Monday, July 23, 2007

Atheist Morality Blogalogue Part 2.

Introduction:



Theist blogger Rhology and I are debating morality. In Part 1 of this debate Rhology started things off and I then responded. The debate now continues with Rhology’s response. My own response will be tagged on to this post just as soon as I have completed it (I have some exams at this time and so can’t guarantee that I will complete this before Wednesday – will do my best though). In the meantime, I'd like to thank Rhology for his response.

SKIP TO PART: 1 | 2

Part 2 continues ...





Posted by Rhology on Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Hi ChooseDoubt,

Thanks for your rebuttal. This length of post seems to be good and I'll try to stay in that range myself.

I'll address your rebuttal in two sections, the minor point 1st and the major 2nd.

1) My Morality

You are right that my morality is based on the teachings of the Bible, b/c I believe it is the Word of God, breathed out by God. You have suggested that I incompletely follow the Bible's directives b/c they do not fit my preference. My contention is that I do indeed do so but it is against my desire; rather, I *desire* to follow all of God's directives but I am a sinner and so fail. It is your responsibility, however, to prove that I intentionally refuse to hold to applicable directives.

You cited Leviticus 20:10 and 15:19-24 and assumed I do not follow them. The only way your charge against me will stick, however, is if you demonstrate proper exegesis of the biblical text. This is a task that you, as an atheist, will probably be hard-pressed to perform. We can wait and see, but already you've gone far astray and failed to inspire much confidence up front.

Levitical law was specifically directed towards the ancient Hebrews, who lived in a theocratic society governed directly by God. They were to worship God in the Temple/tabernacle, ritually pure, thru a sacrificial system. The sacrificial system, as the book of Hebrews tells us, was a shadow of Christ, was to point to Christ's sacrifice. Ritual purity/impurity was never a matter of simple outward performance but was always a matter of the heart. Now, after Christ's coming, the outward performance of ritual purity is done away with; purity resides in the heart and spirit (Hebrews, Romans 14, 1 Cor 8, Mark 7:14-23).

Moreover, as theocratic society, they had their own juridical laws (ie, the OT Law), judicial system, social laws, etc. Church and st were not separate.

Many instances in the New Testament, however, indicate that Christians are to submit themselves to the law of the land in which they live except where the law violates God's commands (Rom 13, 1 Peter, Matt 22:20-22). Ancient Hebrew gov't policy would have been to execute Abhishek and Savdeep; current US law is not to. So I don't.

2) Your Morality

Yet, in an atheist universe, so what if I did go out w/ weapon in hand to wreak God's punishment on Abhishek and Savdeep?
In your pie example, you seem to be telling us that humans discover morality in a very similar way that they taste pie. That has been my point all along, in fact, and it is gratifying that we agree on that. In fact, I'd say that my thesis has been established given your admission. But I might be misreading you.

Let's say that I am let into the room to taste the pie. The 2nd man preferred the strawberry. I preferred the chocolate. We disagree now, based on our personal preferences.

In an atheist universe, we need to know on what basis one could know right from wrong in order to live personally and in society. Your answer is to taste the pie. Very well; you like strawberry pie. I like torturing 6-yr-old girls for fun. You like sex w/ hyena carcasses, I like my pie à la mode.

Now, you said:

Instead we can use real world, case specific information to make such choices.


Which we do every day, whether it's tasting pie, judging whether the bus is going to run over us, or figuring whether it would be preferable to torture that 6-yr-old girl for the heck of it or not to. The problem is the faculty we'd use to MAKE the decision, not the supporting info.

And this brings me to the final point. You said:

in claiming God is necessary for morality would you then be of the opinion that without your belief in a god you would begin raping, murdering and stealing with no personal capacity to differentiate what you currently consider to be right from wrong?


I have no idea what kind of person I'd be if I didn't believe in God. My guess is I'd be a fairly decent citizen b/c that's how I was brought up. I'd also probably be addicted to science fiction novels and games, into porn and incredibly depressed. I'm not certain, but that's where my pre-Jesus life was heading.

However, since atheism offers NO moral guidance beyond personal (or, at best, societal) preference, the fact that neither you nor I would probably be inclined to believe that torturing 6-yr-old girls for fun is morally acceptable and would try to stop it if we observed it is due to your borrowing capital from my worldview. You have no way at all to make any objective morality judgment, so, either wittingly or unwittingly, you are reaching over to Christianity, snatching most of our moral framework, importing it back to your own, and then acting like it IS your own and continuing your attacks on Christianity. But when I ask to see the serial number on the gun, I see that it came from my own shop. You ask,

I think you would need to define what properties of this god make it uniquely valid as an external validator of "preference" above any other external validator?


The God of the Bible (TGOTB) created the universe, the spiritual realms, and all spiritual and physical beings. He holds them all together at every moment. He gave laws to mankind that flow out from His nature. Ie, He is loving; He commands humans to love. He is just; He commands humans to be just and fair. He is holy; He commands humans to be holy. Etc.
I know you don't buy that, but that's the Christian worldview. And given that you have to borrow from it to make your own moral standards, it's hard to take seriously any claim beyond personal preference for an atheistic morality.


Peace,
Rhology





Posted by ChooseDoubt, Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Hi Rhology,

Thanks for your response. Before I get on and answer that I'd just like to clean up a few points, as raised by G-Man in my comments section and one or two of my own.

First of all the title of this Blogalogue may be a little misleading. Atheism is simply the absence of belief in a god and as such morality may be as variable between atheists as it is between various religious sects. With that in mind, when I mention specific moral examples I speak only for myself and I do not represent other atheists, although many may agree with me.

G-man raises the question of what we mean by morality and it's a good point. We could go for a dictionary definition which boils down to concern with the distinction between good and evil or right and wrong, but then we would be forced to define good and evil and right and wrong and that itself would boil down to that which is moral and that which is not. It is circular reasoning and not especially useful. That's why I'm going to go into some detail in this post on the flexibility of those considerations dependent upon circumstance and how that proves that absolutes, as prescribed by religions, are in fact destined to fail with regards to the flexibility of human experience.

Anyway, let's move on.

Your first criticism of my argument in which I stated that you do not follow the morality of the Bible is that you desire to and so your failure is unintentional. This immediately highlights one obvious truth – religious faith, and even your extensive religious education, does not ensure that you follow the faith based moral code. So your key argument that one cannot be moral without a god can in fact be expanded by your own evidence to no better than one cannot be moral with or without a god. Indeed, it is a main precept of Christianity that you are irrevocably a sinner and thus immoral for your entire life. Religious belief has not made you moral by the standard which you declare uniquely viable and that very same standard declares in all certainty that you can never be moral.

Secondly, you state that you cannot be bound to the example Old Testament edicts of God that I mentioned, specifically Leviticus 20:10 and 15:19-24, through an argument of exegesis that I as an atheist would struggle to understand. This is an empty argument and the common resort of a theologian who has no adequate response to the question – effectively the "you just don't get it" argument. Leviticus 15:19-24 may indeed apply only to the Ancient Hebrews, although I am not aware that it is so, but Leviticus 20:10 is also specified in the Ten Commandments and so it is inescapable that it remains in effect. As Jesus mentioned in Matthew 5:17-20

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.


Jesus, whilst he may later have said "he without sin etc" was very clear above in specifying that he is making no change to Old Testament law. Thus your morality, if it is by the book, must include, as a minimum, the support for the murder of adulterers, amongst others, since any other response, even if it is in accordance with the law of the land, remains in violation of god's commands which you state yourself is defined as a time when the faithful should follow primarily the law of god and not that of the land. By a similar standard the law of god allows the keeping of slaves. The law of the land is not in agreement and thus the law of god must trump it. So I remain convinced that your failure to follow all biblical requirements for a moral life is not simply a matter of failure but a matter of choice. Your morality remains pure preference and all that you can claim to do is prefer some, but not all, of the biblical requirements.

Before moving on to my morality, let's get this pie business out of the way. The two points I wished to make with the pie thought experiment were that there are criteria for making value judgements and the subsequent assessment of their validity and that those criteria do not require a god, as was your assertion. The criteria can be established based on learning from experience and causality. I now argue that not only does this hold true for our entire approach to morality but it is also what held true for the evolutionary development of behaviour that we now call moral – call it the Blind Moral-maker if you wish. I'm going to come back to that in a little while when I explore evolutionary origins of morality.

Continuing with the pie thought experiment you contest that if you then had option to taste the pies and you preferred one and that the previously stated second man preferred the other then that this constitutes a problem for morality. It does not and that will be covered in evolutionary morality, but for now let me just simply agree with you – yes, it all comes down to personal preference. Where you go wrong is in assuming each preference for an individual to be independent of all others preferences. You fail to take into account the group dynamic of multiple personal preferences, which renders your fear of personal preference null.

You accuse me of having to borrow Christian morality to create my own moral standards. This is frankly absurd. If I happen to agree that grass is green have I borrowed that definition from Jesus (Mark 6:39)? This is clearly not true and can be demonstrated further by your indication that you would have approved of killing Abhishek and Savdeep under Ancient Hebrew law. I, if god appeared to me personally and demanded that I do it, would still flatly refuse. If I happen to agree then I agree. If I do not agree then I do not. No argument from authority, regardless of the authority, will change my mind. Your commanded morality appears extremely weak and vacuous by comparison and so perhaps the reason why you cannot understand that anybody else may have personal morality without the need for a religious crutch is because you lack it. Your own morality is thus rendered as nothing greater than mindless obedience, elicited only by the promise of personal punishment or personal reward. This is even more base than the evolutionary basis for morality which does permit the individual to commit truly selfless acts.

But even if we restrict your borrowing charge simply to morality then I can only presume that Jesus likewise borrowed the Golden Rule from The Mahabharata, Confucius, Hilel, Buddha, Zarathustra, Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, not to mention in more limited form (only applied to "the children of thy people" – the Golden Race Rule) from Leviticus 19:34. And surely, if you are to claim that my own moral vacuity requires this borrowing of your religions "original" morality then how can one account for those that espoused morals displayed without such influence, and even in contradiction of such influence? As Christopher Hitchens puts it:

"Is it to be believed that the Jews got as far as Sinai under the impression that murder, theft, and perjury were more or less all right? And, in the story of the good man from Samaria, is it claimed that the man went out of his way to help a fellow creature because of a divine instruction? He was clearly, since he preceded Jesus, not motivated by Christian teaching. And if he was a pious Jew, as seems probable, he would have had religious warrant and authority NOT to do what he did, if the poor sufferer was a non-Jew."


I think it is clear that religion is certainly not the fountain from which all morality gushes. It does seem to be the fountain from which morality that involves the punishment of victimless "crimes" has poured forth. My morality, although still undefined, appears far superior at this point.

So let's define my morality. I don't have any. I judge purely according to circumstance and admit freely that there is no absolute right or absolute wrong within it, just as I would point out that there is no absolute right or absolute wrong embedded as a moral code in the natural laws of this universe. The universe, of which we are part, is effectively indifferent to us and our suffering or happiness. We can choose to consider happiness and suffering as important though, and I will now point out how such consideration has its origin in our evolutionary past and most certainly not in any scripture.

The natural world is literally full of what are commonly known as symbiotic relationships. What is actually occurring in these relationships is a situation where two species benefit from asymmetric needs. The flower, in need of pollination, has a deal with the bee in need of nectar. The Honeyguide is capable of finding beehives but incapable of breaking into them. It uses a method of enticing flight, a behaviour only used for this purpose, to guide the Ratel to the hive. Conversely, the Ratel can break the hives but is far from adept at finding them. Relationships of asymmetric needs are incredibly abundant in the natural world and absolutely all of them can be explained easily in terms of natural selection. This establishes at least one route, you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours, to cooperative behaviour.

But there are more routes. Humans can defer reciprocal back scratching to a later date by use of an IOU. Vampire bats have been shown to do the same by exhibiting significant memory in the postponed trading of regurgitated blood between individuals. An individual that does not pay its debts soon finds it is no longer provided hand outs. This is observable long term moral behaviour in creatures with brains no bigger than a Lady Bug. There are many other examples, ranging from interspecies cooperation between different species of fish to relationships between whole groups of wide ranges of species to alert for common predators. It's far from uncommon in the natural world to cooperate.

