Here’s Uncommon Descent’s Barry Arrington holding forth on on the bleak conclusions he believes follow logically from atheism:

Make two assumptions:

(1) That atheistic naturalism is true.

(2) One can’t infer an “ought” from an “is.” Richard Dawkins and many other atheists should grant both of these assumptions.

At this point you might enjoy the exercise of determining what follows about morality from those two premises. I am happy to grant them both. From the first we conclude that supernatural entities, most notably God, do not exist. From the second we conclude that an understanding of how nature works does not, by itself, warrant moral conclusions.

The conclusion? That moral judgments must be based on premises that do not refer to God, and which refer to something more than just facts about nature.

Seemed simple enough to me. But Arrington sees something more sinister here:

Given our second assumption, there is nothing in the natural world from which we can infer an “ought.” And given our first assumption, there is nothing that exists over and above the natural world; the natural world is all that there is. It follows logically that, for any action you care to pick, there’s nothing in the natural world from which we can infer that one ought to refrain from performing that action.

You probably see where this is going. We should pause, though, to wonder what it means to say “the natural world is all that there is.” Atheists have no problem with abstractions, you see. Perfect circles exist, but they are not physical things that you can point to in the natural world. Likewise for love or pain.

You could argue that in the atheist view such things do not exist until certain physical structures come into existence, and that would be fine. Perfect circles do not exist until there are brains to think of them. But if the natural world includes the abstract concepts dreampt up by physical brains, then it is simply false to say that, “there’s nothing in the natural world from which we can infer that one ought to refrain from performing that action.”

Add a further uncontroversial assumption: an action is permissible if and only if it’s not the case that one ought to refrain from performing that action. This is just the standard inferential scheme for formal deontic logic.

Formal deontic logic? Sweet suffering Jesus.

We’ve conformed to standard principles and inference rules of logic and we’ve started out with assumptions that atheists have conceded. And yet we reach the absurd conclusion: therefore, for any action you care to pick, it’s permissible to perform that action. If you’d like, you can take this as the meat behind the slogan “if atheism is true, all things are permitted.” For example if atheism is true, every action Hitler performed was permissible. Many atheists don’t like this consequence of their worldview. But they cannot escape it and insist that they are being logical at the same time.

And with that we have the justification for the title of this post. Arrington’s conclusion does not follow from his premises.

Reasoning about anything requires taking something as axiomatic. If a child asks you “Why?” enough times you eventually have to answer with some variant of, “Because that’s the way it is.” I am certainly persuaded that some premise beyond the facts of nature must be brought into our reasoning to justify moral conclusions. But there is no shortage of candidates. Personally, I take as axiomatic certain commonly held notions of basic fairness, that human beings have certain obligations to one another, that happiness is good is and that the infliction of pain for fun is bad, and so on. I would find it difficult to defend these ideas in terms of something simpler, but I find them useful and correct. I have this in common with most of humanity.

Armed with such abstract principles, I have little trouble discerning right from wrong. These principles are part of the natural world only in the sense that they are created by brains which are themselves physical.

Perhaps you think I am being arbitrary. Sure, I have my principles but Adolf Hitler had his and he disagreed with me. Who am I to say my ideas are better than his?

Very well. Let’s see what theism offers to get us around this problem.

Hypothesizing God into existence allows one to say, “X is wrong because God says it’s wrong.” That is the only thing God belief contributes to discussions of morality.

How do you know God exists? How do you know what God wants? Even granting that God exists and that we know what He wants, why am I obligated to follow God’s dictates? Such questions can not be answered without bringing a host of other assumptions and premises to your argument, assumptions and premises that are every bit as arbitrary (I would say more so) as what the atheist brings to his.

Why is it wrong to torture puppies for fun? Does anyone really believe that torturing puppies for fun is wrong only because God says it is wrong? If you ever met such a person, would you regard him as someone who is thinking clearly about morality? Of course not, to both questions.

The fact is, even the most religious person does not feel statements like “Genocide is wrong,” need to be defended in terms of simpler premises (the clear acceptance of the practice in the Old Testament notwithstanding). God-based morality only seems to come out when religious folks are trying to argue that X is immoral even though X has no obvious harmful consequences (or, perhaps, beneficial consequences). Gay marriage and embryonic stem-cell research are good cases in point. The statement, “X is wrong because it is against the will of God,&rdquo is the rhetorical equivalent of, “I’ve got nothing.”

God-based morality makes it effectively impossible to engage in moral reasoning at all. Someone like Arrington might say, “Hitler’s actions were wrong because they violated God’s laws,” but he has no answer for someone who says, “No, you are mistaken. I happen to know that God was very supportive of what Hitler did.” If we are going to engage in moral discousre we have to be willing to grant certain obvious assumptions about morality. Otherwise we have only a collection of groundless, arbitrary, indefensible assertions about God’s will, all shouting at each other with no hope of resolution.

Arrington might think it is the height of logical thinking to resolve every moral conundrum with the statement, “X is wrong because I happen to believe that God thinks X is wrong.” But the rest of us are not being illogical or relativistic to think that it is his view of morality that is bleak and absurd.

Comments

  1. #1 The Science Pundit
    April 22, 2009

    There’s a bait and switch here. You can’t derive an ought from an is is a somewhat ambiguous statement. It is subject to interpretation. If you use Hume’s meaning of this statement (in other words, what most atheists who accept that premise will think they’re signing on to), then Arrington’s conclusions simply don’t follow.

    If you adopt a meaning for the phrase that might make his argument work, then no atheist will accept premise #2 (except for the odd nihilist who doesn’t believe that oughts even exist–but said nihilist will also laugh at Arrington for just that reason).

  2. #2 Lynn David
    April 22, 2009

    One point is that people such as Arrington necessarily derive their arguments as if the the naturalistic argument is wrong in the first place. They do not as you did look to a naturalistic answer, that is do science, but instead wish to create axiomatic answers that fit their preconceived notions.

  3. #3 Michael Ralston
    April 22, 2009

    One could, semi-consistently, derive the conclusion that “oughts don’t follow from atheism”.

    Well, okay, sure.

    I’m willing to stipulate the existance of evil, logically consistent, atheists.

