Monday, February 18, 2013

Morality and Skepticism

Steven Novella a neuroscientist writing at Skepticblog, addresses the question of the extent to which morality depends upon the existence of God. I was particularly interested in what he had to say since it was one of the themes of my book In the Absence of God (see link above right for a brief discussion of the book) that there can be no objective moral value nor moral obligation unless there is a God or something like God. Novella, who I assume is an atheist, declares that there are fatal objections to this position, but none of the four examples of such objections that he puts before us supports his contention.

For example, he states first that there's no general agreement on whether or not there is a God or gods, and that even if there were there's no agreement on what that God wills for us to do.

He's right, but it's beside the point. The question is not whether we know what the will of God is but rather how objective moral duties and values can exist if there were no such being. Novella's objection is irrelevant to this question.

He goes on to claim that basing society's laws on a particular religious view are incompatible with religious freedom. This, too, might be true, but it also is irrelevant to the issue of whether objective moral duties can exist if there is no God. This issue has nothing to do with the question whether society should base its laws on people's understanding of those duties.

Another fatal problem, Novella maintains, is that even if we lived in a universe where there is a God who makes moral demands, nobody knows with certainty what those demands are. There is no one who objectively and verifiably knows the will of God, and God has not seen fit to unambiguously make his will known to all of humanity, therefore morality cannot depend upon the existence of God.

Here Novella confuses an epistemological question - can we know the will of God - with an ontological question - can objective moral values exist if they're not grounded in a transcendent moral authority. People may not know what is right, people may not do what is right, but the question is can there even be a right if it is not grounded in some legitimate authority that is perfectly good and powerful enough to enforce his demands. We have very strong intuitions about the wrongness, say, of child abuse, but unless our intuitions are instilled in us by a personal creator they're simply the product of blind evolutionary forces and such forces can neither impose moral duties nor make something morally right.

Novella's final objection is a version of the famous Euthyphro dilemma articulated by the Greek philosopher Plato. In the dialogue of that name Socrates poses the question whether something is good because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good. The dilemma is an attempt to show that God's moral judgments are either arbitrary - God just wills whatever he wants to be good - or God recognizes what is good and commands it in which case goodness is independent of God and could exist even if he didn't.

I address this dilemma more fully here, but will say in response to Novella that the dilemma fails to provide the sort of knockdown argument he and others might think it does. There's a third alternative to the two choices presented in the dilemma. One could argue that God is the locus of perfect goodness itself and thus his moral commands and his moral authority flow from his essence just as heat and light flow from the sun. What's good is not arbitrary because it's rooted in a perfectly good nature, and neither is it in some way independent of God because it's part of his very essence.

Novella's attempt to hold on to morality while rejecting the basis for it is a doomed project. Numerous atheistic philosophers are coming to this unhappy realization. Richard Rorty, to take just one example, once implicitly admitted that his fellow atheists have no answer to the criticism that atheism cannot provide a ground for moral obligation. He said, "The secular man (of which he was one) has no answer to the question, 'Why not be cruel?'."

When people reject the existence of God they board a train that takes them ultimately to either a "might-makes-right" egoism or to moral nihilism. There's no real escaping it and all other ethical accommodations are simply stops along the way. One can get off the train at one of these stops, but to do so is to simply admit that one lacks the courage to take the train to its logical terminus. The famous atheistic thinker Jean Paul Sartre admonished his fellow atheists to be willing to "draw the full conclusion from a consistently atheistic position," but most understandably refuse to do so because they see that it'd result in a world not unlike Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games.

Instead they live as if they believed that God existed even while vigorously denying that he does. This wouldn't be so peculiar if so many of them didn't spend their time calling irrational those who believe he does exist and who try to live consistently with that belief.