Beyond that we also have what would appear to be pure altruism. Arabian babblers regularly give food to each other whilst refusing its return. In fact, they also compete for the extremely dangerous position of being the one bird that sits on a high branch keeping watch for hawks and alerting the others. It appears that both altruistic behaviours are in fact shows of dominance, effectively saying "Look how superior I am, I can afford to give you food or take the higher risk of watching for hawks". The increased cost of giving and risk taking is offset by the increased breeding advantages.

Even more impressive is that once we understand that the unit of selection is not the individual but the gene then even the most seemingly selfless of behaviours makes evolutionary sense, and we can now be sure that the unit of selection is the gene and not the individual. An individual will live only one life time. The individual genes that contribute to an individual may persist for thousands or even millions of future generations. Once we understand this it becomes clear that natural selection works not on the individual but on the frequency of genes within the entire gene pool. Natural selection will therefore favour genes that elicit behaviour that benefits the survival of the gene above behaviour that simply benefits the survival of the individual. In communities of individuals, and this is very true of our earlier origins, the chances that most of the individuals around an individual shared many of its genes were extremely high. It is perfectly in accordance with Blind Moral-making therefore that behaviours would be favoured that promoted the survival of other individuals in your group and thus their shared genes. This is exactly what we see in small community species, such as we originally were.

Altruism, deferred trades, dominance displays and in-group loyalties are all very well explained by evolution and many examples of our own moral behaviours are available in the rest of the natural world. There is absolutely no need to bring intelligence or a god into morality to explain its origins. To consider that religion is a prerequisite for moral behaviour could only lead us to conclude that there must be a god of the fish, of the bees, of the ants, of the birds, of the badgers, the Chimpanzees and countless other species. It must lead us to presume that each group must have it's own commandments, it's own Jesus and it's own culture through which these divine moral teachings is passed between generations.

With our own species, and I am not limiting this only to our own species, then our intelligence and our culture also certainly comes into play. We are able to predict, albeit with some uncertainty, the future and we are able to exploit such thinking in the application of our natural moral imperatives. I, as do some other species, have specific sections of the brain that mirror empathically (not by any telepathic means, purely by observation) the actions and subsequent emotions of others. This makes me a better co-operator and is in fact the basis of the Golden Rule which is observed in practice in other species. We are naturally aware of happiness and suffering.

My ability to relate to suffering and happiness in others and my own preferences, which are largely shared by the rest of my species, for happiness above suffering provide an ideal biological explanation of morality. Additionally, this shared ability within my species enables us to generally agree on matters of moral preference, until that is we start to moralise about victimless crimes – the fault of religious morality and almost invariably traceable to an individuals desire for dominance or control. The fact that we share moral hardware and software means that personal preference is all that is needed. The preferences of the group tending to correct for any anomalous individual variation and that is natural selection at work. Anomalies, parasitical morality, have a strong tendency to be selected against or to be selected in favour against morality that has no defence against parasitical variants. Species that live in groups survive in groups because they have sufficient evolved morality to survive in groups and that is entirely down to natural selection of individual genes.

Anyway, I am sure that most will be of the opinion that I have written too much and so I will draw to a close. But I hope I have provided sufficient argument against your assertion that morality can only comes from religion and G-man's assertion in comments that if I really do claim morality to be a purely personal preference, which I do on the individual scale, that I have some how argued for an immoral explanation of atheist morality.

Lastly, I hope the above provides you with the natural account of the faculty we use to make moral decisions because it certainly offers a reasonable explanation of why, even before your faith took over your morality, you were not out raping, murdering, and stealing as the vast majority of atheists are not.

Peace,

CD


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42 comments:

Chris Severn said...

Am I reading that right ? Rhobology thinks that Christians invented being nice to other people ???

I won't make the obvious point that they're not all nice to others, particularly during the old testament. Whoops, I just did :)

Christopher Hitchens has a nice rebuttal for this one (there are plenty):

"Is it to be believed that the Jews got as far as Sinai under the impression that murder, theft, and perjury were more or less all right? And, in the story of the good man from Samaria, is it claimed that the man went out of his way to help a fellow creature because of a divine instruction? He was clearly, since he preceded Jesus, not motivated by Christian teaching. And if he was a pious Jew, as seems probable, he would have had religious warrant and authority NOT to do what he did, if the poor sufferer was a non-Jew."

chooseDoubt said...

Hi Chris,

Having finished Hitchen's astoundingly powerful book this morning, I've funnily enough chosen that exact quote and it's sitting in my, as of yet, unfinished reply at this very moment. Personally I think that single quote effectively wins the morality argument by itself as it leaves Christians once more arguing against their sole piece of "evidence", which so regularly presents stronger support for us infidels.

Sadly, I think our theist cohabitants of this world will need rather longer to continue their march of madness before they get it. Onward Christian soldiers! You'll get there in the end.

chooseDoubt said...

Just an amusing observation:

Thanks to Rhology's latest post in this debate I am now coming in 5th position on Google Germany for searches for "free üporn".

I have no idea what üporn is, although it's obviously porn of some sort, but I'm certain that all the theists out there can chalk this up to god working in mysterious ways.

G-man said...

Bravo!

Yes, it is a long response, but thorough.

I read a few interesting things here.

First,
"Where you go wrong is in assuming each preference for an individual to be independent of all others preferences."

Second,
"We can choose to consider happiness and suffering as important though"

Finally,
"The fact that we share moral hardware and software means that personal preference is all that is needed. The preferences of the group tending to correct for any anomalous individual variation and that is natural selection at work."

-----

You're actually well on your way to sharing a very similar outlook on morality to my own. What I gather from the first quote is that we all have personal preferences - and that these preferences are important.

I call them desires to bring about or avoid states of affairs. For example, if another person is trying to harm me, I have many good reasons for trying to avoid the state of affairs where he has succeeded. For that reason, what the 'personal preferences' of others are (seeing as how those preferences are what drive people to action), are of concern to you and I and all people.

That is essentially what I gathered from the second quote. I'd argue that we can't exactly 'choose' to find happiness/suffering important, but we can be raised to find them important. In this essay you focused more on the genetic reasons for morality, but left out the societal aspects. The Bible, after all, derived all those ugly Old Testament laws from a society that agreed to abide by them. That society thrived under that sort of law... are we to hope that such genes are selected for?

As personal preference is very important to human beings, and we have many reasons to see others consider happiness/suffering in others, it makes sense for us to use social tools of praise and condemnation; reward and punishment to shape how people behave. It is for this reason, I'd argue, that we can condemn someone like Hitler.

That is, in fact, what I gathered from the final quote: the only step you'd have to make to agree with me is that you'd have to arrive at the conclusion that selecting anomalous variation doesn't have to be a passive effect. We humans actually have an obligation (that is, strong, real-world, motivating reasons) to promote some behavior and to try to reduce other behavior.

The great thing about it is, as you noted, we share the same moral hardware and software - the same values, even. For example, it's not just that happiness tends to further our genes and suffering does not... we value happiness, and we try to avoid suffering. These are objective truths which are universal in humans.

Our reasons for praising happiness-promoting behavior and condemning suffering-promoting behavior are universal among humans as well.

Those behaviors we should support or not support, then, exist in our genetic makeup and in the firings of neurons in our brains, which places the issue of discovering which behaviors are good or bad for humans generally firmly in the realm of objective science.


I hope those ideas struck a chord... we don't seem to differ in most of our conclusions; I've just taken some results in a different direction. I'd be interested to know where (or if) you differ.

Rhology said...

Free u___n? Is that b/c I've been using the words "hyena carcasses" and "sex" in my posts and comments? Hmm, maybe I should tone that down.

Or maybe "Rhology" or "Rhoblogy" or something has to do w/ it... sorry about that. Or congrats. Whichever pie you like.

Chris Severn, no I do not think nor have I ever said Christians 'invented being nice to other people'. I haven't read thru this entire post from CD yet, so if he said that, he should be ashamed. If he didn't, you should.

More later. Peace, gentlemen.

chooseDoubt said...

Hi G-man,

I can sum up my thoughts very concisely when talking with someone that is familiar with works such as The Selfish Gene as I agree with its assertions and what we can subsequently glean on behaviour.

1) There is no objective morality.
2) Hierarchical behaviours, which include moral behaviours, are the result of genes that determine behaviours interacting for the survival of gene sets in groups of individuals that show other genetic variety affecting such attributes as individual intelligence, aggressiveness, strength, and so on.

There’s really no more to it than that. Let’s take one quick example to demonstrate the above. Let’s take the Arabian Babblers again for an example.

1) Females are more attracted to mate with males that demonstrate physical superiority and the ability to provide food.

2) Males are programmed to assert dominance over weaker males by demonstrating their physical superiority and ability to provide food.

3) Males that are weaker than other males will therefore not be able to assert dominance and so behaviourally will be more likely to accept food and protection.

4) Males that are more dominant will have first pick of the most viable females.

An entire hierarchy will emerge from these simple facts and the overall survival of the genes that promote this hierarchy will be encouraged by the benefits of the hierarchy over an every Arabian Babbler for himself approach. The result is the genes in the gene pool will be selected for a hierarchy that puts those most capable to perform a role useful to the entire group in the position in which they are most useful. Weak become subjects, strong become kings. Kings breed more, or at least with preference of mate. Subjects breed less or with less preference, but there are more subjects. The trend in gene frequency will be towards strong hierarchy as the hierarchy confers benefit.

I’m not trying to argue that all of our current behaviours, or all of our behaviours in biblical times, were on a purely genetic basis. I’m only saying that the basis for morality is certainly of evolutionary origin. Cultural variations in behaviour are observed in other animals and I think these are very important in our own behaviour. They may, at times have conferred some benefit to survival, but as the environment changes they may become extremely negative. I think religion probably falls into this category. It was probably, at one time, useful in the organisation of larger tribes. I think that time passed many centuries ago and that it is arguable that even from the start we would have been far better off with reason than with religion.

So, yes, I think we more or less agree. I think we need to promote a golden rule approach, restating of course that this was not the unique invention of Jesus, and that we need to encourage reason and learning and discourage tribalism and superstition. Some of what we will face will be our genetic legacy of behaviour and emotion but I expect most of what we will face will be our cultural baggage which has developed from those origins unconstrained by reason. That’s why religion is so bad. It’s the fight for the reverse and it is utterly unsuited to a happier, peaceful, and heavily populated, high-tech armed world.

Cheers,

CD

chooseDoubt said...

Hi Rhology,

Please feel completely unrestricted in your choice of words. Any visitors they generate are welcome. Both of us are hoping to win people over =)

All the best,

CD

chooseDoubt said...

G-man,

When I said this:

The trend in gene frequency will be towards strong hierarchy as the hierarchy confers benefit.

I really should have qualified that the drive towards hierarchy is across the group, not only in those that achieve dominant positions within the group. Weak or strong are running the same hierarchy hardware/software combination because at every level there is increased probability of mating, and thus deciding the gene frequency, by life within the hierarchy.

G-man said...

CD-

Thanks for bringing up the Selfish Gene. I need to get around to reading that. Hopefully this is the last time I'll make an annoying tangential post.

I really feel that if we had a conversation all of our own, beginning on premises we agree upon, you'd conclude that there is an objective element to morality. I simply happen to think that your exposure to how others have used the term is what leads you to deny that such a thing exists.

First, I'll admit that you description of why we behave the way we do is excellent. However, if morality exists, it is prescriptive - right?

-----

Follow this line of thinking, if you will.

1. Desires are the only reasons for intentional action in humans.

A desire is a description of how the brain is wired - there are evolutionary causes to why our minds work the way they do. Humans desire to bring about or avoid states of affairs.

These desires are objective, as they exist in real-world firings of neurons in our brains.

2. Humans will always act to fulfill the more and the stronger of their desires, given their beliefs.

A belief is an attitude about a proposition. They can be either true or false, and our beliefs about reality shape the way we act to fulfill our desires.

Again, what we desire is shaped partially by the evolutionary process and partially by our social upbringing.

So far, we should be on the same page.

3. Some desires are malleable. Social conditioning helps to shape what people desire, in some cases.

It is these malleable desires that are the focus of morality.

4. Desires have real-world effects. Thus, they can be evaluated as to whether or not they tend to be good for other humans.

5. Human beings have strong, real-world, objective reasons for promoting 'good' desires (and, thus, behaviors) and inhibiting bad ones.

