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Deconstructing the atheist’s rant against supernatural faith

Shalini over at Scientia Natura responded to my previous post and subsequent inline comment attempting to refute both my off-the-cuff as well as carefully considered remarks on the whole idea of atheists opposing faith in the supernatural realm and in God on essentially moral grounds. I will now respond not to all of her individual points but to the overall moral argument. I must say it was quite an interesting expose of my apparently willful ignorance if not downright malicious intellectual sabotage. I appreciate your passion, Shalini, however misplaced it may be.

But unfortunately, you didn’t actually address my main point, which is that you have no reasonable basis on which to take a moral stance against belief in a supernatural realm or being. In fact, you pretty much ignored the problem of morality entirely, instead linking to an article concerning the group behaviors of monkeys which — interesting though it may be from an ethological perspective — sheds no light on this matter whatsoever.

The only possible way you could attempt to “prove” scientifically that the Christian faith is amoral from an atheist perspective would be to take two groups of people from all nationalities, ethnicities, ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, etc. The only factor not in common would be their spiritual lives — one group would be shown to be living as committed followers of Jesus Christ, the other group committed Darwinian atheists. Observe their behaviors over the course of, say, a year — maybe two years just to be thorough. Then compare various social factors such as altruism, charity, resilience in the face of negative circumstances, the quality of relationship between friends as well as strangers, the sense of peace and well-being (though that’d be hard to assess without a poll which would then bias the results), crime rate, etc. If it could be shown that followers of Jesus were inherently more of a general menace to society and fostered breakdown within various societal groups compared with their atheistic counterparts, then you’d have a good case to make.

As far as I know, such a study has yet to be conducted successfully, primarily because such a study would be impossible. Once people know they’re being studied, they’d modify their behavior to show how their beliefs are superior. The closest you could get would be just to measure existing demographical groups in various regions of the world, although at that point the statistics become mostly unusable. The other problem with such a study is that the actual social behaviors considered “good” are themselves subject to major disagreement. For instance, within the Christian group, abortion and divorce might be generally reviled, leading a woman to carry her baby to term and put it up for adoption, or a couple to stick together and seek marital counseling and spiritual guidance. Whereas in the atheist group, such behavior might be considered perfectly acceptable — even desirable. At which point could there be any possible consensus of which group’s moral compass is the correct one based simply on what “benefits the group” from an evolutionary perspective?

So again I say, you can argue up, down, and sideways that religion is evil, but within your own philosophical framework you can’t construct a coherent case for such a moral judgement. In fact, the very definition of evil itself is up for debate in a world where matter precedes mind rather than the other way around.

One more point I’ll quickly address, though this is a topic better served for another post. You ask me what evidence would prove to me that there is no God. You might as well ask me what evidence would prove to me that my mother who passed away last year never actually existed and was a fabrication of my mind. My relationship with God isn’t based on wishful thinking, it’s based on the fact that I actually am blessed to have a relationship with God. Basically, you must simply dismiss any supernaturally-caused experiences I’ve had or events I’ve witnessed that are reasonably unlikely to occur through sheer chance and coincidence without divine guidance as being simply by-products of a sort of mental illness. It’s unfathomable to you that I might actually be telling the truth. Why? Because nothing like that has happened to you personally yet (or at least you haven’t acknowledged it yet) and you can’t measure God or spiritual substances in a laboratory.

Where does all of this leave us? Back where we started: you are unable to show how belief in God is amoral based on your own worldview. Are you willing to acknowledge this conundrum?


  1. Posted July 25, 2007 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    Belief in itself is not moral, immoral or amoral.

    American Heritage Dictionary – Cite This Source mor·al (môr’É™l, mŏr’-) Pronunciation Key
    Of or concerned with the judgment of the goodness or badness of human action and character: moral scrutiny; a moral quandary.
    Teaching or exhibiting goodness or correctness of character and behavior: a moral lesson.
    Conforming to standards of what is right or just in behavior; virtuous: a moral life.
    Arising from conscience or the sense of right and wrong: a moral obligation.
    Having psychological rather than physical or tangible effects: a moral victory; moral support.
    Based on strong likelihood or firm conviction, rather than on the actual evidence: a moral certainty.

