"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Monday, December 18, 2006

Morality sans God?

In the interest of trying to keep this blog somewhat accessible I will from time to time break out of the 'deep thoughts' we have going in the comments section with a new post highlighting the various points being presented.

At the moment Alex, Matt and Tom are kicking around the idea of morality and it's roots. Matt is taking the position that morality is born of empathy which is rooted in biology. Tom is noodling with the idea that morality could possibly be so completely foundational that even God Himself would be subject to it. Alex disagrees with everyone. I think he's just being difficult.

Now since this blog has thus far been an ongoing conversation rather than a series of independent thoughts you would need to start at the very beginning to know all of where we've been to get to this point. Even so I think the nature of our discussion is still very accessible no matter where you jump in. I will be starting the comments of this post by responding to a comment from Matt from our Death of Beauty conversation below. Again Tom will have to take a back seat until I can get the time to respond to him. Sorry bud.

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16 Comments:

Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
A moral statement is simply one which declares an action "right" or "wrong". What we're after here is the *root* of such statements.

Agreed. My point is, there is no such thing as 'right' or 'wrong' unless there is an ultimate source from which to flow. Without an ultimate standard these types of statements can neither be true, nor false. They can be true in relation to how you feel about X, but that does not mean that it should be true to anyone else. You are no longer left with the option of making solid moral statements. The best you can hope for is to appeal to a majority opinion. For example, "Most of us believe X. You believe Y. You need to come in line with X or else." The fact that people sit around and debate whether X is more correct than Y shows that we really don't believe 'majority rules' defines right or wrong.

Most people have innate feelings of empathy for others, it's part of our biological makeup, and that's the basis for moral dialogue.

Can you really say that? I'm asking here, because I really don't know. Has it been shown that our empathy is strictly a biological issue? Let's just assume that it is for the sake of argument. We all experience empathy and it's biological. As an atheist you recognize that this is strictly a biological issue. There's no right or wrong in a foundational sense. It's just you and your empathy. Why then do you believe it is right an proper to discover the depths of this emotion and respond to it? Why should you inconvenience yourself for this emotion? Unless other people have value in an inherent sort of way, why should you really give a crap about people you will never meet? Is it truly just for protection of your interests? It seems deeper than that doesn't it? How do you personally come to grips with the cold hard reality of a meaningless existence? Knowing that this meaning that you are crafting for yourself is ultimately meaningless... How do you do that?

I've been putting a lot of thought into what it might be like to believe there is no God. I have to be honest I just can't do it. It betrays me on the very deepest level.
As I look at my wife... How could it be that my 'love' for her is nothing more than billions of years and chance? (I'm not an evolutionary skeptic by the way) When I look at my son, how could I possibly believe that my feelings towards him are a complete lie? If he was to die tomorrow I would be a wreck, but if atheism is true I really have no reason to be. He was just matter. Complicated matter to be sure, but there was nothing more to him that chance and matter. Let's be honest about this. That is what atheism demands. Sure I would have my feelings, but they are lying to me. I am being lead to feel strongly about nothing. In all actuality my feelings about everything are a lie. There is no purpose in my strivings and longings. Even the atheists highest goal to preserve the race is left in utter ruins when you come to grips with the fact that it's impossible, even if it were, to what end? We all are destined for annihilation.

Matt I need to hear you admit the gravity of the situation. Set aside your high minded thoughts of there being a true right and wrong (to you). Tell me that you see how without God all is relative and ultimately meaningless. Then tell me how you justify doing anything other than make your life 'better' for yourself. Why would you ever try and muster the energy to do 'good' things except for when it felt good and was convenient?

11:13 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

P.S. I'm in the waiting room at Mayo. Mom just got out of surgery to repair a hole in her heart. Thankfully it was not open heart. Thanks for the well wishes. I'll be sure to give them to her. I think she'll get a kick out of that! Do you think you boys could give me a chance to respond to Tom as well before you jump all over my last post? I'll try to get to it tonight if you can wait that long. I don't want to lose that train of thought... again.

