Of Course Atheists Have Meaning and Value—Just No Good Way To Explain It

Of Course Atheists Have Meaning and Value—Just No Good Way To Explain It

Atheists often confuse Christians’ position on meaning and value. The typical version, as it comes from atheists’ mouth, is, “Christians say you don’t have meaning or value unless you believe in God. But that’s obviously false! I don’t believe in God, and I have no trouble finding meaning and value in my life.”

This morning’s post is a comment that ran away from me. I was responding to Otto Telick’s comment last night, when I realized my response was suitable for a new blog entry.

Belief vs. Reality
Otto said there that (Christian theist) BillT’s position is approximately that “human life is worthless when humans don’t accept Christ as their savior.” That’s not approximately correct, unfortunately. His representation of (Christian theist) SteveK’s view is better: “true, immutable, universal morality exists, defined independently of each and every specific human society, and only Christ defines what that morality is.”

Here’s the difference between his versions of the two positions: in the first he makes belief in Christ the main thing, in the second he makes the reality of Christ the main thing.

For many things, though certainly not all (see my final paragraph below), it is just the reality of the triune God that matters. Humans have meaning because God made us that way. Nothing can remove that from us, including disbelief in God.

Needing God vs. Needing Belief in God
Thus when an atheist says she has no trouble experiencing a meaningful life, I jump to agree with her. If however she says she doesn’t need God to have meaning, then I disagree. It’s the difference between “needing to believe in God” and “needing God.” Let me explain.

Clearly we all experience and know that we have meaning and value. That’s an empirical fact. No one here is denying it. Christianity explains that fact quite readily.

Suppose there is no God, however. Then that empirical fact becomes very difficult to justify. though it is still true that we experience this sense of meaning and value, it is extremely hard to explain that experience.

Theistic vs. Naturalistic Explanations of Meaning and Value
On theism we are created with value or worth. On non-theism, we came about by naturalistic evolutionary processes. So one must conclude that there is some evolutionary advantage for humans having the belief that we have intrinsic meaning and value (or worth). The difficulty there is that evolutionary advantage is nothing but shorthand for “that which causes individuals to reproduce more successfully.”

Let me re-emphasize that “nothing but” clause. On standard evolutionary theory, there is nothing but differential reproduction that could cause anything in organisms, including both physiology and behavior; and behavior includes our thoughts.

(Technically there is one other cause for biological outcomes: pure chance. Genetic drift is a statistically sophisticated description of chance-plus-luck, or in other words, pure chance. Feel free to insert “pure chance” into the following discussion if you think it might produce a different conclusion. It won’t. Note that I am using the term “cause” in association with chance advisedly, since chance isn’t actually a causal force at all. I won’t go into that issue now, though.)

What Evolution Can—and Cannot—Do
Naturalistic evolution (NE) cannot cause meaning and it cannot cause value. It can only—according to standard versions of the theory—cause the perpetuation of chance events that turn out to produce differential reproductive fitness. And if NE can’t cause anything but the conservation of chance events producing differential reproductive fitness, and if NE is true, then there is nothing that can produce any biological result but that.

And since on evolutionary theory the sensation of meaning or worth is a biological outcome, and since biology is all there is for organisms, then if NE is true, our sensation of meaning and value is nothing but a sensation that helps members of the population make more babies that make more babies.

I have repeated the words “nothing but.” I don’t actually believe in “nothing-buttery,” as I think Lewis called it. But let me go on and explain further; for if atheism is true, then I think we’re doomed to nothing-buttery.

For example, one might think that having the value of perpetuating the family or the species is meaningful in itself. Again, on Christian theism the conclusion that some human value or experience x has meaning is easy to explain. It’s because meaning and value are real. But think about what NE says about Smith’s thought that perpetuating his family or the human face is meaningful. Call that thought P. Let’s analyze it briefly:

1. Smith’s thought P has a cause, and that cause is that it’s associated with differential reproductive success. But
2. Smith’s thought P is that reproductive success is valuable.

To Explain A Behavior Is Not to Justify a Belief
What we have here is a circle of causation: P is both the product and the cause of reproductive success. What we don’t have here is any explanation of why P?; and causation is not explanation. To explain why Smith thinks P is to explain Smith’s behavior of thinking P, not to explain why P is actually or even potentially true. If P is fully explained in terms of P’s being a behavior and a sensation, then P just is a behavior and a sensation. And if so, then there is no point in thinking P is true or even potentially true; for behaviors and sensations don’t have true/false values.

Therefore although NE could explain the cause of Smith’s behavior and sensation of thinking he has meaning and value, it eliminates the rational possibility of his actually thinking his belief P is true; for it places P into the realm of that which can neither be true nor false.

I think now we can see where BillT’s Why should I care? questions come in. If atheism is true, then although we do care, we cannot explain why we should care. Evolutionary causation could explain why we actually care, but it cannot explain why we should care, or what it could mean to say “My caring about X is meaningful.”

In This Case It’s the Reality, Not the Belief, That Matters
On Christian theism, all humans have meaning and value whether they believe in God or not. On NE, all humans have a reproductively-associated sensation of meaning and value whether they believe in God or not. It’s not the belief in God that determines what meaning or value we have, it’s the ontological reality of God (or not) that determines it.

So why do Christians make such a big deal about believing in God? It’s not that believers have meaning and value while unbelievers do not. That’s a mistaken view of Christian teaching. Some atheists seem to think that we think it, but we do not. No Christian that I know of in any tradition anywhere thinks it.

Yet the Belief Still Matters!
What we do think is that all humans have meaning and value, we all have moral significance, we have all made significant moral errors that have significant consequences, and that the way to escape death as the ultimate consequence is to affirm our trusting assent upon the reality that Christ died in our place as a substitute for us in paying that penalty of death.

68 thoughts on “Of Course Atheists Have Meaning and Value—Just No Good Way To Explain It

  1. Yes, thank you, Tom.

    One thing that sticks in my craw is the notion that humans create their own meaning and significance. That we are significant because we say so. We hear it all the time from our naturalist friends.

    But as you pointed out, all a person can do is create within their mind the SENSATION or PERCEPTION of meaning and significance. In your mind, you and others are living life and functioning AS IF this is a true fact of reality, but it is only a sensation/perception in our mind – thanks to the evolutionary mechanism. Under naturalism, you are not significant. Your life has no meaning. You are playing make-believe – like a child who plays with their dolls and pretends that they are alive and talking.

    Christianity, if it is true, changes all of that. If Christianity is true then your sensation/perception of meaning and significance goes beyond your mind and beyond any evolutionary mechanism. You are no longer playing make-believe and pretending that you have value because you really do have value.

  2. This is timely and relevant:

    Then I learned that all moral judgments are ‘value judgments,’ that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ […] …if the rationality of one value judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any ‘reason’ to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the boldness and daring — the strength of character — to throw off its shackles. I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited.

    And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable ‘value judgment’ that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others’? Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more to you than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely, you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’?”

    – Ted Bundy, excerpt from tapes

    According to the Youtube author that I quoted here, Ted is not the problem. The problem is the people who dogmatically think that Ted was objectively immoral.

  3. Tom: Let me first join the others in thanking you, sincerely.

    Regarding our friend Smith and his thought P, I’d like to paraphrase and reorganize the syllogism, to see if I understand you:

    1. Smith has a thought P, which is that reproductive success is valuable.

    2. There is a cause for P, which is that P is associated with reproductive success.

    This of course is tautological. If Smith instead had the opposite thought (“not-P”), he would not produce any offspring (because he finds no value in that), so “not-P” would never be associated with reproductive success; this direction of branching off from Smith’s parent species would become an evolutionary dead-end. So long as some members of the species continue to have the thought P (and successfully reproduce, in part because they find value in it), both P and not-P lead, through their respective results, to P being associated with reproductive success.

    Similar reasoning applies to other thoughts Smith may have that influence his behavior with regard to promoting vs. diminishing the “fitness” of his species, which encompasses the well-being of its members in the aggregate.

    (The relationships between biological propagation and thought processes are certainly far more complex and nuanced. I’ve adopted this gross over-simplification for the sake of clarifying the tautology.)

    But the problem at hand has to do with “value”, and here it seems you are trying to draw a distinction between two different realms in the use of this term: a physical, experiential, transient realm vs. an immutable, eternal, spiritual realm.

    It is in the former realm that we can explain why P is true, that reproductive success is valuable. We’re working in the context of sentient beings who evince learned behaviors, which means that their awareness of previous experience (both their own and that of other beings) influences their choices for future actions.

