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

Monday, January 15, 2007

The story so far

I'd just like to thank Alex for allowing me to post on his blog. I promise not to make too much of a mess, do my share of the washing up and keep the music down.

Anyway...

As my first post on 'In Search of High Places' I thought I'd go with something I've just published on my own site, as it seems quite relevant.

Here it is:

Since this post on the Dilbert blog, a debate has been raging across the blogosphere concerning issues such as morality, meaning, the nature of life and the existence of God. Millions* of words have been written in the ongoing argument for and defence of both atheistic and theistic views on the matter.

(*This may be an exaggeration)

Below is a summary of the two main positions reached on morality and meaning, which I’ve lumped together for what will hopefully become obvious reasons.

Atheist/Human-centred:

Morality = instinct; later codified to become social norms, to aid the smooth function of society

Meaning = means something / is significant to me.

Theist/God-centred:

Morality = accordance with God’s will; either ignored or imperfectly realised by human beings

Meaning = means something / is significant to God (and therefore each of us).

The crux of the whole thing is the existence of a certain kind of God. If God doesn’t exist, or is simply unconcerned with the business of humanity, then the human-centred approach is the obvious answer. If God does exist, and is concerned with us, then the God-centred approach becomes the answer.

So: ultimately questions of morality and meaning come down to the issue of

a) God’s existence

And (assuming that the answer to this is positive)

b) God’s nature.

It’s sometimes suggested that only one side of this debate has any work to do. However, neither of these positions can claim special status. To many atheists the primarily non-supernatural nature of life is fairly self-evident. Anyone wishing to challenge this position must argue for the existence of God. Equally, to many theists the existence of the divine is also fairly self-evident. Anyone wishing to challenge this view must argue for the non-existence* of God. The onus is on both sides to put forward arguments supporting their position.

(*In order to argue that something doesn’t exist it’s only necessary to demonstrate the weakness of the arguments for it – as positive proof of non-existence is almost impossible.)

Further Reading:

- An Insomniac
- Freemania
- Imagined Community

Labels: , , ,

35 Comments:

Blogger Alex said...

Welcome aboard Matt! Make sure you lock up when you leave.

1:09 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

On your 'meaning' theistic category I would agree that meaning is significant to God, but I would also take that further to include 'AND each of us'.

By God existing and voluntarily surrendering a portion of his omnipotence we are given true freedom — true life. We actually exist in a way that is, in some ways, above simple cause and effect.

The Atheistic world view leaves us as nothing more than a beyond all odds chemical dance. As amazing as that is, there is nothing more to the story. Our freedom is really illusion. Our person-hood is really an illusion. We cannot be held to account for anything we do because in 'reality' we cannot help they way we are. We are no more responsible for our actions than the sun is for shining.

1:31 PM

 
Blogger james higham said...

The onus is on the one who negates to give good and sufficient reason why not, given that a wealth of learned scholars over millennia have shown the reason why.

1:57 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

By God existing and voluntarily surrendering a portion of his omnipotence we are given true freedom — true life

But, it's true life only if God is true. Without God it's simply a meaningless statement.

For me and for others, the atheistic life and freedom are the true kind.

We actually exist in a way that is, in some ways, above simple cause and effect.

In what way?

The Atheistic world view leaves us as nothing more than a beyond all odds chemical dance.

In the same way that Beethoven's Fifth is nothing more than vibrations in the air and ear.

Our freedom is really illusion.

Again, we're back to the unresolved free will problem.

Our person-hood is really an illusion.

Only if you define person-hood purely in terms of a Cartesian Theatre.

We cannot be held to account for anything we do because in 'reality' we cannot help they way we are.

And once again, we need to get back to free will to deal with this...

2:03 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

The onus is on the one who negates to give good and sufficient reason why not, given that a wealth of learned scholars over millennia have shown the reason why.

This applies to both atheism and theism.

2:03 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
all good points worthy of conversation, but all I really ment to get across is that the theist would not simply say that meaning is significant to God and then put a period after the 'd' in God. There is an and in the equasion. As it stands, I feel it misrepresents the position I (and most theists) hold. Other than that I think you nailed it.

