Sunday, November 19, 2006

Living the good life without god

Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) has written a delicious post about the small pleasures in life:

“I love standing in the shower after all the cleaning is done, just rocking back and forth while the warm water massages my neck and shoulders. … I love the sound of a new can of tennis balls being opened: PH-SSSHHHT. … I love the smell of vanilla. I love the feeling of doing something right, no matter how inconsequential, such as guessing the exact right time it will take to warm a yam in the microwave. … I like being tired at the same time I have access to a comfortable chair and plenty of time to sit in it. … I like a pen that has good balance, opens easily, and leaves a clean line with no skipping, blotching or fussiness. … I like rubbing my head after I give myself a haircut. It feels good on my hand and my head at the same time.”

Great stuff. What interests me, though (with a hefty hat tip to Matt Murrell) is the puzzlement of a Christian commenter called Alex at how someone with an atheistic outlook (i.e. Scott’s) can find meaning in life at all. Alex says:

“This still leaves me with this question for the Atheists: How do you work around talking about meaning and beauty and purpose? How do you with honesty to your world view strive to do good things, treat people as you’d like to be treated, or try to make a difference in this joint? Please keep in mind that most every Atheist I have met has been generally very thoughtful, kind and concerned about living life ‘right’. Basically they are better than the world view they claim to hold. But I can’t understand why. …
“If we are from nothing, for nothing, to nothing, then nothing matters. The job you have, the hobbies you enjoy, the family you have, the way you treat people. It doesn’t matter at all. Sure, you can say that it does matter because you want to leave a good mark on the world etc... But what does THAT mean? Good? What’s that? It’s nothing! It’s an illusion. Your children will die. Your children’s children will die and they will all forget you. You don’t matter. You mean nothing. You count for nothing. You are an accident. An amazing accident beyond all odds. …
“…it seems to me that all the beauty, joy, love and happiness that we experience here is but a reflection of the one who put us here. Without God all the wonderful things we experience in this life really have no worth of value. Long after our species has passed from the scene and our planet ceases to exist, what will it matter weather or not we enjoyed the quality craftsmanship of a pen?”

This isn’t an uncommon view. And it merits a constructive response.

I’m an atheist: I think this life is all that there is and that we mortals are alone in the universe. We humans are intelligent and self-aware, which immediately gives us an advantage over the ants, the frogs, the sparrows and the daytime TV addicts: we can form our own purposes and make our own justifications. This counts for something – but why doesn’t it automatically lead to a self-centred nihilism?

I’ll try to explain. Justification or purpose, for a being like us, can come from two types of source: internal or external to them. Now, I quite accept that if all someone’s sense of purpose were focused internally, then they’d be utterly selfish and amoral. There’d be no scope for justifying anything they did other than ‘I want’. As a matter of logic, purely internal justification doesn’t take us anywhere beyond an individual’s own desires. Hold that thought.

But what about externally focused justifications? Religious believers would look outside themselves to god as a source of meaning and purpose. I can’t do that. But, even though I think humanity is alone, that of course doesn’t mean that each individual human is alone – we’re obviously not, there’s a planetful of us.

So I find my inspiration, my sense of moral purpose, in other people – my family, my friends, people I meet online or pass in the street, people halfway around the world I hear about on the news… That solves the immediate problem, if I can draw personal meaning from others. But then what makes them matter? Where do they get their purposes? You could trace lines from one person to another to another, but you’ll either go round and round in circles or eventually meet a dead end. The notion of a better world for my great-grandchildren is fine, but only goes so far. It’s not just that each human is finite – the whole species is as well. How there be an external justification for us collectively?

Let me reply with a different question. Say that our purpose derives from god. Where, then, does his derive from? (I guess this question is a little analogous to that other atheist staple: ‘If the universe must have been made by god because it couldn’t possibly just exist uncaused, then how did god come to be?’)