    In this context, having and raising children has demonstrable value. On balance, it is a pleasant experience – not only is sex itself enjoyable, but children bring enjoyment that tends to outweigh the pain, effort and risks of parenting; a vital factor here is that children naturally develop an awareness of the enjoyment felt by their parents, and generally learn to act in ways that enhance their parents’ enjoyment – the value to the child of such action is self-evident. (We can explore the interplay between physiology and emotion, but those details are outside the present scope of discussion.) As children mature, they provide tangible benefits for their parents (and the larger community), to the extent that the effort contributed by the children helps to support the parents (and others), especially as old age sets in.

    That should be a sufficient definition of “value” to justify Smith’s acceptance of P, and to explain why P is true, esp. given how well this value meshes with enhancing the overall fitness of the species.

    But apparently that’s where you, Tom (and SteveK and BillT), are inclined to disagree – you don’t think that’s a sufficient way to define value. You want something else, beyond the physical realm, to create value for you; you want an ontology for value that stems from some notion of a supernatural realm, having attributes of eternity and immutability.

    Well, fine. You get that by making stuff up, or by accepting the claims of ancient authors who were making stuff up, about the supernatural realm. You get your value by saying “God made it.” You can’t explain why He made it, but you don’t see that as a problem, because of course God is perfect, so whatever he does needs no further explanation. (And this is all true because the Bible says it’s true, and the Bible is correct because the Bible says so and you believe it. QED)

    And of course, given all that, it all applies universally to everyone on the planet, no matter whether anyone happens to disagree with you in any of the supernatural particulars.

    I’ll mention here that some time ago, Tom introduced me to the term “progressive revelation” (it took me a while to dig up that thread). I’m sure I haven’t succeeded in learning all the subtleties that make this idea so appealing to some theists, and that must be why I still see a kind of cognitive incongruity between notions of eternally immutable values and Tom’s admission that “Our understanding of God’s revelation continues to unfold” (which, in effect, means we now understand things more, and differently, than the OT authors did, and we still have more to learn).

    I’ll admit that I have nothing to offer in terms of an ethereal, supernatural definition of value. I don’t actually see any value in doing so. It’s enough for me to continue trying to get a better understanding of how humans create and handle value in their lives (in the physical realm), and how they handle the inescapable conflicts that arise in those situations of unavoidable contact between different individuals or different groups (or between individuals and groups) who have clashing values.

    In this regard, history indicates that people with purely ethereal, supernatural notions of value do not fare as well (they suffer or inflect more damage and/or derive / create less benefit), compared to those who rely on evidence-based reasoning to support their values. I’m not saying that all Christians fall into the former group, because that’s obviously not true. Nor do all atheists fall into the latter. I’m just saying that “the ontological reality of God (or not)” doesn’t necessarily provide the kind of value you think it does.

    One last item – I couldn’t ignore this snippet:

    It’s not that believers have meaning and value while unbelievers do not. That’s a mistaken view of Christian teaching. You seem to think that we think it, but we do not. No Christian that I know of in any tradition anywhere thinks it.

    The truth of that last claim depends on numerous further claims, of the form “X is not a true Christian,” where X includes members of the Westboro Baptist Church, etc. Surely you’ve heard them, and many like them.

    I wouldn’t doubt your sincerity in labeling numerous self-identifying Christians as misguided and incorrect in their use of that term. But the only way to firmly refute them is through evidence-based reasoning; appealing to scripture alone has already proven to be ineffective.

  4. @SteveK: Would I be correct to infer that you’re quoting an “atheistic” example of a psychopath in order to provide a counterpoint to the theistic one presented in the video I mentioned in the other thread?

    Here’s the relevant (abridged) part of that video, leading up to the closing remark about “fixed and objective” morality that you cited:

    Hitler believed that moral standards are objective and divinely prescribed, and further, that he knew what those prescriptions were. Mein Kampf is riddled with references to absolute moral principles and God’s divine will and authority… Here’s a quote for you: ‘I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.’ – Adolf Hilter, Mein Kampf, volume 1, chapter 2. …

    You’ve got Hitler over here, who believes God is on his side, and you’ve got Joe Blow over here, who believes God is on his side… that’s called a stalemate… What are you going to do? Ask God? […mimic of a Q-and-A dialog with God…] It’s not going to happen. All we get to do is speculate [about what God would say], whether God exists or not. When you believe that morality is fixed and absolute and prescribed by some metaphysical authority, you forfeit your right to have a conversation about it. …

    As for the part in Bundy’s remarks that is patently unsupportable under a naturalistic understanding of morality, BillT pinpointed it exactly. And there’s plenty to object to in the lead up to “Why should I sacrifice my pleasure…” (Many people are vegetarians because to them, killing any creature that possesses a brain is wrong, owing to the suffering it causes.)

    Yes, I would say that nature – or rather, every group of sentient beings having a naturally developed social organization as part of its “fitness” for survival – “has marked some pleasures as … ‘good’ and others … ‘bad'”.

    There’s nothing to stop an individual within such a group from “rebelling” and indulging in “bad” behaviors, except the rest of the group, whose survival is thereby threatened, and whose natural obligation is therefore to put a stop to such behavior. (And yes, the notion of “obligation” is something that exists in nature.)

    Ted Bundy is the problem, because he’s a psychopath. His actions were wrong, whether you use dogma or evidence-based reasoning to reach that conclusion. (But the difference in methodology is that when using dogma, you might not arrive at that conclusion, depending on where it’s coming from.)

    Let me just add that the term “objective morality,” when used to refer to an absolute, immutable, supernaturally ordained notion of morality, strikes me as an astonishing misuse of the word “objective.”

  5. Otto, you say,

    I’d like to paraphrase and reorganize the syllogism, to see if I understand you:

    1. Smith has a thought P, which is that reproductive success is valuable.

    2. There is a cause for P, which is that P is associated with reproductive success.

    This of course is tautological.

    Whether it’s a tautology or not is irrelevant to the analysis I made, and as I read the rest of what you wrote there, it almost seemed to me you were granting that. You were tracking with me briefly on what I wrote about thoughts like P being fully caused by their association with evolutionary success. And if that association is the entire and complete cause for P, then you have causal closure; and to be specific, there is no room left for P to be caused also by “I believe P is true.”

    Truth or falsity have nothing to do with reproductive success, on naturalistic evolution. Physiology does, and so do behaviors, including for example behaviors like thinking reproductive success is valuable. But don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking that just because the behavior of thinking P might the behavior of thinking P is true, that means that the truth of P is a cause for the behavior of thinking P. It’s not. Causation for P is closed: Smith thinks P just because of P’s evolutionary advantage for the population of which Smith is a member.

    So when you say, “It is in the former realm that we can explain why P is true, that reproductive success is valuable,” I want to know how you can say P’s truth has anything at all to do with Smith’s thinking P, when the causal space for Smith’s thinking P is completely filled up with P’s association with the population’s reproductive success.

    You go on to say some things I agree with whole-heartedly, for example,

    We’re working in the context of sentient beings who evince learned behaviors, which means that their awareness of previous experience (both their own and that of other beings) influences their choices for future actions.

    In this context, having and raising children has demonstrable value.

    Sure. That’s absolutely and completely true. And it’s easy to explain, on theism. Your problem is with explaining its truth, on NE. You say,

    That should be a sufficient definition of “value” to justify Smith’s acceptance of P, and to explain why P is true, esp. given how well this value meshes with enhancing the overall fitness of the species.

    But here you’ve smuggled that word “true” in again, as if P’s truth had anything at all to do with Smith’s thinking P.

    I’m really pressing on NE here, I know. What I’m saying is that there is a huge difference between what we all experience and know to be true (P is true, for example) and what NE can rationally explain or account for. I’ll agree with you all day long that we have value, and that we can know that it’s true that we have value. I’ll agree with you that the truth of P is one reason we think P; it’s part of the causal chain that leads us to think P.

    Let me try to explain it this way:

    A. On theism, Smith thinks P, and though there are many reasons and causes for his thinking P, one of them is that he believes there is reason to consider P true.

    B. On NE, Smith thinks P, and the cause for him thinking it is because thinking P is a behavior that’s associated with the propagation of the species; and there is no other cause for it whatsoever.

    Option B is completely unacceptable on many grounds. I recognize that. It’s just that I can’t help seeing that if NE is true, then closure is caused by the very nature of NE, and therefore B has to be true if NE is true. That’s the problem naturalists are stuck with. I don’t know how you get out of it except by giving up NE; for if NE entails B, and if B is false, then NE is false.