    Clearly all the definitions relate only to behavior, except the last one. If your intent is to say that belief in God is based on firm conviction rather than actual evidence, Shalini appears to be agreeing with you quite strongly; strong likelihood is another matter, which she addressed quite succintly in the second comment on your original post, viz.:

    Just because your belief in a god makes you feel better, it does not prove that there is a god.

    You then agree with that statement but go on to say:

    How dare you criticize my belief in a God who you think does not exist when that criticism is a moral judgement — a philosophical postulation which has no logical grounding according to your own worldview.

    That is simply incorrect. “There is a God” is not a moral judgment, it is a putative statement of fact. It is also, as Shalini points out quite vociferously, one which is not well supported by the available evidence.

    She is, in short, not saying that a belief in God is morally wrong. She is saying that it is almost certainly factually wrong. She also states that her mind could be changed if she were presented with suitable evidence; you, contrariwise, state that your mind would not be changed in the face of any evidence.

    Morality and theism are orthogonal concepts, the truth table of bad/good, theist/atheist is fully populated. Shalinin also pointed that out, in a less pompous way, so she’d doubless agree that the fact of your refusal to change your mind in the face of evidence doesn’t make you morally inferior either; it just makes you stupid, stupid by choice.

    By the way, a preview button would help commenters ensure that all formatting was correct.

  2. Posted July 25, 2007 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    See? I was afraid I’d mess up the formatting without a preview button, and sure enough, I failed to properly close the last tag. Sorry about that.

  3. Jared White
    Posted July 26, 2007 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    BT, I fixed your formatting. The preview feature does sound like it’d be good to add (as well as a 1-minute edit link or something).

    Again, it seems my point has been missed entirely. For the sake of argument, let’s say I have no evidence and no logical reason to believe in God or the supernatural — but I choose to do so anyway. Why should an atheist be upset over my belief? Am I hurting anybody? Am I going around killing people? Am I stealing candy from little girls? Am I not propagating genes so that the human race continues to evolve?

    Shalini, along with many of the militant atheists I’ve come across, has made numerous value judgments about me solely on the basis of my belief, using words like contempt and calling me a despicable person for relying on God to save me from my baser instincts. I actually don’t mind being called despicable, because that’s actually what I am when I’m not following my savior. But the irony is that those value judgments are based on a framework of mortality that doesn’t actually have any logical merit within the worldview of atheism.

    So again I ask: how can you explain why my belief in God is morally abhorrent based on an atheistic worldview?

  4. Posted July 26, 2007 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    I think I understand a little better what your question is, and I’ll try to answer it.

    As an aside before I do so, I want to draw your attention to the fact that you are using some very value-laden word with multiple interpretations. I’ve already noted the rather vital difference between morally wrong and factually wrong; you should also have a care with adjectives like militant, which tend to equate simple outspokenness on the part of atheists with disruptive demonstrations by Christians and deadly violence by Muslims.

    To the point, then, noting that I am speaking primarily for myself here; I believe Shalini would largely agree with my thinking, but I know the woman only through her writing and quite recently at that. Atheists, “militant” or no, are no more a monobloc than theists.

    The problem I have with your moral stance, then, is that you have abdicated moral responsibility for your actions. That may not matter to me in your individual case, since you and I are unlikely to interact directly, but you are a microcosm of what I see as a deeply rooted societal illness. Societies are the resultant vector of all their members, and your attitude is a common and pernicious one.

