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.