It won’t work here to say that he’s all-powerful, so he can provide his own ultimate purpose in a way that we can’t. Because we’ve already established, as a matter of logic, that purely internal justification doesn’t take us anywhere beyond an individual’s own desires – even for a god. Omnipotence may be able to create a physical universe and intelligent life, but it can’t break the rules of logic: it can’t draw a triangular circle, it can’t make a man who is taller than himself, and it can’t conjure non-subjective internal justification.

And it won’t work to say that god is morally perfect (one of his defining features), and that’s why he can act as the final source of purpose. Because if so, if we’re defining god in terms of morality rather than the other way round, then the morality we’re appealing to is something more basic, transcending even him in the same way that logic does. A moral principle isn’t the sort of thing that could be deliberately created.

Now, I don’t really know how to approach the notion of such an absolute, objective, foundational morality – but whatever we might think about that, if god doesn’t create right and wrong, then those ideas are something that an atheist can lay an equally legitimate claim to.

So the theist and the atheist are really in the same boat here. Whatever purpose we look for outside ourselves, we can only criss-cross through a network of beings with their own personal interests and attachments to others (whether or not this network includes god, the principle is identical). Whatever morality we aspire to, others – even divine others – can only advise and inspire us, not act as its creator.

This means that the choice isn’t between selfish, meaningless atheism and moral, purposeful religion. Rather it is, god or no god, between individual selfishness and reciprocal decency. I’m not going to try to argue against anyone inclined towards the first option; my aim is to suggest that this choice is the one we all face, and that the existence of god doesn’t affect the logic of this.

It’s true that believers in god very often do feel that they have a more secure moral basis than atheists, and (even though I’m arguing against this) I think I see why this feeling does have, for them, a kind of legitimate justification. This is rooted in the idea that god is omniscient. As such, then whatever ultimate, objective morality there may be, he understands it all and can therefore give the best possible advice – which can provide certainty. On the other hand, if we’re awkward about the idea of a metaphysically absolute morality, then our ideas about right and wrong will have to be forged through shared wisdom. And in this case, if we have a supremely wise being to guide us, that’s a reason for strong confidence too.

So perhaps these considerations make my case a bit less counter-intuitive for people coming from a different religious viewpoint. Indeed, in my experience, people who believe in god (whom I generally find to be no better or worse than atheists) do think that he knows what’s best and that his commandments are genuinely good moral guidance; they don’t at all take the sort of ‘might-is-right’ view that any arbitrary whim of a decree is worth obeying just because it comes from on high. (Some extremists seem to corrupt themselves by worshipping power alone, but I have nothing to say to them.)

Now, from my perspective, my existence is a spectacular fluke; so is the whole human race’s existence. Well, so be it. Here I am and here you are. I can either scowl and turn in on myself or smile and use you as the only kind of moral compass there could be – you and the billions of others. We have purpose not because we have ‘Made in heaven’ or ‘Property of god’ stamped on our backsides, but because it’s in our nature to make purpose: we have it because we can. There’s as much meaning in life as we make for ourselves and for each other (and the existence of god would only add one more other to the network). To demand more than this of an atheistic or humanistic worldview – but not of a religious one – is like one mechanic criticising another for failing to build a perpetual motion machine.

My attitude is that because this is the only life I get, it’s all the more important to live it well: to do right by myself and to do right by the people I come across. Saying that there’s nothing at the end is true enough, but for me the point of life is not the destination: it’s the journey. I can enjoy the beautiful scenery and the fascinating company, and help other people along when I can, and ask for directions now and again. The going may sometimes be tough, and many of us may not travel as far as we’d like, or in the direction we’d expected, but at least we can travel as best we can.

The journey is finite, but the limited quantity doesn’t mean a lack of quality. If you doubt this, if you feel that you need eternal life – go to hell. See if that enriches your existence. Me, I’d take oblivion.