  6. You go on to say,

    You get your value by saying “God made it.” You can’t explain why He made it, but you don’t see that as a problem, because of course God is perfect, so whatever he does needs no further explanation. (And this is all true because the Bible says it’s true, and the Bible is correct because the Bible says so and you believe it. QED)

    1. Value isn’t something God makes up. It’s something he imparts. To be created by God in his image, to be an eternal being, to be in relationship with other eternal beings (esp. God), to have real moral significance in a morally significant world, just is to have value.

    2. Why does it matter if we can or cannot explain why God does what he does? It’s in the nature of God and the nature of humans that some things about God will be beyond us. (Some things? I understate it, obviously.)

    3. Recall my prior points: if NE is true, then there is an evolutionarily-related cause for thinking we have value, but there is no room left over in that causal space for reasoning to contribute to our thinking we have value.

    4. Therefore (2 and 3) on theism we have mystery. On NE we have impossibility. Take your choice.

    Finally (for now at least),

    In this regard, history indicates that people with purely ethereal, supernatural notions of value do not fare as well (they suffer or inflect more damage and/or derive / create less benefit), compared to those who rely on evidence-based reasoning to support their values. I’m not saying that all Christians fall into the former group, because that’s obviously not true. Nor do all atheists fall into the latter. I’m just saying that “the ontological reality of God (or not)” doesn’t necessarily provide the kind of value you think it does.

    You stumbled over yourself here. You began by saying there’s a problem associated with beliefs about God and etc., and from that you concluded something about the ontological reality of God. Please re-read my OP to avoid making that kind of mistake. Thanks.

  7. For the sake of technical accuracy as well as ease of understanding, it might be good to think less of “Smith” and more of humanity in general; i.e., if NE is true, then the human species has acquired the behavior of thinking that humans and human life have value, worth, and meaning, just because that behavior has contributed to the propagation and preservation of the species, and not because the thought has any truth or falsehood to it.

  8. Tom: I’ll need to postpone direct answers to your latest comments (thank you for those, BTW) – I have to admit I’m having some trouble trying to interpret what you’re trying to say.

    In the meantime, I just came across another blog post that I think might be useful here. (This is as much for SteveK as anyone else – it’s “timely and relevant.”)

    The author is Deacon Duncan (perhaps you’ve seen his work?), and the excerpt below (abridged, with some clarification inserted) is the wrap-up of a more extended discussion (which includes a more complete description of “useful pain”):

    … Secular philosophy is not burdened with superstitious presumptions of [divinely imparted] purpose, and is therefore morally and ethically free to approach pointless suffering as a thing devoid of merit, which can and should be minimized and eliminated wherever possible. Indeed, all suffering is intrinsically meritless—even “useful pain” is only something we endure because we lack an alternative that achieves the same results without the pain. …

    Purpose, as applied to suffering, is a problem. It’s a moral and ethical problem for the person (or Person) who is deliberately choosing to cause or allow the suffering of others, and it’s a moral and ethical problem for anyone who would then (sinfully) choose to oppose that purpose by seeking to end the suffering. Atheism does not suffer from such superstition-induced ethical dilemmas, and is free to directly address the problem of suffering itself. And in the end, even religious philosophy has to come down to the secular level, if it is to be any real comfort to the afflicted.

    The parts I’ve left out are also important, but the quoted portion gets the essential points across, I think.

  9. I wonder if Deacon Duncan realizes that being morally and ethically free means being morally ethically free; that is, while eliminating suffering of all merit, it removes all merit from everything. The arguments I’ve made here with respect to worth and value apply equally to morality: if NE provides causal closure upon all of our behaviors and physiology (and it does, if NE is true), and if all NE “knows” how to accomplish is to cause favorable variations in a population to propagate, then morality is nothing but a labeling behavior that contributes to the propagaion of our species. I mean exactly nothing but that.

    That’s a long argument, in fact, it’s the thrust of an article I’ve been working on for publication. I won’t mind if you don’t get it based on this very short synopsis.

    I appreciate your taking the time to try to think through what I’ve been saying on the current topic, though. Thanks.

  10. I don’t think my life is of any real value or that there is any meaning to anything. does my position refute this post?

  11. More precisely, if you could show that your position is correct then it would refute the teaching of Christianity on this point. It wouldn’t refute or even address the two main points of this post, which are that Christianity has taught what it has taught, and that there is no good accounting for meaning and worth under naturalistic evolution.

  12. Otto, thanks for hanging in there with me on this analysis. I’m going to break it down into more bite-sized chunks and see if that works better.

    1. Naturalistic evolution (NE) is atheism’s only explanation for how anything came to be in the world of biology.

    2. NE “knows” how to produce physiological and behavioral features in organisms, and it doesn’t know anything else but that.

    3. Therefore what NE produces is either a physiological or a behavioral feature; it has no power to produce anything else.

    4. The thought, “I have meaning and worth,” is a human behavior.

    5. Thus when we are searching for the origins of the thought-behavior, “I have meaning and worth,” we have to look at naturalistic evolution as its explanatory source.

    6. Question: Is there any other place besides NE that we could look to alongside it as an additional explanatory source?

  13. The bottom line is this: From a mindless, natural evolutionary perspective meaning, values and morality are all illusory. The universe (or nature) does not value us, does not care for us, does not have us in mind.

    I think many, if not most, modern evolutionists would agree with me here.

    For example, Cornell University professor Will Provine has been publicly outspoken in connecting Darwin’s scientific theory with an atheistic world view. In his 1994 debate with Philip Johnson at Stanford University Provine stated: “No ultimate foundations for ethics exist, no ultimate meaning in life exists, and free will is merely a human myth. These are all conclusions to which Darwin came quite clearly.”

    And, according to Michael Ruse, a professor of the philosophy of science:

    “The position of the modern evolutionist…is that humans have an awareness of morality…because such an awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation, no less than are hands and feet and teeth…. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, [ethics] is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves…. Nevertheless…such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction and…any deeper meaning is illusory….”

    Michael Ruse, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 262, 268–69.

    Also, Ruse with E.O. Wilson write:

    “Morality… is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends… In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.”
    —Michael Ruse and E.O. Wilson, “The Evolution of Ethics.”

  14. Great article Tom. I really enjoyed reading it. I have two questions. 1). I think social contract theory plays really well with NE as an additional explanatory source for the origins and purpose of morality of which meaning and value would stem. My question is what do you think of this stance? Give me some constructive criticism. 2) I’ve always wanted to hear what a well- read person of your stance thought of the Euthyphro dilemma and how their stance avoids it if they agree it’s problematic.

  15. Thank you for the encouraging word, Philo000, and for the questions.

    1. Social contract theory has some explanatory power, for sure. Does it have that power along with NE, though? My contention is that causation is closed on NE, that once you admit NE, as a cause, then NE becomes the causal monster that eats up all other causes. If I’m right, social contract theory operates within NE, not alongside it. It’s a way of understanding how NE works, but for all that it remains a way that NE works. In the Venn diagram of causation, SCT is contained fully inside the circle that is NE.

    So whatever is true of SCT must be consistent with what is true of NE, if I am right. Part of what is true of NE is that it has no power or capability to do anything except conserve physiological and behavioral characteristics that contribute to a population’s reproduction. Thus SCT, being something caused by NE, is either a physiological or behavioral characteristic that contributes to making more babies that make more babies.

    My challenge in light of that, and the point of my question to Otto this morning, is whether NE can claim anything more for itself than the production of multiple-generational-baby-making behaviors. I don’t think it can; and since causation is closed on NE, I don’t think (on NE) there’s anything else that can. Thus I conclude that SCT, like everything else we’ve been talking about (on NE), is nothing but a behavioral feature of humans that contributes to our making more babies that make more babies.

    So is SCT a good idea or a bad idea? Neither. It’s a behavioral feature that contributes to our making more babies that make more babies.

    I don’t agree with that conclusion for one nanosecond, but I think it follows necessarily from NE, which is one reason I reject NE.

    2. The Euthyphro question is a good one but a bit off topic for this discussion. You can see some of our earlier discussions on it, though, plus another one from William Lane Craig. My short answer is that the dilemma is a false one: that the two horns are not the only options. God is who he is, and who is, is good. There’s no possibility of arbitrariness in him because his love, his justice, his mercy, leave no room for him to make the bad good or the good bad.

    But that’s off topic, as I said, and I’d rather not chase that subject here in the midst of one that’s already complicated enough.