An example is the desire my neighbor has to burn down my house - hypothetically. If I can shape his malleable desire to do so (and I can - through rewards and punishments/ praise and condemnation), then I can make it the case that he no longer desires to burn down my house.

I have strong reasons to do this, and he has strong reasons to do the same regarding me.

Another example is the desire to "do the will of God." This is a real desire, but one which is impossible to fulfill - no God exists. Yet people hold to the false beliefs that not only do they know God exists, but they can know the will of God.

It causes some people to blow themselves up in crowded squares or to crash aircraft into buildings. If we can prevent this sort of desire from existing - and we can - then we have real-world, objective reasons to do so. Calling such actions 'good' and 'bad' is what I mean by 'objective morality.'

Chris Severn said...

Hi Rhology (apologies for mispelling your name in my first comment),

You said:
You have no way at all to make any objective morality judgment, so, either wittingly or unwittingly, you are reaching over to Christianity, snatching most of our moral framework, importing it back to your own, and then acting like it IS your own and continuing your attacks on Christianity. But when I ask to see the serial number on the gun, I see that it came from my own shop.

And that's why I said:
Am I reading that right ? Rhobology thinks that Christians invented being nice to other people ???

You object to my interpretation of your comment, and think I should feel ashamed. Well, I don't. I think it's a fair interpretation of what you said. Please tell me how I misinterpreted you.

Rhology said...

Chris,

No prob on the name misspelling. It's the danger of having a weird screenname that has no meaning.

I think the key is that I said "to make any objective morality judgment".
The point I'm trying to make is that, while atheists and other non-Christians may ACT nice and generally according to what I'd consider a Judeo-Christian schema, they don't have an ultimate reason to do so. They do so b/c they have borrowed it from Christianity. Taken in a vacuum, atheism is valueless and thus any value not to be preferred except on personal or societal preference. Look at CD's latest post in our series; he's said the same thing each time.

So, this is not a "who's more moral?" contest; I just want to make that clear again. This is about foundations for morality, for a metaphysical position. I'm sure you're a nice guy, Chris. I'm sure you don't murder or steal or cheat convenience store clerks or kidnap and rape women or gerbils. You just don't have any reason to be "nice" or to do those things other than personal preference. But that doesn't change the fact that you DO act nice. You've borrowed my morality. You're welcome to it, though - there's enough to go around. It just won't do you any good before the Judge when you don't get any more excuses. But that's your business, not (thankfully) mine.

Peace,
Rhology

chooseDoubt said...

Butting in uninvited (but it is my blog) I agree that without hesitation that I have no objective morality. Nobody does.

At least I am not in the position of being moral purely on the basis of obedience based on the promise of reward or punishment. I'd take my morality over yours any day. Mine takes thought, compassion and courage. Yours, if you really believe, can be nothing but purely selfish with the implications to others a mere matter of side effect.

G-man said...

Rhoblogy-

"You just don't have any reason to be "nice" or to do those things other than personal preference."

_That's not exactly true. The reason he acts so nice is because, primarily, of the culture he lives in, and his genetic makeup derived from his evolutionary background. Neither he nor you have some mystical ability to transcend surroundings and 'freely choose' what he considers good or bad behavior.

As for you, though, what reasons do you have for acting nice beyond that it gets you into Heaven and keeps you out of Hell?

You've yet to answer this idea to my satisfaction (or at all). I'm still wondering what exactly atheists borrow from Christians...

1. We don't borrow your moral understanding. That would be counter-intuitive.

2. Our behavior is primarily - if not exclusively - determined by our genetic composition and social/cultural experience.

If not one of these two things, then what on earth are we 'borrowing' from Christians??

Chris Severn said...

Hi Rhology,

I agree with yourself and Choosedoubt, that atheists have no objective morality.

You say "while atheists and other non-Christians may ACT nice and generally according to what I'd consider a Judeo-Christian schema, they don't have an ultimate reason to do so."

You're right that there isn't a single ultimate reason, but there are mutliple reasons, which carry different weight depending on the circumstances. You're right when you say: "Taken in a vacuum, atheism is valueless and thus any value not to be preferred except on personal or societal preference." Where we differ is that I believe that basing our values on personal and societal preference is a very good thing. Particularly societal preference. It allows us to live in what is generally harmony and care for our fellow beings. Some individuals definitely fall short of helping this harmony. But, religion does too, particularly when it's homophobic, sexist, supporting stonings and other barbarity.

Regarding your claim that my morality comes from Christianity, well, I differ on quite a bit of some Christian "morality". But the real point of where morality comes from is this:
If there's a god that deliberately created humans as he wanted them, then everybody got their morality from God. Atheist and theist alike. (The theist's morality might have been modified a bit based on what God said later on too, that the atheist didn't listen to).

But, if there is no god, then everbody got their morality through natural processes.

The question of where our morality comes from rests heavily on whether there's a god. I think what is helpful about a debate on morality is to consider whether the examination of morality fits the god hypothesis or the theory of evolution better. I think that the evidence strongly supports that we got morality from evolutionary processes.

Tommy said...

I use the Rube Goldberg argument when it comes to discrediting the claims of the Bible.

For those readers unfamiliar with the name, Rube Goldberg was a cartoonist who was best know for cartoons that featured absurdly complicated devices for performing simple tasks.

The God of the Bible behaves in a very Rube Goldberg fashion. Christians would have us believe that for hundreds of years, the ancient Israelites were God's "Chosen People". But when you look at the history of the Middle East during ancient times, the Israelites were a marginal people who were frequently overrun by their neighbors. Herodotus does not even mention them in his "Histories".

God could have made a covenant with the Egyptians, who lived in a fertile land with naturally defensible borders and were culturally influential in the region. Or alternatively, God could have given the land of Egypt to the Jews, because it seems like in the book of Genesis that Abraham and his descendants constantly had to seek refuge their because their promised land of Canaan was constantly suffering from famines.

Rhology said...

CD,

Having now read your 2nd post, yes, I was going to point that out vehemently in my next offering. It looks like I don't have to, though. My thesis, such as it is, is established.

So the conversation is definitely shifting over to whether *I* have an objective basis for morality. That's a bit of a different discussion, but since we never agreed to be so stiff and anal, I figure we can let the convo develop naturally along those lines, so we'll go there.

G-Man,

The reason he acts so nice is because, primarily, of the culture he lives in, and his genetic makeup derived from his evolutionary background. Neither he nor you have some mystical ability to transcend surroundings and 'freely choose' what he considers good or bad behavior.

Well, very true. But any person w/ a brain and a will can counteract that, both in specific instances and over time, w/ simple decisions. Which are based on preference.

what reasons do you have for acting nice beyond that it gets you into Heaven and keeps you out of Hell?

Excellent question, I commend you.
1) I love Jesus b/c He saved me.
2) Jesus lived a morally pure life and commanded me to do the same for a variety of reasons.
3) So I try to.
That's the distillation. Others:
4) Living like Jesus is what God created me to do. I don't want to live against my operational specifications. Don't want to use a hard drive as a baseball bat.
5) It makes the Good News of Jesus that I tell to others more credible.

We don't borrow your moral understanding. That would be counter-intuitive.

Sure you do. "I shouldn't torture little girls" is not an idea that can come out of a naturalist worldview. I'm not saying you explicitly or consciously identify it as such.

Chris Severn,

But, if there is no god, then everbody got their morality through natural processes.

Well, see above to where G-man explains his understanding of that. I'd agree more w/ him than you. Someone's moral understanding is a side-effect of evolutionary processes, not a "goal" or even a function that natural selection will really go a fair distance to affect.

The question of where our morality comes from rests heavily on whether there's a god.

On that we agree 100%. Ironically, David Silverman is on record saying that theology and morality are 100% separate. That's weird to me, but no one ever said atheists around the world are unified, so no biggie.

Rhology said...

tommy,

Christians would have us believe that for hundreds of years

Well, b/c the Bible says so.

But when you look at the history of the Middle East during ancient times, the Israelites were a marginal people who were frequently overrun by their neighbors.

Perhaps you could enlighten us on why that matters. What is the meaning, to God, of the Israelites being His chosen people?

God could have made a covenant with the Egyptians

You're just stating facts here, so I don't see the Goldberg-esque quality you're trying to evoke.
Do you know why God didn't choose the Egyptians? Here's a hint, for your edification.

Peace,
Rhology

chooseDoubt said...

Hi Rhology,

If you wouldn't mind, please be sure to recap your thesis on your next post so that we're sure we're both on the same page. Also, please don't feel any restriction in where the conversation goes or how long the posts should be. It's a completely open debate.

Cheers,

CD

Rhology said...

I'll be sure to do that, thanks for the reminder.

Tommy said...

And the basis for believing that the Bible represents the inerrant truth of a universal deity rather than a bunch of texts put together by the priesthood of a confederation of semi-nomadic tribes is what?

Here's an example of God behaving in a Rube Goldberg fashion in the Bible. Telling Noah to build an ark and gather two of every animal on the face of the Earth before it rains for 40 days and 40 nights wiping everyone else out, when it would have been no effort on the part of God to simply cause all the wicked people to spontaneously combust. Problem solved. He could have even caused the wicked people to become sterile and die off. Again, for a being that supposedly impregnated a virgin, making bad people sterile shouldn't be too much trouble.

Face it Rhology, the God of the Bible does not exist. Give up your belief in a non-existent deity and embrace reason and secular humanism!

Rhology said...

Tommy,

...is what?

Alot of things.
Its prophecy, internal consistency, history, spiritual power...
and best of all the way it comports w/ reality and presents a picture of the only possibility for explaining the universe's origins, rationality, logic, and induction, etc.

A big claim, but you asked a big question.

Rube Goldberg fashion in the Bible. Telling Noah to build an ark and gather two of every animal on the face of the Earth before it rains for 40 days and 40 nights wiping everyone else out, when it would have been no effort on the part of God to simply cause all the wicked people to spontaneously combust.

Ah, so your presentation of a "Rube Goldberg fashion" translates to "God acting in a way that doesn't make sense to me."
Well, you know:
1) God is way bigger than you.
2) God can see farther than you.
3) God can see the past, present and future exhaustively. You can't.
4) God can read hearts and thoughts. You can't.
5) God has a plan from eternity past and is working it. You don't and you aren't.
6) I don't see how it's a rational argument to say "I don't like it, therefore it's not real!" That's how a 3-yr old acts.

Anonymous said...

Rhology

You have got to be kidding, that is some of the stupidist nonsense ever. Very evangelical, maybe you and I could go on TV and dupe the gullible public out of millions... I'll split it with you 70(me)/30(you).

G-man said...

Actually, Rhology, the childish thing is a hypothesis which is supported by every possible observation, and disproven by no possible observation.

I'll be going into more detail on the idea at my own blog, but for now, imagine this scenario:

A group of children got the idea that what they see is what is real. They see unicorns and other magical beasts floating around.

You say, "Look, kids, we have no way of testing whether or not these unicorns and such exist. Shouldn't you be concerned with what we can actually learn about the real world?"

"No."

"Come on, what you're seeing isn't real."

"Prove it."

Rhology, you can set up a system here. If what they see is really real (and hey, can you disprove the 'I've seen it' argument with 100% certainty?), then you can use the theory to make predictions...

Oops, no you can't. There's no way to make any predictions, because the kids could dream up anything.

But surely something could disprove that hypothesis! Something could come along and convince them that they're wrong...

Oops, again, that's impossible.

The same is true of the 'God' theory. Contradictory notions point to the same thing. There could be horrific diseases that agonize people for years before killing them in front of their family, and you can say "God did it!" Or, there could be no diseases and suffering and you can say "God did it!"

Humans could all be similarly brilliant, with reliable memories, flawless capacity to reason, and the ability to resist cultural norms and superstition, and you could say "God did it." Or, the complete opposite could be the case and still you can say the same thing.

You have a hypothesis which is confirmed by all evidence and countered by none because "God knows more, God can do what he wants, it doesn't have to make sense to us, we have to have faith, are YOU perfect?" and yada yada yada.

Why do you think there are so many theists out there? Why do so many hate science and the theory of evolution? It's because a hypothesis which is supported by all possible evidence and contested by no possible evidence is not scientific (and cannot be), and it can take as many shapes as there are character combinations for WHY God would do X.