    But … just because the premise of atheism is insufficient to derive morality doesn’t mean it’s inconsistent with morality either. There are moral atheists, we just derive our morality from something other than atheism. (After all, atheism is a negative statement anyway – you can’t actually derive all that much from it.)

  4. #4 Umlud
    April 22, 2009

    I don’t understand the whole “ought” is not “is” thing for atheists. I mean, I still refer to “nineteen ought one” (and 2-9). Does that mean a theist would instead call these “nineteen is one” (and 2-9)?

  5. #5 jim Lund
    April 22, 2009

    You can get by with relatively few axioms. If you were the only person on Earth every action would be moral. The set of morals you adopt have to allow you to live in a society with other people–they have to tolerate your actions. This constraint is enough to give rise to most of the morals common to human societies.

    Many human morals are old enough that they not just common rules for people living in societies but have impressed themselves in to biology as human instincts (a sense of fairness, care for children, etc.).

  6. #6 David Canzi
    April 23, 2009

    Arrington would like people to think that belief in the existence of God provides a foundation for morality. But “God exists” is an “is” statement, and you can’t deduce an “ought” from an “is”.

  7. #7 Jim Harrison
    April 23, 2009

    The existence of God doesn’t get you around the ought is distinction. Suppose that it was the case that a powerful god said that x is right. It would not follow from that fact that we ought to do x.

    Matters of fact are relevant to moral reasoning but only because we share premises such as “you ought to do those things that benefit yourself and others.” A theist would also need a supplementary premise, something like “you ought to do what God says.” Of course there don’t seem to be any gods around, but if there were, it wouldn’t help.

  8. #8 Brent
    April 23, 2009

    Even if you grant Arrington that absolute morality cannot be derived from atheism, it doesn’t mean that atheism isn’t true. Whatever you think the implications for morality are with atheism, it’s a separate issue than the truth of atheism itself. Regardless, I’ve never heard an atheist say he never had a basis for his morality. Life is brief and exceedingly rare in the universe (your “is”), therefore life is precious and to be cherished and most of morality can be derived from that (your “ought”).

  9. #9 Soren
    April 23, 2009

    Its such a silly game apologists play.

    Take ths fact that MY morals may be incompatible with another persons, say Hitler.

    What right do I have to impose my morals on Hitler, if I cannot prove my morals are the correct ones?

    It seems a hard question, but is it really?

    Assume that I believe absolute morals exist. Whethe I base this on theism, naturalism, or mystic knowledge is irrelevant.

    the existence of an absolute morality is an ontological question. In this argument I assume it exists.

    This does not solve the epistemological question as to what the correct set of morals is.

    That is I cannot prove my morals are equal to the correct set of morals. Thus I can have no right to try to inforce my interpretation on others!

    Now take the opposite position. Assume no absolute morals exists. I have my own set of morals, hitler has another. What gives me the right to enforce my morals on Hitler?

    This is a loaded question – it hinges on the definition of what a right is. If no absolute morals exists, why would one assume that absolute rights exists? Wouldn’t it be silly to demand that my actions be founded on absolute rights?

    Another kind of rights is granted through society, in unwritten codes of conduct, taboos, laws etc. But these are not absolute. In germany in 1942, I had no right to interfere with the holocaust, in Denmark in 2009 I do.

    The bottom line is, asking what gives me the right is absolutely the wrong question.

    What it comes down to in any case, whether I believe that morals are absolute or relative, is what drives me to act on my morals.

    Why is it when a friend is in a committed relationship, and he sleeps around on his girlfriend, I do not enforce my set of morals on him (I tell him to stop, and that he is being an A-hole, but I don’t stop him), but when I see a burglar breakng into a store at night I call the police?

    That is because MY set of morals make me judge each case, and in some I approve, insome I disapprove, and in some I disapprove so fiercely that I am driven to act.

    This is true whether absolute morals exist or not, and whether I believe they do or not.

  10. #10 AL
    April 23, 2009

    Re: Jim Harrison and David Canzi

    Seriously, no matter how many times you point that out to the “god is the only source of morality” apologists, they never get it. Note that the way in which Arrington phrases his premise (2) is “one can’t infer an ought from an is”, PERIOD, regardless of whether the is refers to a supernatural or natural entity or concept.

    And this bit cracked me up:

    …an action is permissible if and only if it’s not the case that one ought to refrain from performing that action. This is just the standard inferential scheme for formal deontic logic.

    No, that’s just stating the definition of “permissible,” not making some grandiose inference.

  11. #11 AL
    April 23, 2009

    Re: Soren

    Too true. If there existed some “Absolute Moral Standard,” it would make little difference to the reality we live in, because nobody knows what that absolute standard is. The end result is that we’d still be debating moral and ethical issues with those we disagree with just like we do now.

    And I always snicker at the doomsday alarmism of some apologists that like to say if everyone became atheist, there’d be no moral standards and people would just do what they want. I snicker because we already live in such a world. People do what they want anyway, regardless if they are theists or atheists or anything-in-betweenists. Murderers still murder, rapists still rape, Hitlers still hitlerify, and those that don’t agree with murder, rape and hitlerifying will continue to refrain from doing so. Throwing god into the mix adds nothing but useless metaphysical baggage.

  12. #12 Thony C.
    April 23, 2009

    Inhibitions are observable mental functions in both humans and animals and play an obvious central role in the structuring of our moral behaviour. The presence and function of inhibitions can be explained in terms of evolution without any great problems and a non-deistic scientific explanation of moral behaviour for atheists is also no big deal.

  13. #13 Nigel
    April 23, 2009

    The real issue for Atheists is that from a Christian perspective we (all men, women and children) are created in the image of God and this is the foundation for moral actions towards each other. Granted, people make choices.

    Atheism and naturalism is unable to form a foundation because we are all blips on the radar, thrown up by an impersonal universe, vehicles for our selfish genes. Right?

    The best you can offer is constantly changing moral relativism.

    The Christian system offers a set of unchanging moral absolutes that are as relevant today to avoiding as much pain and disturbance in life as they were when first recorded.