11:17 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Glad to hear that your mom is doing okay.

I know you wanted to reply to Tom first, but I might be busy over the next couple of days, so I thought I'd post this now - feel free to leave it to one side for the moment.

My point is, there is no such thing as 'right' or 'wrong' unless there is an ultimate source from which to flow. Without an ultimate standard these types of statements can neither be true, nor false.

I disagree – why does something have to be external in order to be valid?

For example, when I studied English Literature at university there was an official canon of books which were considered worthy of study, decided upon by the people in charge of these types of thing. These were Good books, as opposed to the Bad ones that people only read because they want something trashy or they don’t understand *proper* or *true* literature. However, a large part of my learning curve was coming to grips with the fact the canon was essentially arbitrary – certain aspects were decided upon which marked out a Good book, and these were used to make judgements. But ultimately what’s considered good and bad in terms of writing is entirely down to the whims of the decider, there is no absolute standard.

If the influential consider Shakespeare to be overrated then he’ll no longer be taught and people will consider him a second-rate writer. A lot of novels we now consider to be classics, outstanding examples of literature at its best, were considered to be unworthy of study for long periods of time. What we now consider classic will probably be seen as unworthy at some point in the future. Good and Bad literature depends on the whim of the times.

Does this make all literature pointless? Should I stop reading Joyce and Orwell because at some point they may not be considered classics anymore? Should I give up trying to argue that one book is better than another? Following your logic, as they don’t rest on absolute standards, we should never argue about literature, or film, or food, etc.

Just because something isn’t absolute, doesn’t make it worthless.

They can be true in relation to how you feel about X, but that does not mean that it should be true to anyone else. You are no longer left with the option of making solid moral statements.

It depends on what you mean by “solid” – what we feel at an instinctive level affects us in a powerful way. But yes, unless a statement resonates with the individual it’s directed at, it’s pretty empty for them (though not for the person making it, presumably).

The best you can hope for is to appeal to a majority opinion. For example, "Most of us believe X. You believe Y. You need to come in line with X or else." The fact that people sit around and debate whether X is more correct than Y shows that we really don't believe 'majority rules' defines right or wrong.

Morality changes through-out history though. Slavery was considered moral by a lot of people. The oppression of countless millions was seen as doing God’s work, or as being for the benefit of the oppressed. Being a single mother used to get you thrown in jail, same with homosexuality. Our attitudes towards foreigners, and war have changed, affecting our morality.

As human nature is fairly uniform (we all experience pain, pleasure, etc.) we have a vaguely similar moral sense, so we agree on a number of things (nearly everyone knows that murder is wrong – in that they it disgusts them – though we can suppress that instinct in extreme circumstances), but ultimately the feelings of the majority tend to decide the day. Though, thankfully, a greater appreciation of the benefits of individual rights seems to be eroding the tendency towards oppression.

Has it been shown that our empathy is strictly a biological issue?

I’d say that it has its basis in biology (brain damage and certain drugs can affect it), but it seems to be a generalised impulse which is shaped and refined by our environment and upbringing. To take slavery as an example, most people were taught to view slaves as sub-human, and so therefore empathy towards them was lessened. (Dehumanisation is a constant theme in wars and conflicts – we have a real difficulty in inflicting pain onto those we see as the same as us).

There's no right or wrong in a foundational sense.

Not in a sense that right and wrong are external and absolute.

It's just you and your empathy. Why then do you believe it is right an proper to discover the depths of this emotion and respond to it? Why should you inconvenience yourself for this emotion?

Because it’s not really a rational choice. It’s instinct and intuitive – like hunger, or love. I can no more stop feeling empathy for others than I can stop feeling hungry, or cold, or frightened, etc.

