Turek-Shermer Debate: Does a Christian Have the Right to Finish a Sentence?

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A couple years ago Eric Chabot and I were talking with students and giving away copies of True Reason on the Oval at Ohio State University. Eric is the Ratio Christi chapter director there, and I was with him as a friend and as editor of the book.

Most of our conversations that day were cordial, respectful, and enjoyable. One stands out in contrast, though. A red-headed student came up with metaphorical guns blazing, angry at Christians for standing in the way of gay rights. He shouted me down every time every time I tried to answer. I couldn’t get an answer in anywhere. It was all about gay rights. Finally I raised my own voice just loud enough for him to hear me ask, “Do Christians have the right to finish a sentence?” He shouted back, “NO!”

I couldn’t help thinking of that while I was watching Michael Shermer’s performance in this debate, starting at about 1:29:00, especially after about 1:34:15, and more especially at 1:38:00.

This was supposed to be a question-and-answer time between Shermer and Turek. Turek had had his 15-minute turn asking questions (starting at about 1:23:00), and Shermer had of course had his turn to answer.

Now it was Shermer’s turn to ask. Was it Turek’s turn to answer? Do Christians have the right to finish a sentence? See for yourself. It wasn’t entirely like my experience at Ohio State, but I think you’ll see why it reminded me of that day. And we do have Shermer saying (at 1:39:40), “Well, I think I formed my question in the form of an answer.”

The Turek-Shermer Debate:

To my view, Shermer never really understood many of Turek’s points, especially about ethics. He should have read Turek’s book Stealing From God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case. I’ll be reviewing it here tomorrow. (Update: see here.)

He should also have thought through where ethical norms, values, and duties come from. He says our best values came from the Enlightenment (see his comments at around 1:40:00). That’s arguable, but suppose for the sake of argument he was right. If so, he could only be right to the extent that our moral opinions came from Enlightenment thinkers. That wouldn’t explain how anyone’s moral opinions should be regarded as moral facts; and Shermer certainly believes in moral facts.

If there are moral facts, the Enlightenment didn’t make them so. The Enlightenment’s thinkers didn’t make it so. The best they could have done would have been to discover moral facts, or re-discover them. If (for the sake of argument, still) our morality comes from the Enlightenment, then our morality is the codification of a bunch of dead white men’s opinions. If there are moral facts, the Enlightenment isn’t what made them so.

So Shermer really has no explanation for where morality comes from. And I think he made it all the way through the debate without ever realizing it was so.

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17 Responses to “ Turek-Shermer Debate: Does a Christian Have the Right to Finish a Sentence? ”

  1. I agree that “If there are moral facts, the Enlightenment isn’t what made them so.”

    How about this idea: What makes a moral fact is that we are all driven inexorably to pursue it. We might get off-track, but ultimately we want to pursue that thing.

    I think this is a good basis for Christians and atheists to understand each other’s moral arguments, because both sides can agree on the part about being inexorably driven. The Christians can say we are inexorably driven by God’s having created us and commanded us, whereas the atheists can say we are inexorably driven by our evolutionary history.

    What do you think?

  2. Does that work, though?

    Take lying. Almost everyone agrees that, in general, “telling the truth” is a good thing. Yet in theory and practice almost everyone compromises on this in many little or big ways.

    So we have a “moral fact”, and yet the general consensus of behaviour is we inexorably try to work around it.

    Or does your definition already handle the idea of a “moral fact” that is honoured as much in the breach as the observance?

  3. I think moral facts are deeper than particular rules like “do not tell a lie.” Moral facts are about our fundamental motives and purposes in life.

    Thus, it isn’t really a moral fact that lying is always and forever wrong. It’s just a handy rule of thumb that generally helps us achieve what we’re inexorably longing for.

    If God commanded you to tell a lie in some situation for the sake of His greater glory (as rare as this must be), then it would be moral for you to tell that lie. The deeper moral fact is that you must obey God.

  4. John, you suggest,

    both sides can agree on the part about being inexorably driven. The Christians can say we are inexorably driven by God’s having created us and commanded us, whereas the atheists can say we are inexorably driven by our evolutionary history.

    You’re equivocating on “driven” there. The way Christians consider God’s love as a motivating influence is completely different from the way atheists think evolutionary history drives behavior.

    There is no agreement on that between the two groups.

  5. Indeed, there is a serious disagreement, but in order to have a fruitful discussion, we need to start somewhere. Suppose we both agree to talk about morality in terms of what we are fundamentally striving for?

    Yes, we disagree about why we strive or what the ultimate goal is, but I think it’s helpful to recognize that morality is not fundamentally about rules, and it’s not fundamentally a static, lifeless thing, but morality is something we strive for as part of our fundamental nature.