  14. #14 phiend
    April 23, 2009

    Why can’t it be looked at from a purely selfish point of view? I don’t do certain things because they would not be beneficial to me. I don’t kill or hurt people because I would feel bad. I would feel bad because as a species we have evolved a sense of empathy. My morals are a manifestation of those base feelings, my ability to realize that if I do a thing, then I will have certain feelings about it and some of those feelings I don’t want and will go to great lengths to avoid. Knowledge of right and wrong are not separate from empathy, and in an argument about morals you must concede the point that humans have that innate ability. Christians may believe that that ability is given by god, whereas atheists know that is was evolved.

  15. #15 DuWayne
    April 23, 2009

    Jim Lund –

    Many human morals are old enough that they not just common rules for people living in societies but have impressed themselves in to biology as human instincts (a sense of fairness, care for children, etc.).

    Two problems here.

    One, a sense of fairness is most certainly not biological, innate or all that common. Sure, there are many who develop a sense of fairness and justice, but I would argue that that is in spite of, not because they are inherently fair people. About the closest we humans come, is a juvenile “for me, but not for thee” sense of “fairness.”

    Second, your other example and others you could reasonably point to have nothing to do with morality. The whole concept of caring for children is has been instinctual since before humans were human. It predates language and sentience. To equate that instinct with morality is not a whole lot different than saying that the only thing keeping one from raping and murdering folks is their god. I mean think about it, do all the species who care for their young have a sense of morality? Does their biological imperative stem from some eldritch sentience that was somehow lost in the eons?

    I think that there is a very strong tendency to assume that a what are either social constructs or biological instincts qualify as some sort of universal morality. While there is no reason that these things can’t influence the development of one’s moral framework, neither is there any reason to assume that they’re inherently a part of one’s moral frame. Morality simply isn’t universal and never will be. Pretending that it is is no different than any other dogmatic approach to life.

  16. #16 David Marjanović
    April 23, 2009

    Why can’t it be looked at from a purely selfish point of view?

    It should be.

    My morals are a manifestation of those base feelings, my ability to realize that if I do a thing, then I will have certain feelings about it and some of those feelings I don’t want and will go to great lengths to avoid. Knowledge of right and wrong are not separate from empathy, and in an argument about morals you must concede the point that humans have that innate ability.

    Thread over, we have a winner.

  17. #17 David Marjanović
    April 23, 2009

    One, a sense of fairness is most certainly not biological, innate or all that common. Sure, there are many who develop a sense of fairness and justice, but I would argue that that is in spite of, not because they are inherently fair people. About the closest we humans come, is a juvenile “for me, but not for thee” sense of “fairness.”

    So you don’t care about making people cry?

    I refuse to believe that. Sure, there are natural-born assholes out there (some libertarians and Enron managers, for example), but there are really few of those.

    Where innate empathy doesn’t suffice, just think about your long-term self-interest.

  18. #18 DuWayne
    April 23, 2009

    Nigel –

    Atheism and naturalism is unable to form a foundation because we are all blips on the radar, thrown up by an impersonal universe, vehicles for our selfish genes. Right?

    Atheism and naturalism aren’t able to form the foundation you speak of, because they are both inherently non-dogmatic. But that doesn’t mean that non-theists are unable to form a moral frame – it just means that the moral frame we develop is far more cohesive than one that is based on dogma. My morality is not founded in fear or a desire to emulate a god. Rather, it is founded in a profound respect for those around me and a desire to be a functional, respected member of my community.

    The upshot of this is that I am beholden to me, not some random figure that I cannot believe/accept outside of the parameters of Faith. My moral frame and ability to live and act within that frame, requires nothing more or less than being true to myself – true to a concrete entity that I can see every time I look in the mirror. If I act outside my moral framework, I am damaging myself. If I act outside of a dogmatic framework, I don’t necessarily face immediate consequences.

    The best you can offer is constantly changing moral relativism.

    You say that like it’s a bad thing. Of course my morality is relative. Here’s a dirty little secret, so it yours. Dogma cannot be the total of anyone’s moral frame and never is. Unless you’re a sociopath, your moral frame is just as relative as mine and in exactly the same way – though I can confidently assert that dogmatic moral frames stunt the development of a personal moral frame. Moral frames are relative, in that they are constantly evolving and growing into something more than they were before. Moral frames become more cohesive as we grow, more coherent and most importantly, a much stronger governor of our behavior.

    The more we own our own moral frame, the more control our moral frame has over our behavior.

    The Christian system offers a set of unchanging moral absolutes that are as relevant today to avoiding as much pain and disturbance in life as they were when first recorded.

    Complete and utter bull. First, there is no singular Christian system and second, not a single on has ever been absolute or unchanging. And finally, they most certainly do nothing in regards to avoiding pain and disturbance.

  19. #19 DuWayne
    April 23, 2009

    David Marjanović –

    First, empathy is not the same as a sense of fairness. Second, empathy most certainly isn’t innate in everyone (for the record, I have an incredibly strong reaction to any human suffering – to a pointedly unhealthy degree) and that is my point. We’re talking universal – inherent. If it were universal, we would not have most of the problems we do. The fact that a majority of us have feelings of empathy, doesn’t make it universal or absolute.

    But I was talking about fairness, not empathy and while empathy can influence one’s sense of fairness, the two are tangentially related.

    On a base level, humans are selfish. A sense of fairness is not born in us, it is nurtured and develops. Look at most any young child and watch their behavior while they are in the process of learning to play and interact with others. Fairness is very much a matter of fair for me, not for thee.

    Then take a look at most anyone who grew up without a sense of fairness and empathy being fostered or developed – such as your asshole libertarian or Enron executives…You make my point with your very examples.

  20. #20 Nigel
    April 23, 2009

    DuWayne;

    Firstly you say your morality “..is founded in a profound respect for those around me and a desire to be a functional, respected member of my community.”

    Try reading my post again you will see that I said the same thing, the Christian basis for moral actions is that we are all created in the image of God. All you have done is borrowed from the Christian worldview.

    Secondly there is a singular Christian system, it is the bible. Where followers get it wrong is when they start taking unbiblical principles or tradition and elevate them to equal with the bible or above. e.g. the Catholic church, the Christian Patriots of the USA, etc.

