Monday, September 17, 2007

Inference to the Best Explanation (Part IV)

With this post we continue our series titled Inference to the Best Explanation. This installment follows Part I, Part II, and Part III.

The remainder of the argument (points 7 through 16) is based on certain facts about the human condition and might be called an Existential Argument for the existence of God.

7. Number seven stresses our deep longing for answers to life's most profound questions. As human beings we want answers to the deepest, most perplexing questions raised by our existence, but in the world as the atheist sees it there are no answers, there's no assurance about anything that matters, except that we'll eventually die. We shout the "why" questions of human existence at the vast void of the cosmos - Why am I here? Why do we suffer? Why do we want from life what we cannot have? - but in a Godless universe there's no reply, only silence. The cosmos is indifferent to our desire for answers. We are alone, forlorn, as Sartre put it, and our quest for answers is absurd.

If God exists, however, then it's possible that each of those questions has an answer, and if there are answers then the fact that we have those questions and desire the answers makes sense. We may not know what the answer is, but we have a reasonable hope that our questions aren't futile or meaningless and that there is a reason why they gnaw at us.

8. We are burdened with a deep sense that we are obligated to act morally. As human beings we strive to ground morality in something more solid than our own subjective preferences, but if there is no God there is nothing else upon which to base them. In a purely material world morality is whatever feels right to the individual.

This is not to say that the non-theist cannot live a life similar in quality to that of a theist. She can of course, but what she cannot say is that what she does is morally good or right. There simply is no moral good unless there is an objective, transcendent standard of goodness, and the existence of such a standard is precisely what the non-theist denies.

Apart from this standard all moral judgments are merely expressions of personal preference, and no one's preference is any more authoritative than anyone else's. This leads ineluctably toward a might makes right egoism, either on the level of the individual or the level of the state. Whatever those who have power do is not morally right or wrong, even if they commit torture or genocide, it just is.

In the absence of God morality is either subjective, and thus arbitrary and personal, or it doesn't exist at all, and our sense, indeed our conviction, that it does is simply an illusion. If God exists, however, then our conviction that objective moral value and obligation also exist makes sense.

9. Related to the preceding point, we experience feelings of guilt, and have a sense that guilt is not just an illusion, but without an objective standard of morality before which we stand convicted there can be no real guilt. Human beings are no more guilty in a moral sense than is a cat which has caught and tortured a bird. The feeling of guilt is merely an evolutionary epiphenomenon which arose to suit us for life in the Stone Age and which, like an appendix, we no longer need. Indeed, it's a vestige of our past that we should suppress since it bears no relation to any actual state of affairs.

On the other hand, if there is an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good Creator of the universe, then our sense we are indeed guilty has an explanation. We feel guilt because we have transgressed the moral law instituted by the Creator before whom we stand and to whom we must give an account.

It is this Creator who imposes upon us moral obligation. Take away God and there's no moral law, there's no moral obligation, there's no transgression, and there's no moral guilt. As Dostoyevsky put it, if God is dead then everything is permitted.

We'll consider a couple more aspects to this argument in Part V tomorrow.


Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand fans will enjoy this New York Times article on the woman and her influence. Rand was a powerful voice on behalf of individual greatness and achievement. Her books championed entrepreneurship and capitalism while heaping withering scorn upon the collectivist philosophy that plagued the twentieth century.

Unfortunately, Rand was herself a deeply troubled woman who led a tumultuous personal life. She also believed her views could only be rationally held by men and women who were atheistic in their fundamental worldview, a position which seems to me to be only partly true.

Even so, her books are still popular long after their original appearance back in the forties and fifties, and Atlas Shrugged has been one of the best-selling novels of all time in the United States. The Times article offers some good insights into Rand and her work.


A Clarification

My friend Byron has helped me to see that I should have expressed myself a little more clearly in the first paragraph of the post immediately below this one.

The reason I wrote that the claim that the war in Iraq has been a wonderful recruiting tool for terrorists is absurd is not because the war hasn't brought an increase in the number of terrorists. It doubtless has. The reason I think the claim is absurd is because when anti-war people make this claim the implication is that had we not gone to war in Iraq there would not be as many terrorists world-wide as there are.

Now there's certainly no absurdity in believing that this is so, but as long as there are good arguments to the contrary it is an overreach to say that it is so - as though it were a demonstrable fact when it clearly is not.

Are there good arguments to the contrary? I think one could plausibly maintain that the greatest recruiting tool for terrorists would be signs of American weakness and vacillation. Had we refrained from invading Iraq it's quite possible that many young Muslims would have been emboldened to join the ranks of what the imams would be assuring them is an army destined by Allah to destroy the infidel West. They would have been convinced, conceivably, that Allah had delivered the irresolute Americans into their hands and they would be eager to join the side of the victors.

This is certainly plausible and no one can know that this would not have been the way things would have worked out had we not invaded. Thus it's absurd to imply that the war has made things worse than they would have been had we not invaded. It is to claim a kind of knowledge that no one has or could have.

That was my point in the preceding post, but I'm afraid I didn't make it as clearly as I should have.