  16. Technical note lest someone call me on this: when I speak of NE being the only cause, I mean NE in conjunction with environmental influences and chance, whose Venn diagram circles overlap with NE considerably. Neither of them has any power to do anything that NE cannot do.

  17. In his book, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe, Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg writes:

    “It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we are somehow built in from the beginning… It is very hard to realize that this is all just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible the more it seems pointless.” (p.144)

    I would suggest that Weinberg was trying to play, perhaps unwittingly, a subtle bait and switch game here. This paragraph appears at the end of a book which is purportedly a book about following the chain of scientific evidence back to the very first few minutes of the universe. I have no problem with that. Weinberg is a Nobel Prize winning physicist. By vocation he has the credentials, the knowledge and expertise to explain how the universe evolved. He is not, however, anymore qualified than anybody else to tell us what it all means. And, at least in academia, such questions are the province of philosophers and theologians not physicists.

    The paragraph did not go unnoticed and Weinberg soon became aware that he had crossed an invisible boundary line into disputed territory. Fifteen years later in another book, Dreams of a Final Theory, he admits that phrase “the more the universe seems comprehensible the more it seems pointless,” had dogged him ever since. He then vainly tries to explain what he really meant.

    “I did not mean,” he writes, “that science teaches us that the universe is pointless, but that the universe itself suggests no point.” He then adds that he doesn’t see life as pointless or meaningless but that as scientists and people we can “invent a point for our lives, including trying to understand the universe.”

    He then goes on the describe the reaction of some of his colleagues to his infamous little phrase. For example, Harvard astronomer Margaret Geller, opines, “Why should it have a point? What point? It is just a physical system, what point is there?”

    Princeton astrophysicist Jim Peebles was willing to take the implications a bit further. He says, “I am willing to believe that we are flotsam and jetsam.”

    However, Weinberg writes that his favorite response came from University of Texas astronomer Gerard de Vaucouleurs who remarked that Weinberg’s phrase was actually “nostalgic.” “Indeed it was,” Weinberg concedes, “nostalgic for a world in which the heavens declared the glory of God.”

    He then goes on to explain.

    “It would be wonderful to find in the laws of nature a plan prepared by a concerned creator in which human beings played some special role. I find sadness in doubting that we will. There are some among my scientific colleagues who say that the contemplation of nature gives them all the spiritual satisfaction that others have traditionally found in a belief in an interested God. Some of them may even really feel that way. I do not. And it does not seem to me to be helpful to identify the laws of nature as Einstein did with some sort of remote and disinterested God. The more we refine our understanding of God to make the concept plausible, the more it seems to be pointless.”

    Weinberg’s sentiment is obviously atheistic. But is his atheism the result of what he has discovered out there in the universe? Or, does he see the universe the way he does because of the preconceptions that he has as an atheist?

  18. If I were an atheist I think the following quotes, by Jean-Paul Sartre, would closely reflect my beliefs.

    “Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.”

    “Life has no meaning a priori … It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.”

    “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.”

    “The absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusions … and without resignation either. He stares at death with passionate attention and this fascination liberates him. He experiences the ‘divine irresponsibility’ of the condemned man.”

    “Life is a useless passion.”

    And most ironically,

    “I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here; and this idea of a creating hand refers to God.”
    http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/1466.Jean_Paul_Sartre?page=1

    An authentic atheist recognizes that any kind of belief in real purpose, meaning or value is illusory.

  19. Here’s a comment authored by Keith Parsons, over at Secular Outpost:

    Smijer raises some good and interesting points about “purpose.” “Purpose” is multiply ambiguous when we are discussing “meaning of life” issues. It can mean at least three things:

    1) Cosmic purpose: The idea that, in some sense, we, individually or collectively, were meant to be here. That is, my personal existence, or the existence of the human race, is not a historical contigency, but was somehow the product of intention by God or the universe.

    2) A sense of purpose: That is, the feeling that I have a mission or a calling to commit myself to something important, something bigger than me, but also something that allows me to make a difference.

    3) Aristotelian purpose: This is the idea that there is a natural telos of human life, that is, a way of living that is naturally and intrinsically the most fulfilling and rewarding, the state where we achieve genuine well-being, what Aristotle called “eudaimonia.”

    Atheism can recognize purpose in senses 2 and 3, but not in sense 1. Theistic rhetoric often overheats in decrying the fact that for the atheist humanity is just an “accident of nature.” If by “accident of nature” is meant that the human race came about through the natural, undirected processes of evolution (“the blind watchmaker”), just like every other type of creature, this is just what atheists affirm. Atheists can find no evidence that homo sapiens was more an intention of the cosmos than tigers, horseshoe crabs, or slime mold. Long ago Bertrand Russell had good, malicious fun debunking the idea that the course of evolution had as its aim the production of the human species.

    What the atheist fails to see is why purpose in this cosmic sense is necessary for a life filled with meaning. Why does my, or my species’, existence have to have been intended for me to discover love, beauty, truth, goodness, and all that gives life its deepest meanings? The yearning to have been somehow cosmically intended seems to me an entirely artificial and perhaps neurotic one, like somebody actually worrying about the ultimate
    demise of the universe. If somebody seriously worries about such things, the appropriate reply would seem to be: “Get a life!”

    Atheism is perfectly compatible with purpose in senses 2 and 3. An atheist can certainly feel a sense of “vocation,” not, of course a literal “calling” by God, but a sense that there is a confluence between a need that must be addressed, or some good to be done, and one’s own talents, values, and personality. For some it might be a sense of calling to be a physician, for others a social worker, or a scientist. For me it was to become a university professor. On many occasions it would have been more convenient for me to have given up on this career and done something else, but my sense of “calling” was so strong that I persevered, and it paid off.

    Atheists also can endorse purpose in the Aristotelian sense. Aristotle held that, just as nature had fitted various creatures to function well in their particular niches in the economy of nature, so humans are fitted to function best in certain ways. According to Aristotle, humans are, by nature, social and rational beings. Therefore, we function optimally, and experience the most fulfillment and satisfaction, when we are living lives of reason and virtue in community with other human beings. There is no reason why atheism cannot accept Aristotle’s claim that some ways of living are intrinsically and naturally the most fulfilling and valuable for human beings.

    Therefore, atheism can countenance the idea of human purpose in two of the above senses–the two that really matter.

    I would add more too it, but it pretty much sums it up.

    And thank-you-very-much, but I’m not being an “inauthentic atheist” to be happy to have all the meaning and purpose that I do, while failing to fret about #1’s impossibility.

  20. JAD,

    If I were an atheist I think the following quotes, by Jean-Paul Sartre, would closely reflect my beliefs.

    I’d suggest that you only think this because you are a committed theist, and highly motivated to make atheism seem as dreary as possible.

  21. Here’s a relevant bit from a week-old post by a blogger named Quine (I’m seeing his work for the first time just today) – this is from the closing paragraph (emphasis added):

    … empathetic suffering was a drive pushing our ancestors to take better care of their family members. From a gene’s eye view, those are people who are likely to be carrying a copy, so Natural Selection would tend to favor those who look after and favor those others. We now can go beyond evolution and think our way into both an understanding of why there has to be pain and suffering, and to extend our natural empathy to a wider and wider field of people, whom we don’t want to suffer. We can do this because we understand how we have come to be, and how these systems work in us. However, to make progress we need to educate other people to also understand this.

    I’ll try to tie this in with Tom’s comment at reply #12 above:

    … if NE provides causal closure upon all of our behaviors and physiology (and it does, if NE is true), and if all NE “knows” how to accomplish is to cause favorable variations in a population to propagate, then morality is nothing but a labeling behavior that contributes to the propagaion of our species. I mean exactly nothing but that.

    Right! I agree with that: morality is nothing but a labeling behavior that contributes to the propagation of our species – and, by extension, to the propagation of other species as well, since it’s obviously true that our own survival depends on the survival of others (plant, animal, bacterial, etc); our propagation will fail if the sources of our food and oxygen are destroyed, or if the biological factors that contribute to keeping our biosphere viable for us stop functioning. Given that this awareness entails deliberate, purposive behavior by individuals that will benefit larger populations, my position is that it constitutes morality.

    Now, Tom, just what more than that do you think morality ought to be? What is it that this labeling behavior lacks in your view?

    Let’s see if I can parse that out from your other statements (maybe I can’t). Turning to your points in #9 above (comments interspersed):

    1. Value isn’t something God makes up. It’s something he imparts.

    What’s the difference? Either He has to make it up first, before he can impart it, or else it existed before He did, which doesn’t help your position.