    Finally, avoiding getting mixed up in adultery, stealing, lacking respect and compassion for others, greed, murder, lying, being lazy are all actions/directions that would otherwise bring pain and disturbance to ones life. To say otherwise shows you are lying or not living in reality.

  21. #21 Matt Heath
    April 23, 2009

    The Science Pundit says most of what matters about Arrington’s wrongness in the first comment. “X is, therefore X ought to be” is clearly false but there’s no reason to suppose that some kinds of “X_1, … , X_n, therefore Y ought to be” aren’t valid. In fact that’s the only form of basis for a moral statement anyone has. The X_i’s might be “Y has unpleasant consequence Z” or “Y squicks me” or “the Bible forbids Y” but they will all be statements about what is.

  22. #22 schadenfreude
    April 23, 2009

    The fact that morality has been accepted as a Christian creation is the problem that a lot of Christians face. The fact of the matter is that a code of morality is the function of human beings living in a society with one another. Society being by its nature a complex system, requires some sort of rule system to properly function. Christianity merely inferred that morality was divine, while in actuality divinity need not enter in the equation at all. All that is necessary for a moral code to come into being is that there are two people that are forced to live together, that understand that it’s easier to prosper under the agreement that you won’t murder each other.

    It is true that in this view morality is subject to change as society evolves. But this doesn’t mean that an atheist is unable to infer that if you live in a society it is more beneficial to act with the society than against it. I think a 100% atheistic society would have a better chance of achieving peace and prosperity than a society that is forced to guess what their magical genie ghost dad wants them to do.

  23. #23 DuWayne
    April 23, 2009

    Nigel –

    Try reading my post again you will see that I said the same thing, the Christian basis for moral actions is that we are all created in the image of God. All you have done is borrowed from the Christian worldview.

    No, you said and are continuing to say something completely different. You claim that the Christian basis for morality is that people are created in the image of your god. I am saying that my moral frame is based on a profound respect for those around me and a desire to be a functional, respected member of my community.

    Those two positions are not at all, not even a little bit related. Not one iota of similarity.

    Secondly there is a singular Christian system, it is the bible. Where followers get it wrong is when they start taking unbiblical principles or tradition and elevate them to equal with the bible or above. e.g. the Catholic church, the Christian Patriots of the USA, etc.

    Even within the framework of the bible, there are innumerable interpretations and dogmatic frameworks that are foundational to the moral framework of those interpretations. And claiming that this is the whole of Christianity is quite frankly, another load of bull. Catholics have just as much claim to the label of Christian as you do and I used to. Just as Christians who claim to be prophets or follow those who claim to be prophets also have a claim to the label of Christian.

    Finally, avoiding getting mixed up in adultery, stealing, lacking respect and compassion for others, greed, murder, lying, being lazy are all actions/directions that would otherwise bring pain and disturbance to ones life. To say otherwise shows you are lying or not living in reality.

    No, to say otherwise is to recognize that there are folks who were nurtured and raised in very different contexts to yours or mine and don’t have these compunctions. There are people out there who do things that you or me would find absolutely repugnant and vile, who suffer no pain or disturbance because of it. All you do when you claim otherwise, is betray a supreme ignorance of anything and anyone outside your cultural context.

  24. #24 Pierce R. Butler
    April 23, 2009

    Perfect circles exist, but they are not physical things that you can point to in the natural world. Likewise for love or pain. … Perfect circles do not exist until there are brains to think of them. But if the natural world includes the abstract concepts dreampt up by physical brains …

    So if purely ideal abstractions exist once physical brains dreamp them up, then gods exist, and atheists are mistaken (as well as being wicked, and fun on Saturday nights).

  25. #25 Science Avenger
    April 23, 2009

    My standard retort to “Atheists can’t have absolute morals” is “Prove we need them, and oh, btw, aren’t yours working out just ducky for you there in Alabama and Iran?”

    I’ve never gotten anything remotely resembling a relevant intelligent response.

  26. #26 J. J. Ramsey
    April 23, 2009

    DuWayne: “On a base level, humans are selfish.”

    Judging from what I remember from the book How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, this isn’t quite true. We have both selfish and social instincts, which may be in tension with one another. There are ways to short-circuit the social instincts. For example, it’s a lot easier for someone to harm those that one doesn’t personally encounter, so there’s less of a negative feeling from killing thousands of people with bombs than there is to kill one person with a sword. The Enron executives had an easier time ruining people’s lives because they did it by pushing paper.

  27. #27 phiend
    April 23, 2009

    DuWane –
    First, empathy is not the same as a sense of fairness. Second, empathy most certainly isn’t innate in everyone (for the record, I have an incredibly strong reaction to any human suffering – to a pointedly unhealthy degree) and that is my point. We’re talking universal – inherent. If it were universal, we would not have most of the problems we do. The fact that a majority of us have feelings of empathy, doesn’t make it universal or absolute.
    But I was talking about fairness, not empathy and while empathy can influence one’s sense of fairness, the two are tangentially related.

    I would argue that ones sense of fairness is significantly based on our ability to empathize. You are right that they are not the same; in the same way the understanding spoken English is not the same as being able to hear. In order to determine if something is fair you have to be able to know how the other person will feel about the situation. And although it could be argued that this doesn’t require empathy, it could be based simply on knowledge, but that is not a real world example. You can’t turn off your ability to empathize so if you have the capacity and you get the knowledge, your brain empathizes with the situation (Yes there are people with reduced or no ability to empathize, they are however very very small minority). Morals are developed, they require interaction and learning, they are part of our culture. I do however think that morals and the things that come with that, like our sense of fairness are a byproduct of the evolutionary change that gave us empathy. But no, morals are not purely biological or innate, nor are they purely societal. They are both, just as no man is an island, morals are not developed in a vacuum. Just as hearing and speaking by themselves do not necessitate language, empathy does not necessitate morals. However mix in culture, our ability for complex thought and those things arise.

  28. #28 schadenfreude
    April 23, 2009

    Pierce. I think you are confusing the disparity between mathematical truths and physical/technological constraints with ideals and dreams.

    Just because we know that something is mathematically possible doesn’t mean that anything we dream up must therefore be true. The math behind a perfect circle would be true whether or not people were here to do it, the same cannot be said for the idea of a God.