    “Why should I vote? My vote won’t make any real difference.” It’s hard to argue with that in the individual case, because the brutal truth is that one vote doesn’t make a notable difference. The contagious attitude of indifference does make a difference, though, because it contributes to a society wherein “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”

    By saying that you yourself are despicable, and only through the strength of another can you possibly be good, you let the side down. You are a human being, not a worm predestined to grovel, and when you act like a worm you dishonor what it is to be a human. Shit, if a worm had consciousness it would probably be shamed to display such abject pridelessness.

    What is worse is that you have abdicated all that pride, that responsibility, that honor, to a ghost of poor imaginings, to a phantasm from the most awkward beginnings of our human philosophies. In their time, they served their purposes, surely, but wake up man! There are so many better adventures afoot, and it’s bloody maddening to those of us who are ready to leave childish things behind to be held back by the timidity of you and your fellow theists!

    It’s not just you, you see, or we would indeed leave you be. This is a societal problem. You and your fellows will continue to shackle the minds of our children, if we don’t challenge your silly notions wherever we can. Your worldview is terribly, terribly outdated, long past its time, and it just doesn’t work well enough to run a useful society on it, not any more. Obedience is no longer a prime virtue; we value curiosity now, intelligence, adaptive wisdom, fact-directed compassion.

    From the small sample of your thinking I’ve seen, you don’t seem inherently stupid; you’re perfectly capable of stringing a sentence together, you’re able to come at your point in a different way when the first didn’t work out. That only makes it more pitiful and enraging to see how you’ve learned stupidity; you actually said you would ignore rationality and evidence-based thinking if it clashed with your comfortable idiocy!!!

    Our species has a lucky gift, a talent beyond what any other has achieved on this planet; we have a second, much faster and more flexible information channel beyond the genetic. We’ve found a magnificent methodology for using that to full advantage, a set of techniques which have let us begin to see and grasp the levers of reality. We are even beginning to see ourselves, more clearly than we ever thought possible.

    And you, you schliemel? You want to throw it all away, because the big bad reality doesn’t make you feel warm and fuzzy? You are prepared to stick with superstition, because your rational thought processes don’t keep you warm at night?

    Okay, I understand, you’re scared without your imaginary friend. But good gravy, man, you and your fellows are becoming an embarrassment to the human race, and even apart from the propensity for your views to encourage violence, you’re making it more difficult for the rest of us to bring our kid up sane.

  5. Jared White
    Posted July 26, 2007 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    BT, you are using words like pride, moral responsibility, honor, intelligence, virtue, etc. Those are concepts you hold both cognitively and emotionally based on the experiences you’ve had in your life in interacting with other people and the mechanics of the world.

    How do you explain those concepts in a world where matter is the basis for reality, not mind? Again, you have failed to answer my question. If I and a billion other people are “groveling” like a worm as you say to some phantasm, what is that to you? What gives you the moral authority to condemn such beliefs?

    If you say that any belief in God and the supernatural based on one’s own life experiences is nothing but superstition and incapable of being rationally comprehended, then again I say, I’m happy to be called superstitious rather than rational. I would argue that’s in fact a nonsensical choice, but that’s another debate for another time. I once heard a wise man say it’s often better to agree with your enemies. So I will.

  6. Posted July 26, 2007 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Hey, I thought I might as well throw some cents in here. BT, I think Jared’s point is simply: If all of humanity (it’s history, religions, ideals, cultures, etc.) boils down to just matter floating through space, how can any one ‘truth’ or ‘perception’ be more correct than another?

    If the world is primarily material and contains no spiritual or supernatural components, how do you define one value as better than another? How is abandoning superstition in favour of reason any better? Simply because it is perceived to be better for society? For evolution as a whole? Who says it is? Was it not the protestant reformation which eventually gave rise to the enlightenment and subsequently the rise of secular governemnt? Do you have definitive proof that a society removed from any belief in a deity fairs better than one that does? Sure, there are pockets of “religious” people who will always attempt to control the course of society through political means, but God and particularly Christianity, are not good basis for politcal systems which govern believers and non-believers alike.

