The End of Freedom and Dignity

The march of science and the outworking of Enlightenment thinking has been a mixed bag. There has been both progress and regress during the past few centuries. Science and technology has made life a lot easier in recent times, but it has also a downside to it. Indeed, unchecked science, coupled with philosophical naturalism, has led to all manner of negative consequences.

A number of prophetic voices last century sought to warn the West about where an increasingly secular age and an increasingly technological society would take us. Several Christian thinkers can be mentioned here. They all wrote about where modern society was heading, warning about the dehumanisation and increasing statism which invariably followed this path.

French philosopher and sociologist Jacques Ellul (1912 –1994) wrote much about technology and its impact. His 1954 work, The Technological Society (translated into English in 1964) is perhaps his best known volume in which he warned about “technological tyranny”.

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) also wrote much about a secularised world where unfettered science runs rampant. His The Abolition of Man (1947) as well as the third volume of his science fiction trilogy, That Hideous Strength (1946), were primarily centred on such themes.

He wrote often about various reductionist philosophies. He said this, for example, about naturalism: “But if naturalism were true, then all thoughts whatever would be wholly the result of irrational causes. Therefore, all thoughts would be equally worthless. Therefore, naturalism is worthless. If it is true, then we can know no truths. It cuts its own throat.”

And Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) also had much to say about where modern technological man was headed. For example, in his 1972 volume, Back to Freedom and Dignity, he challenged the reductionist determinism of B.F. Skinner.

Needless to say, their concerns were spot on. If anything, things may have deteriorated even further than what they warned about. Certainly the push for reductionistic naturalism continues unabated. Many intellectuals are seeking to explain all of reality in terms of naturalism.

Many examples can be mentioned here. The burgeoning field of neuroscience is certainly one of them. The attempt is being made to describe all mental states and activities purely in terms of matter – that is, in terms of the brain alone. Thus all thoughts, ideas, emotions, aesthetic and religious experiences, and consciousness itself are said to be purely the outworking of brain activities.

Many want to deny mind, consciousness and the soul altogether. Thus the area of neuroscience has become just one part of the larger philosophical battle between theism and idealism on the one hand, and atheism and materialism on the other.

But not all neuroscientists have been happy with the materialist reductionism of their colleagues. For example, Mario Beauregard and Denise O’Leary wrote The Spiritual Brain (HarperOne, 2007) in which they argued against the naturalism and materialism so rampant in their field, and argued that the soul and religious experiences have objective reality.

Another thinker who has recently expressed concerns about where the neurosciences are going is philosophy lecturer Jane O’Grady. She argues that confusing the mind with the brain leads to real problems, including dehumanisation. Her lengthy article is worth reading in its entirety, but a few quotations can here be provided:

“The most irritating (to us lay people) aspect of philosophical and scientific attempts to reduce the mental to the neural, and to squash down human beings into being on all fours with other physical things, is that their proponents nearly always say that actually they are just putting the truth about consciousness more clearly and taking nothing away from our experience. Like politicians deviously withdrawing privileges, they expect us to be quite happy about this. Some developments of identity theory, however, are more upfront. They force consciousness into equivalence with lightning and water by impugning the ignorance of us ordinary people. The way we talk about sensations, memories and beliefs is, say eliminative materialists, hopelessly antiquated, a form of ‘folk psychology’ as hidebound and superstition-laden as talk about witches, or about epileptics being possessed by devils. ‘Folk psychology’ is a theory about how humans function, they say, that is pathetically inadequate in both describing and predicting. In time, a more scientifically sophisticated vocabulary will replace it.

“Really? So we were wrong all the time about our memories and our passions? What sort of a world, I wonder, do these eliminative materialists envisage with their revised vocabulary about mental (or rather neural states). What exactly would we be doing? What would be the point of training ourselves, or being trained, to report on our brain states?”

Her conclusion is also worth repeating here: “The new neuro-social-sciences are the latest of many attempts to naturalise the human – to make every aspect of our lives and selves comprehensible merely as subjects of scientific explanation. The social consequences of the naturalistic program make it especially important to understand its philosophical limits. Not only do we become experimental subjects, but we very easily become subjected – to the particular types of control that scientific understanding invites, especially the ‘medical model’ of the expert which offers the ‘patient’ diagnosis, prophylaxis, prognosis and cure. This may produce wonderful results in the right context, but should be tightly confined within the world of atoms; in the world of meanings, its essentially metaphorical status needs to be always understood. A naturalised, rather than thoughtful and deliberative politics, is not only creepy, it is incoherent. Ironically, it substitutes a medical metaphor for meaningful argument.

“Hard-line identity theorists, and eliminativists above all, don’t appreciate how much they would change things if indeed we could come to believe and implement their theories. Our world would increasingly be leeched of meaning, morality, dignity and freedom, and if we rejected folk psychology in favour of scientific terminology about brain states, not only would we know less, not more, about ourselves; we would also have less to know about, because we would be less.”

