is, I suspect, at the very core of who we are.  It is interesting that guilt is nearly universal; the absence of guilt pretty much makes you a sociopath, even if you’re an atheist.  Since we all have our internal morality meters, we all deal with sin, even though atheists wouldn’t consider it as such. But, as Paul wrote, to do that which someone considers wrong is for him, sin.

What is different is how we deal with sin.  We can blame it on evolution, upbringing, society, genetics, Adam, or Satan – most of us hate to blame ourselves, although most of us do, deep down.  This gap between who we really are and who we think we should be – what a friend calls the “crap gap” – affects us in more ways than most of us care to admit, whether we are Christians, Buddhists or atheists.

Intellectual debates are great, for what they are.  I appreciate reason and logic, accepting their foundational weakness.  Many atheists are quick to point out the Christian’s need to believe in God; I’ve yet to see one own up to a need not to believe in God.  But, I suspect it’s there for many, if not for most.

22 thoughts on “More on morality and atheism”

  1. In the end, we make a Kierkegaardian leap to belief.

    It doesn’t seem quite accurate to call acceptance of science a “leap”. More like a recognition of where we’re already standing.

    Now, about the hypothetico-deductive model. It is, in essence, an argument from silence. The inability to falsify a hypothesis merely indicates that you have failed to falsify it; you have not provided any positive confirmation. Falsification does not necessarily corroborate a hypothesis, except by induction (which of course was the problem Popper was trying to avoid).

    (shrugs) Science doesn’t prove anything necessarily; So what? It’s a feature, not a bug. Nothing proves anything necessarily, at least not about actual reality; strict deductivism entails epistemic nihilism. Science just bites the bullet, and says, “So much worse for deductivism.”

    And again, we have the Raven paradox.

    The Raven paradox isn’t a paradox. Observing that a non-black thing isn’t a raven does indeed support the hypothesis that all ravens are black.

  2. Now, about the hypothetico-deductive model. It is, in essence, an argument from silence. The inability to falsify a hypothesis merely indicates that you have failed to falsify it; you have not provided any positive confirmation. Falsification does not necessarily corroborate a hypothesis, except by induction (which of course was the problem Popper was trying to avoid). And again, we have the Raven paradox.

    H-D is quite useful in many aspects of life (and essential to most episodes of House). However, it, too is flawed.

  3. Even if we were hypothetically to find scientific reasoning completely wrong, we would not have thereby adduced the slightest support for theism or supernaturalism.

    You’re right, of course; I wasn’t claiming otherwise. The point – while I greatly appreciate reason as well as science – is that with the philosophical issues with both reason and scientific models, it all comes down to choice. In the end, we make a Kierkegaardian leap to belief. Reason won’t get us all the way there.

  4. Then I have to ask why such evangelical zeal?

    Evangelical zeal? This is a conversation on a message board. I don’t know about you, but I enjoy talking about philosophy in a… spirited… venue.

    I don’t know why you’re here, but I’m here because I’m having fun.

  5. Let’s say Mr. Bum is right: there is nothing but the material world. Then I have to ask why such evangelical zeal? What does Mr. Bum gain by convincing us? If he’s right, atheists and theists meet the same end. If Mr. Bum is right, his own “moral” behavior (of which he is supremely confident) ultimately adds up no differently than Hitler’s. In fact, any “truth” he cares to champion ends up “meaning” only what he wants it to mean and nothing else. In this his philosophy is not only self-defeating but ultimately bankrupt.

    If he truly takes his materialistic perspective to heart, he should not even be arguing his case here. If he believes his own gospel, he should wish all theists well, knowing that they will meet the same fate as he, for lies and truth are equally moot. Or does he think he’s doing mankind a favor by convincing us of the futility of a hope beyond the material order? What hubris.

    Now, I have no doubt he will speak to the contrary. But if I believe him, really believe him, I will conclude that he is, like everybody else, mere dust in the wind, and a very strong wind at that. (I hope he doesn’t drift off some lame argument about human “dignity.”) No, if I believe him, he is merely sound and fury signifiying nothing.

    Hmm. Maybe that’s at least one advantage of his philsophy.

  6. I want to reiterate a point: there are of course subtle and difficult philosophical issues raised by scientific, evidentiary reasoning. But these issues do not help theism or supernaturalism in the least bit. Even if we were hypothetically to find scientific reasoning completely wrong, we would not have thereby adduced the slightest support for theism or supernaturalism.

  7. I always find it amusing when an atheist objects to use of the word “faith.”

    It should be noted that your personal feelings of amusement hardly qualify as reasoned rebuttal.

    You apparently have some amount of “faith” in the hypothetico-deductive model…

    I already stipulated some amount of “faith” (loosely defined); the controversy is about the differences not the few and relatively trivial similarities.

    … in spite of it’s [sic] known problems.

    What problems? You’ve noted problems in naive empiricism, verificationism and positivism, but you haven’t mentioned — much less established — any problems at all with falsificationism or the hypothetico-deductive model.

    You have not explained how materialism and causality are proven by science.