We have a general "empathic instinct" - we don't like seeing suffering in others. But how this instinct manifests itself often depends on how we see the world - using slavery again, I can argue that it's wrong by making the person see the resemblance between the slave and people they care about, thus increasing their understanding of the suffering involved and provoking a more sympathetic attitude. Charities use this strategy all the time, using images of human suffering to make people emotional and increasing the change they'll donate. A lot of the time morality works on a slightly more complex level, but ultimately it's an instinct response guided by reason.

Unless other people have value in an inherent sort of way, why should you really give a crap about people you will never meet? Is it truly just for protection of your interests? It seems deeper than that doesn't it?

Self-interest isn’t the same as selfishness. If I feel empathy for others, then it’s in my interests to help them avoid suffering. What it feels like is beside the point – we humans are experts at self-delusion.

How do you personally come to grips with the cold hard reality of a meaningless existence? Knowing that this meaning that you are crafting for yourself is ultimately meaningless... How do you do that?

I don’t consider my existence meaningless. It has plenty of meaning for me. I enjoy life – God or no God.

I've been putting a lot of thought into what it might be like to believe there is no God. I have to be honest I just can't do it. It betrays me on the very deepest level.

I feel the same way about believing in God – given the way I view the world I just couldn’t do it and still be honest with myself.

That is what atheism demands.

Why does something only have worth if it’s created by God? Why doesn’t love for a wife, or a son, have value in itself? This seems to be the big thing we differ on: why does something need to be external, eternal or divinely-inspired to have meaning and value to you?

Tell me that you see how without God all is relative and ultimately meaningless.


I don’t equate relative with meaningless.

Then tell me how you justify doing anything other than make your life 'better' for yourself. Why would you ever try and muster the energy to do 'good' things except for when it felt good and was convenient?


Again, self-interest isn’t the same as selfishness. I care about other people (and to be honest I don’t see any difference between caring because God wants me to or evolution made me do it – the cold hard fact of the matter is that I do) and so helping others is making life better for myself. Nor do I really think that belief in God changes the way we act – why, other than feeling better about yourself (to put it crassly) do you want to please God?

4:08 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Tom,
Hey, good to see you here! After reading through your post a few times I'm having trouble seeing your specific problem. You seem to state quite clearly exactly the position I advocate:

The being of God is identical with the essence of morality

But then simply dismiss it. Why?

I wasn’t suggesting that it’d be made of flimsy nothingness but rather that it’d be standalone, dependent on nothing else.

Morality must be dependent on something. Moral statements are statements that rate a given behavior to a standard. As a society we often use each other as rules by which to measure. We rate ourselves against the character of those around us. We don't need to be perfect. We just need to feel like we are better than that guy who beats his wife down the hall. That's on the micro level. On the macro level we are told that Gods character is unchanging. If he created us out of love to be in a love relationship to him. Would it not stand to reason that he would want us to be in conformity to his character - just as I want my boy to grow up in conformity to my character? His character IS the standard. We are told that he is the wellspring of all things. Why should this present a logical problem?

God is uncreated and eternal. (Don't ask. I don't know. I just have to accept that one. It's easier for me personally to believe that than to believe that all of existence is uncreated yet still exists.) God is personal. He has a specific unchanging character. He creates all that is known to us as an expressive act that also involves creating creatures that will have a certain measure of freedom to either chose to know and love him, or to reject him. He does this out of love. Love by it's very nature gives. (It's hard to describe that, but my wife an I felt a glimmer of it first hand as we sought to have our first child.) But in order for love to be true it requires freedom. It requires the possibility of rejection. If we respond in love to our creator we seek to know and understand him. If we chose to reject him we focus our eyes on ourselves. (When you boys talk about how you give to charities and seek to love others and such, I believe you are responding to him, yet not acknowledging the deeper truth of your actions.) The more humanity focuses on it's self the more our actions violate the character of God. We begin to use people, hold grudges, spread rumors, lie to preserve our interests. All sorts of neat things like that flow out of our inward focus.