2:13 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Alex,

Ahhh - I see what you mean. Sorry, I'd assumed that people would understand that was what I meant. I'll change it.

2:19 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
You are a gentleman and a scholar. I see that this point I am trying to make may need a little more elaboration. I'll see if I can collect myself and get back.

2:40 PM

 
Blogger CityUnslicker said...

I am no scholar and am an agnostic. However, I fail to see why athiests feel that that their belief is self-evident.

What or who caused the big bang? How did we get here?
Where are we going is irrelevant until we know how we reached where we are.

Where is the answer to life, the universe and everything?

To just skim over this and say well nothing can be proved so theists are wrong too, is as anti-intellectual as a theist saying god's will in reply to all questions.

4:14 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

It's not so much saying that theists are wrong, more simply that their arguments are weak.

For an atheist, the lack of any real tangible evidence of the divine makes its non-existence about as self-evident as you can get.

4:38 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

the lack of any real tangible evidence of the divine makes its non-existence about as self-evident as you can get.

I guess we'd need to define our terms here a bit. When you say your life shows "a lack of any tangible evidence of the divine", my gut reaction is: "Good grief man, look at yourself!" The very fact that you, an undulating mass of matter and energy, can sit at your glowing little box over in the U.K. speculating on the nature of your existence to a bunch of other carbon-based net-monkies, shows that there is more to you that simple chemistry.

Though I do agree with you that most atheists see their world as being devoid of any hint of the supernatural. To them it is self-evident. Just as to me the supernatural is in a way self-evident, just not in the way most people would define the term.

The miraculous, as the common man would define it, is something a bit different than what I am referring to when I talk about the self-evidence of the divine. I hold that the miraculous is certainly possible, but also something that I hold a great deal of skepticism towards when any particular event is held up as miraculous.

7:33 PM

 
Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

Erm...I'm happy to accept Antony Flew's presumption of atheism. Theists posit an additional entity (i.e., God), so the onus is on theists to provide reasons for belief.

For newcomers, I happen to be a theist. Well...I'm technically an agnostic, but I'm committed to Christian faith. If you can make sense of that. It's sort of a Kantian thing.

7:40 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

CityUnslicker,
Thanks for posting. It's great to see some new faces around here!

10:00 PM

 
Anonymous The Morningstar said...

I don't agree that atheists must prove anything or as you put it, "In order to argue that something doesn’t exist it’s only necessary to demonstrate the weakness of the arguments for it – as positive proof of non-existence is almost impossible."

It is for the theists to provide the proof, unfortunately for them conclusive proof has been a bit thin on the ground.

Try this page.

12:37 AM

 
Anonymous peter whale in france said...

Hi one small point to add to the discussion. What I believe or what you believe, is no more than make belive. What anyone believes has no bearing or changes or alters the truth in anyway whatsoever, whatever the truth happens to be.

4:21 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

there is more to you that simple chemistry.

Yep: complex chemistry.

7:03 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Hmmm...

I think my lumping together atheism and humanism might be causing us a few problems.

Atheism, in its strictest sense is more a reaction to an argument (that there is a God) than an argument itself - it asserts nothing positive about the world we live in.

What I've been calling atheism is probably better described as a mixture of naturalism and humanism: the universe is largely explainable through natural laws, and human life has an inherent meaning simply because it's human life.

Having spent my time up until now merely criticising the views of others, it might be time for me to try and articulate my own view of life, the universe and everything...

7:07 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Having spent my time up until now merely criticising the views of others, it might be time for me to try and articulate my own view of life, the universe and everything...

You set it up, I'll knock it down! ; )

Seriously though, take a crack at it. I believe it is good for anyone to take a stab at articulating their metaphysics.

7:43 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

morningstar,
This one's my favorite!

ARGUMENT FROM INTELLIGENCE
1. Look, there's really no point in me trying to explain the whole thing to you stupid Atheists — it's too complicated for you to understand. God exists whether you like it or not.
2. Therefore, God exists.

priceless!

7:44 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Oh oh!!! and this one too!