And this finitude ties up with Scott’s small pleasures. They are fleeting, but I don’t think that invalidates them. I, too, love the smell of vanilla. But if I had to smell it all the time, I’d feel sick. A momentary sniff, though – that’s real. It counts. Even if I’ve utterly forgotten it the next day, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t great when it happened. Or a small act of helpfulness to someone with Alzheimer’s: even if they won’t remember it, it matters while it lasts; it’s a piece of goodness there wouldn’t otherwise have been.

One might say that such things as these don’t matter, because they don’t stand the test of time. But time is a constant series of tests. There doesn’t need to be an official point where the score is totted up and rewards or punishments dished out.

Happiness and goodness and purpose come in finite chunks. In a million years, it may well not matter whether I enjoyed some vanilla today, or helped out someone who was in trouble. But conversely, it doesn’t matter now that in a million years these things won’t matter. We’re chained to our own time. This means that we can’t inherit the distant future, but it also means that the distant future can’t disinherit us of our present.

Being human has its downsides, but it’s something. And something like this is enough.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Another factor to consider is that selfishness just does not work. Everything we want out of life, whether it be relationships, material goods, or something else, comes from someone else. To be selfish, you have to consider the needs of others. Since most people find it difficult to constantly act in a manner contrary to their beliefs, we put together a moral system.

Matt M said...

I agree with anon: excellent post.

(It's also important, when it comes to explaining the atheistic way of life, that we emphasise that there is a big difference between selfishness and self-interest - the latter allows for compassion, empathy and altruism while the former doesn't)

To be honest, I think I've often underestimated the idea of God as a way of keeping track of points as it were. I can certainly understand any reluctance to accept the idea that being a good person doesn't necessarily work in your favour, and that selfish and immoral people can ultimately prosper. Though personally I think their chances are quite slim compared to more co-operative individuals.

The biggest problem with a non-religious view of life is that it's inherently uncertain - which can be quite a scary idea.

Anonymous said...

Hey Tom,
Thank you for taking the time to put together such a thoughtful response to my post on the Dilbert Blog. I really am seeking to understand the depths of my world view and what it means to me. In so doing I am forced to look at all the options. (or at least as many as I have time to.) So again thanks, your comments were very respectful and well put together.

Having said that, do you mind if I press on?

Let me admit something here. I am selfish to the core. Most everything I do is rooted in my own self interest. Now to those on the outside I don't look it. Let's just say I'm good at keeping up appearances. I have a wife. I love her tons. I do stuff for her all the time. Stuff that inconveniences me. I have a little boy. He rocks. I kiss him on the forehead and make funny noises at him. He's 6 mo old. He loves it! I work with the senior high kids at my church on wednesday nights. The kids really like me.

However what I've found is that by doing stuff for my wife that inconveniences me I really make her happy. I like living with a happy wife, so it's worth it to me to keep doing that. With my baby boy, playing with him is just fun! He smiles all the time and giggles. Who doesn't like a giggling baby? When it comes to the youth group, I'd really rather stay home and pay x-box, but if I stopped working with the youth I wouldn't be able to hold my head quite as high in church on sunday.

So on the outside it all looks very altruistic and nice. Of course I believe there's more to it, but in a lot of ways all of the "good" things I do are simply in my best interest. I'm just being smart about it.

Keeping that in mind, as I was running back from the sub shop with my tasty sandwich in hand I was kicking this around:

I'm REALLY hungry and these guys make GREAT subs! I can't wait to get back to the office and dive in. I'm almost late getting back to the shop so I'm really in a hurry. So I think to myself, "what would I do right now if I passed some homeless chap with a sign advertising his need for food?"

Two things would happen. I would have my natural impulse to beat it on back to the shop and try not to trip on the guy on my way by. Also I would have the equally natural, yet MUCH less pronounced, impulse to help the guy out. What impulse I chose to honor is up to me. I am above my impulses. Now to be honest, in that moment I probably would have looked the other way. They have soup kitchens for that sort of thing right? If I believed that he was nothing more than another animal that would be the end of it.