  29. #29 DuWayne
    April 23, 2009

    J.J. –

    That we also have social instincts, some of which conflict with our selfish instincts doesn’t make selfishness any less of a base. And I would argue that the selfish is far more base, than the social instincts. The moment we are born, we are entirely and without question, completely self-centered creatures. It takes very little time for the first inklings of social instinct to manifest – though they manifest in a very selfish fashion, the need for comfort, but we really start out at a zero social instinct and slowly work our way up from there.

    More importantly, how that social instinct manifests is heavily influenced by our environment.

  30. #30 Steve L
    April 23, 2009

    If you accept is/ought (#2), then even if something is the will of god, you still don’t know if you ought to do it. So, someone who believes (#2) doesn’t have to believe (#1) to fall into the trap, and what’s-his-face’s argument is weakly directed at athiests.

  31. #31 Blake Stacey
    April 23, 2009

    “Deontic” logic sounds rather, well, toothless.

  32. #32 T_U_T
    April 23, 2009

    One can’t infer an “ought” from an “is.”

    Actually, if that were true, you would drop dead where you are (or, more likely, you would not exist at all).
    Because all what your neural network works with – sensory information, memory, etc. falls under the ‘is’ category. and if it is impossible to determine what you ought do next from it, every decision processes in your brain would stop, leading to instantaneous brain death. ( ok, maybe reflexes would still keep working, in this case you would end up with permanent vegetative state )

  33. #33 Blake Stacey
    April 23, 2009

    OK, maybe a “deontic” / “dontic” pun wasn’t as funny on the page as it was in my head.

  34. #34 Stu
    April 23, 2009

    That selfishness is the more base instinct is proven over and over again when base needs (such as, oh, food) are not taken care of. I consider myself a highly societally social person, but were I to see my child starve — out comes the shotgun, sorry.

  35. #35 Blake Stacey
    April 23, 2009

    Secondly there is a singular Christian system, it is the bible. Where followers get it wrong is when they start taking unbiblical principles or tradition and elevate them to equal with the bible or above. e.g. the Catholic church, the Christian Patriots of the USA, etc.

    Bzzt. There’s no such thing as “the” Bible. There is only an individual’s preferred interpretation of their preferred translation of their preferred version of their preferred subset of the books which self-identified Christians have at one time or another deemed “holy”. Few if any of these judgements can be made on secular grounds: these decisions are, almost all of them, leaps of faith in different directions. To the outsider, the heated arguments over 1 John 5:7 or Luke 14:26 are just so much Kirk vs. Picard.

  36. #36 J. J. Ramsey
    April 23, 2009

    DuWayne: “That we also have social instincts, some of which conflict with our selfish instincts doesn’t make selfishness any less of a base.”

    No, but it does mean that social instincts are part of the base, too.

    DuWayne: “The moment we are born, we are entirely and without question, completely self-centered creatures.”

    Pardon me, but that looks like a half-truth that you learned from your days as a Christian.

    I hate to sound like a shill for Lehrer, but you really ought to read his book. IIRC, some of what phiend said above is supported by Lehrer, especially the part about empathy. In fact, it’s the few people who have, as he put it, “reduced or no ability to empathize” that give us insight into how moral thinking–especially unconscious moral thinking–works for the rest of us.

  37. #37 Nigel
    April 23, 2009

    DuWayne

    You may think there is not one iota of similarity, however, what is your profound respect for others based on?

    In regards to a singular Christian system, it starts with belief in Christ and the scriptures and ends with a choice to seek, understand and follow the wisdom – anything else is not Christianity, no matter how much you wish to define it on your own terms to aid your railing against it.

    To back up your fallicious claim, show a culture where greed, murder and lying (just to name a few) doesn’t bring pain or disturbance to the members of that culture.

    If evolution theory has an answer to the morals, why do we fail to see a clear-cut answer on this site. You can’t even agree amongst yourselves. Oh, but Science will eventually work it out right?

    Science should stick to science (such as adaptation) and leave philosophy (which is what the theory of evolution and origins is) to the philosophers.

    The fact is moral actions do exist in people (Atheist and theist alike) and on their own, they are neither an argument against the existence of God or for the existence of God.

  38. #38 AL
    April 23, 2009

    Atheism and naturalism is unable to form a foundation because we are all blips on the radar, thrown up by an impersonal universe, vehicles for our selfish genes. Right?

    The best you can offer is constantly changing moral relativism.

    Well, I’m probably alone on this, but I am a moral relativist in that I don’t believe in any reified metaphysical moral absolutes. People impose their own standards on themselves, and all anyone else can do is ask that person if they are being consistent (this is what standard means after all, some level of consistency).

    So yes, I do agree with you that this is all atheism can offer, but I also go further than you in that I believe that this is all theism can offer as well. After all, is-ought and fact-value distinctions are not resolved by bringing up a god or a holy book. “Constantly changing” moral standards are ever present in the history of your religion, and I expect Christians to continue changing their moral standards in the future.

    It is one thing to claim that your religion elevates you above mere relativism, but both the a priori reasoning as to why this is so and the a posteriori historical evidence of your religion’s ever changing standards speak loudly that this just ain’t so.

  39. #39 eric
    April 23, 2009

    The icing on the cake of Arrington’s latest UD article is that he says: ” No one, not a single person, has attempted to rebut the conclusion.” Yet he has turned commenting for his article off.

    Ya gotta love that sort of reasoning.

  40. #40 Stu
    April 23, 2009

    Science should stick to science (such as adaptation) and leave philosophy (which is what the theory of evolution and origins is) to the philosophers

    The theory of evolution is philosophy? Are you serious? Please tell me you’re joking. Please. Come on, you’re joking.

  41. #41 Jud
    April 23, 2009

    I say let’s grant Nigel his premise that his “We’re all created in the image of God” is the same as DuWayne’s “a profound respect for those around me and a desire to be a functional, respected member of my community.” OK, fine, so that means Nigel must feel atheists who think the way DuWayne does proceed from a moral base equivalent to that of Christianity.

    Now let’s do another equivalence: Framing Arrington’s premise regarding atheism in terms of religion.