Hope you found the right one, man... if there's even one other person out there who believes in precisely the same untestable hypothetical God as you, I'd be shocked.

R.C. said...

ChooseDoubt,

You should know I’m a Christian. I’ve followed this blogalogue recently and I understand your thesis to be this (at least in your most recent post):

“… the flexibility of those considerations dependent upon circumstance […] proves that absolutes, as prescribed by religions, are in fact destined to fail with regards to the flexibility of human experience.”

You describe this in many different ways in this post, citing Scripture at times. (Correct me if I'm wrong on this.)

I find the observation of the difficulties of black and white moral standards, given flexible circumstances, rather insightful. I’ve pondered this a bit myself, and yes, even within constructs of the Judeo-Christian Biblical mindset. There are moral dilemmas that don't seem to have any absolute answer. Here’s an inane example that I would use to illustrate the idea (and one you might be familiar with).

In order to get valuable information on a planned nuclear attack in Los Angeles, Jack Bauer had to infiltrate a domestic terrorist group with which he was previously undercover. Since Jack mysteriously disappeared from the group previously, he had to do something dramatic and convincing in order to re-gain their trust.

All Jack would have to do is to literally give these terrorists the head of the man, a terrorist and murderer currently in FBI custody, who could imprison their leader. Jack was faced with a choice. Should he commit murder or should he give up the only opportunity he has to save hundreds of thousands of lives from a nuclear blast?

Would this be an example of the “flexibility of human experience” that you’re talking about? If so, would you be willing to describe, using this example, if and how the moral absolutes prescribed by Christianity would cause it to fail in applying here?

(If weren't to respond, I'd certainly understand. There's already a lot of activity on this blog and I'm sure you have other things to do. I am interested, though.)

Tommy said...

Yes, but Rhology, this is my quibble with people like you. When I point out that the actions of the God of the Bible are not logical, you reply that God is greater than my understanding. But if there is a God it is greater than your understanding too, which means you can't really be sure that the actions of the God of the Bible are really the actions of a logical, intelligent and compassionate all powerful deity.

Rhology said...

G-man,

One of the major diffs between the invisible unicorns and the God of the Bible (TGOTB) is that unicorns are not required for the basis of all reason, logic, induction, and objective morality.
Another diff is that they're not the only logical candidate for the causer of the universe.
Another diff is that there's no evidence for them, while there's quite a bit for TGOTB.

But my favorite is the 1st and 2nd - I know intellectually that God exists b/c of the impossibility of the contrary. Whether unicorns do or don't exist makes no fundamental diff in life and rationality.

examples of situations he thinks should or shouldn't be evidence for God

I don't cite any of those as evidence for God's existence. While you're burning the strawman, kick him in the nuts too, OK?

Why do you think there are so many theists out there?

B/c God is very merciful.

Why do so many hate science and the theory of evolution?

I love science. Many hate science due largely to the relentless efforts by evolutionists to equate evolution w/ proper science and to call anyone and everyone "unscientific" who doesn't hold to evolutionary fundamentalist dogma. Many theists (rightly) see evolution as a challenge to their faith and many (wrongly) react w/ irrational emotional outbursts when what they should do is do some reasoning.

if there's even one other person out there who believes in precisely the same untestable hypothetical God as you,

You'd be 100% welcome at my church where you'd meet quite a few. Whereabouts do you live?


Tommy,

Ah, "people like you". At least you're the tolerant sort.

When I point out that the actions of the God of the Bible are not logical,

You've done nothing of the sort. You've demonstrated that you don't like them. That's not the same thing, it's obvious, and I don't question it.
But you're welcome to try again.

you reply that God is greater than my understanding.

That was part of my argument, yes. What was the 6th point? What did you do to demonstrate that the 6th point doesn't apply to you?

But if there is a God it is greater than your understanding too, which means you can't really be sure that the actions of the God of the Bible are really the actions of a logical, intelligent and compassionate all powerful deity.

I'd agree except for a few things:
1) God has revealed Himself w/ sufficient clarity that I can indeed know that.
2) "Logical", "intelligent", and "compassionate" are all terms that have no objective meaning or basis in an atheist universe.

Peace,
Rhology

G-man said...

I actually don't see there being much of a difference at all between TGOTB and unicorns.

The point I was hoping to get across was that the 'God did it' theory is a rather juvenile one, as any and all findings will support anybody's god, and no finding will falsify anybody's god. That is the reason there are so many theists (the question was rhetorical).


"Another diff is that there's no evidence for them, while there's quite a bit for TGOTB."
_Actually, there isn't. Facts are facts. Evidences are facts which support a particular idea or theory.

As any and all possible facts can be used to support TGOTB or at least, more importantly, none can possibly falsify such a being, nothing can really be considered evidence for or against it.

I don't have evidence against TGOTB, but I find such a being to be both unnecessary and impossible.

Not to mention that you seem to be doing a bit of wishful thinking. For instance, you feel that a God is required as a basis for objective morality, logic, rationality etc. If that is the case, it seems we have no objective morality, logic, rationality etc at all... and if we do, we must conduct a circular argument to arrive at the conclusion both that such traits exist, and that God does as well.

Hopefully we have other reasons to believe those things exist.

Tommy said...

It's just your belief Rhology. The God of the Bible is no more real than Zeus or Apollo. You simply choose to believe that it is real, and then you point to it and say "See, I HAVE AN OBJECTIVE SOURCE OF MORALITY!"

But you really don't, instead you choose to buy into a particular belief system and claim that it is the source for morality. You are taking a subjective morality and trying to give it objective status.

And how is God a Him btw? Does he have a penis? I mean, please tell me how something that is without form has a gender.

Rhology said...

Hi guys,

Sorry, there are lots of comboxes going on and I forget where to put what.

G-man said:
I actually don't see there being much of a difference at all between TGOTB and unicorns.

Well, I gave you several. Just asserting them away is not helpful to anyone.

the 'God did it' theory is a rather juvenile one, as any and all findings will support anybody's god, and no finding will falsify anybody's god.

It will in some cases and in others it won't.
For example, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a historical event. Explainable by Allah of the Muslims? Nope. Explainable by natural processes? Only in the highly improbable. Etc.

Actually, there isn't. Facts are facts. Evidences are facts which support a particular idea or theory.

Naked assertions don't impress me.

none can possibly falsify such a being,

Actually, per 1 Corinthians 15, produce the body of Jesus Christ, still dead, and TGOTB is disproven.

I don't have evidence against TGOTB,

Yes, b/c none exists.

but I find such a being to be both unnecessary and impossible.

1) Then perhaps you can explain how the universe came about, if He's unnecessary.
2) If impossible, what logical law does God's existence violate?
3) Chris Severn disagrees w/ you, so whom should I believe on this point?
4) Let me get this straight. You don't have any evidence that He doesn't exist, but you still find it impossible. Yet I'm sure you'd say in a normal setting that you'd go where the evidence led you. Why not in this case?
If that is the case, it seems we have no objective morality, logic, rationality etc at all

And then you go on to criticise me for circular reasoning. Haha. You're no better than me - you assume NO god exists and go from there. Problem is, that leads you to speak in irrationalities, unlike someone in my position.

Hopefully we have other reasons to believe those things exist.

In an atheist universe, there are no reasons to believe those things exist b/c they don't.


Tommy said:
You simply choose to believe that it is real, and then you point to it and say "See, I HAVE AN OBJECTIVE SOURCE OF MORALITY!"

Argument?

instead you choose to buy into a particular belief system and claim that it is the source for morality.

Wow, you're a mindreader. You and Chris Severn should open a shop together - you could make some $eriou$ ca$h.

You are taking a subjective morality and trying to give it objective status.

You are welcome to prove how my moral basis is ultimately subjective. Otherwise, your assertion is so much hot air.

And how is God a Him btw? Does he have a penis?

God does not have a corporeal form, so no penis.
God is a "Him" b/c that is how He has chosen to reveal Himself. Also, Jesus Christ was incarnated as a man, not a woman.

Peace,
Rhology

r.c. said...

ChooseDoubt,

I wanted to let you know I've been checking back and looking for your response to the question I posted. If I don't see a response in the next couple of days, I'll just assume you won't reply -- and that's fine -- just wanted to let you know I'm checking back.

I figured that while I was here, I'd also comment on your Hitchens quote. No offense intended by this; it's for clarity and not for argument. I just want to point out that, through the eyes of anyone that has studied history and literature, this quote would look pretty ridiculous whether that person is Christian or not.

"Is it to be believed that the Jews got as far as Sinai under the impression that murder, theft, and perjury were more or less all right?

Biblically, the answer is 'no'. Rhology addressed this.

And, in the story of the good man from Samaria, is it claimed that the man went out of his way to help a fellow creature because of a divine instruction? He was clearly, since he preceded Jesus, not motivated by Christian teaching.

He did not 'precede' Jesus. The story was not biographical; it was a parable.

And if he [the Samaritan] was a pious Jew, as seems probable,

There is no chance the Samaritan in the story was a pious Jew. A Samaritan, by definition, is not a Jew (see John 4:9, e.g.). (A Samaritan was an ethnically mixed person that may have had some Israelite blood. Samaritans also did not serve God at the Temple, and therefore, by definition, were not 'pious.')

he would have had religious warrant and authority NOT to do what he did, if the poor sufferer was a non-Jew."

Lev. 19 instructs that one love his neighbor as himself. Leviticus 19:33, Exodus 22:21 and 23:9 are just 3 examples in the Mosaic Law that instruct that one that is 'pious' should care for a foreigner as he would care for a fellow Israelite.

It would strengthen your argument if you were as questioning of atheist sources as you apparently try to be of religious ones.

r.c. said...

P.S. to my last post. I neglected to address this:

...is it claimed that the man went out of his way to help a fellow creature because of a divine instruction?

That's not the claim of this story at all. While it would be in accordance with divine instruction as I pointed out, the primary purpose of this parable is simply to define who a "neighbor" is for the purpose of understanding and applying this divine instruction. The source of this Samaritan's motivation is irrelevant to the point being made. Hitchens is attempting to depict a passage as a failure at illustrating something it was never intended to illustrate.

chooseDoubt said...

Hi R.C.

Sorry for not responding. I've been really busy and I have a lot of responses to catch up on. I like your question but it's really an easy one. "Thou shalt not murder". Christian morality therefore says Jack can't kill the guy to get the head to infiltrate the terrorists.

What makes this interesting is that it highlights that morality may also involve a trade off - the lesser of two evils. I'd like to come back and comment more on this but I just don't have time this morning. I have my own thought experiment which I play explore from time to time which goes along similar lines but basically destroys any idea of an objective morality and even undermines the idea of any morality by showing it to be effectively random. I'm loathe to use it as I can see a lot of theists just throwing their hands up at the futility of it all and resigning their morality to ancient myth, but I'll take the risk and go through it tonight if that's cool with you.

All the best,

CD

r.c. said...

CD,

Thanks for the reply.

You’re absolutely right that God said “Thou shalt not murder.” But do you genuinely think the answer is that easy within the construct of Biblical morality? What about the Biblical imperative on helping those that one has the power to help (in this case, soon-to-be victims of a nuclear blast), making inaction to save them also a sin? (The concept is found, along with other places, in Deut. 22:1-4.) Because lives are at stake, it could arguably be the same sin.

If you were in Jack’s shoes, how would you handle the situation?

Yes, I'm very interested to read and consider your thought experiment if you’re willing to share it.

Theo said...

Hi CD and G-man

First of all, kudos to you for engaging Rhology in this "debate". I sincerely doubt you're going to get anywhere with him, but at least it's raised some interesting issues on "our" side of the fence.

Secular morality may well have had its roots in certain biological traits that promoted kinship and hence improved the chances of survival of our ancestors, but we should tread extremely carefully here. No matter how tempting it is for us freethinkers to suggest biological foundations for secular morality, we should avoid that slippery slope.

If anything, I believe we should actually argue against such claims. As Dawkins and others have often stated, explaining why we are the way we are (evolution) is hardly a statement about how we ought to behave (morality). Using mirror neurons (or whatever) as justification for compassion for others, could just as easily be used as justification for a “morally deserving ranking” of concentric kinship circles, maybe depending on how strongly those neurons fire… First the self, then extending to family, friends, community, “race”, “nation” … to just another unknown starving child in Africa (and that’s before one even gets to animal rights, the environment, future generations, etc).