But what if I believed that he was an eternal being? A creation of God. A child whom God loves more than I will ever understand. What if I believed that God loved this man and myself so much that beyond all reason he stepped into his creation and allowed it to kill him to pay the wages of the selfish choices I make every day? I would hope that in the knowledge of that love I would be able to walk back to that man in spite of my urges and be love to him. (give him half of my sandwich)

Ya, ya I know. Crazy talk. But I find it to be a true motivator in my life to act in a way that is better than I want to act. Not out of guilt, but out of gratitude.

So my point is, doing "good" things for people feels good. It's just the way we are wired. But how do you respond when the act of "goodness" doesn't feel good? What if it huts? What if it isn't in our self interest, even in a round about sort of way? Maybe it's just me, but my world view makes a huge difference to me in those times. If I believed there was nothing other than this brief little fluke we call life, I would find it much easier to simply do what pleases me.

But I don't believe that. I believe there is a larger story. I believe that each person is infinitely valuable, even if they don't happen to make my life better, even if they hate me. I believe they are worth suffering for, worth dying for.

I'm sorry I don't have time to go into the complete nature of God at this time, but let it suffice to say that I believe that God is uncaused and his character is what we see reflected in everything we call morals, beauty, justice and love. He's bigger than we can conceive. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Again I appreciate your thoughtful consideration. I really enjoy these conversations!


Matt M said...


Please forgive me for butting into your conversation with Tom, but I just want to make a quick comment.

In the case of the homeless guy that you describe, I think that most people would be moved to act by a sense of compassion and empathy. We simply don't like to see other human beings suffer. It's why I - an atheist - donate money to charity and argue against senseless violence, etc. I believe we have this sense because of evolution - creatures which are capable of altruistic acts are far more likely to co-operate, and therefore stand a better chance in the long struggle for survival.

Our sense of compassion can be either weakened or strengthened through up-bringing. I was always encouraged to think about how other people are feeling, and to consider the consequences of my actions - the result of which is that I feel quite a strong "obligation" to help people whenever its within my power. No religion required.

Anonymous said...


No forgiveness necessary. Jump on in!

So your donations to charity and being opposed to senseless violence are a product of your evolutionary make up that causes you to be uncomfortable with the suffering of others. Not because it is the "right" thing to do by any standard other than your own feelings/urges. Correct?

Then because these things make you feel uncomfortable you seek to do something about them, thereby reducing the level of discomfort you feel. I'd venture to guess that you even get kind of a nice feeling inside by doing them. Again not because it is inherently right by any standard other than your own, but simply because the mindless and purposeless evolutionary forces killed off all the creatures of your kind who were incapable of feeling the way you now feel. Is that really what you mean?

If that is the case then the idea of "goodness", or "rightness" is really no more real than your personal internal chemistry. Sure you can honor your chemistry and submit to it because it feels good, but beyond that there really is no greater "truth" in the matter.

I know that sounds a bit harsh, but I'm just trying to examine that idea a bit. Please don't take it as a personal attack.

A little note on me here. I'm a follower of Jesus. I grew up that way. I find much beauty and truth in him. However I find a lot of intelligent thinking people who reject him. So I've been on this journey to find out where truth finds it's home. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm not just here trying to stir things up. I'm genuinely curious. Not to mention if I'm correct in my world view God has a lot of things he wants people to hear. If I'm wrong however, I have a lot to learn. I can tell by your blog and Tom's post that you are some bright guys who do a fair amount of honest thought. I really respect that. If I lived in the U.K. I'd look you boys up for a pint!


Matt M said...


No offense taken. I respect your views and appreciate the fact that you take the time to explain them and thinking behind them. Not many people bother to do that.

Not because it is the "right" thing to do by any standard other than your own feelings/urges. Correct?

Yes and no. Ultimately I believe that morality is based on innate aspects of human nature: the desire for company, for survival, compassion, empathy, etc. However, when learning how to best channel these urges (ie. figuring out what to do when I feel angry, or sorry for someone) I draw upon the knowledge of not only those around me, but also from society/history in general. As human beings have a shared nature, I can benefit greatly from learning about what our greatest thinkers had to say about the matter.