ARGUMENT FROM INCOHERENT BABBLE
1 See that person spazzing on the church floor babbling incoherently?
2 That's how infinite wisdom reveals itself.
3 Therefore, God exists.

My apologies to any Pentecostals in the audience, please remember I was raised Catholic so that kind of stuff has always made me giggle.

I have to stop reading those. I'm going wet myself!

7:52 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

I love this one:

ARGUMENT FROM ARGUMENTATION
(1) God exists.
(2) [Atheist's counterargument]
(3) Yes he does.
(4) [Atheist's counterargument]
(5) Yes he does!
(6) [Atheist's counterargument]
(7) YES HE DOES!!!
(8) [Atheist gives up and goes home.]
(9) Therefore, God exists.

...largely because that's pretty much how any argument on the Internet goes.

8:03 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

So when do you plan on leaving? ; )

8:13 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Hopefully we have a while yet before one of us reaches the end of his tether and leaves, vowing never to return to the Internet again, ever.

I believe it is good for anyone to take a stab at articulating their metaphysics.

The metaphysics isn't really the problem, it's summarising the actual physics (and the biology, psychology, etc.) that's part of the naturalistic view.

"In the beginning was hydrogen..."

8:49 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

it's summarising the actual physics (and the biology, psychology, etc.) that's part of the naturalistic view.

Well, I'm not sure how far you will be able to go in articulating that view without having it simply turn into a survey on the scientific discoveries of our species. In so doing, I don't believe we will have much to disagree on.

What I mean by metaphysics is the 'why are we here', 'what is the meaning of this life' sort of questions that we have been grappling with. If all you offer is the 'how' we got here, I would probably agree with you, but that's not so much my issue. My issue is 'why'.

The atheist is then left with, "what do you mean, why? There is no why! We simply are."

If I then press for details on why we should do this or that, the question keeps getting pushed back until, at last, you are at a place where there truly is no answer.

For example:
Guy: Why should I not shiv a hobo?

Atheist: Because that's wrong.

Guy: Why?

Atheist: Because you wouldn't want him to shiv you now would you?

Guy: Maybe not, but that's not the question. Why should I not shiv a hobo?

Atheist: You feel empathy don't you???

Guy: Sure I do, but all I am feeling empathy towards is another random conglomeration of chemicals, just like me. Why shouldn't I shiv this chemical sack? Why is that any different than stabbing a pumpkin?

Atheist: Because he would scream.

Guy: I guess your right. I hate it when they do that.

So you must see my point here, If there is no God, there is nothing wrong with making stuff scream. Sure it might be distasteful to a lot of people and may even go against our codified moral code, but what makes our code right? The majority? What makes them right? The more "why's" the theist asks the more the atheist must realize and accept that there is no answer. Ultimately, if there is no God you can do whatever you please.

10:46 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Why should I not shiv a hobo?

Shiv? Damn, I thought I was still pretty down with the kids and their lingo, but shiv has passed me by. Sounds like something from 'A Clockwork Orange'.

The thing is, the theist position is no better as it needs the would-be shiver to agree with your concept of God - both of our moral positions need the other person to agree with us on certain things.

Ultimately, if there is no God you can do whatever you please.

According to a recent MORI poll here in the UK, only 27% of those polled felt that religion was necessary to understand the concept of right and wrong (only 13% said that right and wrong is unchanging and should never be challenged).

We're a pretty irreligious bunch. Have been for a while. Yet, so far, society has failed to collapse into moral anarchy.

You don't need absolutes to have order, only a common outlook on life, which biology and education provides.

Most people don't need a reason not to be an amoral, hedonistic murderer - it's the way we are.

11:34 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
There is a difference between applied morality and there being any actual truth behind moral statements. I think we really need to make this distinction clear.

Morality as a practical system for keeping order is something quite apart from what I am arguing for. Peoples interpretation and application of morality is what I call applied morality. (I'm making this up here, there may or may not be an actual term for this.) This applied morality is subject to the whims of the people. This kind of morality changes with the culture. People's views towards subjects such as slavery and the treatment of women are examples of applied morality.