    Remember, Arrington complained “[T]here’s nothing in the natural world from which we can infer that one ought to refrain from performing that action.” Now let’s contemplate the supernatural equivalent: If God permits an action to be performed, there is nothing from which we can infer that God wants us to refrain from performing that action.

    Nigel: Please present an argument against the italicized statement that does **not** have an equivalent argument in non-religious moral philosophy. I’d really prefer an argument that doesn’t ignore the history of the New Testament (i.e., one that doesn’t make claims about “unchanging” moral dictates that are easily refuted by commonly accepted New Testament historical scholarship).

  42. #42 abb3w
    April 23, 2009

    Barry Arrington: One can’t infer an “ought” from an “is.”
    Jason Rosenhouse: I am happy to grant them both.

    I am not so happy to grant the second premise. The “ought” may be expressed contingently, based on some premise as to preference of consequences; loosely, preference for continued existence.

    For example, one observable “is” would be that smacking a bathtub full of nitroglycerin using a sledgehammer is likely to end your existence. So, if you prefer existence to non-existence, you shouldn’t do that. Over time, those that choose the course probably ending existence tend to become rarer than those who do.

    So, what prefers to exist is more likely to continue to exist.

    Morality is simply another evolutionary result from the Second Law of Thermodynamics equations for systems connected by mass-energy (information) flows, based from a more mathematically rigorous sense of “prefer” and “exist”. In which case, another observable “is” includes that “good” appears to correspond to choices of the mathematical “prefer/exist”.

    Nigel: The best you can offer is constantly changing moral relativism.

    Depends on what you mean by “moral relativism”; while the correct choice is a function relative to the options available, the environment, and the choosing entity, the morality is nonetheless Absolute for each such exact combination.

    Nigel: All you have done is borrowed from the Christian worldview.

    Why not? Any study of church history shows that the Christian worldview has survived for and evolved over a couple millenia; as such, while it’s premises may be wrong, the general nature of most conclusions about conduct should be sound… especially where those conclusions are shared by other religious worldviews that have survived for and evolved over similar timescales.

    Nigel: If evolution theory has an answer to the morals, why do we fail to see a clear-cut answer on this site.

    Because I haven’t published yet? =)

    Nigel: Science should stick to science (such as adaptation) and leave philosophy (which is what the theory of evolution and origins is) to the philosophers.

    Science refers to the process of gathering evidence, forming conjectures about the evidence, developing a formal hypothesis which indicates how the current evidence may be described under the conjecture, competitive testing of all candidate hypotheses under a formal criterion for probable correctness, plus the body of hypotheses testing best thereby and which thereafter are referred to as “Theories”.

    In the most formal sense, the criterion used for this is a more exacting expression of Occam’s Razor, which has been proven in the absolute mathematical sense in the paper “Minimum Description Length Induction, Bayesianism and Kolmogorov Complexity”, by Vitanyi and Li (doi:10.1109/18.825807) [PostScript file here]. This shows that the most “concise” hypothesis (a function of both the bit size of the conjecture of how the data should be described, and how many bits are needed to convey all properties of the data thereby) is the one most likely to correctly describe the character of future data. Science thus becomes dependent (due to this paper) on the philosophical assumptions that propositional logic is valid for formal inference, that the Zermelo-Fraenkel Axioms of set theory (which serve as the modern foundation for all mathematics) are self-consistent (though they need not be complete), and that Reality is relatable to Evidence.

    Note that the root of the word “prove” is from the Latin probare, “to test”. Thus, hypotheses that become theories may be said to have been “proven” in the sense that Science uses the word. This is distinct from the mathematical sense, in that the usual use of “proof” in mathematics indicates a rigorous derivation from axioms; however, the sense that science uses is similar to the sense that a person might seek to “prove” that their brain is not a piece of cauliflower.

    In this sense, Science is a branch of Philosophy, and Evolution is a result of Science.

  43. #43 SiMPel MYnd
    April 23, 2009

    The Christian system offers a set of unchanging moral absolutes that are as relevant today to avoiding as much pain and disturbance in life as they were when first recorded.

    Much monitor cleaning to do after that gem…

  44. #44 abb3w
    April 23, 2009

    Well, since the hyperlinks seem to have stalled my post into the moderation queue, let’s try without….

    Barry Arrington: One can’t infer an “ought” from an “is.”
    Jason Rosenhouse: I am happy to grant them both.

    I am not so happy to grant the second premise. The “ought” may be expressed contingently, based on some premise as to preference of consequences; loosely, preference for continued existence.

    For example, one observable “is” would be that smacking a bathtub full of nitroglycerin using a sledgehammer is likely to end your existence. So, if you prefer existence to non-existence, you shouldn’t do that. Over time, those that choose the course probably ending existence tend to become rarer than those who do.

    If you prefer to continue to exist, you “ought” to make choices where it “is” probable you continue to exist.

    Like Evolution itself (doi:10.1098/rspa.2008.0178), Morality is simply another evolutionary result from the Second Law of Thermodynamics equations for systems connected by mass-energy (information) flows, based from a more mathematically rigorous sense of “prefer” and “exist” than the colloquial sense. In which case, another observable “is” includes that “good” appears to correspond to choices of the mathematical “prefer/exist”.

    Nigel: The best you can offer is constantly changing moral relativism.

    Depends on what you mean by “moral relativism”; while the correct choice is a function relative to the options available, the environment, and the choosing entity, the morality is nonetheless Absolute for each such exact combination.

    Nigel: All you have done is borrowed from the Christian worldview.

    Why not? Any study of church history shows that the Christian worldview has survived for and evolved over a couple millenia; as such, while it’s premises may be wrong, the general nature of most conclusions about conduct should be sound… especially where those conclusions are shared by other religious worldviews that have survived for and evolved over similar timescales.

    Nigel: If evolution theory has an answer to the morals, why do we fail to see a clear-cut answer on this site.

    Because I haven’t published yet? =)

    Nigel: Science should stick to science (such as adaptation) and leave philosophy (which is what the theory of evolution and origins is) to the philosophers.

    Science refers to the process of gathering evidence, forming conjectures about the evidence, developing a formal hypothesis which indicates how the current evidence may be described under the conjecture, competitive testing of all candidate hypotheses under a formal criterion for probable correctness, plus the body of hypotheses testing best thereby and which thereafter are referred to as “Theories”.