We have all heard how believers ask us why we “evolutionists” don’t “believe in survival of the fittest”… let’s not open that door again!

Of course, investigating the neurological processes behind feelings of empathy, compassion etc (or the absence thereof) is still a fascinating and proper scientific pursuit and I’m sure scientists like Ramachandran and Marc Hauser will be making even more interesting discoveries in this field soon.

We must just be careful not to jump to conclusions.

As Richard Rorty wrote in the NY Times in a review of Hauser’s book, “Moral Minds”:

“Hauser hopes that his book will convince us that “morality is grounded in our biology.” Once we have grasped this fact, he thinks, “inquiry into our moral nature will no longer be the proprietary province of the humanities and social sciences, but a shared journey with the natural sciences.” But by “grounded in” he does not mean that facts about what is right and wrong can be inferred from facts about neurons. The “grounding” relation in question is not like that between axioms and theorems. It is more like the relation between your computer’s hardware and the programs you run on it. If your hardware were of the wrong sort, or if it got damaged, you could not run some of those programs.

“Knowing more details about how the diodes in your computer are laid out may, in some cases, help you decide what software to buy. But now imagine that we are debating the merits of a proposed change in what we tell our kids about right and wrong. The neurobiologists intervene, explaining that the novel moral code will not compute. We have, they tell us, run up against hard-wired limits: our neural layout permits us to formulate and commend the proposed change, but makes it impossible for us to adopt it. Surely our reaction to such an intervention would be, “You might be right, but let’s try adopting it and see what happens; maybe our brains are a bit more flexible than you think.” It is hard to imagine our taking the biologists’ word as final on such matters, for that would amount to giving them a veto over utopian moral initiatives.

“The humanities and the social sciences have, over the centuries, done a great deal to encourage such initiatives. They have helped us better to distinguish right from wrong. Reading histories, novels, philosophical treatises and ethnographies has helped us to reprogram ourselves — to update our moral software. Maybe someday biology will do the same. But Hauser has given us little reason to believe that day is near at hand.”


---

I agree, however, that morality is subjective in the sense that there really can be no absolute moral directives. The closest we get to one is probably "first do no harm", but even that can lead to moral dilemmas such as the Bauer example mentioned above.

Morality is still constantly evolving (memetically, of course) through open discourse such as this, and the growth of global communication channels have led to a veritable Cambrian explosion of ideas. This is the true driver, I believe, of the current global upsurge in atheist activism, publication and blogging. Good Ideas are no longer geographically contained, and similarly, Bad Ideas are finding it increasingly difficult to hide or to keep individuals and communities intellectually starved, indoctrinated and enslaved.

Viva la (r)evolucion!

chooseDoubt said...

Hi Theo,

You are absolutely right. Whilst evolution has equipped us with a built in morality we may be unique in the animal world in that we have sufficient intelligence to overcome it. Personally I like Sam Harris’s arguments in End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation that we need no more than to base our morality on measurements of happiness and suffering, the objective being to maximise the former whilst minimising the latter. But this doesn’t change the origin of morality which is undoubtedly evolutionary. The only point is that we can improve on that by training ourselves beyond the limitations of an inbuilt morality better suited to small low-tech/no-tech nomadic communities of the African svelte. Dawkins and many others have made this distinction clear and I probably should have in my earlier statements. This is a tricky area however as we face the same problem any alleged moral standard faces – the same issue R.C. has been raising – of where do we draw the line and how do we balance positives against the negative required to achieve them.

This is why I think morality cannot be a single cogent system or set of rules. We must be adaptive. Sometimes it is “right” to kill because the alternative, the result of no action or ineffective action is worse. But we cannot base such decisions on faith, instead we must gather all the data we can and make the best informed decision possible. We are sometimes going to get it wrong and we are often going to then have to deal with unforeseen developments routed in our own actions. Ultimately we are talking about shared preference and realistically we are not going to achieve, certainly not with our current hardware, a state in which we all share even the seemingly most basic preferences such as the preference to feel happy or for our children to be safe. I think our preferences will align more as we abandon superstitious beliefs and non-critical thinking.

Thanks for your great response - and Viva la (r)evolution indeed!

All the best,

CD

chooseDoubt said...

Hi R.C.

I’d say the Ten Commandments would be agreed by most theologians to be of primary importance when it comes to biblical law, since they are the law. But I’m not keen to be put in the position here of deciphering the Biblical intent or trying to make sense of it’s moral code. I’d much rather argue that it’s blatantly contradictory and an extremely poor moral guide.

If I were in Jack’s shoes and killing this guy and taking his head seemed the only way to save millions of other lives then I would do it. In the actual case you state (if I remember the episode correctly) the guy is a child sex offender and a murderer but it wouldn’t make any real difference if the required head belonged to an entirely innocent person. I think there are times for war. For example I think it was entirely right to oppose the Nazis, the Taliban and numerous others. During these times we kill a great many innocents and term this as collateral damage. We are already prepared to kill innocents (and guilty) for some causes and to save millions I would kill one person. I even think there is a very good chance I would kill myself if necessary. In the past I have had some experiences were I have put myself at significant risk for others but I think each occasion is anew occasion and the decision needs to be taken afresh.

My argument is that morality should be variable and according to situation but even then we really don’t have any way to know which is the best course of action. We simply have to take the best judgement we can at the time based upon the criteria of happiness and suffering. I have a previously mentioned thought experiment to illustrate this.

Let’s imagine that I place a baby in front of you and I give you two options. You can kill the baby or you can do nothing to it. There are no in-betweens. You have 30 seconds to decide. I’m guessing that virtually everybody will choose to do nothing.

Let’s now re-run that experiment but this time it is demonstrated to you, to your satisfaction, that the baby in front of you is Adolf Hitler, transported through time. You can either kill the baby or not. If you do not kill the baby it will be sent back in time and history will play out as we know it did. Over 60 million people will die because that baby lives.

Under these conditions I’m guessing that a good percentage of people will now choose to kill the baby Hitler. Some still will not. Which is the best moral decision? Let’s examine this question.

If you kill the baby 60 million people that would have died will now not die. Similarly all of the offspring that these 60 million would have had will be born and their offspring and so on and so on. Over time countless billions will have life that would not have had life if you let that baby live. But this will come at a cost.

Anyone born after Hitler first starter making ripples in the world will no longer be born. That includes most of the 6 billion+ people alive today. Their descendants will also never have life, neither will their descendants descendents and so on and so on. We have simply exchanged billions of lives for billions of other lives. Whether we kill the baby or not one of the later descendants may well turn out to be even worse than Hitler. We have no way of knowing and we are likely never to have a way of knowing.

I think some theists will think that this means we have to trust god’s law but I think that is an exceptionally vacuous argument. Before one could do that one would have to prove that which ever god’s law you are taking did actually come from a god that actually exists. Secondly you’d have to prove that this god’s plan involved our best interests and not simply it’s own. Third, each and every person in the chain of lives would have to agree to sacrifice their interest to the greater good by choosing to follow that law. Otherwise we would have to break that law in order to enforce it. Religion is useless for long term morality whether or not it is true, and there is overwhelming reason to think that it is not.

My point is that you can’t evaluate anything on terms of greater good or greater harm. We cannot know the future implications of our moral decisions. We simply have to do the best we can at the time we decide with the information we have. We have to react to current need and our best understanding of future consequence and recognise that a great deal of that consequence will always be unknown at the time we make our decisions. But this is not as bad as it sounds.

If we take minimizing suffering and maximising happiness as the basis of our moral decisions then we have good reason to believe that whatever the consequences of our decision that at that time using the same criteria will be our best method of facing those consequences. We cannot make one decision and consider it an end game. We need a system that we can continuously apply and that system cannot be rigid as a rigid system removes our capability to adapt to changing circumstance. Killing is not right in peace time, probably, but it is right in war time. Respecting someone’s privacy is right, but respecting someone’s privacy is not right when we have good reason to believe that are involved in child pornography or other crimes that violate our maximise happiness, minimise suffering rule. Morality must be flexible.

Would take one man’s head to try to save millions? Absolutely yes. I’d take more than one. I’m not sure where I would personally draw the line but it would be determined by probability of success against cost. If taking 999,999 heads guaranteed I could save one million then I think a good argument could be made for taking the 999,999. I don’t think we face many situations in which there are guarantees however and so we have to accept that we are taking risks with unknown variables and we simply have to try to use our best judgement at the time and recognise that the consequences are also something we will have to cope with. There are no moral certainties and the universe has no explicit moral code.

I’d be interested to hear your views on the thought experiment above. Mine, I would have to recognise that killing the baby Hitler would mean neither I nor my children would have life. I would also have to think about the suffering, not just lives lost, caused by the war. Ultimately though I think I would have to recognise that I do not know what would happen if I changed the past and so I would leave it alone. Changing the future is a responsibility we all share everyday and we are similarly ignorant. We just have to do the best we can with the information we have and I think that means we have to base our decisions on equality for all (although there should be some exceptions) and an intention to reduce suffering and maximise happiness.

All the best,

CD.

r.c. said...

ChooseDoubt,

Thanks for the reply and I hope your holiday is going well. Take as long as you need to reply.

I can tell you’ve given this answer a lot of thought. Your scenario is indeed thought-provoking and I want to save it for later.

To address the rest…

You said, "I’d say the Ten Commandments would be agreed by most theologians to be of primary importance when it comes to biblical law, since they are the law."

I definitely agree with you on this. However, as I pointed out in a previous comment, I also think that most theologians would agree that inaction in a situation like Jack’s would also constitute murder; hence the dilemma. To simply assert that it is an easy call for Christians doesn’t make it so. As a Christian, having had relationships with hundreds of other Christians, I can confidently say that in the 24 situation, few to no informed Christians would simply give you the answer, “Thou shalt not murder. It’s that simple,” even if they were to opt not to kill the man. I passionately love and follow Jesus and try to conform my life to Biblical law as much as I can, and I certainly would not give you that answer.

In fact, I agree with you in the actions you described yourself taking. (And I respect the fact that you might even be willing to give your own life under certain circumstances.) If I were in that identical situation, having the same knowledge as the characters in the show (i.e., could see no conceivable option that could avoid his death and also save millions), I might take his life as well – difficult as that would be.

Why would I, as a Christian, kill any man? Because God does make room for the flexibility of human experience and such extreme moral dilemmas. The Bible expresses that sometimes breaking one command to uphold a greater one is acceptable. I’ll give you a few Biblical examples:

*King David and his men ate of bread forbidden for anyone but priests and they remained innocent because they were starving to death.
*Priests worked on the Sabbath and remained innocent because they were doing service to God.
*A woman prostituted herself to gain a blood-heir for her dead husband and yet is considered ‘more righteous’ than the one who caused her to prostitute herself.
*Jesus describes commands as ‘weightier’ and less-weighty, and is willing to define the first and second ‘greatest’ commands.

Do you see what I’m trying to convey? TGOTB (borrowing the acronym from Rhology) acknowledges and illustrates that sometimes there is a ‘greater good.’ (Note that the greater good must also align with his morality.)

I’m not sure, but I suspect that you might answer the verses I shared with, “See, those prove that biblical law is blatantly contradictory.” But is it? If a part of the biblical moral system itself provides for one law within that system to ‘trump’ another, but only in situations where it’s necessary, is that not actually a rather consistent system? And not only consistent, but well-designed because it allows for the moral dilemmas that inevitably arise in life?

When an ambulance is rushing to save a life, speed and traffic laws are suspended for it. Traffic laws are good, but saving a life is better. Then, when there is no such exceptional situation, the ambulance is again required to follow those laws. Does this make the law contradictory? Or merely hierarchical due to an understanding of real human life?

While I’m describing Biblical morality, this all sounds a lot like what you’re describing as necessary for human life, which, for the most part, I agree with. For example, you said:

We need a system that we can continuously apply and that system cannot be rigid as a rigid system removes our capability to adapt to changing circumstance. Killing is not right in peace time, probably, but it is right in war time. Respecting someone’s privacy is right, but respecting someone’s privacy is not right when we have good reason to believe that are involved in child pornography or other crimes that violate our maximise happiness, minimise suffering rule. Morality must be flexible.

I hope I’ve adequately shown above that this very much describes Biblical morality, which proves to be flexible in these ways.