    To be created by God in his image, to be an eternal being, to be in relationship with other eternal beings (esp. God), to have real moral significance in a morally significant world, just is to have value.

    Just is? When you apply that rationale to something unevidenced, it’s called “special pleading.” And given the imaginary nature of these eternal beings, I’m not seeing a lot of value here.

    2. … some things about God will be beyond us. (Some things? I understate it, obviously.)

    It’s good to see you say that. The same is of course true about life, the universe, and everything. Every naturalist will admit as much regarding our knowledge of nature, but all too many theists refuse to admit as much regarding their knowledge of God (His will, His likes and dislikes, etc) – they’ll just admit to “divine mystery” when confronted with the fact that some of their claims are untenable, despite being drawn directly from their “inerrant” scripture.

    3. … if NE is true, then there is an evolutionarily-related cause for thinking we have value, but there is no room left over in that causal space for reasoning to contribute to our thinking we have value.

    I’m sorry, but that makes no sense. Reasoning (along with language, which facilitates reasoning) is obviously one of the consequences of a suitably elaborate neural structure. We can and do reason about our actions, and can understand, on the basis of reasoning, why some actions are conducive to propagation (and well-being, etc), and others are not.

    4. Therefore (2 and 3) on theism we have mystery. On NE we have impossibility…

    No, not impossibility. I gather you do find something that is impossible to derive from NE… Perhaps it’s something like: a well-reasoned, evidence-based theory for the existence of an eternal being who created us (and everything else in the universe as we know it), wants a personal relationship with us, asks for our devotion under pain of eternal torture if we refuse, and has a dreadful dislike for some of our behaviors that arise naturally, like homosexuality. I agree, you can’t get that from NE, but I don’t see this as a problem for NE.

    Perhaps I’m still not getting your “real” point. It’s hard to see past the theistic “boilerplate” material that comes attached to all theistic arguments, esp. since the boilerplate stuff seems to be foundational.

  22. @Tom: Regarding your closing question at #16: “Is there any other place besides NE that we could look to alongside it as an additional explanatory source?”

    The answer is: if any such “other place” exists, we could look to it as a reliable explanatory source if and only if we can expand or extend the reach of our objectifyable perception to encompass it. In other words, when there’s relevant, useful, empirical evidence to confirm it, it’ll help us understand.

    Short of that, anyone’s guess is as good as anyone else’s – at least until someone’s guess yields such reliable predictions that we are compelled to conclude that it must be (basically) right, even if we don’t have an adequate theory yet to explain why it’s right. (I gather there’s a lot going on in quantum physics that has that feel to it, even among physicists.)

    The problem isn’t so tough in the study of life. Robert Wright’s book “Nonzero” provides a pretty good starting point for an effective theory to explain why behaviors conducive to collaboration ultimately succeed: groups that value such behaviors thrive more than those that don’t. The simplicity of it does not detract from its explanatory power. Quite the contrary.

  23. @JAD: Your “bottom line” comment at #17 is only partly right:

    From a mindless, natural evolutionary perspective meaning, values and morality are all illusory. The universe (or nature) does not value us, does not care for us, does not have us in mind.

    Many if not most atheists would agree that the universe does not value us, does not care for us, does not have us in mind. Indeed, there’s no basis for attributing “mind” to the universe, let alone an ability to perceive, designate, or “care about” the relative values of its components. Nor is it within the ability of sentient life, as we currently know it, to correctly infer what sort of purpose the universe has, if any. (E.g. we cannot safely assume that the purpose of the universe is to foster life).

    But it does not follow from this that “meaning, values and morality are illusory,” any more than sensory perception is illusory. We’ll acknowledge that particular instances of meaning, values and morality, like particular instances of perception, can sometimes be sub-optimal, in the sense of being inadequate and serving us poorly in a given situation.

    Meaning, values, and morality are social constructs, and as such are demonstrably real components of social groups. They have specific properties and impacts on behavior. The fact that they might be instantiated (defined) by nothing more than linguistic expression doesn’t make them any less real.

  24. One more response to Tom, regarding his #10:

    if NE is true, then the human species has acquired the behavior of thinking that humans and human life have value, worth, and meaning, just because that behavior has contributed to the propagation and preservation of the species, and not because the thought has any truth or falsehood to it.

    The last clause is incorrect. Behaving as if humans and human life have value, worth and meaning is intrinsically a matter of social interaction. Within the context of a human society, the truth of the assertion that humans have value, etc, is observably borne out by the fact that the behaviors consistent with this assertion do in fact produce the desirable results that are consistent with the propagation and preservation of the species.

    It is the human capacity to understand causal relationships, especially between human actions and resulting outcomes, that imparts value, worth and meaning. That really is all that’s needed to create value, worth and meaning in nature.

  25. @JAD: In your very thoughtful discussion of Weinberg, you conclude with a question:

    Weinberg’s sentiment is obviously atheistic. But is his atheism the result of what he has discovered out there in the universe? Or, does he see the universe the way he does because of the preconceptions that he has as an atheist?

    I haven’t studied his work, so I can only guess, but my guess would be: he’s an atheist because in all his experience and study, he has not found any compelling evidence for the existence of any of the gods asserted by the world’s religions.

    That is, his atheism is the result of things he has not seen – because they are not there to be seen – in spite of (and in contrast to) what religions have asserted.

    He sees the universe the way the available evidence shows it to be, and this perception, being objective, is not the result of any opinion about (a)theism.

    Speculations about purpose in the universe, or about humanity’s value relative to the universe, are just that: speculations, and the crux of Weinberg’s position is that speculation of that sort doesn’t really get you much in this domain.

    If the range of value and meaning and worth that has arisen within the “closed” (but expanding) system of mankind’s social nature isn’t good enough for you, I’m really sorry you feel burdened with that as a problem.

    But don’t expect me to believe you when you say there’s this specific supernatural entity that solves your problem for me as well as for you. I don’t have your problem.

  26. Otto @28 quoting a blogger named Quine:

    … empathetic suffering was a drive pushing our ancestors to take better care of their family members. From a gene’s eye view, those are people who are likely to be carrying a copy, so Natural Selection would tend to favor those who look after and favor those others.

    It’s amazing what can be explained by invoking natural selection.

    However, National Academy of Sciences member Phil Skell questioned the explanatory utility of natural selection:

    Natural selection makes humans self-centered and aggressive – except when it makes them altruistic and peaceable. Or natural selection produces virile men who eagerly spread their seed – except when it prefers men who are faithful protectors and providers. When an explanation is so supple that it can explain any behavior, it is difficult to test it experimentally, much less use it as a catalyst for scientific discovery. Darwinian evolution – whatever its other virtues – does not provide a fruitful heuristic in experimental biology.

    Philip S. Skell, “Why Do We Invoke Darwin? Evolutionary theory contributes little to experimental biology,” The Scientist (August 29, 2005)

    In other words, natural selection, has God-like powers. It can explain just about anything if accepted uncritically.
    But wrapping an explanation in the pretense of science does not make it scientific.

  27. So we need to be created by God to have “meaning and value”? Really?
    And who created God so that He can have “meaning and value”? How is it that Christians are so oblivious to the fact that any argument you can make along these lines with respect to humans on atheism, applies to God himself, since God and humans on atheism are in this regard in exactly the same circumstance: neither has been created by another being with specific purpose, or has been endowed with “meaning”, so both have to find their own “meaning” and construct their own purposes as they go along.
    Seriously, how difficult is it to understand that?

    that the way to escape death as the ultimate consequence is to affirm our trusting assent upon the reality that Christ died in our place as a substitute for us in paying that penalty of death.

    that’s also known as SCAPEGOATING: a crazy and primitive idea, that anyone living today should be ashamed of.
    and what is the price of taking responsibility for one’s “moral failings” (that is, doing the moral thing) which being finite can never merit infinite or everlasting punishment? it’s everlasting torment in Hell!
    few views of reality can match this one in terms of sheer wickedness and abomination.

  28. There’s some really interesting stuff going on here, not including banev’s rant. (Banev, I’ve already answered your question about “Who created God so he can have ‘meaning and value.'” I’ll let you read through and find it.)

    Anyway, I’d love to interact with all this, but when I got up I felt the need to finish this post, and now our family is going away for the day.

    I do have this thought for Otto, though. You’re on the right track here:

    Right! I agree with that: morality is nothing but a labeling behavior that contributes to the propagation of our species – and, by extension, to the propagation of other species as well, since it’s obviously true that our own survival depends on the survival of others.