  6. So the disagreement about morality boils down to a disagreement about our fundamental nature.

    Would you agree that morality only pertains to living things? If there were no life, there would be no morality. (And it’s understood that God is alive.)

    This way we see that questions of morality boil down to questions about what life is, at its most fundamental.

  7. Fundamental natures – plural. If one wants the singular – then it’s a (morphing) bell curve. Even then – though – there is perpetual change. Invention displacing discovery over eons – including tomorrow’s eons.

    Nature-less may actually be applicable given such perpetual morphing *and* given mereological nihilism. Can evolutionary morality coherently deny that “fundamental” nature with neither circularity nor conflation? It’s not as if “Man” can be defined “as-if” he (it) is magically separated from the “rest-of” reality. Nothing is (fundamentally) free of her – of nature’s tentacles – of nature’s nature – as such a statement would be an oxymoron.

    It’s not at all obvious that in Naturalism’s paradigm there is some X somewhere that is – fundamentally – free of nature’s nature.

  8. God’s “alive-ness” then becomes a very different “alive-ness” – at the most fundamental level.

    Life is not Life.

    Alive is not Alive.

    A is not B.

    The immutable love of the Necessary Being as said fundamental “X” (alive/life) and then Naturalism’s paradigm wherein nature’s nature is the fundamental “X” (alive/life).

    All the stuff of morality seems wedded to the former – while all the stuff of indifference seems wedded to the later…… at its most fundamental………

  9. John Moore,

    I’m not sure you’ve demonstrated a justified claim on a fundamentally moral nature.

    I’m not sure the fundamentally amoral isn’t what you are referring to when you refer to – or claim – said fundamental nature.

    We can “grant” the Naturalist a circle there – or a conflation – but we’re neither morally nor intellectually obligated to do so.

    Such a grant allows the fruitful discussion you speak of to then proceed.

    But if the Naturalist denies that such a grant is needed from the get-go then it isn’t obvious that a fruitful discussion is what the Naturalist seeks.

  10. For my part, scbrownlhrm, there are things you say John hasn’t accomplished here, which I don’t think he’s tried here to accomplish, unless you’re referring to some other thread.

  11. Tom,

    We can point to “strive for” as an example of a fundamental “bottom” that was claimed without justification. I take “bottom” to equate to “fundamental”.

    Intention free of nature’s fundamental nature ends as a bit of a contradiction.

    Also, the “alive” part has a “bottom” that isn’t justified given that there is a stated A = B there in, “It’s understood that God (too) is alive”.

    Those are sloppy assumptions when we break them down.

    Both preceed the moral paradigm – but it’s worth noting that those doors are being assumed open without actual justification.

    Once inside we then get to John’s starting point. Of course – even if those two doors are granted – Naturalism has yet further hurdles to jump…. very difficult hurdles.

  12. Putting it that way, I tend to agree.

    John says,

    Suppose we both agree to talk about morality in terms of what we are fundamentally striving for?

    We could all agree on that as a facet of morality, no doubt, at least from some philosophical perspectives.

    From my perspective, though, it’s inadequate at best, because of its human-centeredness. What we’re striving for as humans (or sentient beings, if you prefer!) isn’t the real moral question. It’s what we’re made for, by our sovereign Creator, the source and the end of all morality.

    What we’re striving for may or may not be what we’re made for. There are some formulations under which “the good” and “what we’re striving for” look pretty much the same: no one desires what is bad for them, and what is bad for others is bad for them (and vice versa).

    That’s one view with a long history. It’s a minority view now, I think, in a day when “what we’re all striving for” is determined empirically; and empirically speaking, I certainly wouldn’t want to equate what we’re striving for with what’s good.

    Back to you, then, John, with apologies for not being able to voice a simple word of agreement with you. Theists and non-theists can often agree on what is moral, but I don’t know how we could possibly come to agreement on what morality fundamentally is. For us it’s fundamentally God-centered. That’s non-negotiable.

  13. @ John Moore:

    I appreciate the tone of your comments—that you’re looking for common ground.

    Still, I do disagree. The theistic view of moral truth is not a matter of humans being driven. It is a matter of what is true quite apart from the personal (subjective) experiences of human beings.

    The claim (whether or not one agrees), is that there are moral truth would be no less true were everyone on the earth a sociopath.

    The claim that moral truth is simply the result of evolutionary pressures is to completely reject the theistic position on morality. It is to say that morality is simply a matter of human drives.

    So, to say that morality is simply a matter of being driven (well-intentioned as it is) is not an area of common ground. It is to reject the theistic position and assume the materialist position. It would be closer to finding common ground, I think, to acknowledge this difference.

    More generally, I’m still working through the debate but I think I can say this much:
    I’m used to the arguments, and perhaps a bit numb to Shermer’s inability to understand the concept of objective morality.

    Mostly, what bothered me was Shermer’s horrible caricatures of history. I can understand his passion, given the childishly propagandistic version of past events he has. I, too, would hate “religion” if I believed those things.