Quite so. I have written elsewhere about the flatlands of reductionism. The dehumanisation of mankind – whether deliberate or not – must always be resisted. Fortunately not everyone in the scientific and philosophical communities is willing to allow this dehumanisation to proceed without a fight.

www.opendemocracy.net/article/can-a-machine-change-your-mind

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27 Replies to “The End of Freedom and Dignity”

  1. Bill,

    Just came across an article detailing the increase of public acceptance toward meditation techniques, and how it is becoming increasingly common for teachers in US schools (and elsewhere no doubt) to teach their little charges how to meditate.

    http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2009-06-07-meditate_N.htm

    I guess that as the public increasingly accepts the idea that the brain is simply ‘one big organ’, then it will follow that meditation is accepted as a natural way to keep it healthy. Meditation is no longer just a practice of Eastern religions, but a full-blown Western medical treatment for brain and behavioural health.

    Danny Polglase

  2. I have often thought that most psychologists err in not at least considering spiritual forces as potential determinants of human behaviour. Going down the road mentioned in this article of course denies this completely. But they will argue, I have never seen or heard or felt or … a spirit, therefore they don’t exist. OK, I have never seen, heard, felt, tasted or smelled an electron, and neither have I ever seen the experiments conducted that proves their existence and determines their properties. I have read about them and they seem reasonable. I believe in electrons, and so, I’m sure do the neuroscientists in question, but I’m sure 99% plus of them have seen just as little of the experimental evidence as I. I wonder how many of them, or psychologists or any other rationalist scientists have actually looked at the evidence for the existence of spirits? I think there is a scientific chauvinism rampant here somewhere.

    Don’t get me wrong — I am a scientist myself, but the rules of a science are appropriate to that science, and should not be imposed, at least not without appropiate consideration and modification, in other fields.

    Barrie Robinson

  3. “Hard-line identity theorists, and eliminativists above all, don’t appreciate how much they would change things if indeed we could come to believe and implement their theories. Our world would increasingly be leeched of meaning, morality, dignity and freedom, and if we rejected folk psychology in favour of scientific terminology about brain states, not only would we know less, not more, about ourselves; we would also have less to know about, because we would be less.”

    Materialist, or more broadly, naturalistic views of the mind aren’t threats to our humanity. They simply show, should they be true, that being fully human, moral, free and dignified is possible without our being more than natural creatures. In any case, most brands of naturalists are humane and humanistic and want to maintain the open society, not bent on destroying folk psychology and Western civilization.

    best,
    Tom Clark
    Center for Naturalism, Massachusetts, USA

  4. Thanks Tom

    But in a totally naturalistic universe, talk of humanity, morality, freedom and dignity makes no sense at all. These are all decidedly non-material realities. You can only speak of such things by smuggling in the truths of the supernatural, metaphysical worldview.

    I am glad you think you are humane. But you can only be so in a non-materialist world. Being humane of course presupposes some standard which lies outside of us and the material world. You cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Morality, dignity and the like are not features of a mere material world, but are non-material values which we bring to it.

    And I am sure most materialists may not have the destruction of Western civilisation in mind. But that is not the point. Even good intentions can lead to bad outcomes. To deny mega-portions of reality (the non-material) simply results in all sorts of reductionism. Reductionist worldviews do not allow us to be fully human, since they seek to deny so much of humanity and the real world.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  5. Bill

    I am a postgraduate in philosophy at the moment and I can tell you that there has been very little progress towards explaining our thinking in terms of our brains or the individual neurons. There remains something of an ‘explanatory gap’ between our intentional states and qualia and the individual neurons that is still unbridgeable.

    This also has implications for evolution. Philosophers like Steven Horst have argued that because there is an explanatory gap then it makes it impossible for physical entities like genes to produce consciousness. Therefore it is impossible for evolution to even get off the ground in the first place.

    Damien Spillane

  6. If secularists were able to consistently demonstrate that they did live as materialists, like animals in the field, or chimpanzees that are content merely to say “Here I am in this field, eating this grass and this is all there is to existence,” then their claim might carry some weight. But they do not walk the talk. Animals, though demonstrating “tooth and claw” do not demonstrate either the heights or depths of human behaviour.

    Secularists, unable to accept the meaninglessness of a materialist world make a transcendent leap into sex, art, music, drugs, violence, the occult, homosexuality, alcoholism, suicide and obsessive behaviour. In other words, the only escape from the meaningless of material existence is a leap into virtual reality, compensatory obsessions, comfort or stimulation that will blot out the pain of man’s existential isolation.

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article5999287.ece (Home secretary’s husband downloads porn)

    David Skinner, UK

  7. to Tom Clark

    Let’s think through presuppositions. Basically there are two major presuppositions concerning the origin of the universe, the earth and life: the materialistic belief and the theistic belief.

    The former cannot account for the concepts of morality, good and evil, personhood and the like that exist in the World, they are metaphysical concepts. The latter give a satisfying explanation and a fundamental cause for the existence of those realities. As a naturalist, how can you explain that out of something that is not personal, came personhood? And out of something that is not moral, came morality? And out of something without organised intelligence and order came this perfectly ordered universe and the meaning that can be discovered in everything (we don’t invent natural laws, we discover them)?