    Bear in mind, though, that if this labeling behavior contributes to the welfare of other species it’s only because, and only to the extent that, it contributes to our species’ success. Evolution doesn’t know how to induce species A help species B unless doing so helps species A more than it costs species A.

    But you reveal that you have not understood the argument when you say to me, beginning with my words here,

    if NE is true, then the human species has acquired the behavior of thinking that humans and human life have value, worth, and meaning, just because that behavior has contributed to the propagation and preservation of the species, and not because the thought has any truth or falsehood to it.

    The last clause is incorrect. Behaving as if humans and human life have value, worth and meaning is intrinsically a matter of social interaction. Within the context of a human society, the truth of the assertion that humans have value, etc, is observably borne out by the fact that the behaviors consistent with this assertion do in fact produce the desirable results that are consistent with the propagation and preservation of the species.

    Here’s the problem. You haven’t caught on to the difference between two putative causal forces related to thinking. There is the behavior of thinking X, and there is the truth value of X (whether X is true or false). My point is that evolution has the ability to produce effects via physiology or behaviors, and nothing else. If biological causation is closed on NE, then what NE can do causally is the only thing that can be done causally.

    NE can produce a thought-behavior such as Action A is moral, and if that contributes to the success of the species, then the species will come to share the thought-behavior Action A is moral. The cause for that thought behavior is strictly confined to one thing: its success in propagating the species. That means that the thought behavior Action A is moral is not in any way influenced by whether there is truth to the thought, Action A is moral.

    The same applies to the thought behavior, I have meaning as a human being. On NE, you have that thought because having that thought has contributed to the survival of the species. You do not have that thought because it has any truth of any kind whatsoever.

    Let me be quite specific here: if you think I have meaning as a human being because I can create meaning for myself the same thing is true. You don’t have that kind of thought because it’s true that you can create meaning for yourself; truth and falsehood are not part of the causal chain that leads to that kind of thought. The cause of your thought is that it is somehow associated with humans’ ability to make babies that make babies. The cause of your thought is not the truth of your assertion, “I can make meaning for myself.” That has nothing to do with why you think what you do.

    That’s the argument I’m making, and I think it follows necessarily from the premises of NE.

  29. Quine said:

    Natural Selection would tend to favor those who look after and favor those others.

    NS can only select that which is physical. Propositional truth is not physical so it cannot select on the basis of the truthfulness of the statement “I have meaning as a human being”.

    Otto said:

    I agree with that: morality is nothing but a labeling behavior that contributes to the propagation of our species…

    You have redefined morality and gotten rid of the moral law, the “ought” as it were. It is no longer morality and you are now equivocating. You have reduced morality to an “is” – specifically it is now limited to “the behavior that contributes to the propagation of our species”.

    What you cannot explain is the morality that you tell us actually exists. The morality that says “humans ought to do X”, the morality that says Ted Bundy ought to change his ways. Where is that explanation?

    I suppose that you might label Ted Bundy’s behavior as “behavior that contributes to the death of the species” and therefore it is immoral behavior, but so what? It’s just a meaningless label under naturalism.

  30. @SteveK:

    Just a minor intervention:

    I suppose that you might label Ted Bundy’s behavior as “behavior that contributes to the death of the species” and therefore it is immoral behavior, but so what?

    You are granting too much. What if Ted Bunty was pruning the pool gene of worse genes so as to ensure his, naturally better, genes to spread?

  31. Otto, I have to let you in on what I did after I read this:

    Let’s see if I can parse that out from your other statements (maybe I can’t). Turning to your points in #9 above (comments interspersed):

    1. Value isn’t something God makes up. It’s something he imparts.

    What’s the difference? Either He has to make it up first, before he can impart it, or else it existed before He did, which doesn’t help your position.

    I went to a Facebook group where friends of mine could offer me succor and sympathy and called out, “Help me! I’m in pain!” Really, I was stunned by the casual arrogance with which you felt free to display your ignorance here. It’s almost—it hurts to think this of anyone, much less to type it—it’s almost as if you thought that by saying it you could make it believable!

    Rather than help you out by explaining your error for you, since the Tylenol hasn’t taken effect yet, I’m going to put the burden back upon you. Why, pray tell, does God have to “make it up” if it doesn’t pre-exist him?

  32. Otto, you also say,

    To be created by God in his image, to be an eternal being, to be in relationship with other eternal beings (esp. God), to have real moral significance in a morally significant world, just is to have value.

    Just is? When you apply that rationale to something unevidenced, it’s called “special pleading.” And given the imaginary nature of these eternal beings, I’m not seeing a lot of value here.

    No, when one applies that kind of rationale to a position one is explaining, it’s called “explaining one’s position.”

    And yet you are so sure of yourself…

  33. 3. … if NE is true, then there is an evolutionarily-related cause for thinking we have value, but there is no room left over in that causal space for reasoning to contribute to our thinking we have value.

    I’m sorry, but that makes no sense. Reasoning (along with language, which facilitates reasoning) is obviously one of the consequences of a suitably elaborate neural structure. We can and do reason about our actions, and can understand, on the basis of reasoning, why some actions are conducive to propagation (and well-being, etc), and others are not.

    Well of course we do!!!

    Haven’t I been saying that all along???

    But you’ve missed this: my conclusion in 3 follows from NE necessarily.

    What you’ve done with this response here is just classic. You’ve ignored the whole argument. I’ll replay it for you in shorthand. It’s a modus tollens syllogism:

    1. If NE is true, then causation is closed on NE, and the true/false value of our thoughts is not part of the causal chain leading to our thinking them. (See above for why I say that; obviously I’m not re-stating the whole case for this in this short form.)
    2. But the truth value of our thoughts does play a causal role in why we think them.
    3. Therefore NE is not true.

    Okay, got that? Now, look at what you’ve done. You’ve agreed that my second premise is true, and called me wrong because of it.

    Lovely.

    What you need to do instead is figure out whether my first premise is any good. That’s your job, if you really care to interact with this discussion rationally. Got it?

  34. And now, having ignored what I wrote and missed my argument so effectively that you think you’ve refuted it be re-stating one of its premises, your thinking devolves still further:

    No, not impossibility. I gather you do find something that is impossible to derive from NE… Perhaps it’s something like: a well-reasoned, evidence-based theory for the existence of an eternal being who created us (and everything else in the universe as we know it), wants a personal relationship with us, asks for our devotion under pain of eternal torture if we refuse, and has a dreadful dislike for some of our behaviors that arise naturally, like homosexuality. I agree, you can’t get that from NE, but I don’t see this as a problem for NE.

    That’s called changing the subject. It’s also called poisoning the well, and it has a touch of ad hominem in it to boot. Add it all up and what you get is a load of intellectual irresponsibility.

    And yet you seem so confident in it.

    Maybe you thought you had destroyed my argument, and it was time to find emotional/irrational reasons to explain why I would say what I did. But you haven’t even understood what I was saying yet, much less addressed it, much less rebutted or defeated it.

    I know I’ve been hard on you here. There’s a reason: I think you genuinely need it. You’re arrogant. You think you’ve got it all figured out. You’re convinced that you’re right and I’m an idiot, when the fact is you don’t even comprehend the discussion that’s going on. You need to slow down and ask some questions so that you can catch up with the conversation. Then, once you do that, if you still disagree, by all means feel free to criticize. Until then, your misdirected triumphalism and ad hominem tomfoolery is nothing but an embarrassment, and I hope you’ll be wise enough to let go of it.

  35. I should add a further salient point. Am I being arrogant to say what I just said? My point was that you’re not getting the argument, Otto, and that you’re rushing to dismiss it and to criticize me in spite of that. There are many, many things I do not know in this world, but one thing I know is that you haven’t understood what I’m saying here, and you’ve ridiculed it and lobbed insults at me over it without even asking the kinds of questions that would indicate you’re interested in trying to understand it. I can conclude that much as simple fact.

    Whether I’m arrogant on other grounds, the rest of you are better judges than I, and I’ll be glad to hear what you have to say to me about it.

  36. @Tom #27,

    Why do you single out my post with that question, and not question the post of the others who generally agree with your view, but aren’t directly related to your OP?

    JAD’s posts, for example, are as unrelated to your OP as mine, yet to them you offer praise, not questioning.

  37. Because

    a) JAD’s posts are not unrelated to my OP,

    and

    b) Yours was,

    and even if (a) were not true,

    c) It’s easy to say “good stuff,” and just drop it, without changing the subject,

    whereas

    d) it’s hard to say, “that’s wrong,” without explaining it at length, which would throw us off on to entirely new territory.