In light of this, is it possible that this statement - “…absolutes, as prescribed by religions, are in fact destined to fail with regards to the flexibility of human experience” – is a bit short-sighted with regards to the Bible and should be reconsidered?

Is it possible that you’re setting up a ‘straw man’ that is easy to defeat – oversimplifying the Biblical view - rather than considering what the Bible actually says about morality? I ask this because you yourself said, ”I’m not keen to be put in the position here of deciphering the Biblical intent or trying to make sense of it’s moral code. I’d much rather argue that it’s blatantly contradictory and an extremely poor moral guide.”

If you won’t bother to understand it in its full scope, how can you ever possibly know whether it is contradictory and poor, or consistent and valuable?
---

Now, regarding your Hitler scenario, as I said, I appreciate the complexity of it and your own responses to it. I don't mean to minimize it in any way, but I have a question for you before I address it:

Marty McFly travels to the past and causes his parents not to meet, which causes Marty not to exist to become the future self that returns to the past to cause his parents not to meet. Does Marty exist or not?

---
Changing the future is a responsibility we all share everyday and we are similarly ignorant. We just have to do the best we can with the information we have.

Agreed, my friend. But there are ways to be less ignorant and I've found a big one.

Peace.

chooseDoubt said...

Hi R.C.

My response to your comments is not going to be in the same order that your questions were raised as I think my response will make more sense if slightly rearranged. Let's get the irrelevant ones out of the way first.

You say:

Marty McFly travels to the past and causes his parents not to meet, which causes Marty not to exist to become the future self that returns to the past to cause his parents not to meet. Does Marty exist or not?

The current view within theoretical physics is that there is no risk in time travel and that the past is immutable. There's no problem with you being your own grandfather for example. This is supported by some pretty sophisticated mathematics, but I do not know if that is correct or not. It's not really relevant though as the thought experiment was about morality and not about the specifics of time travel. All I hoped to highlight was that there is great uncertainty in making moral decisions as to the longer term effects of any decision. All of our moral decisions are taken without the knowledge of whether the long term effects of our decisions will be generally what we may call positive or negative. We can only judge based on the information available in the present and the consequences may spin out of all recognition. I wonder how many possible tyrants have been murdered and their killers punished for the murder when really we have ended up better off for their death. I only wanted to point out that we are and will remain ignorant of all consequence.

Regarding biblical morality you say:

If you won't bother to understand it in its full scope, how can you ever possibly know whether it is contradictory and poor, or consistent and valuable?

My question would be which interpretation? Despite the fact that there is essentially only one Bible (admitted there are some variations, although few) there are over 1200 different Christian sects based on that Bible. If it's such an infallible guide then why is there so much disagreement? I have read the Bible (KJV - and I intend to reread it shortly) and it really is little surprise to me that there are so many differing interpretations. It ranges from though shalt not murder to murder virtually everybody. On the off chance that any one sect has come up with an effective moral system through their interpretation then I see no reason to assume that the source of that morality is the Bible and not simply the sect in question interpreting according to a moral system they have effectively devised independently. The simple fact that there are over 1200 different interpretations (counting only established sects) is a startling proof that the book is remarkably ineffective if it is supposed to be a clear statement.

Now, on your other points I think I can be more general. If there's anything you want me to be more specific on please let me know and forgive me if I miss anything as I am rushing to complete this whilst my children are walking the dog. Can you point me to the passage(s) in the Bible which state that morality is related to maximising happiness or minimising suffering as opposed to simply pleasing a highly ambiguous deity? There is no heaven or hell in the Old Testament. I know that many will disagree but the Hebrew word used for hell in the Old Testament is "Sheol". In the KJV this is translated 31 times as Hell, 31 times as grave and 3 times as pit. In Hebrew this word actually refers to the common grave of all humankind where both good and bad go after death. It was not until the first century, hundreds of years after the Old Testament had become one text that it became common to believe that righteous and unrighteous had differing experiences of Sheol. With regards to the Old Testament this puts even reward in the afterlife on shaky ground.

Regardless of this, with absolutely no evidence of this particular god, no way to differentiate the 1200 different interpretations of its required moral code for validity, and absolutely no focus on happiness and suffering in this life (instead preferring a focus on an afterlife which is also contradictory within the texts) then on what grounds can we regard it as sensible to prioritise that code over concern for happiness and suffering in the here and now and our best guess of the future? It simply makes no sense and I regard it as being wildly irresponsible and even cruel. Jesus may define the most important two Commandments but what about the rest? If the hierarchy is open to interpretation, which you admit, then how can it be claimed that the hierarchy itself is established in the scripture? This puts your biblical morality on par with simple preference except for the limitations imposed by a focus on pleasing an entirely evidence-less deity that has at least 1200 different interpretations.

Furthermore there are elements to the religion which are frankly abhorrent and certainly generate suffering. Importance is placed on victimless crimes, such as homosexuality, which result in prejudice and the belief that one has a right to interfere in the personal lives of others and to discriminate. Children are educated to believe that they are guilty and in some way faulty simply for the crime of being born. I won't even go into the damage caused by disabling critical faculties because I think we have plenty to consider with faith based derailment of medical research such as stem cell research and the Christian blocking of the HPV vaccine (HPV is responsible for 70% of cervical cancer and subsequent deaths), both resulting in the suffering and death of others simply to uphold (or rather encourage) one interpretation of a moral code based on a book that is entirely ignorant of the existence of cells and the existence of viruses or bacteria, instead preferring the demonic possession theory of illness.

It is not through lack of consideration of your argument that I reject it. It is because even if the Bible did offer some good moral advice, which it does, that that same advice was available prior to the bible and that the means of discerning that it is good moral advice is likewise absolutely independent of the Bible. By adopting the bible a great number of sincere absurdities must also be adopted and I think it is demonstrable that the impact of these absurdities on the human happiness/human suffering scale is decidedly negative. Sure, as a Christian you may be able to break one rule to uphold a greater good but your definition of a greater good must be independent of the scripture or absurdly skewed by it, often to the point that it is a serious menace to your fellows. If you yourself have the good fortune to navigate a path that does not cause suffering, which I certainly doubt (if for instance you object to stem cell research, accurate science education, HPV vaccination, condom use, absolute equality for homosexuals, etc), then it is sheer luck and 1200+ sects of Christianity with different views stand as stark evidence that this luck cannot be attributed to your holy texts and the moral guide they represent. Does this still appear to be a straw man? Well, that's up to you to decide.

Thanks for your interesting and considered response and thanks also for your best wishes for my holiday. I hope that you are finding much in life to please you also.

All the best,

CD

r.c. said...

Hi CD,

I am enjoying hearing your take on this issue and sharing my own, but I find I'm spending more time on this than I really have available to spend. I want to get your take on some things to better understand your position before I try to compile a fuller, and possibly final, post in this line of discussion that also addresses our most recent post - if that's cool with you.

So, here’s a scenario:

Someone runs over your oldest child with their car, killing him/her. The driver shockingly admits that he/she just had a heated argument with his/her own child and hit yours spontaneously, but intentionally, out of redirected anger. For the purposes of this scenario, let's say you are the one deciding the fate of the driver and you have two and only two options:

a. The driver will be released without any kind of penalty
b. The driver will receive the full penalty under civil law for this act: twenty-five years in prison

Which one do you choose, and why?

chooseDoubt said...

Hi R.C.

I hope you will consider some of the criticisms I raised in my previous response and share your thoughts. But here is my answer to your thought experiment.

I think there is little value in a justice system based on punishment. It is little more than the incorporation of vengeance into a government system to take that act out of the hands of the individual and into the hands of the governing regime to prevent a feudal justice system. Sure, it’s an improvement, but when a crime is committed what matters most is preventing the next crime, not punishing the one that has already occurred. An eye for an eye solves nothing.

Certainly, as an emotional human being and a father, if someone kills my child then I personally want to kill him/her, but not immediately. In fact, my desire will be to kill them after visiting immense suffering upon them. My preference would be to maintain their life for as long as possible before killing them so that I can make them suffer and then, after they have been begging to die for many years, restore their hope and desire to live again so that I can take it all away once more. But these are very primitive emotions. They should not be indulged by me or anyone else if we wish to maintain a civilization. A system based on punishment is a system based on indulging, or at the very least placating such primitive emotions. Instead we must use reason and reason should be primarily concerned with the predicted value of this criminal’s life in the future. So a number of questions must be asked and answered.

What is the probability of the criminal re-offending in such a way?
What is the probability of the criminal re-offending in another way?
What damage to others is likely if the criminal re-offends in predicted ways?
What can be done to modify those probabilities and what are the predicted results?
What damage is done to others by removing the criminal from society?
What damage is done to the criminal by the initial crime or any proposed method of addressing that crime? This consideration should be last. Mercy for the offender should be a lesser consideration than protecting potential subsequent victims.

Revenge, and even punishment, should not come into it. One thing, since we are discussing a murder this would be a criminal and not a civil case. A primary distinction between civil and criminal law is that criminal law includes the notion of punishment. There is no incarceration within civil law. This case would have a likely defence of temporary insanity or some other claim to diminished responsibility. Personally I think that responsibility only really counts when it really matters. One cannot describe someone not committing a crime because they have no desire to commit one as acting responsibly. Responsibility means making responsible choices and so we really only exercise responsibility when we distinguish between actions despite desire and this person has failed to do so and so is responsible for their irresponsible actions.

Thus, I can’t answer your question without more details. If this driver has done something due to genuinely unique circumstances, someone that has literally broken under the strain of their own lives, then I believe there is room for leniency if we can be reasonably certain that we can expect no similar losses of control. If we can take action to increase that certainty then we must consider this also. But I think it is unreasonable to place this person’s rights above those of a possible next victim. If we cannot satisfy ourselves that the risk is virtually zero then the person should be imprisoned in order to keep the next victim safe – but not to punish.

If we cannot demonstrate a zero, or extremely near zero risk to others, such as this person’s own children, then the person should be imprisoned, since I have no other option. If I were allowed any option then I would consider the subsequent action based solely on cost-benefit analysis. If this person represented a continued danger that could not be neutralised by some effective therapy then I would side with killing them and spending the money saved from incarceration on hospitals, third world aid, medical research, education or research into methods of neutralising such dangers that will reoccur in the future. I would even donate this person for experimentation in such research. I seem horrifically cruel I’m sure, but I point out that none of my consideration is based on punishment.

It may make this clearer if we apply the same to another experimental case which I think people will find easier to relate to. The same reasoning applies however. Let’s take the case of a child sex murderer for example. In my mind this person has no rights. Any risk to the right to life of an unknown next victim must outweigh any rights we wish to grant the criminal. This person has demonstrated that they are incapable of acting responsibly and so forfeits the right to expect the rest of society to take the risk. Spending money incarcerating someone that it would never be a good idea to readmit to society is not just a waste but a contributory factor to the suffering of others. Better to kill that person inexpensively and redirect the resources into efforts that benefit others or to use that person in such a way to better understand similar criminals and develop better, more humane ways of neutralising the risk. Of course, sometimes we will get it wrong and we will kill the innocent. We will get it wrong far less often if we abandon trial by jury and instead devise a system in which critical thinkers with relevant expertise handle the assessment of guilt or innocence. But if we kill less innocent than die by our existing system then we have made an improvement. The same approach should apply whatever the crime and instead of focusing on punishment we should focus on what we can do to be reasonably certain that we are preventing the next crime and so protecting the rights of the next victim.

We have to treat crime and the prevention of crime as a science and learn and study as we go along. It is wholly insufficient to approach the topic from a position of punishment or vengeance although methods applied to achieve punishment may also be effective in achieving our goal, which is the prevention of subsequent crimes. Going back to your original thought experiment, as odd as it sounds, if we can be reasonably certain that the driver will never re-offend and that the emotional reaction that occurred is extremely unlikely to resurface in some other violent action then they should be set free. If we cannot be reasonably certain then they should be imprisoned for 25 years, but if I were allowed other options then the potential scope of sentencing would range from the driver having to talk with me until I was satisfied to simply being shot in the head at his/her own expense or even being donated for human experimentation.