    But I have no idea how a clearly educated person could be that misinformed about a topic for which he has such passion. It’s disconcerting to think that this is a problem that goes well beyond Shermer.

  14. OK, it looks like the Christians here object to the idea of morality as a fundamental drive because it is too human-centered. It’s not enough to say God is the driving force behind morality, or that what’s good for God is the same as what’s good for human beings. Christians seem to insist that God would still be good, all by himself, even if he never created humans. And a good Christian must be willing to give up all his hopes and dreams and submit his will totally to God’s.

    By the way, do Christians think God himself is striving for something? Does God have a plan that he is trying to carry out in the world? If so, maybe we can define the good as that which moves toward fulfilment of God’s plan, and wrongness is anything that stands in the way of God’s plan. This would be consistent with my proposal that the good is what someone strives for.

    But maybe Christians don’t really think of God as having a plan or pursuing some goal. If God did have a goal, that would lead to various problems like the Euthyphro dilemma, as Ray Ingles pointed out in one of his other comments, or maybe it would conflict with the Thomistic idea of God as total actuality.

    I admit I can’t understand how the good could possibly be a static thing out there in the cosmos. To me, it just seems logical that the good is something you move toward.

  15. John,

    Teleos / moving toward / etc. may be something you claim – but is it the fundamental bottom of nature – of Man?

    You were the one who appealed to that bottom, that fundamental nature.

    Man would have to be – fundamentally at bottom – free of nature’s nature if Man were to have a bottom, a stopping point, that is different from nature’s nature – and nature’s nature has no teleos – no aim – no end in sight.

    But Man is not distinct from mere physicality in Naturalism.

    As Tom alluded to you’re not arguing to justify that “teleos exists” but rather trying to find common ground.

    Great.

    But it’s worth noting that you’re borrowing – stealing from – another paradigmatic ontology along the way.

    The Good has all sorts of contours – perhaps we find a bit of common ground on those contours which we find within the immutable love of the Necessary Being wherein love’s ceaseless reciprocity amid Self/Other finds in Trinity the milieu of the Good.

    That’s “a” contour – and while God is love – His seamlessness, His simplicity, entails other contours as well.

    But love’s reciprocity amid Self/Other finds overlap perhaps for us.

    While your fundamental bottom of reality is Indifference – and nothing you offer us is going to free Man from said bottom – the Christian has quite another fundamental bottom to reality – that of the Good.

    It is in this sense that nothing in reality can escape reality ‘s fundamental nature – that being love, or God, or what have you.

    Divine simplicity awaits all vectors in that while we can run our hands against that grain – against the grain of reality – we will in doing so only generate painful splinters – as the grain of said Tree (God/Reality) does not bend merely because we run our hands against it.

    Therein our goals which run contrary to the Good – while achievable – are not and can never sum to The Good. They may sum to some lesser good – our own Self in its own Teleos. But there is that fundamental nature of reality which yet out-distances said finite and mutable teleos – that being God, or Actuality, or Reality, or the Fundamental Bottom of Reality – and so on.

    Love thus finds common ground – but only for a brief interlude as the Naturalist must yet employ either circularity or conflation to justify his claim on such ontological real estate. He must tell himself he has found something that is fundamentally good. He must embrace some portion of a Noble Lie.

    Then, after his conflation, the Naturalist must then show us his categorical imperative which obligates all of Reason in all of Man at all Times to chase after that conflation he calls “love” (or what have you).

    But he cannot show us – justify – any such thing.

    E. Feser discusses the assertion that the Largest Portion of Man’s Intuitional Bell Curve Makes Right. Such a statistical bell-curve appeal to intuitions as the basis for Naturalism’s morality housed in feelings fails for many reasons, many of which are touched on in the linked essay. Reason’s sought-after proper ends (final causes) find Hume (rightly) granting nothing of the kind via such an epistemic appeal to “Human-Nature-Ism”. The linked essay has far more than this quote, but this introduction helps create a useful framework:

    “For given such a framework, there can be no irreducible teleology in nature, and therefore (as I argued in my opening post) there can be at most only “as if” teleology (as opposed to either “intrinsic” or “derived” teleology). And if it is only “as if” teleology exists… then it can be only “as if” natural goodness exists, and thus only “as if” morality exists. Morality can in this case be at most a useful fiction.

    In my view, the lack of a traditional Aristotelian metaphysical foundation prevents Keith from successfully rebutting the objection that his position cannot account for the categorical force of moral imperatives. To be sure, I agree with him that morality has a hypothetical component. Much of it can be captured in propositions of the form: If you want x, you ought to pursue y; and if you want y, you ought to pursue z. But this does not suffice for moral obligation. Suppose it is true that if I want to see the movie from the beginning, I’d better get to the theater by 3 pm; and if I want to get to the theater by 3 pm, I’d better leave now. The imperative Leave now will be rationally binding on me only if the imperative See the movie from the beginning is rationally binding on me. But of course there are few situations, if any, in which that particular imperative has the binding nature that moral imperatives are supposed to have.