    In my view, the naturalistic approach is a modern idol: “For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature [lit. the thing created] rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” (Romans 1:25)

    Pascal Denault, Montreal

  8. Bill,

    Your claim that humanity, morality, freedom and dignity are all non-material realities, and that moral standards can only derive from outside the material world is pretty strong. This suggests that those who don’t believe in an immaterial reality have no good naturalistic reasons to be moral. But its obvious that there *are* good reasons, based in our needs and inclinations as social creatures. Naturalists find these reasons just as compelling as God’s commandments, and less arbitrary since they are based in human nature. Of course we all have selfish, immoral inclinations as well, but that’s simply the human condition as I’m sure you’d agree.

    So it seems to me that naturalists, just as much as supernaturalists, can be trusted to do the right thing. If you think we *can’t* be trusted, I’m wondering if you have evidence for that. I raise this issue because if naturalists are singled out as being inherently immoral and untrustworthy because of their beliefs, that’s a very serious allegation, one that I think is completely unfounded.

    Tom Clark, Massachusetts

  9. Thanks Tom

    But you are again guilty of theft – you want to pinch from another worldview something for your own. You speak of right and wrong and morality and immorality, etc. But your own worldview does not allow for such non-material realities. You are the naturalist, not I, so all I am asking is that you be consistent with your own presuppositions.

    And you are mistaken here. I am not saying a naturalist cannot be moral, or trustworthy. I am sure you and your naturalist buddies are trying to be nice moral people. But that is not the issue here. The issue is, given your worldview of naturalism, how can you logically account for morality, for what is right, indeed, for any non-material reality? I simply point out that you cannot live consistently with your own worldview, and you must smuggle in concepts from the theist’s worldview.

    And it is odd that you should speak of trust and being trustworthy. These also are non-material realities. Why do you even have the desire to be trustworthy, given your worldview? I already quoted Lewis in my article, about how all thought is bankrupt and irrational in a naturalistic world. So too is morality, and moral goods like trustworthiness. Why, given your worldview, should trustworthiness be seen as preferable to non-trustworthiness? I again quote Lewis:

    “The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that real Right than others.”

    But as a thoroughgoing naturalist, there is no reality outside of yourself and your narrow little material world. So it is quite silly of you naturalists to speak of morality out of one side of your mouth, but deny it with the other side of your mouth.

    But I am quite used to naturalists and atheists speaking out of both sides of their mouth. You see, they have to, because they live in a real world, which of course includes all sorts of non-material realities. Reason is one such reality, which they keep appealing to in their arguments – even in your comments to me, Tom. But that too is stolen from the non-materialist’s worldview.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. for Tom: what is your view then of what morality is? The broad categories that I am aware of are:

    — non-cognitivist theories
    —- emotivism (e.g. “X is wrong” really means “I don’t like X” in the sense of an emotion)
    —- prescriptivism (e.g. “X is wrong” really means “Don’t do X”)

    — cognitivist theories
    —- subjectivist thories
    —— private subjectivism (e.g. “X is wrong” really means “I don’t like X” in the sense not of emotion but of my psychological state … I might really like X but not want to admit it)
    —— cultural relativism (e.g. “X” is wrong” really means “In our community we don’t like X”)
    —- objectivist theories
    —— ethical naturalism (e.g. “X is wrong” really means “What most people don’t do” or perhaps “What an impartial observer would not do”)
    —— ethical nonnaturalism (e.g. “X is wrong” really means “X has an unanalysable, irreducible moral property that means that we should not do X”

    I fit into that very last category, in that I believe that morality is a feature of the universe that we live in, a set of transcendent properties, not just something that happens to exist within human culture.

    Stephen Frost, Melbourne

  11. In 2006 Meg Munn MP, and Alan Johnson, the current UK Home Secretary, put their names at the bottom of a preamble to the Sexual Orientation Regulations in which they abused and manipulated vocabulary from the spiritual world, in order to achieve materialistic aims – the right of a man putting his penis into the waste passage of another man. The statement is shot through with words, impossible to measure scientifically, like ‘vision.’ ‘fair,’ ‘dignity,’ ‘worth,’ ’respect,’ ‘community,’ ‘significant,’ ‘progress,’ but which, though giving the impression of spirituality, are deliberately deceptive and meaningless.

    When Tony Blair was swept into power in 1997, there was practically nothing that he might do in a mood of revolution or refusal to accept the ways and values of our run-down, spiritually impoverished way of life, for which the British public wouldn’t have felt some degree of sympathy or, at any rate, understanding. Yet how infinitely sad; in a macabre sort of way, that the form this revolution should take should be a materialist one, a demand for condoms to put in every school and universal access to HIV clinics. All is prepared for a marvellous release of creativity; we await the New Britain – and what do we get? The spectacle of MPs, like Chris Bryant, the present Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, blatantly lusting in his underpants on Gaydar; a huge rise in teenage abortions; teenage pregnancies; sexually transmitted diseases; pornography, child abuse, teenage mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, divorce, children taken in care, gambling and the lottery, the rise in homelessness, rising poverty, serious debt, crimes of violence being perpetrated by feral children that were rare even amongst adults, the sheer nihilism and hopelessness of many of our children and of course a prison population at bursting point.