    In the most formal sense, the criterion used for this is a more exacting expression of Occam’s Razor, which has been proven in the absolute mathematical sense in the paper “Minimum Description Length Induction, Bayesianism and Kolmogorov Complexity”, by Vitanyi and Li (doi:10.1109/18.825807). This shows that the most “concise” hypothesis (a function of both the bit size of the conjecture of how the data should be described, and how many bits are needed to convey all properties of the data thereby) is the one most likely to correctly describe the character of future data. Science thus becomes dependent (due to this paper) on the philosophical assumptions that propositional logic is valid for formal inference, that the Zermelo-Fraenkel Axioms of set theory (which serve as the modern foundation for all mathematics) are self-consistent (though they need not be complete), and that Reality is relatable to Evidence.

    Note that the root of the word “prove” is from the Latin probare, “to test”. Thus, hypotheses that become theories may be said to have been “proven” in the sense that Science uses the word. This is distinct from the mathematical sense, in that the usual use of “proof” in mathematics indicates a rigorous derivation from axioms; however, the sense that science uses is similar to the sense that a person might seek to “prove” that their brain is not a piece of cauliflower.

    In this sense, Science is a branch of Philosophy, and Evolution is a conclusion of Science.

  45. #45 Gruesome Rob
    April 23, 2009

    Nigel – We’re made in God’s image?

    http://comics.com/9_chickweed_lane/2009-04-18/

  46. #46 resimler
    April 23, 2009

    Science should stick to science (such as adaptation) and leave philosophy (which is what the theory of evolution and origins is) to the philosophers

    The theory of evolution is philosophy? Are you serious? Please tell me you’re joking. Please. Come on, you’re joking.

  47. #47 Skemono
    April 23, 2009

    I mean, I still refer to “nineteen ought one” (and 2-9).

    “Aught”, not “ought”.

  48. #48 Jim
    April 23, 2009

    humans invented god

  49. #49 DuWayne
    April 23, 2009

    J.J. –

    No, but it does mean that social instincts are part of the base, too.

    Which isn’t the least bit mutually exclusive to what I said.

    Pardon me, but that looks like a half-truth that you learned from your days as a Christian.

    No, not at all. That would be something I learned as the parent of two children and having been around a whole lot of infants and children. Nor is it a half truth. Newborn infants haven’t the capacity to be anything but completely self-centered. They can’t see, what they hear makes no sense, they are either sleeping or hungry or eating. They have no consideration for anything but their own wellbeing and rightfully so – the capacity for anything else just isn’t there.

    And I will probably see about finding Jonah’s book, but I have my doubts there will be a great deal to really change my position – mainly because I don’t think my position is nearly a far off as you seem to think it is.

    I am not claiming to have no morals and I believe quite firmly that empathy is a huge part of developing a moral framework. But empathy is highly variable as a baseline and easily influenced by the environment in which one is raised. In fact considering morality from the perspective of empathy, I would go as far as suspecting that empathy may carry the bulk of the responsibility for the variable nature of morality. I would certainly think that the development of empathy in relation to the development of intellectual capacity would be a solid recipe for the evolution of one’s personal moral framework.

    But I digress… The point that I am making is that there is no such thing as universal moral framework and no one has made an argument here (or anywhere else) that would convince me I am mistaken.

    Nigel –

    You may think there is not one iota of similarity, however, what is your profound respect for others based on?

    My respect for others is based on a great many factors, not the least being the respect with which I am treated. It is also based in the notion that we are all living together, on a finite amount of space and just as I wish to be allowed to live my life and be, I believe it is necessary to do the same for others.

    I should also clarify that some aspects of my moral frame were quite strongly influenced by the bible. I spent roughly twenty-eight years of my life as a Christian and can’t help but carry much of who that shaped me to be, with me today.

    In regards to a singular Christian system, it starts with belief in Christ and the scriptures and ends with a choice to seek, understand and follow the wisdom – anything else is not Christianity, no matter how much you wish to define it on your own terms to aid your railing against it.

    Sorry Nigel, but that is simply not true, nor am I railing against anything. It is not for you to define Christianity, though you can certainly believe what you want about people who call themselves Christians. But when you are talking to people who are not Christians, they tend to take people at their word when they describe themselves as Christians. And quite honestly in a historical sense, Protestantism is a Johnny come lately. Keeping in mind that I was a protestant.

    But it still doesn’t matter, because within the bounds you describe, there is still a great deal of diversity of belief and dogma. There are innumerable protestant denominations and all of them exist, because of disagreements with other groups about dogma and ultimately morality.

    To back up your fallicious claim, show a culture where greed, murder and lying (just to name a few) doesn’t bring pain or disturbance to the members of that culture.

    First of all, you’re moving the goalposts here – you said the individual, not the community. And secondly, if you want an example of a culture that engaged in murder, rape and genocide, we needn’t go any further than your bible – and there they were told to engage in those activities by your god, so one would assume that it not only didn’t disturb them, it must have done them good.

    If evolution theory has an answer to the morals, why do we fail to see a clear-cut answer on this site.

    Are you actually capable of understanding English? I am arguing that evolution has nothing to do with morals – or at the least very little. And I am also arguing that there aren’t clear-cut answers – morality is relative. Mine is and whether you want to believe it or not, yours is too.

    You can’t even agree amongst yourselves.

    We don’t have to. And in the context of this discussion, there would be absolutely no value to it if we did. J.J. and I are really not that far off from each other and the discussion we’re engaging in, has directly pushed me into some interesting lines of thought. I’m hopeful that whether he and I come to an agreement, he will get as much out of it as I am – that he will be pushed into interesting lines of thought. The value isn’t in agreeing like fucking sheep, it’s in discussing and debating.

    Oh, but Science will eventually work it out right?

    No, why should it?

    Science should stick to science (such as adaptation) and leave philosophy (which is what the theory of evolution and origins is) to the philosophers.

    No, the theory of evolution is science. No other way to put it, you’re flat wrong. It can be argued that origins is a philosophical question, but that doesn’t mean that scientists aren’t going to try and figure it out – because everything came from somewhere and scientists like to figure that kind of thing out.