That seems logical to me. Sure it involves the supernatural, but I'm at a place where the supernatural does not seem all that implausible. What seems illogical to me is stating that there is a foundational standard that has no source. Or saying that there is no foundational standard, but we should really honor our subjective moral feelings just because. I really don't understand that sort of talk, but I'll keep trying.

a statement like ‘God is good’ becomes immediately circular and meaningless.

Well in a sense yes it is rather circular. It's kind of like saying "God is God", or God is who he is. In another sense it does hold deep meaning. There are many bad things that happen to people in this world. The affirmation that 'God is good' is simply saying that the evil we see in this world is not from him. That gets into a whole different topic, but one I've been doing some reading on as well.

Hey, when you mentioned that your dad went through chemo, how did he come out? I can't imagine going through that. My father passed away very suddenly. There was no pain, no wondering. Just shock. I'm sorry you had to go through that.

Good talking to you.

8:27 PM

 
Blogger Aaron said...

Gentlemen,

I have been a good friend of Alex's for nearly ten years -- has it already been that long?? -- and I must admit I've been following this dialogue closely since I was made aware of it. Being the simpleton I am, wrapping my logic into words and phrases is extremely difficult for me, so likely I will not contribute to this debate. But the search for truth is a good thing, and I've been enjoying the ride thus far.

Sorry to hear about your mom, Alex. Send her my best wishes and prayers.

Hope you all have a fantastic day,

Aaron

12:33 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Hey Aaron,
Good to hear from you bud. Glad this conversation is peaking someone elses interest aside from Matt, Tom and I! We need to get together again some time soon. It's been way to long since our last long walk. Take care man!

7:41 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

Hi Alex. Sorry to take a while in getting back to you, but it looks like our Mr M has been keeping you busy!

Anyway, yeah, it’s the circularity that gets me about this.

There’s a pun that’s been sitting at the back of my head for a while, and I think this is the opportunity to let it out.

Murrellity is the doctrine of Matt’s preferences for how people should behave. Acting murrelly is acting in accordance with his wishes and in conformity with his character. If you do something he feels badly about, that’s immurrell. Murrellity, so defined, depends 100% on Matt, and without him, the concept would be empty. He is the standard.

But… that doesn’t tell us what sort of standard murrellity holds us to. Is it about aesthetic preference, arbitrary whim, his own material advantage, emotional instinct or what? Is it in any way moral? When we say that ‘Matt is murrell’, that is in itself vacuous. Perhaps we could read it as meaning that all the immurrellity in the world is not from him… but then that follows from the definition anyway, whatever it is that murrellity might be.

We could say that Matt is a wise, generous, loving individual, and that clarifies things a bit, but these are still just character traits. We still don’t have a reason for thinking that murrellity is anything more than a set of preferences that just happen to promote people’s wellbeing and happiness.

I think that’s enough of that. So. Is there something about God that means that grounding a code of behaviour in his character and wishes doesn’t lead to the same sort of impasse?

If there were such a supremely wise, kind, loving being as God who created us (never mind the problem of evil right now), then indeed we should strive to fulfil his wishes. That’s a matter, I guess, of loyalty and perhaps also gratitude.

But then… ‘You should be loyal and grateful to your loving creator and respect his wishes for you’ – that looks awfully like a moral principle. There’s a ‘should’ right in there at the start, before anybody’s even mentioned a creator. Where does that come from? Being loyal and grateful to him may well make us (and him) feel better, but then that’s just more personal preferences. We’re still caught in a circle and I don’t see how God’s presence in the circle makes it an objectively moral one.

As for my dad, he got better and, five years on, is well and in the clear, thanks. It was weird – at first we were told it was probably lung cancer, but when the final diagnosis from the biopsy came through – non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which is much more treatable – we were desperately relieved. All the same, the process of the chemotherapy was pretty uncertain and unpleasant (not least for him). Very glad to hear your mum got through the op, though. And sorry about your dad.