    Meanwhile those Christians who work for the public good, who defend family values and the rights of children and the unborn baby – for the most vulnerable in society, the Christian teachers, nurses, magistrates, church ministers, foster parents, carers, those who do voluntary work and act at salt and light in the community,…..they are held up for ridicule, loss of career, fines, forced indoctrination and the threat of up to seven years in prison and the consequent destruction of their families.

    This cannot go on.

    John Cooke was the chief prosecutor of King Charles 1 who drafted the following indictment at his trial in 1649. It is these words that we need to invoke:

    ‘… that no chief officer or magistrate may hereafter presume traitorously or maliciously to imagine or contrive the enslaving or destroying of the English nation, and expect impunity for so doing …’

    I don’t know how this can be done but simple tolerance of homosexuality has proved to be a catastrophic experiment. Either we continue to cede territory and allow them, unopposed, to destroy truth, reason, our nation and themselves in the process, or we vanquish them once and for all.

    David Skinner, UK

  12. Bill,

    I’m glad you agree that naturalists can be moral, even though they don’t believe in immaterial realities or supernatural moral foundations; it seems we agree that such beliefs aren’t necessary for being good. It’s possible to have moral categories such as right and wrong independently of belief in, or the existence of, the supernatural. The 2,500 year long history of secular ethics (going back to the Buddha and ancient Greeks) and secular moral exemplars (Tom Paine comes to mind since Bill Moyers did a show on him last night) is proof of the independence of ethics and supernaturalism. So in saying naturalists have good reasons to be moral I’m not stealing anything from Christianity or immateriality since there’s ample precedent and grounds for morality within naturalistic worldviews (and for rationality, another topic).

    You of course don’t buy naturalistic morality since it lacks a non-human external supernatural standard against which we can evaluate it. Naturalists, oppositely, wonder how we know such a standard is correct, especially since from our epistemic standpoint (yet another topic) there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural to begin with. In any case, naturalists find that because human beings share a common human nature, this endows us with a (nearly) universally shared set of moral intuitions, with variations in moral norms stemming from cultural differences. This shared moral sense involves such things as intuitions about treating people fairly, about not harming them unnecessarily, loyalty to family and group, and wanting to be treated as an end in oneself, not as a means to achieving someone else’s agenda. Just about all human beings, religious or not, and in all sorts of different cultures, end up with these basic intuitions about how people, including themselves, should be treated, and these form the natural basis of morality. We don’t have to go outside human nature to validate these intuitions or appeal to an external standard to justly say that they are “really right”. Global consensus on these moral norms, which is what exists, establishes their objectivity. And after all, the regress of justification has to stop somewhere. You add God, but he faces the same problem of justifying his moral law, but without appealing to human needs or nature – a tough assignment.

    Stephen, I guess I’d count myself as an ethical naturalist, as per the above sketch of naturalistic morality. For more details, see http://www.naturalism.org/morality.htm

    Pascal, your questions point to what I think is one of the root differences between naturalists and supernaturalists: whether such things as personhood, morality, and rationality necessarily involve essences, or whether they can be constructions out of parts, none of which is a person, or moral, or rational. About this, see http://www.naturalism.org/landscape.htm#constructions

    Tom Clark, Massachusetts

  13. Thanks Tom

    But you are not so easily off the hook. As I said, the fact that non-theists can try to be moral says nothing about their total lack of a logical explanation as to why objective morality exists, why we have moral duties, and so on.

    Your worldview simply cannot allow for morality, and the more honest naturalists admit as much. Naturalist Simon Blackburn, for example, has said, “Nature has no concern for good or bad, right or wrong. . . . We cannot get behind ethics.” Atheist Paul Kurtz asks, “The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns this ontological foundation. If they are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, are they purely ephemeral?”

    Bertrand Russell was also honest about his worldview: “Brief and powerless is man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way.” Or as Atheist biologist Will Provine acknowledges, “No God. No life after death. No free will. No ultimate meaning in life and no ultimate foundation for ethics.”

    And as a theist, I still insist on your ongoing intellectual theft. The only reason you can even be interested in morality is because you are a moral being, made in the image of a personal, moral God. Objective, transcendent morality exists and makes sense in such a theistic world. It has no place in yours.

    The same holds true for a secular Buddhist or anyone else. They live in a moral universe and are made in God’s image. That is why they make moral motions, and live as if real morality exists. Again, it is a question of whether a naturalistic worldview can even account for morality, let alone offer us any reason why we should live moral lives.

    Sorry, but nature can only give us what is, not ought to be. Morality is about what we ought to do. Nature is only about what we do. Even the philosopher Hume argued that the ought cannot be derived from the is. Morality cannot exist in a purely material world. Again, the honest naturalists admit to this. Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel put it this way, “The reductionist project usually tries to reclaim some of the originally excluded aspects of the world, by analyzing them in physical—that is, behavioral or neurophysiological—terms; but it denies reality to what cannot be so reduced. I believe the project is doomed—that conscious experience, thought, value, and so forth are not illusions, even though they cannot be identified with physical facts.”