I recognise that some of this may sound extremely nasty and I also recognise that having limited time I haven’t explained things very well or in much detail. After my holidays I’ll write an article on the subject and we can discuss it further. I don’t pretend to have an idea of a perfect system or to know where to draw the lines. What I’m saying is that I think protecting the next innocent is of far greater importance than punishing the guilty and that we should consider the cost and benefit to society when sentencing and that a good argument can be made to take what may now seem to be extremely immoral actions if we accumulate significant later benefit by doing so – benefit that will be shared by the future guilty.

All the best,

CD

r.c. said...

CD,

LOL! I certainly wasn't expecting an answer that long. :) But it's good. It's more to consider to understand your thought process.

1. What I meant by 'civil' law was 'law of the state' as opposed to religious law. I can see where that could have been a little misinterpreted.
2. Yes, I'll definitely be back to address your post preceding my question. It may be a few days.

Peace.

R.C. said...

CD,

I’m back. I hope your holiday is going well.

I’d like to continue this discussion, but as I mentioned, unfortunately there are more pressing things in life that demand my time. That’s actually why it has taken me so long just to write this reply. Since I’ll try to make this my last post in this comment box, it may be a bit long.

The main thing I want to address is the thesis I had when entering this discussion – That Biblical morality is designed to be flexible to fit human experience. I think I’ve convincingly shown Biblical morality to be flexible both Biblically and rationally in ways that also don’t cite the Bible, even in contending that the Bible is rational. You did raise some questions to this, and those along with other points are addressed below…

Section 1

To begin, I’m sorry you thought my time travel question was irrelevant, but I don’t think it was. You had said before that your experiment “basically destroys any idea of an objective morality and even undermines the idea of any morality by showing it to be effectively random.” and “I'm loathe to use it as I can see a lot of theists just throwing their hands up at the futility of it all and resigning their morality to ancient myth”.

This all seems like a bit of an exaggeration. You are right that your scenario seems futile. But I will point out that to attempt to answer my question was futile as well - you couldn’t give a yes or no answer. Nor can I. And it had nothing to do with morality. My point in asking the question was to show that the futility in such a situation is not found in the morality of it, but rather in the impossibility of the human mind to fully understand the paradoxes of time-travel. (This also goes to show that not everything can be proven by experimental science – namely what may or may not take place outside of time, including God. And theoretical physics is just that – theory.)

The time travel aspect within your scenario is necessary to make your scenario futile, because only with that element can one know exactly what baby Hitler would do. Otherwise, we’d have a real-world situation about which we could make an educated decision. If I were in 1889, he’d be just another baby, I’d be ignorant to his future deeds, and I would let him live. If I were in 1944, facing an adult Hitler, the morality would be nearly identical to that of the Jack Bauer situation we’ve been discussing and I’ve addressed.

But all that analysis isn’t really necessary because it didn’t take time travel to reach the conclusion you described: “All I hoped to highlight was that there is great uncertainty in making moral decisions as to the longer term effects of any decision.” I’m generally in agreement with you. I think that when we make decisions, we can be ignorant of what the specific consequences will be. Even the Bible describes very unexpected circumstances. There are many variables in life and in the short term we don’t always get what we expect.

(Without trying to prove this outright, where I differ is that the end result can be known despite short-term variables and this fact is a root of the peace that Christians like myself experience. I’ll touch on this later.)

And, although we don’t always get the expected ‘temporal’ outcome from a decision we deem rational, that doesn’t mean our rationale, or law, was wrong. For instance, I could make a decision to pick up a stranded woman on the road to help her and yet be arrested by a passing policeman who accuses me of picking up a prostitute.

In a general sense, helping others is good. The fact that I bore negative consequences for it this time doesn’t change the fact that helping others is good, whether it be due to submission to the Golden Rule or simply a concern for minimizing suffering.

I make this point because it seems that this is exactly what you’re saying – that if a single Biblical law is ever proven not to give the immediate expected outcome, then it can’t possibly be valid. Maybe this would be the case in a laboratory, but there are far too many variables in the real world for this to work with any philosophy. Rather, the Biblical system must be considered as a whole, which, flexibly, takes into consideration even the negatives and makes them right.

I’ve already discussed this (see my previous post with Scriptural examples and discussion). You answered that point in this way:

Jesus may define the most important two Commandments but what about the rest? If the hierarchy is open to interpretation, which you admit, then how can it be claimed that the hierarchy itself is established in the scripture? This puts your biblical morality on par with simple preference…

and…

Sure, as a Christian you may be able to break one rule to uphold a greater good but your definition of a greater good must be independent of the scripture or absurdly skewed by it, often to the point that it is a serious menace to your fellows.

a. This point I’ve already gone over, but I’ll try to be clearer. In no way is ‘greater good’ in this system ‘independent of scripture or absurdly skewed by it.’ An ambulance breaking traffic laws during an emergency is not independent of the law of the state or absurdly skewing it. It is following a part of the law which allows one part to supercede another in certain events. I explicitly noted that the greater good for which another command is broken must be a Biblical command/emphasized concept. (I.e., I’m not going to go have sex with another man’s wife because I say the ‘greater good’ is that it makes me feel happy in the moment.) It is internally consistent.

b. On to new material… How can I claim a hierarchy is established in the Scripture?

Although an explicit list of hierarchy is not found in Scripture, the entirety of Scripture places heavier emphasis on weightier commands. The more often we see a command/concept repeated, the more important it is. For example, in various places, God often emphasizes compassion for one’s neighbor over acts of sacrifice intended only for him. Similarly, Jesus emphasizes the heart attitudes of mercy, justice and faithfulness over acts of tithing, though he urges us to do all of these.

c. Individual laws can come into conflict with each other as we’ve discussed. Though they are intended for good (more on this later) they fail and sometimes allow harm to happen (read: dilemmas). This doesn’t make them bad, it just makes them inadequate without the other necessary piece of the Biblical picture: Mercy - which offers EVERYONE eternal life outside the death-prone bounds of this physical life.

This may seem like the easy way out, but stick with me, please.

The one most important command in Biblical morality is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.” What I’m about to say is a mystery, but it’s unsurpassingly beautiful. The single greatest command in the Law of God is the same command, that, if we obey it, then we receive mercy that covers every transgression of other commands. Love for God = faith, which results in mercy that covers all wrongs.

What this means with regards to moral dilemmas is, when we use our own best judgment to uphold what we derive/perceive to be a weightier command, when we do so with genuine consideration in our hearts for what God would want, and, if God doesn’t miraculously intervene to solve that dilemma himself, then we are held ’innocent’ (Jesus says) for the breaking of the ‘lesser’ command in that situation.

I know that’s a long sentence, but it’s grammatically correct :) and accurate to the best of my understanding. I encourage you to reread it.

This innocence is made possible by God’s resolution of the tension between mercy and justice. You illustrated this tension well when you said: “Mercy for the offender should be a lesser consideration than protecting potential subsequent victims.” (Here I’ll call the opposite of mercy ‘penalty’.) Here’s the tension: Penalty for the offender = mercy for the potential victims; Mercy for the offender = penalty for the potential victims.

I’ll illustrate in a simple analogy how God resolved this tension:
You come before a judge for stealing a large amount of money from a friend. You admit guilt and plead to the judge for mercy because you no longer have the money to give back. Even if the judge deems you unlikely to offend again, the judge can’t both offer you mercy by declaring you innocent and at the same time uphold justice for your friend by ordering you to repay him. The judge has sworn to uphold justice. He declares you guilty. Then, the judge stands up, removes his robe, descends to your level, and pays the required amount himself.

Justice and mercy are both right. It is good for someone to repay what they’ve taken. But it’s also amazing to see a wrong forgiven. Both are perfect attributes of God.

Jesus is both the just judge and the merciful one who pays our price. This is also indescribably beautiful to me. If I’m wronged, God will make it right himself out of what he has so that we can both offer that person mercy. (I was robbed of over $1000 worth of stuff one time because I was letting a man, who helped a friend of mine, stay with me. Within weeks, God, through my Christian friends, gave it back to me.) And, if I wrong someone, I can be offered that same mercy.

Going back to the analogy, even in light of his payment, you still have a choice here as the one found guilty. You can either trust that the judge paid the price, OR you can mistrust the judge (thinking it’s fake money or entrapment or simply refusing to believe that he sentenced you) and bind yourself to try to pay the penalty yourself, which you cannot do.

This is the FUNDAMENTAL faith/love/trust/belief that I’m talking about and that Jesus says is of utmost importance. Without it, an offender is condemned to repay the debt himself. With it, he is a free man. This is a choice that every person has to make.

This faith is does not just benefit the offender in a moral dilemma, in which any decision would make him guilty of something. Faith/love benefits the victim in the situation as well. The person harmed in such a dilemma has an eternal life ahead of them better than one they’re losing anyway. In this system, if everyone has faith in God, everyone wins. (That’s why the song’s called “Amazing Grace, by the way.) Some may call this ‘convenient’ or ‘denial’ or a ‘cop-out.’ Maybe. I call it ‘truth’ and the thing all human hearts yearn for in a world that is so obviously imperfect: a win-win situation.

Is it a cop-out to bring in this faith-motivation discussion in with morality? An unfair ‘trump’ card? Not if we’re talking about Biblical morality, because when it comes to our personal responsibility, it is this alone that allows one to be considered right or wrong in a given dilemma. Sure, motivation is largely immeasurable by humans, but that doesn’t mean it’s an invalid factor. In fact, I think you illustrated it well:

If we cannot satisfy ourselves that the risk is virtually zero then the person should be imprisoned in order to keep the next victim safe – but not to punish.

You’re describing one action here – imprisonment – that can have two motivations – either ‘vengeful punishment’ or ‘offering mercy to potential victims.’ In your judgment, the act of imprisonment might be acceptable, but ONLY with the proper motivation. The same act, but with a different motivation, would be wrong in your opinion.

In the same way, in Biblical morality, “whatever is not of [does not source from] faith is sin.” Decisions made with Godly motivation are far more than ‘simple preference’.

I want to be careful to tell you what I’m NOT saying: I’m not saying that general ‘good intentions’ heal any physical harm done on this earth. Pain exists and is tragic.

Rather, I’m saying that harm on this earth will occur because no standard of law can perfectly avoid it, but although this is the case, a standard of law is still very helpful, and every individual still has a way to be considered innocent and still has a way to arrive at a place with no harm.

This all begs the question: Why would God created a world this broken, anyway? I know I won’t do it complete justice, but I’ve got to try. Every human longs for perfection. That’s because we were created for it. The world was created perfect. Human rebellion tainted it and continues to. (Humans had to be given free will because God is Love and giving someone a choice is a result of love, even if they can use that choice to turn against you.) But Jesus resolved the most important part of this imperfection – the spiritual part – in a timeless way so that anyone’s hearts and minds can have peace in any physical situation, including in the ‘losing’ side of any moral dilemma. Someday he will complete that redemption by perfecting this world into the blissful Eden it was.

I’m not trying to express that life is simple. It’d be nice if it were. Rather, I’m showing that in this complicated life, Biblical morality and the Biblical worldview is more than flexible enough to explain it and to guide us. It’s all accounted for; black, white, gray, dilemmas, body, mind, spirit, everything.

I’ll also go beyond that and simply assert that not only is the system flexible, but things described within it are true, so it’s perfectly applicable as well and indescribably fulfilling.

Section 2

You brought up other issues which I’ll also address because I like my questions answered, too.

Can you point me to the passage(s) in the Bible which state that morality is related to maximising happiness or minimising suffering as opposed to simply pleasing a highly ambiguous deity?

absolutely no focus on happiness and suffering in this life (instead preferring a focus on an afterlife

I don’t mean for this to come across rude: You really should have left it as a question because your conclusion proves you again to be significantly ignorant of the Bible which you’ve attacked so readily.

Again, I do understand what you’re saying about suffering in this world. I experience it, too. While God does reveal an afterlife, his commands also address life on this earth and if more people were to follow them, I’m convinced there would be much less suffering while we wait for the time that there is no suffering in heaven/God’s kingdom.

There are so many passages showing that God’s instruction is intended to increase happiness and avoid suffering that it’s difficult to know where to begin. I encourage you to do this. Go to BibleGateway.com and type in ‘live long’ or simply ‘live.’ You’ll get tens of divine statements that express something like this: ‘listen to the statutes and to the ordinances, which I teach you, to do them; that you may live.’