The question is: Is there any truly "right" way to approach these topics or is it simply a matter of opinion? Is it right and proper to beat your wife if she disrespects you? Ask that to a man in certain corners of the arab world. You and I would both say that it is wrong to do such a thing. But on what basis do we make that claim? Is it simply our perspective? If so, what makes our perspective any better than his?

the theist position is no better as it needs the would-be shiver to agree with your concept of God - both of our moral positions need the other person to agree with us on certain things.

That's not my point. I'm not arguing what we would need to do to stop our shiv happy friend. I'm trying to illustrate that the atheist has no basis to tell the shiver he's wrong. (other than his own preferences)

According to a recent MORI poll here in the UK...

It is not my contention that the removal of religion would immediately cause moral anarchy. However I'm also not so sure that "moral living" is the default button on humanity. The idea that we should treat people as we would like to be treated has not been shown to be historically honored. Historically we have manifested an "in-group, out-group" mentality. What would happen if Christian morality had never been introduced to humanity? Do you think we would have come up with it on our own? "love your enemy" My friend, that flies in the face of our natural temperament.

only 13% said that right and wrong is unchanging and should never be challenged

How could you challenge right and wrong? By challenging it would you not be advocating that something else is the true right or wrong? In that case you would not be challenging right and wrong, but just another's interpretation of what right and wrong actually is. Where does this idea that there is a true right and wrong come from?

If the atheist wishes to maintain that there is no God, he is left with no option but to admit there is no such thing as an absolute right or wrong. You may keep the idea that things are right and wrong to you, but to make judgments on other people's value system becomes a bit more problematic.

Not quite sure why we keep finding our way back to this topic. Would articulating our positions help? Here's mine:

Alex believes morality is expressed in many different, often messed up, ways across the human spectrum. Culture plays a large role in the development of these attitudes. However, he also believes that various expressions of morality (or lack thereof) can be nearer or further from an actual standard of which the root is the character of God. We can know what the character of God is like by looking into historical accounts of his revelation as recorded in the Bible.

Now you write your position.

1:23 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Ah yes, and "shiv" is a Brad term. Not sure where he picked that one up, though I like to pull it out as often as I can. =)

1:24 PM

 
Anonymous brad said...

Deciding to shiv a hobo has no bearing on determining absolute truth/morality in such that it is already an illegal act. It's morality has been decided for you by human law. What I think about your act doesn't really matter. You broke the law, you have to deal with real consequences whether you think it is moral or not.

Now if the hobo were a Philistine or Midianite and god told you to shiv him, is that moral? Does this removing of the onus of ones actions still bind you to a moral code to be judged? If not, what is wrong with jihad?

(quote)You may keep the idea that things are right and wrong to you, but to make judgments on other people's value system becomes a bit more problematic.

So an atheist cannot apply their value system to others because it is not real, but a christian can thumb their noses at anyone they like because their value system comes from god. I would say that is equally problematic. And besides, whose moral standard of god do you apply; christians, islam, jewish, Thorinian?


BTW, since we are talking atheist, the term does not mean that you believe god doesn't exist. It means that you don't have a specific belief in a god. Big difference. It is a null statement, therefore, there is nothing to prove. I don't have to prove to you that Zeus doesn't exist. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. So in this instance the onus is on the christian to provide adequate reason to a person with no belief as to why there is a god.

Everyone is an atheist in one way or another. The big question is, is god an atheist?

3:34 PM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

‘Shiv’ is a new one to me too. Anyway, while we’re being irreverent:

Guy: Why should I not shiv a hobo?

Theist: Because that's wrong.

Guy: Why?

Theist: Because he wouldn’t like it.

Guy: Maybe not, but that's not the question. I don’t care what he wants. Why should I not shiv a hobo?

Theist: Well, your mum wouldn’t like it either.

Guy: No, but like me and the hobo, she’s just a sack of chemicals. Why is her being upset a reason?

Theist: OK then. God wouldn’t like it either.

Guy: Seriously?

Theist: You bet. Look, it says here in black and white: “Thou shalt not shiv a hobo, nor a bum, nor a drifter, nor any undesirable elements that liveth upon the fringes of society.’ (Deuteronomy – The Director’s Cut, 5:22)

Guy: Wow. Kudos for the research. But still, so what?