  38. Tom, we do seem to have a failure to communicate. Starting with your #38:

    I was stunned by the casual arrogance with which you felt free to display your ignorance here. It’s almost—it hurts to think this of anyone, much less to type it—it’s almost as if you thought that by saying it you could make it believable!

    “A touch of ad hominem,” indeed. I was asking an honest question about your supernatural being, and you dodged it by expressing your astonishment at my ignorance. That goes beyond special pleading, and my original charge of special pleading still stands – to clarify:

    You “explained” your position, that a supernatural being exists and “imparts” morality (but somehow doesn’t purposefully define what that morality is), by saying something to the effect of “God could not be any other way. It just IS that way.” And you are so sure of yourself. But I haven’t seen you successfully present a firm basis for your claims about this supernatural being. There have been lots of conflicting claims about supernatural beings, and for all of them – including yours – the only rationale available is “because it just is that way.”

    I dare say you’d be inclined to recognize this as special pleading when you see it being applied by religions that you don’t believe in, and yet it doesn’t apply to your religion. Why? Because your bible is better than theirs! And why is that? Because your bible was written (and canonized, and translated from dead languages) by humans **oh, humans are fallible, except the ones who wrote the bible** and large parts of it are phrased in the form of historical reporting **oh, for most of those “historical events,” there’s no independent evidence to indicate that they actually happened, and quite a lot of evidence to the contrary, but, well, the bible is just true**. Gimme a break.

    Why, pray tell, does God have to “make it up” if it doesn’t pre-exist him?

    How else does it come into existence? Is God the omnipotent creator of the universe? Does the existence of a moral law require the existence of a moral law giver? If the particular morality you attribute to your god is not the result of his deliberate design, if it was part of his own make-up without him deciding to make it that way, you’ve merely compounded the “mystery” of this god beyond any hope of reason. Your hand-waving and equivocation about your god’s role in “imparting” morality to mankind puts it well outside the reach of anything resembling a reasonable explanation.

    The atheist/naturalist position on understanding morality is simply to base our conclusions on observable evidence, on patterns in history and their consequences, on direct experience of social interactions and empathy, on assessment of relative success and merit using scales of valuation that become increasingly inclusive and comprehensive as we become more and more aware of our own nature and the environment we exist in.

    It really, simply, plainly doesn’t help to put a ghost in that machine – the task is hard enough already; speculating about supernatural causation and the properties and preferences of a supernatural “causer” is just a distraction that reduces our ability to make honest and useful progress.

    BillT repeatedly asked me what basis I have for deciding or claiming that anything in particular is “good” or “valuable”. Well, what basis do you have for doing that? If you use objective, real-world evidence and experience, then we are in agreement, and we’ve been arguing over nothing. If you don’t use those things, then you have no stable, reliable, confirmable basis for your decisions/claims, and that is the crux of a very substantive disagreement.

    I frankly see nothing of relevance or importance in your notion of “causal closure in NE” – it amounts to smoke and mirrors, and is beside the point for understanding meaning and value from an atheistic perspective. I’m sorry it took me so long to get around to pointing that out. (More on that later, perhaps, but not tonight.)

  39. @SteveK, regarding #36:

    NS can only select that which is physical. Propositional truth is not physical so it cannot select on the basis of the truthfulness of the statement “I have meaning as a human being”.

    You didn’t read (or didn’t understand) the highlighted portion of the quote from Quine. Apart from that, the expression and comprehension of propositional truth is a physically manifested behavior of humans. The extent to which humans are capable of learned behaviors expanded (long ago, probably in conjunction with our capacity for language) to the point where propositional logic, whether verbally, physically expressed or not, exists within and among the members of the species, and has a discernible and significant effect on their behavior (except when they’re being irrational, of course).

    You have redefined morality and gotten rid of the moral law, the “ought” as it were. It is no longer morality and you are now equivocating.

    You disagree with me on the definition of morality, and you want to keep pretending that there is some supernaturally “imparted” moral law that is eternally immutable. I might have been equivocating if I had ever expressed agreement with your definition, but I never did.

    You seem unable or unwilling to understand that the notion of “ought” occurs in nature, even among primates other than humans – presumably because you don’t want to accept the definition I’m using for morality, which entails that “ought” is a concept that applies to social interactions, based on assessments of value that social group members assign (based on experience) to various behaviors in social interactions.

    What you cannot explain is the morality that you tell us actually exists. The morality that says “humans ought to do X”, the morality that says Ted Bundy ought to change his ways. Where is that explanation?

    You refuse to accept the explanation I’ve given or to see the evidence for it – again because you don’t want to accept the definition I’m using for morality; and that’s because my definition does not include the properties of being divinely imparted and eternally immutable – properties that are, of course, categorically outside the scope of rational thought, let alone verifiability.

    Do you admit that your preferred definition of morality is irrational? If not, then what, in particular, makes your definition of morality rational? Good luck avoiding equivocation on that one.

  40. Otto,
    Let me try it this way. Let’s say Behavior X is labeled by Social Group A as moral and Social Group B as immoral. We now have two “oughts” associated with Behavior X as it relates to the survival of the species.

    So here’s the problem. If we take what you said here:

    I agree with that: morality is nothing but a labeling behavior that contributes to the propagation of our species… [and other species]

    And apply it to what we know about Behavior X, we must conclude that Behavior X both diminishes the propagation of our species (immoral) and it also contribute to it (moral).

    Which takes me back to Ted Bundy. From the perspective of one social group Ted is doing our species a favor and therefore Ted Bundy ought to be considered a moral leader. From the perspective of another social group he is doing harm to the species and therefore ought to be condemned.

    Which morality reflects the truth of Behavior X? There can only be one answer because you’ve given us a clear, objective all-encompassing definition of what morality is.

  41. Otto, I’m not sure what to make of this “failure to communicate.” Earlier you had borrowed the Euthyphro argument, applied it to values, and pronounced my position beyond help. Now you call that “asking an honest question.” It sounded to me more like making an unsupported pronouncement. Sorry, but it just did.

    Now you call my astonishment a dodge–but you have done so without acknowledging that your pronouncement there was built on bare assertions, and without taking up my challenge/invitation to support those assertions.

    Then you complain that I haven’t presented “a firm basis for my claims about a supernatural being.” But this just shows you don’t know what’s going on here. What I’m doing is:

    1) Explaining something of what Christians (in the broad tradition of which I am a part, that is) believe about God. How firmly do I have to prove that what Christians believe about God is what Christians believe about God?

    and

    2) Offering up that understanding of God as a better solution to the problem of worth and value than naturalism’s understanding of reality can provide. Why should I have to prove God exists (as Christians in my tradition conceive of him) in order to suggest that this discussion provides evidence that he exists? Why should I have to prove the existence of God in order to draw conclusions concerning what follows from NE?

    So no, I’m not committing any fallacy of special pleading by (a) talking about what Christians believe and (b) suggesting that the topic under discussion here provides support for what Christians believe.

    I dare say you’d be inclined to recognize this as special pleading when you see it being applied by religions that you don’t believe in, and yet it doesn’t apply to your religion. Why? Because your bible is better than theirs!

    Now you’re going off the rails.

    I’m making an evidential, existential, non-revelational argument for theism. If someone else does that, I won’t call it special pleading. And if they keep on topic with it, I won’t change the subject the way you’ve done here. I won’t stereotype them the way you’ve done with me here, and I won’t offer up an evidence-free accusation the way you’ve done here, either.

    **oh, for most of those “historical events,” there’s no independent evidence to indicate that they actually happened, and quite a lot of evidence to the contrary, but, well, the bible is just true**

    I hope you read this recent post.

    Does the existence of a moral law require the existence of a moral law giver? If the particular morality you attribute to your god is not the result of his deliberate design, if it was part of his own make-up without him deciding to make it that way,

    See my second point in this earlier comment, and the links from there. Note also that you’ve suddenly changed the subject. You had raised a point about meaning and value, and I asked you to clarify, and now in response you’re talking about morality instead. As I said before, since this is already a complex topic I prefer we not branch off into other discussions. (Ironically you accuse me of equivocation in your next sentence.)

    I notice that others have followed you into that topic of morality; or maybe they brought it up first, I don’t know. That’as up to them and you, but as far as my interaction with you is concerned, I’m not going there.

    BillT repeatedly asked me what basis I have for deciding or claiming that anything in particular is “good” or “valuable”. Well, what basis do you have for doing that?

    We say that God imparts value. You’ve raised an issue with that, suggesting that God can’t impart value without “making it up,” unless it pre-existed him. I’d like to know what support you can muster for that. I’ve asked you that already, of course. Your answer came back in terms of morality. Now I’d like to hear your answer in terms of the actual question.