Chances are this’ll be my last comment until next week. If so – and I say this without irony but with just a little wryness – I hope you all have a very happy Christmas!

8:42 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

If only the kids at school had been so creative. :-)

9:28 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Murrellity...

Tom, you have just brought this conversation a whole new dimension. Nice work you clever lad! It'll probably be a bit before I can get back to commenting. Life you know. My wife is crazy with things we need to do before the weekend. How do you and Matt carve out the time for this?

Glad to hear you father came through. Thank you for the kind words towards my mother and the loss of my father.

When she came out of the operation I told her that Matt and Tom from the U.K. sent their best wishes. She got a kick out of that.

Well my friends, unless I am by some stroke of luck able to get back to this prior to the holiday, I wish you both the very best over the weekend and a merry Christmas as well!

9:48 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Merry Christmas.

10:00 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
Just now getting around to working on your last comment. It's been a busy week. Also the vast scope of your thoughts will require a lengthy response... It might be a little while before I can finish. Just an FYI.

1:49 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

No problem.

Hope you had a great Christmas.

2:34 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

It was a good time actually. A bit tough for mom, but it was good to be there with her. I’m a very lucky person in that I have a fantastic extended family. Up until dad passed away I really hadn’t paid much attention to his side of the family. I’ve really been missing out. It was great to just hang around playing with the little nieces and nephews and catching up with people. That’s what it’s all about man.

On a somewhat topical note, I’ve become known as a bit of an oddity on Dad’s side of the family. (Predominantly Catholic) They’ve gotten into the habit of asking me to pray before the meal. I don’t know if they just think it’s interesting that I don’t use recited prayers, or what the deal is, but they seem to appreciate it. It feels quite honoring really, but at the same time I feel at a real loss for what to say. I feel like there’s this expectation of a little sermonette, but when I pray I’m really just pouring my heart out to God. It’s very personal. I know what people really want is for me to just be real, but I keep getting this feeling I need to measure up to this ‘standard of public prayer’, like those real spiritual types you see on t.v. who seem real ‘good’ at praying. (or totally out of their mind depending on who you are watching.) I’m just not much of a public speaker in general, so it’s no small wonder I’m not all that smooth when it comes to a public prayer. I always feel like a moron when I’m done. Like I didn’t do it ‘right’. I’m glad they ask though and I’m glad I did say something, even if it was a bit rough.

Not sure why I felt like sharing that, but I did. So now you have another little window into my life. Hope you had a quality holiday as well!

3:09 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Hey Tom,
My turn to apologize for my lack of a quick response.

A few things about your last comment... I believe what I'm about to say is very important to our discourse, but at the same time I have a feeling you will find it unsatisfactory. I will try anyhow.

But… that doesn’t tell us what sort of standard murrellity holds us to.

The difference here is that God is fundamentally different than us. His character is unchanging. It simply IS. Where humanity has always had to potential to try and create our 'own' morality. (the ultimate temptation that lead to the fall of man we are told) The two options, as I see it, are (a.) obey God, seek him and respond to him, (b.) Deny God and create any combination of our own moral frameworks and try and make that work out. God's unchanging character goes hand in hand with his other eternal aspects such as his eternal existence.

That may seem slippery to you, and I admit it creates profound difficulties in my mind as I have no experiential reality to equate these sort of assertions to. Even so, I cannot get around the way it's acceptance answers life's biggest questions for me and the longings of my soul.

There’s a ‘should’ right in there at the start, before anybody’s even mentioned a creator.

There is? Without the creator there's no one standing around saying 'should' about anything. But if there is a creator, then yes, because of His existence you have the 'should' because he IS.

We’re still caught in a circle and I don’t see how God’s presence in the circle makes it an objectively moral one.

Logically the circle must end with a source. A source that's been there all along. If He is not there then the circle does not exist either. You are left there holding your bag of humanities deepest longings and questions with no answer but the shrill echo of nihilism.