Theist: He’d burn you in a big oven after you die, and you’d really hate that.

Guy: Well, yeah, but if all I am is a potentially flammable cloud of angel dust, temporarily sealed into a meaty sack of chemicals, why is even my self-concern any reason?

Theist: Ah, but it’s not just the brimstone and the inventive pitchfork insertions. God would be personally upset. And He loves you and all.

Guy: That’s true. Aw heck, you got me there. That tugs at my heartstrings, even though they’re made of meat as well. But I love Him too. Dammit – I forgot to get Him anything for Christmas – do you know when His birthday is?

Just a thought…

6:38 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

I think I've stated before that I don't believe in, nor do I really feel the need for an external and "true" system of morality existing beyond individual people. It would be nice if there were some absolute and unquestionable right answers to the question of right and wrong, but everything seems to suggest that this is far from the case.

Morality is more of an instinct (later codified by society) than a clear-cut set of rules. When I say something is "right", I'm really doing little more than stating my agreement with it (or stating my support for a particular man-made law). What this leaves us with is space for moral dialogue. I believe certain things are right and wrong. Other people believe things are right and wrong. As this instinct is based in biology, and we all belong to the same species, there's considerable common ground for us to agree on and put at the heart of society.

Is it right and proper to beat your wife if she disrespects you?

The moral dialogue in this case would be with the wife. If I believe that beating someone is wrong, and she believes that being beaten is wrong, and we both believe that we should help others in need, then we have a considerable basis for my taking action to help stop the husband.

I'm trying to illustrate that the atheist has no basis to tell the shiver he's wrong. (other than his own preferences)

That's pretty much my position. I just have a different view of the value of our "preferences" (or, as I like to call it: human nature).

Where does this idea that there is a true right and wrong come from?

For the most part: ego. (General human ego, not just yours). The entire history of "objective" and "absolute" morality can be summed up: "Do what I say, damnit! Do what I say! I'M RIGHT!"

8:25 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Morality is more of an instinct (later codified by society)

Should read:

Morality is more of an instinct (later codified by individual reason, and then society)

8:30 AM

 
Anonymous Ian said...

Revvvvvvvd, I like the "presumption of atheism", thank you. I shall have to remember it the next time I need an elegant presentation of my own view.

Stop me if I've done this one already, but my whole spiel about metaphors was my fumbling attempt to address the lack of satisfaction arising from the purely scientific approach to explaining the "hows" of our existence. I think this dissatisfaction is encapsulated by the following exchange:

Alex: The Atheistic world view leaves us as nothing more than a beyond all odds chemical dance.

Matt: In the same way that Beethoven's Fifth is nothing more than vibrations in the air and ear.


Alex also wrote that "most atheists see their world as being devoid of any hint of the supernatural." it's my belief that, apart from the terminally blinkered ultra-atheist, everyone has moments that transcend the mundane, which a purely scientific explanation seems to diminish. (It's not just me, is it? See the argument of creative interpretation...) It seems there is a basic human need to believe in something more than can be explained/constrained in rational terms.

When Matt says Morality is more of an instinct (later codified by individual reason, and then society), I would tend to agree, but it's a little dry, isn't it? The bible is a fantastic literary fable to explain why we are as we are, but for me, personally, the very fact that it does (i.e. can be read to do) this so well is in itself suspect. Rather than us being created in God's image (figuratively), and then being given free will, He* is created in ours...

5:44 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

The bible is a fantastic literary fable to explain why we are as we are

Bits of it are. Maybe.

But, I've got no place for The Fall in my worldview - yes, human beings are often destructive and fallible, but I can't see the point in pretending that we once had perfection. It makes as much sense to me as clinging onto the idea that the Roman Gods once used to live on Mt Olympus and interact with us mere mortals.

7:39 AM

 
Blogger james higham said...

You're everywhere, Matt. You should come to post on my blog. Interesting read above, people. No immediate comment.

12:52 PM

 
Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

A fall? Christian theism can do without a Fall. So, that shouldn't be a stumbling block, really.

2:09 PM

 

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