    Just because you feel that a non-religious society is better does not make it any more true than my simply wishing there was a God. Also, why do you talk about virtues? Where does that fit into things?

    P.S. I want my kids to be obedient. I want your kids to be obedient. People that aren’t obedient to authorities, even earthly ones, are called criminals.

  7. Posted July 26, 2007 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    A sight I enjoy that you may well enjoy too:

  8. Posted July 26, 2007 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Jared asks:

    BT, you are using words like pride, moral responsibility, honor, intelligence, virtue, etc.

    How do you explain those concepts in a world where matter is the basis for reality, not mind?

    What’s the problem? You answered in between the two sentences above:

    Those are concepts you hold both cognitively and emotionally based on the experiences you’ve had in your life in interacting with other people and the mechanics of the world.

    Yes, that’s correct. What in that requires any input from outside the material world? People are real, our interactions with other people matter to us. That’s why we judge each other, and we do judge each other, using those concepts. They are human concepts, which we subscribe to because they work well for us as humans. No nonhumans, material or immaterial. need be involved.

    This notion that human behaviour must be imposed from without is absurd, especially inasmuch as any attempt to apply it will necessarily be done by human beings. The fact that we are material is immaterial, so to speak; sure, we are made of atoms floating in the void, but we’re not just any atoms, we’re atoms arranged into human beings, and it’s well for us to treat ourselves and each other differently that we would nonhuman clumps of atoms. Don’t make molehills out of mountains just because they’re made of the same stuff.

    If you say that any belief in God and the supernatural based on one’s own life experiences is nothing but superstition and incapable of being rationally comprehended

    I didn’t say that, though, and don’t intend to, though I will agree that your subjective experiences are not of any use to me in comprehending the objective universe. What I did say was that a refusal to apply human rationality to evidence which contradicts a belief, simply because you like that belief and it makes you feel better, is a pretty cowardly way for a human being to behave.

    Where do I get the moral authority to judge such matters? Why, I get it from my human self; what do you want, a signed Certificate of Moral Authority with gold edging and a wax seal? From whom shall I get such a thing? Face it, we all have to make such moral judgments; it is inescapable, because even a refusal to judge is itself a moral choice (a bad one). Nor can you truly evade it even by becoming a slavish automaton “just following orders” since you have to choose to behave that way; that applies whether your master is another human being, or a voice in your head, or any other entity.

    That’s why I say that obedience is not a prime virtue; it is good to obey just laws, but not unjust ones, and the only person who can make the call is you. Obeying laws like the Jim Crow laws just because they are laws is immoral, I believe, and obeying them because you fear the police treating you as a criminal is not much of an improvement. (I believe obeying morally neutral laws is also good, because that’s upholding my part of the social compact, but that’s another issue really.)

    Finally, having established whence I derive my bona fides, why do I bother to judge you? It’s because I’m a human being, and so is my child, and the single most important factor in our lives is the society of people around us. “No man is an island, entire unto himself.” It therefore behooves me, in my own judgment, to at least make the effort.

    Given that you’ve already stated that the physical universe at large won’t be allowed to disrupt the rigidity of your thinking, there’s obviously no chance that any words of mine will have any effect, though. I shall therefore leave you in possession of the field, as it were, and head back for the city.

  9. Posted July 26, 2007 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    “But unfortunately, you didn’t actually address my main point, which is that you have no reasonable basis on which to take a moral stance against belief in a supernatural realm or being.”

    At this risk of duplicating what others have said, Shalini is arguing against the idea of supernatural realm or being on evidentiary grounds, not moral grounds. If someone concludes that evidence in something is lacking, then logically it follows that the person cannot ascribe moral, immoral, or any other characteristics to such a thing.

    Let’s say you propose that somewhere out there is a cabbage that can fly, and that from this cabbage springs all of human tendencies toward vegetarianism. If someone decides the whole concept of such an entity is unfounded, it is senseless for you to turn around and claim that she hasn’t refuted the possibility that vegetarians derive their beliefs about nutrition from flying cabbages.