    Or Provine again: “The implications of modern science, however, are clearly inconsistent with most religious traditions….No inherent moral or ethical laws exist, nor are there absolute guiding principles for human society. The universe cared nothing for us and we have no ultimate meaning in life.”

    Or as Dawkins puts it: “if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies… are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

    I much prefer the honest atheists and naturalists to those who keep smuggling in theistic concepts and values which have no place in their worldview. I’m afraid you are still guilty of theft Tom.

    And the theistic worldview offers even more explanatory power. We are all fallen, so our morality is fallen as well. We all fall short of even our own moral ideals. These moral shortcomings must be remedied, and the cure does not lie in ourselves. The help must come from outside of us, which is what Christianity is all about.

    As to the supernatural, there are of course numerous good reasons why one should believe in it. The question is, have you exhaustively examined all the available evidence, or have you simply made up your mind ahead of time? Most atheists I deal with simply don’t want to believe in it, so they have rejected it out of hand as a faith commitment.

    But genuine seekers, like Antony Flew, have felt compelled to abandon their atheistic naturalism upon a close examination of the evidence. He is a rare and a brave man to be willing to forsake his naturalism because the evidence does not point in that direction.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  14. Tom, the naturalists’ view is beautifully described in the book of Ecclesiastes, written nearly three thousand years ago. Indeed one of its messages is there is nothing new under the sun. The naturalist’s arguments are not the result of the Enlightenment and of man having acquired more knowledge than his ancestors. The book of Ecclesiastes has already said that the more we know, the less we know, that we know we know! http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?book_id=25&chapter=1&version=31

    This is too deep for me and you might be aware of this teleological argument put forwards by C.S. Lewis:
    http://faculty.winthrop.edu/craigheadh/articles/csl.htm

    Finally, C.S. Lewis says that naturalism is dishonest for behind it there is a transcendental belief – a belief in some kind of Life Force that gives us all the thrills and comfort of religion but which, if we want to do something shabby, we can just switch off – like an electric fire. “All the thrills of religion and none of the cost. Is the Life-Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?” http://www.philosophyforlife.com/mc04.htm

    But neither is the Christian faith ‘pie in the sky,’ a kind of crutch for weak people who cannot stand on their own two feet; C.S. Lewis, talking about the Christian message, said: “…. It does not begin in comfort; it begins in dismay…and it is no use at all trying to go on to that comfort without first going through that dismay. In religion, as in war and everything else, comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end. If you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth- only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.”

    Finally Tom, where is your “ought” to behave righteously in this naturalist party?
    http://www.wnd.com:80/index.php?fa=PAGE.view&pageId=100806

    David Skinner, UK

  15. David Skinner, that last link is probably one of the most disturbing things I have read.

    I’m astounded that there are people who think that this is progress – effectively the denial of sexual identity ie. male or female. So, let’s welcome infertility by definition, AIDS, rectal cancer… and death.

    Mark Rabich

  16. Bill, I think you need to realise that morality is the deterimination of right and wrong based on reducing suffering as far as possible. If morality depends on who does an act, rather than the act itself, and the motives and situation behind it, then morality is meaningless and subject to change. It would be no different from Kim Jong-Il declaring that he is above the law and therefore everything he does is morally correct. It would be like Nixon’s famous quote: “If the President does it, it means it’s not illegal.”

    Please spare me.

    Winston Jen

  17. Thanks Winston

    To be honest, I find your comment largely incoherent, so it is hard to know how to respond. Where in my article do I say anything about who does an act, and how that bears on its morality?

    And let me try to unpack what you mean by this remark: “morality is the deterimination [sic] of right and wrong based on reducing suffering as far as possible.” Let me see if I read you correctly:

    Since we know that older unborn babies feel pain and suffer when burned to death or cut to pieces in an abortion, then we must argue that abortion is morally wrong.

    Since we know that children suffer tremendously when their parents divorce, and that they do less well in non-traditional family structures, then the morally right thing to do would be to affirm heterosexual marriage, and seek to minimise all other alternative family structures.

    Since we know that people are harmed by addiction to pornography, then the morally right thing to do would be to ensure that pornography is banned.

    Since we know that people suffer when they use mind-altering drugs, then it would be morally wrong to allow their legalisation.

    Is this what you mean Winston?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  18. Thank you for your reply, Bill.

    Point by point:

    1. If you believe in the biblical god, then you believe that what he says goes, and if he orders you to do something, then you have a divine mandate to obey him.

    2. I would agree that abortion is morally wrong, but it is the lesser evil compared to mandatory kidney/lung/blood donation for the living. But that would be an argument to outlaw abortion after the second trimester, when the baby can feel pain. Back-alley abortions stop two beating hearts, anoher strike against outlawing abortion. It is also the lesser evil compared to overpopulation and mass starvation. Speaking of which, do you support or oppose condoms, Bill?