I believe that we are autonomous moral agents, and that ultimately it is down to us to make these decisions - but that we should arrive at these decisions through reflections on the external world and the knowledge it provides, and not purely down to urges or whims.

beyond that there really is no greater "truth" in the matter.

There is a greater "truth" in the sense of that which has been arrived at as a result of millenia of human culture and thought - a truth which predates and will long outlive me.

But no, I do not think that there is an absolute standard of infallible "truth" or "rightness", as would be provided by a perfect being in judgement above us.

Tom Freeman said...

Hi guys. Thanks for your comments and sorry to take a while in replying, it’s a busy week. (Plus after reading Alex’s I had to rush out for a sandwich…) Anyway, it’s great to hear from you, Alex – I’d thought that my comment at Scott’s might get lost amid the several hundred he seems to get daily!

So, let me start with an observation that I think you and Matt would both agree with. Doing unnecessary, helpful things that don’t materially benefit us can make us feel good, and that can be a motive for doing such things. This is true whether we happened to have evolved this way, or whether we were deliberately created this way. It’s true for people who believe in whichever of these options. And it’s true whether or not there are warm-feeling-independent moral reasons for being helpful.

And as well as the altruistic impulses we also have selfish ones (I know I’m not nearly as moral as I could be; I suspect that’s true of most people). But, as you say: “What impulse I chose to honor is up to me. I am above my impulses.”

Above impulses, yes: we can be reflective and self-critical in weighing up options about what to do. But that doesn’t mean that we’re above our preferences (for want of a better word) – which are shown in our decisions and actions, whether based on gut instinct or more careful consideration. Everything I do deliberately is, by definition, something I’ve chosen for one reason or another.

So, even in the more extreme cases when something ‘good’ we do has really rotten consequences for us, and it seems an unhappily necessary evil rather than an optional good, and the idea we’ve done it for a warm glow seems ridiculous – even then, we’re still acting on a personal motive, a subjectively made decision. We might fully expect it to make us miserable, but then we think how we’d feel if we didn’t do it… It’s still a personal preference even if perhaps not a selfish one.

What I think your worldview brings to the table here is a motivation that I don’t have: to reflect, to share in, to reciprocate, to spread and to deserve god’s love. In your eyes, god’s love for you and for the rest of us is a mighty big factor, and that makes perfect sense to me. It’s a human attitude, even if the object of the attitude is divine.

But, if I’m reading it right, you’re working within a network of individuals with their own concerns and feelings every bit as much as I am (although my network is human-only, plus my cat); for both of us, if we value someone and they value someone else, then we in turn value that someone else. But what gets the whole thing off the ground? What is it about the sum total of all these individuals that makes their valuing each other inherently valuable? If god is one of these, and is uniquely connected to everyone else in the network, then that of course shifts the calculus of how we judge what matters to us – but I don’t see how it changes the underlying logic. Doing painful yet good things in light of what god would want seems like just another personal preference, not unlike getting the neighbourhood’s approval by helping out at the youth group.

On a broader note, I agree that some of the best conversations are when you decide ‘well, I disagree completely with this person about X, and X is pretty important, but I wonder what happens if we put that aside for the mo and see where it gets us’. Always good to come across someone who’s curious about another way of looking at things!


Anonymous said...

Hey Tom,
Good to hear from you. Hopefully this won't get completely buried! I can't tell you how much I enjoy this conversation. It's touching on many live issues I'm currently working through. Also to find it in a setting where emotions are not running the show is a huge plus. Hope you enjoyed your sandwich...

Between you and Matt's blog I haven't been able to keep up with all the typing. Life has a way of doing that. So this response is by no means a shunning of Matt, I just only have so much time to devote to this and since all these posts are related anyway hopefully you can excuse my inability to respond to EVERY post. But let there be no doubt I have not stopped thinking!