  10. Posted July 26, 2007 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    So let me get this straight, BT: because you yourself judge my beliefs based on nothing but your own opinion on the matter, then that’s all the explanation needed. You are the ultimate authority on morals, based on nothing but the fact that you’re human.

    Interesting. Would you mind explaining to me just how the concepts of good and evil make any sense in light of such authority?

  11. Posted July 26, 2007 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    P. S. Responding to your quote:
    “the single most important factor in our lives is the society of people around us.”

    Why? Why is that an important factor? Why can’t I just decide that I’ll behave in any manner I choose? Once I’m dead, it’ll all be over for me anyway, since there’s no afterlife. So I might as well have as much “fun” as I can while I’m here. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow…who knows?

  12. Posted July 27, 2007 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    “Why can’t I just decide that I’ll behave in any manner I choose? Once I’m dead, it’ll all be over for me anyway, since there’s no afterlife. So I might as well have as much ‘fun’ as I can while I’m here. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow…who knows?”

    This might make sense if the only form of retribution were in the hypothetical plane you call “the afterlife.” The thing is, behaving immorally causes us easily perceived discomfort right here in this life. Those who steal, hurt others physically, or lie with aplomb are ostracized by their fellows andtheir lives become much more difficult. Sometimes, they wind up incarcerated. Doing things that cause a society to break down would be inadvisable even were people just machines, as any computer simulation shows.

    Why is is that animals living in group settings exhibit “moral” behaviors? Because they’re divinely blessed? No — such behaviors are an evolutionary adaptation. Stability for society is beneficial to the transmission of a greater number of genes to subsequent generations, usually but not oftento the benefit of theindividual carrying them.

    A lot of these things would become very clear to you were you willing to give any number of scholarly or lay books a fair shot.

  13. Posted July 27, 2007 at 2:09 am | Permalink

    Meh… read it again, please. I am the ultimate authority for my morals, just as you are for yours. Even if you elect to believe that obeying the putative orders of God from your revelatory scriptures constitutes the sole criterion for moral behaviour, it is still ultimately you making that decision.

    I accept this responsibility for myself. I work out for myself what actions of mine would be good or evil, based on thinking, reading the thoughts of other thinkers, and engaging in debates. The foundation of my morality is consideration of the effects my actions will have; my goals are not limited to my own immediate gratification, there are outwardly expanding and overlapping circles of others, ultimately including consideration for every human being and most of the animals and plants on the planet.

    I don’t value them all equally, but I am willing to forego some measure of my own convenience and pleasure for their sake – that is the essential moral imperative which I have chosen to follow. I consider it far superior to simply trying to divine the will of a being I doubt the existence of and in any case have no clear line of communication with.

    Other people are important to me because I have chosen to make them so; if you choose to concern yourself only with your own pleasure, I can’t stop you, but I will brandish my home-made Writ of Moral Authority and think the less of you for it. Yes, I will judge you to be immoral, on no other authority than my own. In choosing or not choosing to follow any set of moral rules, you are doing the same, whether you work out the rules yourself or adopt an existing set of whatever origin.

  14. Posted July 27, 2007 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    You seem to be missing the point: if there is no God why bother with moralizing at all. Any moral value would and could only be personal, and could not justifiably be coercively applied to another. The issue would always be for any individual, “what gets me most effectively to my goal in this short existence I have to accomplish it?” Any other consideration would be, minimally, drag, and at most, stupid.

    Anarchy and chaos are the only rational outcome for the non-believer, unless there is an unseen guiding hand pulling the strings of conscience, thereby saving free moral agents from an headlong tumble over the precipice.

  15. Posted July 27, 2007 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    slw wrote:

    if there is no God why bother with moralizing at all.