    I actually have, albeit briefly. Causal hypotheses are falsifiable: they have specific consequences that can be verified or falsified by direct observation. Try as we might to falsify true causal hypotheses, the evidence fails to do so, lending scientific support — “proof” if you will, if we’re equally relaxed about the various meanings of “proof” as we are of “faith” — for these hypotheses. Since science proves an enormous number of causal hypotheses, we are justified in considering it a generally applicable principle. Q.E.D.

    t seems to me, for example, that the concept of predictability relies on the assumption that “if A, B and C, then D” will not only be true once, but that it will be true a second and a third time.

    I don’t know what you mean by “relies on the assumption” in this context. The concept of predictability is the concept that things that are always true will indeed always be true. Again, that concept some specific, well-defined relation is predictable is a hypothesis that the relationship will hold in the future; experimental confirmation increases support for the hypothesis.

    A non-falsifiable statement still can be true.

    Who knows? If a statement isn’t falsifiable, and it’s not an analytic definition, which obviously is not truth-apt (or truth-apt only in a trivial sense), then in what sense would it be meaningful to call it “true”?

  8. I always find it amusing when an atheist objects to use of the word “faith.” It’s even worse when they try to define it. However, this game of “whack-a-mole” could go on forever. You apparently have some amount of “faith” in the hypothetico-deductive model, in spite of it’s known problems. It’s a fine tool, as are other models. But, all models have limitations. Over-reliance on a defective model moves beyond normal faith into “blind” faith.

    You have not explained how materialism and causality are proven by science. It seems to me, for example, that the concept of predictability relies on the assumption that “if A, B and C, then D” will not only be true once, but that it will be true a second and a third time. This, of course, goes back to Hume’s argument. Even falsification implies this assumption, doesn’t it? But then, falsification seems to speak more to what is considered “science” and what is not rather than to what may be true. A non-falsifiable statement still can be true.

  9. Whether… an individual decides to accept or reject these canons, is a purely personal affair, not suscpectible to argument.

    No argument there. However, I submit that you do in fact accept these canons, simply by virtue of moving around successfully in the physical world. The question is not whether to accept or reject these canons, but rather whether or not to add to them.

  10. I do doubt that what you’re saying is true.

    Doubt away. You’re entitled to your opinion, regardless of its rationality or lack thereof.

    >So, how do you verify the hypothetico-deductive model?

    You’re still hung up on verificationism and positivism as a model for science. Regardless, the point was about materialism and causality not the metaphysics of the scientific method. Materialism and causality are conclusions of the scientific method, not irreducible, foundational assumptions.

    he “irreducible” principles of science – experiment and experience, by your analysis – must be accepted by faith.

    You’re using “faith” in a very loose manner; tolerable by only the most relaxed colloquial standards. Merely finding a point of similarity, however, is not sufficient to establish identity, as suggested by using the identical word. The sort of “faith” required to accept scientific reasoning is substantively different from religious faith, and it is to those differences that skeptics and scientists strongly object.

    Experiment, by the way, presumes causality, otherwise what’s the point?

    No it doesn’t. Why should it? I can actually falsify a causal hypothesis or hypothetical regularity by experiment, so in what sense does experiment necessarily or analytically presume causality?

    Russell is not the Pope, and like any other person can say stupid things. In the cited passage he appears to be criticizing naive empiricism, verificationism and/or positivism, the idea that empirical observation can serve as a syllogistic foundation to deduce universal laws of physics. Again, they hypothetico-deductive model easily resolves the internal contradiction of naive empiricism; falsificationism resolves the internal contradictions of verificationism and positivism.

  11. If you’re going to call me a liar, please provide evidence or argument. Otherwise you’re simply being gratuitously insulting.

    “Gratuitously insulting” – I like that. Insulting while being gracious. To quote the Dread Pirate Roberts, “I’ve worked hard to become so.” However, I am not calling you a liar, which implies a conscious act. I have no information to conclude you are lying, but I do doubt that what you’re saying is true.

    Causality can be established by the ordinary hypothetico-deductive method

    So, how do you verify the hypothetico-deductive model? Science is, again, based on assumptions, which cannot themselves be tested according to scientific principles. In the early days of science, of course, existence of a supernatural realm that was outside the scope of science was presumed. And, by the way, William of Ockham developed his argument to support the existence of God, not that it matters. It is a general guideline, but is not in itself conclusive of the validity or invalidity of the more complex scenario.

    We have to distinguish between conclusions we simply take for granted, and assumptions that are truly irreducible in principle.

    Here, I agree with you. However, both can be questioned. The “irreducible” principles of science – experiment and experience, by your analysis – must be accepted by faith. Experiment, by the way, presumes causality, otherwise what’s the point? None of these can be proven from within the system (Godel); causality has been proven wanting (at least, Hume’s argument has not been disproven).