Having said that...

One theme that I'd like to comment on here is the idea of "right & wrong", of "good & evil" From the Christian world view I would assert that there is a true standard of right and wrong. I would say that it is objective and we appeal to it on a daily basis. Unless a physical impairment is present we all feel it's presence to one degree or another. You reveal your knowledge of it's existence with statements like:

"I know I’m not nearly as moral as I could be; I suspect that’s true of most people"

"repression and bigotry are wrong, whatever the source or ‘context’."

I understand that one can make the argument that since we all come from an evolutionary past with common ancestors who were selected to continue our evolutionary progress based upon their ability to get along, thus our "moral code" was developed.

However, I have a hard time buying into that. As a rational being, (able to reason above and beyond my chemistry) if I saw that my "morality" was simply a combination of biochemistry and my environment I would realize I had been had. Things that I had felt were truly right or wrong I would see to be simply the mindless force of our amazing human improbability rolling on to whatever oblivion that is to come. If there is not true objective standard above our chemistry, above our environment, how then can a reasoning thinker hold the idea that certain action are inherently right or wrong?

I agree with you, Tom, that "repression and bigotry are wrong" I believe that because my wold view holds that each person on this planet has inherent worth and value. Inherent, not projected. I do not believe that people are valuable only in how they relate to to the system. It's our birthright. It's supernatural. And it's beautiful. Why do you feel repression and bigotry are wrong? I doubt it's because you just happen to have a preference to that view. I would wager that you actually believe it's wrong. But why?

When you ask the question: "What is it about the sum total of all these individuals that makes their valuing each other inherently valuable?"

That is exactly the right question! A godless existence has no answer to this. There is no ultimate value for any of us. All we are left with is the empty biological impulses that cause us to "feel" certain ways. Why would we even bother with the undertaking of evaluating whether one persons feelings should be preferable to another's? There's no point.

One last somewhat minor point I wanted to make. You mentioned at one point: "to spread and to deserve god’s love." I would just like to clarify that the Christian position is that we are essentially incapable of "deserving" God's love. However, he loves each of us beyond our conception regardless of how we act towards him. It's his nature, not our behavior. You may have already known that, but I just wanted to clarify.

Hope we can continue this, I'm curious to hear your thoughts (and Matt's or anyone else for that matter!)

Matt M said...


Great to hear from you again, and plenty to think about in your post.

I don't regard "right and wrong" as inherent qualities of an object or situation, but see them more in terms of how we relate to other people.

For example: let's say I see an old man being beaten up - it's an act I truly consider to be wrong. That's not because of the act itself, someone with a different biological and social set-up could probably walk past and see nothing bad about it (though given the general similarity of human nature across the world they'd be a pretty extreme kind of person.) For me the wrongness of it is all in my reaction to it:

I react on an emotive level: seeing someone in pain provokes empathy. And I react on a rational level: I don't want to live in a world where violence of that type is allowed to go unstopped - it would be bad for me and the people I care about. The same with bigotry, and everything else I consider wrong.

This isn't something I really choose, it's the way I am, so the issue of whether there's a "point" to it is a pretty moot one. But I can easily rationalise it: It's empathy, and the morality built on it, which allows the level of co-operation and co-existence which has brought about civilisation as it now stands. Abandoning it, if that were possible, would put me in a far worse position than before.

Tom Freeman said...

Matt, Alex – you guys are spoiling me. Good to hear more of your thoughts, and good also to be forced to go over mine again.

Now, I did some philosophy back at university, but not any moral philosophy, so my knowledge of that area is slight and patchy, and what I’m about to say may be a bit mixed up.

There’s a thing called ‘the is-ought problem’ (I think it’s a David Hume idea, although I doubt the phrase is his), which is that it’s impossible to derive statements about moral values from descriptive statements of fact. So, for instance, evolutionary theories about the survival of the fittest have been thought to justify eugenics programmes – but of course they don’t. They just describe something that happens, not whether it, or anything based on it, is good or bad. Or another example: someone might argue that women have traditionally been subservient to their husbands and fathers, so it’s right and proper to resist attempts to change this. Which is rubbish.