    3. Wouldn’t outlawing divorce be the way to go, if you wanted to prevent children from suffering the pain of their parents’ separation? And why do Christians have a higher rate of divorce than non-Christians?

    4. Prove that people are harmed by pornography. While you’re at it, explain why liberal pornography laws (e.g. Japan, Greece etc.) lead to lower rates of sex crimes, includin those against and perpetrated by adolescents.

    To have a higher rate than the god-fearing USA, you’d need to be an African nation in the throes of civil war.

    5. Should we outlaw morphine as well? Pretty much every opiod on the market is mind-altering. But their is an even stronger reason to legalise ALL drugs – it’ll stop the money from finding its way into the claws of terrorists worldwide.

    Winston Jen

  19. Thanks Winston

    Actually, the questions I asked are really not my main concern. I could call your bluff on each of your replies, but that is not my point. I simply raised them to get you to clarify your position. And I am not sure that you have. Indeed, you simply demonstrate the inconsistency of your alleged moral principle.

    It simply will not do as a general moral rule of thumb. After all, even the Nazis thought what they were doing would relieve some suffering, at least that of the German people, and their need for lebensraum. So you need something much better than that.

    The real question is this: Is morality grounded in transcendent, objective reality, or simply relative, be it personal or cultural? That is the issue that needs to be determined here. As an atheist, you must opt for some version of the latter. But that is simply an incoherent position.

    Personal moral obligation is not derived from impersonal matter. And moral obligations are something one can only owe to persons. Atheistic naturalism cannot even account for personhood, let alone morality. So you are simply left with both feet planted firmly in mid air. But I have already discussed these points in my above comments.

    As to the God issue, matters are fairly straightforward. All the major monotheistic religious traditions posit a God who is the sum of all perfections. Thus God is a perfect moral being, along with all other perfections. The very character of God is the basis of morality. And since God is by definition fully just, fully loving, fully wise, fully benevolent, and so on, any orders of his would be good orders, and in our own best interests to follow.

    So as a theist and a Christian I have a very solid basis for grounding morality – a morality which is both objective as well as transcendent, not merely based on the whim of the individual or the society. As an atheist you can do nothing of the sort. As I quoted above, the more honest atheists admit that morality and moral obligation cannot logically exist in their worldview.

    I offer just two more – of many – quotes. Atheist philosopher Richard Taylor put it this way: “The concept of moral obligation [is] unintelligible apart from the idea of God.” And Oxford philosopher and atheist J. L. Mackie admitted, human beings simply “invent” right and wrong. He went on to say this: “Moral properties … constitute so odd a cluster of properties and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events without an all-powerful god to create them.”

    I would much rather deal with these honest atheists than those like you and Tom who keep playing intellectually dishonest games, stealing concepts such as freedom, responsibility, morality, personality and truth from the theistic worldview, because your own naturalistic worldview cannot allow for such non-material realities.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  20. Thanks again for your reply, Bill.

    Why does morality require a transcendent cause? Can the same be said for gravity, thermodynamics, chemical reactions, and everything else science has discovered? You may claim that morality is unique from these other sciences, but it really is just another science – a social science. A science that has proven that left-wing, secular democracies are healthier societies than fascistic, conservative religious theocracies.

    If your god is so perfect, why did he set Adam and Eve up to fail? If he really is omniscient, then you must also concede that he set his entire experiment with creation into motion while knowing everything that would happen down to the movement of every last quark.

    I don’t derive my morality from “impersonal matter” as you put it. I get my morality from my culture and temper it in the fire of thought experiments and seeing suffering firsthand.

    Lastly, I would appreciate it if you didn’t mischaracterise atheists.

    Religion is not about freedom – it’s about blind obedience to a malevolent dictator.

    Religion is not about responsibility (least of all the Christian religion), it’s about getting forgiven while knowing you can get forgiven for nigh any sin, even genocide, while god sits in his comfy throne handing out forgiveness like candy to his followers. It’s about punishing the innocent (Jesus) to pardon the guilty (everyone EXCEPT Jesus).

    Religion is not about morality. It’s more about tithing and saving souls. Mother Teresa was a monster who glorified everyone else’s suffering while leaving the terminally ill to die with nothing but aspirin and prayer.

    Religion speaks volumes about the compassionless personality of your god and to a lesser extent, those who follow him.

    Religion is not about the truth. It’s about conversion, quite often at the point of a sword, the end of a gun, or a bowl of rice as Mother Teresa was wont to do to desperate, starving indigents.

    Winston Jen

  21. Bill,

    It’s like watching a kid pick wings off a fly. Such a mean guy to blow apart their worldviews! The funny thing is that neither Tom nor Winston explain why you can so effortlessly quote a wide range of atheists who fundamentally disagree with their position. And Winston’s tangential points… well, they were tangential that’s for sure…

    A bit of honesty would be nice for a change. I almost thought that Tom was beginning to open his mind to alternatives when he wrote in his second post, “This suggests that those who don’t believe in an immaterial reality have no good naturalistic reasons to be moral” but it snapped shut again when he tried to seriously suggest his ideas were “less arbitrary”. As if. God is the only thing in this universe that is unchanging, so basing morals on His character is as sure as it gets. But human nature reliable?!? That’s just silly.

