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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Morality for Neoplatonists, Part II

In honor of my birthday, Glen Whitman debunks the dependence of morality on the existence of God as follows: "Well, um, I’m an atheist, and I think it’s wrong to kill people and stuff. So there."

Along the same lines, I can show that the fact that people do not float off the earth and into space does not depend on gravity: "Well, um, I don't believe in gravity, and I don't float out into space. So there."

See, philosophy is easy, if you just don't give a crap what sort of argument you use!

9 comments:

  1. Or you could read the rest of my post, where I make a more serious argument.

    However, only a single point is needed to refute a proposition of the form "X is necessary for Y." All you have to show is one Y without X. So if the claim is that belief in God is necessary for moral belief, all you need is one atheist who takes moral positions to refute the claim.

    But, you may say, the atheist might reach such moral positions illogically. The same is true of theists -- and that's what the rest of the post was about.

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  2. Glen,

    I often disapprove of Gene's mercenary tactics, but then again you called D'Souza's argument a "screed" and a "pile of offensive crap" or something, so I guess you're both big boys and don't need my pacifist policing.

    Anyway, what Gene is getting at--and you probably know this, but from your response it's "as if" you don't--is that your belief does not make something moral. Something is either moral or it isn't.

    And yes, I've read your whole post and I realize you have a more nuanced argument than your glib assertion. But even there, I think you are way way way too quick with your point-set-match approach.

    For example, I think that God designed the universe and human beings, and thus He knows what will give us not mere pleasure, but joy. And thus when He warns us (through prophets, but also by giving reason to sociologists, economists, political scientists, and medical doctors who specialize in venereal disease) about the consequences of immorality (or sin, to use a quaint term) He is letting us know that we are going to be unhappy. It's like a parent telling a child not to go near the stovetop.

    So suppose I'm right--how does that fit into your dichotomy? How could someone who didn't trust God's revelation and relied merely on reason ever get the full story?

    What if it were the case that people felt unfulfilled because they were separated from their Maker, and that's what caused them to seek out drug use, affairs, bank robberies, etc.? (Granted they might be atheists and not realize the source of their unhappiness.) In what possible sense could you say these people could fully understand morality if they were ignorant of the single most important fact in the universe (the existence of a conscious God)?

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  3. Glen, you certainly did not grasp the thrust of my post -- please re-read the gravity example. Do you think if even one person doesn't believe in gravity and yet still stays on the earth, that disproves the theory? (All you need is one counter-example!)

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  4. Bob -- given your account, God is not the "decider," but the "knower" (to use the terminology from my post). And if that is true, then morality exists independently of God -- it is the set of practices that will make us most joyful. (Somehow I doubt joy is all there is to it, but I'm going with your version.) "The truth is out there," as we can potentially understand the sources of joy (or whatever) through science and reason. And in that case, God's usefulness is as a source of really good advice. Problem is, that advice is incredibly vague and indeterminate; we have no means of knowing which religious texts to heed, nor how to choose among the many contradictory statements within any given text.

    And by the way, I don't normally use words like "crap" to describe people's arguments, but in all seriousness, D'Souza's essay really was incredibly offensive.

    Gene -- really, I did understand your analogy. I agree that physical laws hold regardless of whether people believe in them or not. But the question at hand was whether an atheist can hold moral beliefs. Theists often claim they can't, and this claim can indeed be refuted with a single example. the existence of even one atheist who holds moral beliefs shows that it's possible. Again, you may claim that atheists who have moral beliefs are reaching them illogically -- but that's an entirely different claim.

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  5. Bob -- given your account, God is not the "decider," but the "knower" (to use the terminology from my post). And if that is true, then morality exists independently of God

    I don't think so. In my account, God knows what morality is because He decided to make the universe this way.

    It makes no sense (if I'm right) to say that morality exists independently of God. You might use an analogy and say, "Well we can study Romeo and Juliet independently of Shakespeare's commentary on it," but that wouldn't be a good analogy. The difference is that Shakespeare didn't create despair, irony, forbidden love, etc.

    In contrast, God created the universe and everything else. He is the personification of goodness and truth. So I am almost at a loss to know what it would mean to say that morality could exist independently of God.

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  6. Bob -- by your account, God also created the physical laws of the universe (like gravity). But those laws exist independently in the sense that now, post-creation, they are out there to be discovered. No belief in God is required to discover them; instead, we can use science and reason. It might be nice if God had given us an instruction manual with all the physical laws of the universe written down, but he didn't, so we use other methods.

    Likewise, if morality is what you say it is -- behaviors that lead to greater joy -- then we should be able to discover the relevant causal relationships without necessarily making reference to God. And while God has allegedly given us an instruction manual with the moral truths written down, there is more than one such manual, and their contents are often ambiguous and inconsistent. That means that we have no choice but to use reason to try to figure out the best moral rules.

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  7. "Gene -- really, I did understand your analogy. I agree that physical laws hold regardless of whether people believe in them or not. But the question at hand was whether an atheist can hold moral beliefs."

    At least I am discussing the slightly different question of whether or not morality depends on God.

    "Theists often claim they can't..."

    Only silly theists -- neither Augustine nor Aquinas ever would have claimed anything like that. And part of my complaint about your post is that you bother arguing with silly theists like Al Sharpton. This would be like Bob choosing to argue only with, say, his atheistic trash collection man or, perhaps, Richard Dawkins!

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  8. Bob -- by your account, God also created the physical laws of the universe (like gravity). But those laws exist independently in the sense that now, post-creation, they are out there to be discovered. No belief in God is required to discover them; instead, we can use science and reason.

    True, but here's where the "laws" of morality and the laws of physics are qualitatively different, and that's why (I claim) belief in God can be relevant.

    It is literally impossible for a molecule to disobey the laws of physics; if it did, we would have the wrong laws.

    But certainly a man can violate the laws of morality.

    So I agree that a positive description of how people act can get by without knowledge of God.

    But to give a compelling account of how people _ought_ to act, you need to know that they were created by a supreme being who loves them and wants them to do the same to each other.

    I grant you that in this tiny post I haven't made the case for my position, but I think I've shown why your physics analogy doesn't work very well.

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    ReplyDelete