So we can’t ground moral statements in purely factual descriptions. We can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. But then the trouble is that you can’t ground morality in anything at all – if you want to make a firmly supported moral statement, it has to be grounded in another moral statement, which in turn…

So some think that morality must therefore be fundamental, standing alone, like the necessary truths of maths. Others aren’t so sure about this: if you reject basic principles of arithmetic, all your bridges will fall down and your cakes burn in the oven, but you can reject all morality and still function perfectly efficiently. And ‘1+1=3’ leads to logical contradiction as well as physical disaster, but ‘torturing people for fun is fine’ doesn’t.

Others think, because of all this, that there can’t be objective, ‘real’ morality. Still others have fiendishly complicated ideas for getting round this, about which I am very hazy indeed – but, to my knowledge, none is widely accepted even among philosophers.

I appreciate there’s logic in this line of thought, but I don’t really like where it goes.

Most of the time, when I talk about moral issues, I do so in a political rather than a philosophical way. In that sort of context, there’s really no question of needing to decide ‘why is anything right or wrong?’ before thinking about welfare reform or intervention in Sudan. Here, I generally do take the sort of starting point that Matt does: “It's empathy, and the morality built on it, which allows the level of co-operation and co-existence which has brought about civilisation as it now stands.”

Philosophically, I don’t have a proof that my moral principles are definitely real and objective, and I find it hard to know what to think about whether they could or should be – so the most accurate thing to say is that while I’m positively atheistic as far as god is concerned, when it comes to morality I’m more – at the deeper, abstract level – agnostic. Maybe there are a dozen books I could carefully read to convince me that there is some guarantee of its reality. Maybe not.

But either way, here I am in the world, I have these beliefs about everyday right and wrong, most other people seem to have mostly the same sort of beliefs – is uncertainty at a very abstract level a good enough reason to reject the way I am? Now I think about it, maybe pragmatism might be a better word than agnosticism?

(And it’s true that there is a striking amount of agreement across cultures on very basic morality. Some version of the ‘golden rule’, based on reciprocity, appears again and again: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” from Jesus; “Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you” from Mohammed; “What you do not wish upon yourself, extend not to others” from Confucius; “Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you” from the Hindu Mahabharata… and so on. It’s never unanimously held, and most of us fail to live up to this from time to time even when we do accept it, and in some cases a whole culture can define certain groups as not worthy of reciprocity. But this value does seem to be a remarkably consistent part of human nature.)

Thing is, though, and you could probably see this coming several paragraphs back, I don’t think that adding god into the picture brings any extra support for moral realism.

“I do not believe that people are valuable only in how they relate to to the system. It's our birthright. It's supernatural. And it's beautiful. Why do you feel repression and bigotry are wrong? … I would wager that you actually believe it's wrong. But why? When you ask the question: "What is it about the sum total of all these individuals that makes their valuing each other inherently valuable?" That is exactly the right question! A godless existence has no answer to this.”

Now, if we can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, doesn’t this apply equally to ‘there is a God’ and ‘he loves us’ and ‘he wants us to do X and not Y’? These are all descriptive statements of fact – they may be supernatural rather than natural facts, and they may be spectacularly important ones to us, but all the same they don’t help us move from the realm of fact to value. So I think the lack of an answer is something we all have to deal with. Unless I’m missing something here? (I often am!)

“As a rational being, (able to reason above and beyond my chemistry) if I saw that my "morality" was simply a combination of biochemistry and my environmentI would realize I had been had.”

This is interesting. There are two very different senses of ‘morality’ that are sometimes run together. I don’t think either of you are, but I’m going to explicitly separate them anyway.