    Here’s Bertrand Russell:

    “Although our postulates can … be fitted into a framework which has what may be called an empiricist ‘flavor,’ it remains undeniable that our knowledge of them, in so far as we do know them, cannot be based upon experience…In this sense, it must be admitted empirism as a theory of knowledge has proved inadequate….
    “Thus, science is “at war with itself: when it most means to be objective, it finds itself plunged into subjectivity against its will. Naive realism leads to physics, and physics, if true, shows that naive realism is false. Therefore naive realism, if true, is false; therefore it is false.”

    and again,

    “If we are to hold that we know anything of the external world, we must accept the canons of scientific knowledge. Whether… an individual decides to accept or reject these canons, is a purely personal affair, not suscpectible to argument.”

  12. Fred:

    Materialism is decidedly NOT merely a conclusion of science. It is most definitely a working assumption.

    The two sentences are completely different; I will assume you include them in the same paragraph only due to the lax standards of blog comments.

    I await your rigorous logical proof for the first sentence. You would have to prove that it’s impossible to do science without the assumption of materialism (and offer a nontrivial definition of both science and materialism).

    As to the second, all scientific investigation is theory-laden. So what? Theory-ladenness is inherent in the hypothetico-deductive method. What’s key to science is that however theory-laden a statement of observation might be, its actual truth or falsity is not supplied by the theory, but by actual observation.

    Aldenswan:

    Science is a method of study based on certain assumptions, one of which is that there are causal relationships between certain actions certain results.

    I disagree. We have to distinguish between conclusions we simply take for granted, and those that are truly irreducible in principle.

    Causality can be established by the ordinary hypothetico-deductive method: we can hypothesize a falsifiable causal relationship between events, and examine the evidence to support (or fail to falsify) the hypothesis. Likewise with materialism.

    The only truly irreducible elements in science are the authority (but not necessarily veracity) of experiment and experience, the logic of connecting hypotheses to experimental predictions, and Occam’s razor, the preference for simpler theories with fewer ontological elements.

    All the other supposed “assumptions” of science are simply those conclusions established willy-nilly before the formalization of the scientific method or were wired into our brains in during our long evolutionary history.

  13. Yeah, right. — Fred

    This, I doubt very much. — Aldenswan

    If you’re going to call me a liar, please provide evidence or argument. Otherwise you’re simply being gratuitously insulting.

  14. Bum, I am in no way confusing science with positivism. Science is a method of study based on certain assumptions, one of which is that there are causal relationships between certain actions certain results. These assumptions are, of course, outside the scope of science itself. Scientism, on the other hand, is the elevating of the method to near-religious proportions; it is positivism’s doppelganger.

    simply noting that there are unresolved philosophical problems in atheism, scientific epistemology, however accurately, does not in the least support the validity of theism or Christianity…

    I never said it did. I merely pointed out that you are without firm foundation. In fact, materialism and atheism also rely upon faith, since the challenge by Hume has yet to be answered.

    I don’t ever do what I think I ought not to do, and I always do what I think I ought to do.

    This, I doubt very much.

  15. Materialism is decidedly NOT merely a conclusion of science. It is most definitely a working assumption. All scientific investigation is theory-laden.

    “I don’t have any need to believe or disbelieve in God; the only need I have is to know the truth. Disbelief doesn’t change reality: if it were true that God existed, I would much rather believe it than not.” Yeah, right.

    Nice try, Mr. Barefoot.

  16. we cannot verify the existence of any non-material being according to the method.

    You are mistaking the scientific method for positivism. The scientific method requires verification only for evidence; we can use verifiable evidence to falsifiable theories. Materialism is a conclusion of science (and not without some controversy within the scientific community), not an a priori assumption.

    here are foundational issues with a reliance on reason itself which I’ve discussed before. The only way that atheism functions in its current state is really to sidestep these issues completely.

    First, that atheists sidestep or ignore foundational issues with scientific epistemology is simply false; having intensively discussed epistemology and philosophy with atheists for a decade, I know from personal experience that many atheists have a deep and profound interest in these topics, and there is considerable controversy. Even so, simply noting that there are unresolved philosophical problems in atheism, scientific epistemology, however accurately, does not in the least support the validity of theism or Christianity; theism too faces profound foundational issues.

    We are all immoral creatures.

    Speak for yourself. I do not consider myself immoral, and I’m not much interested in your opinion of my morality.

    It is interesting that guilt is nearly universal; the absence of guilt pretty much makes you a sociopath, even if you’re an atheist.

    More precisely the absence of the potential for guilt makes you a sociopath. I don’t ever feel guilt because I don’t ever do what I think I ought not to do, and I always do what I think I ought to do. That just means that I’m not neurotic.

    What is different is how we deal with sin. We can blame it on evolution, upbringing, society, genetics, Adam, or Satan – most of us hate to blame ourselves, although most of us do, deep down.

    Again, speak for yourself. I don’t blame myself, deep down or anywhere else, because I don’t do anything I find blameworthy.

    I’ve yet to see [an atheist] own up to a need not to believe in God. But, I suspect it’s there for many, if not for most.

    I don’t have any need to believe or disbelieve in God; the only need I have is to know the truth. Disbelief doesn’t change reality: if it were true that God existed, I would much rather believe it than not.

    Anyone can suspect anything; there are no epistemic constraints on suspicion. If you can, however, show actual evidence that I’m lying to you or myself, I’d be happy to consider it on its own merits.

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