    The fact is moral actions do exist in people (Atheist and theist alike) and on their own…

    This is nothing more than word salad. Morality exists in people, but actions are what people do. And morality is simply not inherent, if it were, we wouldn’t have any problems because people would all act within certain boundaries. At that point, the world really would be like a care-bear picnic.

    But it’s not.

  50. #50 KeithB
    April 23, 2009

    So Nigel:
    Show that slavery is wrong from the Bible, using a verse that *actually mentions* slavery.

  51. #51 Pierce R. Butler
    April 23, 2009

    schadenfreude @ # 28: … you are confusing the disparity between mathematical truths and physical/technological constraints with ideals and dreams.

    Nah, I’m just having fun with our host’s rather casual use of the ambiguous word “exists”.

    To paraphrase a noted 20th-century philosopher, “It all depends on what is is.”

  52. #52 RBH
    April 23, 2009

    abb3w wrote

    Note that the root of the word “prove” is from the Latin probare, “to test”.

    Hence the much mis-interpreted phrase that makes my teeth grind when I hear it, “that’s the exception that proves the rule,” as some knucklehead points to an exception to a rule or generalization. In its original usage, that meant “It is by means of exceptions (i.e., seeking them) that one tests rules.”

    [/pedantry]

  53. #53 Monado
    April 24, 2009

    I think he meant to say, “formal demonic logic.” At least that’s how I read it.

  54. #54 John in Bucharest
    April 25, 2009

    I am just a lurker currently in Romania and wanted to thank everyone for this comment thread, quite a good read. Like most of you, I too am an atheist, but I am not sure where I fall on the empathy question (inherent or learned).

  55. #55 Jr
    April 25, 2009

    “To the outsider, the heated arguments over 1 John 5:7 or Luke 14:26 are just so much Kirk vs. Picard.”

    That seems wrong. With regards to 1 John 5:7 we know as a scientific fact that the Johannitine Comma, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comma_Johanneum

    isn’t part of the original text. The debate about that is like the debate between creationism and evolution in that one side is simply right and the other wrong.

  56. #56 Kevin (NYC)
    April 26, 2009

    “Why is it wrong to torture puppies for fun?”

    what? what do you mean by “wrong”? and what are the possible answers to the question, if say, “wrong” means it leads to a non-prefered outcome.

    before that, why the “for fun?” part? what if you wanted to get laid and your girlfriend likes to watch you torture puppies. You don’t want to do that but you do want to get laid, so the question then is “Why is it wrong to torture puppies for love?” is the answer different?

    what about those wierd stepping on mice fetish films? what about if it was puppies. then the question is: “Why is it wrong to torture puppies for money?” What if the money was to pay for cancer treatments for 10 starving children? what if it was to pay for teeth whitening treatments?

    also why ask why? don’t you have to answer: “IS it wrong to torture puppies for ” [insert reason]? or just IS it wrong to torture puppies?

    which then brings us back to what wrong means.

    It is wrong to torture puppies because….

    1) It makes the meat tough when you eat them

    2) It makes noise that may attract predators.

    3) You may get attacked by the mother and then have to kill it and then you would have no more puppies to (eat) (sell) (use to hunt deer) (insert use here).

    Is it “normal” to do so? well what would your mother say if she found out? that is usually a good guide?

    what do other people who torture puppies usually wind up doing? Oh. Killing their parents and burning down their house? oh. well maybe I should teach my kid that torturing puppies is bad .. i.e wrong..

    I guess.

  57. #57 Richard Wein
    April 26, 2009

    Jason, I don’t think you nailed the exact fallacy committed by Arrington. His argument is simply self-refuting! He argues that, if there are no true moral propositions, then “all things are permitted”. But “all things are permitted” is itself a moral proposition, so, by his premise, cannot be true. (The argument is invalid because the premise is inconsistent with deontic logic.)

    If he takes the alternative premise that “ought” statements cannot be true while “permitted” statements can be, then the position he is criticising (the premise) is not a position that anyone holds. (And this premise is probably also inconsistent with deontic logic.)

  58. #58 Kevin (NYC)
    April 26, 2009

    bump…

    Jason what say you? You included “why” and “for fun” in your question, but you did not address the core issues.

    IS it wrong to torture puppies?

  59. #59 sinema izle
    May 13, 2009

    Inhibitions are observable mental functions in both humans and animals and play an obvious central role in the structuring of our moral behaviour. The presence and function of inhibitions can be explained in terms of evolution without any great problems and a non-deistic scientific explanation of moral behaviour for atheists is also no big deal.

  60. #60 videolar
    September 4, 2009

    hanks for sharing, It’s very useful for everyone who interests.

  61. #61 proactive acne
    September 15, 2009

    I am just a lurker currently in Romania and wanted to thank everyone for this comment thread, quite a good read.

  62. #62 acne treatment
    September 16, 2009

    If he takes the alternative premise that “ought” statements cannot be true while “permitted” statements can be, then the position he is criticising (the premise) is not a position that anyone holds. (And this premise is probably also inconsistent with deontic logic.

  63. #63 gladio izle
    October 2, 2009

    very nice…

  64. #64 film ize
    October 9, 2009

    No offense, but Bob Barr is captain ploppy pants in my not so humble estimation. A hypocrite and would have the US up on the auction

  65. #65 film izle
    October 29, 2009

    Thanks for your Informations

  66. #66 kurtlar vadisi pusu
    November 10, 2009

    thankd admin googld article

  67. #67 torrent
    November 14, 2009

    I am just a lurker currently in Romania and wanted to thank everyone for this comment thread, quite a good read.

  68. #68 sinema izle
    February 6, 2010

    thank you I’m hopeful that whether he and I come to an agreement, he will get as much out of it as I am – that he will be pushed into interesting lines of thought. The value isn’t in agreeing like fucking sheep, it’s in discussing and debating.

  69. #69 Dilek Feneri
    March 6, 2011

    tek yaratıcı allah dır. o her şeyi gerektiği üzere yaratmıştır. en güzel örneği yağmurlar olmasaydı toprak bir işe aramazdı.. yağmurlar kesiliyor kuraklık başlıyor böyle sayacağımız bir çok örnek var.
    saygılar

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