First, there’s morality ‘in itself’ – actual rightness and wrongness. Second, there’s human moral psychology, the (group or individual) sense of what’s right and wrong. Now, the explanation of how we come to hold certain moral views is something that can be completely independent of whatever’s going on at the first, philosophical level.

Sure, Alex, you’re an evolution sceptic. (BTW if you fancy that discussion, you’ll probably want someone who knows more science than me!) But say we did evolve naturally, and our ability to do, say, calculus is just a by-product of this that we’ve very slowly finessed – it’s not exactly useful for surviving on the savannah – rather than reflecting some sort of ‘rational principle’ inserted into our bodies from above. That wouldn’t in any way diminish our ability to do calculus, would it? It would still be real and capable of finding truth, despite being the result of blind luck, biochemistry and social upbringing.

Now, if we happen to have come by our moral sense purely by evolutionary and cultural processes, does that mean automatically that the moral opinions we have are worthless? I don’t think so. I think it certainly obliges us to expect our moral sense to be a flawed and rickety contraption, prone to all sorts of biases and blind spots – which it surely is. But the source of the contraption, and the materials it’s made of, don’t to me cancel out in advance the value of what it’s capable of.

So, I rate biochemistry pretty highly, especially when it’s been socialised. Some of it can do calculus. And moral reasoning as well. Sure, there’s a world of difference between us and the monkeys, but there’s likewise a world of difference between the monkeys and the slugs. Or the slugs and the bacteria. And, unless the lower beasts have souls as well, those massive psychological differences are just biochemistry.

(And point well taken about “deserving god’s love”. Probably should have said something like “striving to better deserve”.)

Matt M said...

A pretty good summary of Hume's theory of morality can be found here. It's what I've - in my stumblingly amateurish way - tried to draw my own theory from.

(Hume's theory that is, not just the summary)

Alex said...

Hey Tom,
I just wanted to say once again I really do appreciate the time you took to craft your response. There are several things I'd like to say in response, as well as a good amount of thought I still need to do before I can actually commit anything to writing. Plus, our good friend Matt has been keeping me very busy as of late. Feel free to pop on in. We are touching on some of the issues you raised in your last post here on our latest rant.

Anonymous said...

I think that someone who doesn't accept God such as Scott Adams can enjoy all of the fruits of this life and God does not prevent that. In fact many who do not have God are very comfortable and successful. Alternatively many persons who do believe in God have little in the way of money, success, or comforts. Many who believe in God such as myself have faced terrible hardships in life such as losing a wife or having great illness. Every one of you reading this post now will face death and I am ready because I would rather live all my life's hardships over again and again than to have life without God. Thank you for listening to my point of view I once was were many of you are now. I thought that people who follow the Lord were weak or just needing a crutch. At times in my past I wanted to believe in God and I would say that I did but never had a change in my heart so this reinforced my opinion. Then one day it happened to me unexpectedly and he came into my heart and unless it has happened to you one can never explain this to another.

Matt said...

Why do we need any purpose in life, either internal or external? Does it not come from our own psychological human need? And I think we know it is a serious need because when we hear of a person who tells us that he or she has no purpose in living, we immediately think of suicide.

We have complete freedom to pick any purpose whatsoever, right? But no. The purpose I choose has to satisfy my need; my need to feel a “sense of moral purpose”. We are being held a slave to a psychological need that is coming only from within us. We all need to feel good about ourselves and we use the situations of our friends, our family, and the people we meet, in order to satisfy that need. If we were truly concerned about the needs of others, we would sit down and rationally plan our gifts of time and money but we don’t do that at all. We give in accordance with how we feel and we give the most to those causes that make us feel the best. We are not driven by the rationality of the situation but by our own emotional needs.

So the truth is that we do our good deeds in order to manipulate other people which in turn will satisfy our psychological need. But that truth destroys the selflessness of those good deeds, and as a result, we are compelled to hide the truth from ourselves. So I tell myself that my purpose is to “help other people along when I can”, but really my purpose is to satisfy my own need to feel as if I have a purpose.