    So, if a series of hypothetical imperatives is to have rationally binding force, it has to trace ultimately to some imperative at the head of the line that has categorical force. It is only if I regard some imperative of the categorical form Pursue x is binding on me that I will be rationally obliged to pursue y and thus z. With that much it seems Keith would agree. But where can we find such imperatives? Keith’s position is essentially that there are certain imperatives that most people will in fact treat as categorical. An example of such an imperative implicit in what he says is Pursue happiness (in the Aristotelian sense of eudaimonia). Keith considers the following potential objection:

    [W]hat do you say to those who reject the antecedents of your hypotheticals? What, for instance, would you say to Dostoevsky’s Underground Man who rejects happiness, including his own, and prefers to act out of spite? In general, if someone does not already value one of your “natural goods,” how do you get them to recognize your moral norms? Why not just be spiteful if that is what you want?

    In response, he says:

    If the Underground Man genuinely scorns happiness, including his own, then there is not much that [my view] can say to him. But then there is not much that any ethical perspective can say to him. Kant might tell him that he is being unreasonable or Christians might tell him that he is going to hell, but he will just scorn that too. Sheer defiance is not a rational act and so cannot be addressed by appeals to reason.

    Now I think this is correct as far as it goes. If someone is simply stubbornly determined to be irrational, we are not likely to reach him by appealing to reason. The question, though, is whether someone who rejects an imperative like Pursue happiness, or any other purportedly categorical imperative – and continues to reject it no matter how hard we try to talk him out of doing so — really is, necessarily being irrational. From the A-T point of view, the answer is: “Yes, he is per se irrational.” But from the Humean point of view, the answer is: “No, he’s not necessarily irrational; he’s just different from most other people, that’s all.” As Hume famously wrote:

    ‘Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. ‘Tis not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. ‘Tis as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledg’d lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than for the latter. (Treatise of Human Nature 2.3.3.6)””

  16. @ John Moore:

    This seems a very thoughtful response, and is therefore deserving of a response. Here it goes:

    OK, it looks like the Christians here object to the idea of morality as a fundamental drive because it is too human-centered.

    That is definitely part of the objection. The other half is that Christians, like many others, object to the idea that morality is a “drive” at all. A drive is far too subjective to be called objective morality.

    Which brings us to:

    By the way, do Christians think God himself is striving for something? Does God have a plan that he is trying to carry out in the world? If so, maybe we can define the good as that which moves toward fulfilment of God’s plan, and wrongness is anything that stands in the way of God’s plan. This would be consistent with my proposal that the good is what someone strives for.

    God wills things for the world, which would be analogous to a plan. But you won’t get agreement among Christians about a) whether God’s plan involves being driven (will is typically considered more voluntaristic than this) or b) whether God is in time at all (meaning that the entire concept of being driven would be thrown out).

    Simply pressing the idea of “driven” isn’t a way to find common ground.

    Incidentally:

    If God did have a goal, that would lead to various problems like the Euthyphro dilemma

    This would only be true if one added the premise that the goal was, itself, the basis of objective morality. Other than Anslem, I can’t think of any Christian who would take that position.

    But, getting back to the point:

    I admit I can’t understand how the good could possibly be a static thing out there in the cosmos. To me, it just seems logical that the good is something you move toward.

    Two things here:
    First, this seems to be the admission that there is no common ground here. Christians claim that the good is unchanging (though I’ve never in my life encountered one who claims that it is “out there in the cosmos”. That sounds like a strawman.)
    If you are admitting that you do not understand it, I think it is safe to conclude that the Christian concept of morality is fundamentally different from your own (as opposed to being simply a different spin on the “driven” idea).

    But, second, maybe not. To say that “the good is something you move toward” certainly seems like it is a static thing. It is not the act of moving (that would be subjective), but a stationary thing that one approaches. That is exactly what Christians claim. The good is something one should move toward (rather than a state of being driven).

    As such, I’m not sure I need to argue against the idea that the fact that a thing is driven is neither a necessary or sufficient reason to call it moral. Many things are driven without being moral, and you seem to indicate here that it is the thing being sought, not the state of being driven, that is the real source of morality.

    That is correct, on a Christian view.

    I’m willing to admit that I may have misread your comment here, but it seems that you are committed to one of two positions:
    1. Goodness is a state of being driven (and, consequently, anything that is driven can be said to be moving toward goodness—which would ultimately contradict any belief in objective goodness), or
    2. Goodness is a thing toward which we should strive (which is the Christian position, and which would be totally unaccounted for by materialism).