Happiness is also very much in view. Instructions such as the Feast of Tabernacles are intended so that our “joy will be complete.” Great Biblical men of the past write, ‘The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes.’

In addition, the Bible says that, ‘If you listen carefully to the voice of the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, who heals you.’

I’ll show you an example of how this has played out. It also addresses this objection of yours: …based on a book that is entirely ignorant of the existence of cells and the existence of viruses or bacteria,

In the most advanced hospital in Austria in the 1800s, doctors were touching cadavers and then examining pregnant women. Not surprisingly to us, a large percentage of women were dying from infections. Those doctors scoffed at suggestions that they should wash after touching cadavers, but then infections decreased dramatically after they did institute hand-washing. They could have heeded the recommendations of those proponing Biblical instruction like Num. 19:11 or Lev. 17:15 (even blind to ‘germs’ if necessary) and saved a lot of suffering to those women and children that grew up without mothers. But they didn’t because the best medical doctors of the age thought that human wisdom was better than God’s. What we might claim is ‘common sense’ obviously is not.

Similarly, I encourage you to consider how the Black Plague spread in Europe because sewers were running down the middle of the streets. The Bible teaches that bodily emissions and excrement require cleansing and that moldy things and rotting animals are to be avoided. If these instructions are so beneficial to us in a physical sense, how much more will adherence to more important instructions benefit us?

There are many periods in history where these things had to be learned. If God’s commands had been heeded, a large amount of suffering would have been avoided. Not only that, but God instructs his followers to provide for the widow, orphan, and foreigner who has no one to care for them, so that even the helpless don’t have to suffer. Even the laws on ‘slavery’ are intended to ensure proper treatment as ‘servants’ (not slaves) and eventual freedom.

God’s instruction has many purposes. Sure, one is to please a loving and almighty God because he deserves to be served. But God is also very concerned with blessing humanity with a good life of happiness and prevention of suffering. The Bible has proven to serve as a good instruction manual for this life. ‘Good’ in a purely physical sense; ‘perfect’ when combined with rest of its spiritual aspects described earlier.

Not only did you assert a lack of concern within Biblical morality for temporal happiness/minimization of suffering, but you also accused Biblical morality of being outright “cruel,” “abhorrent,” and generating suffering. (I could dwell on the fact that, according to your own philosophy, the opinion words ‘cruel’ and ‘abhorrent’ are nearly meaningless and no one should be considered ‘wrong’ if they disagreed with you, but I’ll let this passing mention suffice.) You said:

I won't even go into the damage caused by disabling critical faculties because I think we have plenty to consider with faith based derailment of medical research such as stem cell research and the Christian blocking of the HPV vaccine (HPV is responsible for 70% of cervical cancer and subsequent deaths), both resulting in the suffering and death of others…

I don’t know enough about HPV to comment. But why is stem cell research being blocked? What are the motivations? Do you seriously think that Christians are standing the shadows laughing manically and the loss of hundreds of lives that may have been prolonged, because of their lobbying actions? If you do, then welcome back the strawman.

But I think you’d agree that they’re probably not quite so diabolical. What they’re faced with is a choice. A moral dilemma. Do they, with their votes, voices, or actions, allow thousands of helpless lives to be lost to contribute to research that may help save thousands of others? They’re making a judgment call in the best way they see fit. You’re right. Blocking stem cell research is an obstacle to preventing some suffering and postponing some death. Stop there, and it’s a no-brainer. But destroying human lives, however young, to obtain the cells for that is blatantly and intentionally causing death. It is a similar devaluing of human life that Hitler perpetrated - he justified his experiments, too. Opponents of stem cell research come down on a different side of the dilemma than you do. When lives are at stake on both sides, who’s to say you’re right?

It ranges from though shalt not murder to murder virtually everybody.

I assume that you’re speaking here of the so-called ‘wars of annihilation’ in which Israel conquered the land of the Canaanites and was commanded to annihilate them. Here I don’t feel I even have to say much because you made my case for me. ”For example I think it was entirely right to oppose the Nazis, the Taliban and numerous others. During these times we kill a great many innocents and term this as collateral damage.”

God is not willing that any should perish. However, if a civilization is corrupting the earth to the point of causing many others to perish and suffer needlessly, both physically and spiritually, those who are more innocent are the ones offered mercy. One of the Canaanites’ many sins was sacrificing their own children on burnt altars to pagan deities (i.e., demons). I’ll ask you: Is it more cruel to let such a people group continue to do this in a Saddam-like fashion and to encourage this practice among the surrounding nations, OR is it more cruel to wipe out the culture which is saturated with this practice, ensuring that they can no longer proceed with arbitrary murders of innocents - and replacing them instead with a people group that has devoted themselves to teachings such as ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ and ‘do not murder’?

There is no heaven or hell in the Old Testament. I know that many will disagree but the Hebrew word used for hell in the Old Testament is "Sheol". In the KJV this is translated 31 times as Hell, 31 times as grave and 3 times as pit. In Hebrew this word actually refers to the common grave of all humankind where both good and bad go after death. It was not until the first century, hundreds of years after the Old Testament had become one text that it became common to believe that righteous and unrighteous had differing experiences of Sheol.

If you held yourself to this standard of literary interpretation on anything else, I’m afraid you would be condemned to only reading the back of your Weetabix box. Seriously, I’ll acknowledge that there isn’t a section of the Old Testament that explicitly spells out: ‘Okay, this is an outline of heaven. This is an outline of hell.’ That being said, it still gets extremely close. The prophets’ visions in the Old Testament describe in detail the same heaven envisioned by John in Revelation. There are entire books and websites dedicated to the mathematical detail and various angles that the same heavenly vision is seen from; visions separated by thousands of years. The quintessential understanding of heaven as the new heavens and new earth, described at the end of the book of Revelation, actually harkens back to the end of Isaiah 65, which describes the same thing. Those are only the most expressed examples I can think of at the moment, but there are many others I could go into – Elijah’s ascension into heaven, Enoch’s translation to being with God, and all the origins of the Jewish concept of “the World to Come.”

With regards to Sheol, it is common knowledge that a word can hold different meanings at the same time. A physical death can also depict a spiritual death, and the same is true with life.

Despite the fact that there is essentially only one Bible (admitted there are some variations, although few) there are over 1200 different Christian sects based on that Bible. If it's such an infallible guide then why is there so much disagreement?

I’m not sure where you’re getting that number, but if you’re going to break interpretations down into any minor variant, then you might as well say there are 6+ billion, not just 1200. I’m aware of 5-10 major Christian systems that attempt to interpret the Bible but even then, there is VAST agreement on the major issues. Deity, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Salvation by faith. Loving, merciful, just and faithful character of God. (Roman Catholocism would be an example of one that doesn’t agree in all these areas, but it could be argued that its major goal is not actually to interpret the Bible. This, however, is a different discussion.)

As I expressed in my earlier discussion, while there is certainly disagreement on other interpretations, these primary things on which there is near-unanimous agreement allow for mercy to be offered in areas where viewpoints diverge. The fact that there are multiple interpretations of scripture by humans does not affect the validity of that Scripture. It does affect our ability to know that we understand it 100%, but that doesn’t mean there is no standard, or that it is completely outside our realm of understanding.

We can use any human code of law as an example, like the US Constitution. There are US Supreme Court justices and many other lower judges charged with interpreting law. History has shown that they disagree at times on how it should be interpreted. Does this mean that it is not the basis of law in the US? No.

Children are educated to believe that they are guilty and in some way faulty simply for the crime of being born.

Omitting the word ‘crime,’ I think this statement is accurate. Now, you could choose to focus just on that, but you’d have to ignore the plethora of positives that go along with it - like the fact that these same children are taught that they, at their very essence, are important. They are taught that they are known and cared for personally by the Master of the Universe, down to the number of hairs on their heads, and that they have a purpose for living. They are taught that they will be loved whether they succeed or fail, because God loves them enough to sacrifice Himself to offer mercy for their failures. They’re taught that their imperfection is temporary and there is hope of absolute perfection. Their peers are taught that they should love each other, so such a child is surrounded by kindness. They are taught that they are something to be treasured and valued. Their parents are instructed to honor them and raise them wisely.

Even if God weren’t real, I don’t think I’d be amiss in saying that this is a much more affirming route than teaching them that they are products of mere chance and evolutionary biology; that their existence doesn’t really matter; that they are as valuable as a worm on the sidewalk; that it wouldn’t matter if they or the people and things they value most didn’t even exist.

And since God is real, the Godly route is infinitely more affirming.

(If one were to pull out the ‘truth?’ card on God vs. evolution, we’d have to start that discussion, and I won’t - other than saying what you’ve heard many times before: it takes more faith to believe in evolution than God.)

Almost done…

Dilemmas exist. Mysteries and paradoxes exist.

As I've said before, you’re obviously insightful enough to see how difficult these things are to explain. And I’m sure you’re also insightful enough to see that you can’t disprove a paradox by disproving one side of it. It all has to be considered together.

For example, you described a relative philosophy based on maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering. This doesn’t seem impractical.

But why should one have to add minimizing suffering? Why not just make your philosophy maximize happiness? If you’re happy, you’re not suffering are you?

I suppose minimize suffering has to be added because philosophy is based on a paradox: Happiness is the opposite of suffering, so it would seem as though increasing everyone’s happiness would decrease everyone’s suffering. However, increasing one’s happiness may, in fact, decrease the happiness of another, even to the point of suffering.

Likewise, several paradoxes are found in the Biblical worldview. (For example, the idea of being credited with perfection by faith alone, but then trying to be as perfect as we can.) When you look at the parts, they make sense, and these sorts of paradoxes exist in real life. Dilemmas exist in real life. Any philosophy that approaches effectiveness will have to be based on a paradox similar to these.

But, if you omit an element of such a moral philosophy, then we have an inaccurate picture. If we say, “Look at how inflexible ‘maximize happiness’ is,” while ignoring ‘minimize suffering’ then we haven’t understood the philosophy, have we? If we say, “this part of the Bible depicts morality as an inflexible standard” while choosing to ignore the rest, we get an inaccurate picture.

Even with it having a level of practicality, I think the system you have proponed is more black-and-white than you think it is. This is evidenced 1) by your insistence on seeing something like “thou shall not murder” as so utterly black-and-white, ignoring other concerns, and, more expressly, 2) your insistence that one can never know what’s right in a given situation. This expresses human frustration at not being able to know just that - all the time, every time.

It’s easy to be angry with a world that isn't black and white; a world in which, if you wanted to be right all the time, you couldn’t be, because there seem to be no-win situations. To have simple right-wrong answers in every situation would allow us to be perfect by our own power. It would feed our pride and our ego and give us the justification to look down on others who were less than perfect. It’s also easy to direct this anger at God, because he didn’t make things as clear and simple as we would like for them to be. Clear enough to understand. Simple enough to master. And since they're not the way we think we would make them if we were God, many reject the idea of God.

But all that expresses is pride and ego. ‘If I can’t understand it all – if I can’t be on top – if I can’t control my circumstances sufficiently to prevent any pain - then no one must be able to do these things.’ ‘If I can’t be master, then no one can.’ I’m not saying these are conscious, but I think they are the driving force of that philosophy.

There is another possible route. A route which requires humility. A route in which one must acknowledge that not only do we not know everything, but if we want to have real life, we’re left no option but to submit to the One who does know everything.

Here’s the beauty of this route: We don’t have to be perfect to achieve the most unimaginable amount of happiness and absence of suffering possible. We just have trust in the One who actually knows how to be perfect, is perfect, and can credit that perfection to us. And, ironically, in doing so, what we get is the genuine hope and promise of a time when things will be as simple as we long for them to be.

My treatise is over. I assume you’ve read it, so thanks. I won’t pretend that I’ve come close to answering every question with regards to the Biblical view on God or his morality, but I hope that I’ve described the Bible in a way that helps you understand where people like me are coming from and why we are thoroughly convinced that the God of the Bible is so incredibly wise, trustworthy, and beautiful, even in light of the questions you’ve raised.

Thank you genuinely for obliging my inquiries here on your ‘turf.’ It has been enjoyable discussing these things respectfully with you.

I wish you peace and blessing on your search for truth and effectiveness in life.

R.C.

I’d love to read your reply. I’ll probably be around and I’ll look for a reply, but I won’t likely post another reply of my own due to time constraints for posts like this. :)