    Mark Rabich

  22. Thanks Winston

    Ah the perfect example of the atheist argument: simply hurl one foolish, reckless, unsubstantiated and irrelevant charge after another, and think that you have logically made the case for atheism and sent theism down in flames.

    This is about as helpful as me sending a letter to an atheist website with “arguments” like these: “You atheists are all paedophiles. You atheists have no brains. Atheism is all about making money. Atheism is inherently irrational. The only people who become atheists are those who flunk kindergarten. Atheism is responsible for all the floods and tsunamis in the world. Atheism is a creation of secret societies. Now please refute all of my charges, and do so within 100 words.”

    Someone I don’t expect too many atheists will take the bait. But any objective reader looking at your comments will see just such a string of senseless and disjointed charges.

    One wonders why atheists keep coming up with these so very tired, so very banal, and so very silly objections, which have been answered time and time again. To be honest, it seems like many atheists have some issues they may have to deal with – perhaps an unhappy religious upbringing, or some such thing. The objections are so petty and so childish. They certainly are not a serious intellectual challenge to theism, but seem to reflect their own personal hurt and bitterness. I have found this to be the case time and time again as I deal with angry misotheists.

    But assuming these are not mere rhetorical questions – although one really has to wonder when they are raised ad infinitum, ad absurdum – let me try to briefly deal with some of them.

    I have already said why morality must transcend ourselves. If it is merely a cultural construct – as you suggest – with no external measurement by which to assess them, then who is to say that Nazi culture was morally inferior to any other culture?

    And I have already quoted plenty of honest atheists who have freely admitted that personal, non-material morality cannot emerge from impersonal material reality. As one commentator noted, “There are no morals in nature. Try to find a compassionate crow or an honest eagle – or a sympathetic hurricane.” Yet as usual you simply ignore these admissions from fellow atheists, and think you are offering something constructive to the debate.

    As to God creating us with the possibility of rejecting him, it is all about love. God wanted sons and daughters, not slaves. So he created us with a free will so that we might freely choose to love him in return. But that very freedom entails the risk of rejecting him as well.

    Fortunately he did not leave us there – although he could have. He sent his only son to live and then die for us so that we could be reunited with him. Our same free will allows us to either accept this greatest offer of love ever known, or reject it. I have chosen that offer after years of scepticism, atheism, despair and meaningless. The offer extends to you as well.

    But unfortunately the rest of you objections are merely wild and juvenile assertions, not even on track, and offered without a shred of evidence, so I will not even waste my time dealing with them. They fit the sort of imaginary objections I mentioned above.

    And anyone who can go on like you do about morality, while calling someone like Mother Teresa a “monster” simply demonstrates to the whole world just how devoid your arguments are of any coherent rationality and of any substantial moral sense.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  23. Winston,

    I’m glad Bill posted your last reply, if only because you shoot yourself in the foot so brilliantly. “Mother Teresa was a monster”!!! ROFL!
    I would love it if you continued to educate us on how not to “mischaracterise atheists.”

    Ah, it’s getting late, but it’s good to go to bed with a smile…

    Mark Rabich

  24. Bill,

    Not surprisingly, we’ve deadlocked over the issue of whether morality can be a natural phenomenon. I’ve argued that purely natural creatures in a purely natural world can have moral standards, you claim they can’t. True, nature itself has no moral concerns, since nature isn’t the sort of thing which could have *any* concerns, but this doesn’t mean that morality can’t come into being as a function of how natural creatures evolved. The universe might be indifferent, but *we* are not. Moral concerns are central to us, not ephemeral, precisely because we’re “hard-wired” by evolution to be that way. This is all the foundation they need, or could have, according to the naturalist, who takes intersubjective evidence as the essential basis for knowledge claims. Objectivity doesn’t need transcendence or an “ultimate foundation,” only universality on Earth, which is what we observe about basic moral commitments worldwide. So a naturalistic worldview can account for morality and say why it’s binding. Such morality need not, and probably can’t be, directly reduced to physical processes, so I agree with Nagel about that. But this doesn’t imply that something supernatural is required, only that morality is a higher-level phenomena that, like most of human psychology, can’t be explained or understood at the atomic or molecular levels. So, your honor, I plead *not guilty* to theft in claiming naturalists can be moral.

    Again, I don’t expect you to buy this. In contacting you I mainly wanted to make the point that naturalists can be, and are, moral and trustworthy. They can be moral in the absence of belief in the supernatural, and, I have argued, in the absence of the supernatural itself. You will disagree, saying atheists are moral because they are made in the image of God. So be it. At least you admit they can be moral, just like Christians. So long as we agree on that, we can live together amicably in the open society, which for me is the most important thing. Take care, and thanks for this exchange.

    Tom Clark, Massachusetts

  25. Thanks Tom

    Yes we do agree on many points, such as: morality is not merely ephemeral; we do have moral obligations; etc. But the only way this agreement happens is by your apparent willingness to be logically inconsistent with your own premises. As I keep mentioning, your worldview offers no logical grounding for belief in morality, for moral absolutes, or moral obligations. Thus you must step outside of your worldview to even speak of these things.