So glad to hear you Dad came through all that. Those situations can be such a shock to the system. A good friend of the family (a next door neighbor in fact) is in his last days after a fifteen year battle with cancer. The stress it really starting to show. His boys are not talking to each other after a little tussle they had and his wife is stretched so thin as it is. How painful that must be. I consider myself fortunate in how my fathers passing played out. He loved us. We knew it. We loved him. He knew it. Then he was gone. The greatest sadness I feel is knowing how much he loved Adrian (my 7 mo old son) and that Adrian will not get to know him except by the stories we tell. Tears my heart out, but for me, I believe this is not the end. That's one of the greatest comforts of my faith. However, I also hear it used quite often by atheists as proof that God is a weak man's crutch. So be it.

9:16 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

Hi Alex. This has taken me a bit of a while to think through.

“I believe what I'm about to say is very important to our discourse, but at the same time I have a feeling you will find it unsatisfactory.”

I think you’re right – on both counts, alas – but I also think I may see why it is that our exchanges have had quite a bit of ‘Fair enough, but try looking at it this way’ and even ‘I don’t really see what you mean’.

It’s a question of perspective. You see, you’re in love and I’m not.

Most of us have had the experience of talking to a friend who’s in love with somebody and yet you can’t really appreciate why. They can go on and on about how wonderful this person is and how life-changing their relationship is and so on, but you just don’t see it yourself. And conversely, if you’re the one who’s in love, then no amount of sceptical questioning from a friend (or even criticism) is likely to carry any weight, because you just don’t see what the problem is.

Now, I don’t know about you, but in my experience it’s uncommon for people to change their minds about the existence of god because of some sort of reasoned argument (like the problem of evil or the design argument). Sure, people often attach a fair amount of weight to one or the other of these, but more often than not as a support for their pre-existing views.

So I think maybe what’s more important in driving beliefs is personality, or temperament, or something in that neck of the woods. And I think a relevant difference between us may be that you want an anchor for your boat and I prefer to go sailing.

That’s what crosses my mind when I read this: “God is fundamentally different than us. His character is unchanging. It simply IS. … God's unchanging character goes hand in hand with his other eternal aspects… if there is a creator, then yes, because of His existence you have the 'should' because he IS.” Likewise for the unimpressed remarks you sometimes make about ‘bags of meat’ or ‘complicated chemistry’ and the like.

(BTW I have a similar line in jokey scorn about ‘fairy dust’ and ‘spook-stuff’ etc.)

That is something absolute – someone absolute – that you can put your anchor into. The personal relationship, the love, is first and foremost. Any talk about a moral code or a purposeful plan is then based on that. It’s like the Barry White song: You’re my first, my last, my everything.

But using that as a basis just doesn’t strike me as logical, however you phrase it – I don’t feel that same love. And however I try to say that I think god would just be another person as far as morality and meaning go, you continue to be puzzled that I don’t get it.

Basically, I’m entirely content with finitude. Whereas you think that for something to count, for it really to count, it has to be infinite – or at least intimately connected to something infinite.

I’m not trying to say that my mindset is better than yours or anything like that. A rowdier argument might involve saying that atheists are in denial, have authority issues and are pig-headedly stuck in a teenage craving for independence, or that believers in god are deluded by fairytales, can’t deal with uncertainty and death, and so engage in wishful thinking. Well, maybe both or maybe neither, but it’s beside the point, really. None of us is a perfectly rational judge of truth; we all have our insecurities and blind spots. We can think carefully and still get it wrong, and we can stumble across the truth through blind luck.

Does this make any sense?

(There must, I’m sure, be studies of personality differences between people who are and aren’t religious. I might have a bit of a google.)

11:42 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Good to hear from you Tom. I believe this may warrant a new post. Can certain people help being religious? It is just a part of our make up to have these feelings? Good questions. I'll kick it around.

8:03 AM

 

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