    I frankly see nothing of relevance or importance in your notion of “causal closure in NE” – it amounts to smoke and mirrors, and is beside the point for understanding meaning and value from an atheistic perspective.

    Weren’t you the one who just before that accused me of “hand-waving”? Look what you’ve done here. You’ve told us you see nothing of relevance in my argument, but you’ve done so prior to demonstrating you understand the argument, in fact in previous comments you’ve made it clear you don’t understand it. With that as the status, why should it surprise me you don’t see any relevance in it? And why should you think that provides you a basis to pronounce my argument invalid?

    Please. Understand first, assess second. That’s the right order to do things, isn’t it? Otherwise it’s hand-waving.

    On your next comment:

    Apart from that, the expression and comprehension of propositional truth is a physically manifested behavior of humans.

    Premise 2 in my argument as summarized here. Why do you keep offering our position back to us as a refutation of our position?

  42. “I agree with that: morality is nothing but a labeling behavior that contributes to the propagation of our species… [and other species]”

    Again Otto, justify why “contribut(ing) to the propagation of our species” makes an act moral. This is just more of the same from you. You are importing Christian moral values without any justification (and in opposition to your own position). I say propagation of our species is immoral. Why an I wrong? Or again, why should I care about propagation of our species?

  43. BillT,

    why should I care about propagation of our species?

    Because society says that you should care. Notice though that “society” is never rigidly defined because then it would ruin the shell game being played.

    In one instance society might be the majority opinion struggling to maintain the status quo, in another instance it might be the minority opinion struggling to make changes and correct certain deficiencies, in another instance “society” might be the supreme court or those we have elected to represent us in government and in yet another instance it might be experts in certain fields of study.

  44. BillT,
    Yes, constant shifts in societal definitions of morality. Why is that such a problem?

  45. BillT,
    Yes, constant shifts in societal definitions of morality. Why is that such a problem?

    Rather, I would argue that it’s part of the process of how humanity develops and matures.

  46. Why is that a problem, OS? It’s a problem because nobody knows which social contract is THE contract that defines the “ought” that you and I should live by. Except for the most extreme behaviors, it can be rationally argued that most any behavior contributes to the propagation of the species. They just go about it in a different way.

    For example: Killing off the weak and elderly accomplishes the goal by preserving valuable resources that the species needs to survive long-term. So does keeping the weak and elderly around and loving them selflessly so as to inspire others to live a more loving, and cooperative life. What ought you and I do – kill them or love them?

  47. “Yes, constant shifts in societal definitions of morality. Why is that such a problem?”

    And when the “shifts in societal definitions of morality” include the extermination of you and your social/racial/ethnic group how will you feel about it then? Not to mention the fact that morality that changes definitions isn’t morality at all. Morality is objective or all it is is an opinion. And what that becomes, as we have seen many times, is the will to power of one group or person over another.

  48. SteveK,

    That’s a classic epistemology/ontology confusion.

    It’s no slam dunk (or necessarily even a negative at all) against a moral ontology to raise points about epistemology.

    So what if we can’t quite agree on the particulars of the social contract? How’s that supposed to undermine contractarianism from an ontological point of view?

    Divine command theorists can’t agree on the particulars about what God’s commands are (or how to interpret them). Platonists, with respect to the particulars of the forms of moral goodness, can’t agree on what those particulars are.

    Its all besides the point, when talking about moral ontology.

  49. Tom,

    Parsons comments are actually relevant to your OP because they:

    a) point out the tremendous ambiguity with the term “meaning” in a wider context (ala, “meaning of life” type conversations). Without more precision here, its not even clear what this “meaning” you speak of is, or why anybody should be concerned that we do or do not have it.

    b) there are at least two forms of meaning that can exist happily with naturalism and the casual-closure you speak of, and they seem to be more than enough to be fulfilling in their own right.

    c) sure we agree, Parson’s cited meaning example #1 can’t exist on naturalism. But, so what? That’s not sufficient to keep your your stronger claims afloat, that “there is no meaning under the causal closure of naturalism”.

  50. d,

    That’s a classic epistemology/ontology confusion.

    I don’t think I am confused because I am looking for that ONE ontology and so far nobody has been able to provide a source. Social contracts are not one ontology, one being.

    So what if we can’t quite agree on the particulars of the social contract? How’s that supposed to undermine contractarianism from an ontological point of view?

    I see it as a demonstration and proof that ONE ontology doesn’t exist. It would be like God the Father not quite agreeing with God the Son on the particulars of morality. That cannot happen because they are one.

  51. d,

    there are at least two forms of meaning that can exist happily with naturalism and the casual-closure you speak of, and they seem to be more than enough to be fulfilling in their own right.

    Aristotelian purpose is underpinned by his metaphysics that have theistic implications, so unless you can reconceive natural telos without the theistic baggage you are affirming a defeater to your atheism. Which leaves you with the one type of purpose that Tom affirms atheists have in the OP anyway. Of course they can feel fulfilment. Theists commit their lives to a purpose that they believe is real, atheists commit their lives to a purpose that they admit is made up. What I want to know is why the derision for theistic purpose, atheists believe it’s all made up anyway.

  52. Ordinary seeker,

    Yes, constant shifts in societal definitions of morality. Why is that such a problem?

    Actually that was not what was written. The point is that there are constant shifts in the definition of society. That is a problem.

  53. Melissa,
    Why are constant shifts in the definition of society a problem? There are always different subsets of society, different groupings that develop and adopt different perspectives. That’s one way we change.

  54. Unbelievable.

    We’ve been through this before.

    Think about it a minute, okay?

    Think about different subsets of society.

    Think about different perspectives.

    Think about different perspectives on morality around the world and throughout history.

    Think about who defines these things for others, and (here’s a hint) who is powerless to do so.

    Now, ask yourself (don’t ask us, ask yourself, it should be clear enough by then), why are constant shifts in the definition of society a problem?

  55. I will re-state one obvious point, since I’m afraid you might have missed it.

    My one-word assessment “unbelievable” was my reaction to your thinking what you had written. It’s unbelievable that you would still think that.

    Now, if that’s what you understood me to say, and if “Reality” was your answer to that, then you have combined an obvious answer with an unhelpful one.

    Anyway, I hope you’ll answer my questions from last night.

  56. Melissa,

    Theists commit their lives to a purpose that they believe is real, atheists commit their lives to a purpose that they admit is made up. What I want to know is why the derision for theistic purpose, atheists believe it’s all made up anyway.

    You guys are so laser focused on shoving all things atheist into the “if it ain’t Jesus, it’s nihilist” corner, it leads you to make obvious and regrettable blunders.

    I don’t say that purpose is made up or fake. Neither did Parsons in the bit I quoted. Some atheists certainly do say that, but so what? Many others don’t. Your statements misrepresent those of us who don’t.

    Nor do I really deride theistic purpose – I just wish you guys would take a breath and realize you haven’t answered this philosophical question in any novel way that isn’t available to non-Christians or non-theists. It’s quite possible for others to have worldviews that include forms of purpose, morality, meaning, and all the rest that are at least as robust as your theist worldview and any other.

    As for Aristotle, well, the telos of which is required for Parsons’ example of purpose to exist is not the sort that requires guidance, planning or intent, at least not the kind from a supreme diety. It simply requires that there be facts about things… about us… and besides, in so many words, Aristotles complex metaphysics is an excruciatingly verbose, obscurantist way to advance us to the point of brute fact, but nothing more. No theism required.

  57. d,

    Nor do I really deride theistic purpose

    Please accept my apologies I didn’t mean to imply that you personally deride theistic purpose, but I see that what I wrote came out that way. You are not someone who comes here mocking our “belief in imaginary things”.

    You guys are so laser focused on shoving all things atheist into the “if it ain’t Jesus, it’s nihilist” corner, it leads you to make obvious and regrettable blunders.

    We have had enough online discussions that I know you know this is not my position.

    Aristotles complex metaphysics is an excruciatingly verbose, obscurantist way to advance us to the point of brute fact, but nothing more. No theism required.

    Actually his metaphysics do not advance us to a brute fact, you’ve misunderstood him somewhere. Aristotle at least sought to systematically explain things instead of engaging in hand waving. I know you accept that there is real purpose in nature but as Tom pointed out in the OP you have no way of explaining it. Yes, real purpose simply requires there be facts about things, but what kind of facts can support a rational belief in purpose and what are the implications of those facts?

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