    And arguing that we have moral concerns “because we’re ‘hard-wired’ by evolution to be that way” just doesn’t cut it I am afraid. Again, the various quotes by atheists which I present above should be sufficient here. Let me add a few more. Thomas Huxley in “Evolution and Ethics” very nicely demolishes your claim:

    “The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist. Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.”

    Or as Darwinian biologist Michael T. Ghiselin candidly says, “No hint of genuine charity ameliorates our vision of society, once sentimentalism has been laid aside. What passes for co-operation turns out to be a mixture of opportunism and exploitation. … Given a full chance to act in his own interest, nothing but expediency will restrain [a person] from brutalizing, from maiming, from murdering – his brother, his mate, his parent, or his child. Scratch an `altruist’ and watch a `hypocrite’ bleed.”

    These atheists are simply being consistent with their own worldview, while you are not. Evolution, nature, genes, DNA, biology – none of these things are moral, nor are they capable of generating morality. We simply can’t jump from molecules to morality. As philosopher Mary Midgley has said, “Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological.”

    And of course you are trying to weasel your way out of trouble when you say “morality is a higher-level phenomena that, like most of human psychology, can’t be explained or understood at the atomic or molecular levels”. Sorry, but if nature is all there is, using weasel words like “higher-level phenomena” is just intellectual sleight of hand. What higher level is there in nature? Nature is nature – that’s all. If mankind is simply an animal, the result of random, purposeless chance and time, then morality has no place in the discussion – end of story. Nature, as I have said before, is merely about “is,” not “ought”.

    Again, I agree that there are higher levels, but only on my own terms. Of course there is the whole realm of the non-material which you deny even exists. There are genuine mental states, emotional states, spiritual realms, etc. So again, as a theist, I can explain all sorts of realities, such as morality, personality, consciousness, aesthetic experiences, the quest for transcendence, and so on. They make complete sense in a theistic worldview. But they make no sense whatsoever in a naturalist worldview.

    So we may have to agree to disagree here. But thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  26. I have a question for Winston Jen … you wrote:
    “… morality is the deterimination of right and wrong based on reducing suffering as far as possible …”

    Fine. You are stating what morality means for you. I assume that you mean that this determination is based on some kind of formula? Can you explain this further? Is it based on the “greatest good for the greatest number” or something like that?

    If that’s more or less what you have in mind, where on earth do you get such an idea? What is that idea based on? Is it arbitrary? It seems to me, at any rate, that if it is such an idea, you have a signficant problem.

    If what is right and what is wrong is based on reducing suffering as far as possible … reducing whose suffering? How do you mediate disputes? If suffering can be physical and emotional, on what basis will you decide when to allow the killing of someone who causes emotional pain, and when to prevent it?

    The whole idea of your world view gives me cold shivers. It is arbitrary and open to the very worst kinds of abuses. Have you really thought this through from a critical standpoint?

    Stephen Frost, Melbourne

  27. In response to Tom … you refer to a kind of global consensus which should set moral norms. I completely understand your p.o.v. in the sense that it is becoming rather common (i.e. a lot of people seem to have such a view of morality) … however I find it quite incomprehensible that anyone could realistically build a moral compass based on such a flimsy foundational structure. Some thought experiements:

    e.g. imagine a world with 1000 Nazis and 1000 Jews. The Nazis want to exterminate the Jews. The Jews decide they don’t want to be exterminated. What is your decision? Should the Nazis be allowed to exterminate them, or not? Why?

    Now lets add 1 more Nazi. Does the majority rule? Can they now kill the Jews? Why?

    Now lets add 2 more Jews. Does the majority rule? Can they now escape execution? Why?

    What if you add 1000 more Nazis? What about 10,000? Where is the tipping point between right and wrong?

    What if there is a deadlock? Is there a tie break?

    If you’re not basing your decision on a simple majority, but instead want to use concensus in the sense of “general agreement”, what percentage of “those in favour” vs “those against” constitute a societal concensus?

    If not a percentage majority, then you’re reduced to 100% in favour or against … and I know of no moral position at all which is agreed upon by 100% of the people in any society, let alone the world.

    Can you not conceive of a scenario where a society genuinely and sincerely believes that something is morally right (e.g. ancient Canaanite groups believed in sacrificing babies in the fire) and yet they are self-evidently wrong as judged by the morality of today.

    Does this then mean that your theory not only means that morality shifts from society to society based on a nebulous conception of “concensus”, but also shifts potentially from time to time? Does this mean that what is right at time T is potentially wrong at time T+1?

    How is one supposed to make moral judgements in every day life based on that? How are we to know what the concensus is? Whilst it hangs in the balance; whilst the concensus us being decided; what then should we do?

    Sorry. I’m just not buying it. Your theory might be interesting from a purely theoretical standpoint, but surely you have noticed that people just don’t behave like that?

    Stephen Frost, Melbourne

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