    This has been clearly explained here numerous times, but obviously you’re got to be dissuaded from your dogmatic beliefs. You also do not understand that your claim is anutter no sequitur. One could say “Without God, there is no X!” for any X the speaker chooses and the statement would make an equal amount of sense (in this case, nonsense).

    Only one of the following questions is sensible. Can you tell whichone?

    “If there’s no god, why bother with morality?”

    “If there’s no god, why bother with child-rearing?”

    “If there’s no god, why bother with cooperation?”

    “If there’s no god, why bother with prayer?”

    Answer this question: Why don’t atheists commit crimes at a greater rate than believers if they supposedly think they have no one to answer to? The law is only so much of a deterrent — it’s easy to screw others over in ways that don’t result in prosecution. The answer is elegantly simple, but I’m betting you’ll evade it.

    “Any moral value would and could only be personal, and could not justifiably be coercively applied to another.”

    So morals are about “coercion” now? Yeah, you’ve read your Bible well.

    “The issue would always be for any individual, ‘what gets me most effectively to my goal in this short existence I have to accomplish it?’”

    If you believe that immoral actions are always the best way for an individual to get what he or she wants, then your lack of insight into human behavior is appalling. Actually, your entire outlook is appalling. Ignorant is one thing, ignorant with meanness restrained only by claptrap metaphysics is another.

  16. Posted July 27, 2007 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    No, slw, it is you who misses the point. You are still assuming that the only goals an individual can have to guide his or her behavior are purely selfish and short term ones. That simply isn’t the case; I also want happiness for my child, my family, my community, my culture and my world. My own human hand and mind are sufficient to guide me; I don’t require those of an invisible master.

    Under the right circumstances I would even be willing to give up this life – the only one I have or ever will have – for another’s benefit. I’m going to lose it anyway, so if I were in a position to, say, trade it for the life of my child, or any child for that matter, or in defense of my community’s existence, I would consider that a good trade.

    On a less dramatic note, I am willing to expend time, and energy, and money on projects to improve the world I find myself in, even if I will receive no personal benefit from them. This is an entirely rational way to spend my resources, because, again, my immediate personal benefit is not my only goal in life.

    True, no one forced me to choose those goals. No one could. No one can force higher goals on a theist either; the only difference is that a theist may believe that there is a carrot-and-stick setup which will reward or punish generosity or the lack of it eventually. If your goal is to reach Heaven or avoid Hell after your death, the issue is still “what gets me most efficiently to my goal in this short existence I have to accomplish it?”

    I don’t believe that – I’ve certainly never seen any remotely convincing evidence for the proposition – but then again, I don’t require the carrot or the stick in order to behave morally. The difference is that where a theist led by promises of an afterlife could have a goal to treat others well for his or her own ultimate benefit, mine is simply to treat others well as a goal in its own right.

    I won’t argue which path is ethically superior, but in their effects they are at a minimum functionally equivalent in that they leave the world improved. The per capita spending on foreign humanitarian aid is highest in the most secular countries (, suggesting that the religious method of motivating charity may not be the most effective.

    I would add that I have yet to meet the hypothetical atheist who cares only about immediate personal benefit; it simply isn’t the natural state of a human being to be that self-absorbed. We’re social animals, we primates, and it is our natural inclination to care about others.

    Since it is an objective fact (UN Human Development Report, 2005) that there is an inverse correlation between the orderliness and standard of living in today’s societies and their corresponding degree of religiosity, your contention that a secular viewpoint leads inevitably to chaos and anarchy is not only unsupported but flies directly in the face of the evidence.

    Right, right, I forgot… you don’t need no stinkin’ evidence.

  17. Posted July 27, 2007 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    BT (#8) wrote:
    Where do I get the moral authority to judge such matters? Why, I get it from my human self; what do you want, a signed Certificate of Moral Authority with gold edging and a wax seal? From whom shall I get such a thing? Face it, we all have to make such moral judgments; it is inescapable….

    That is exactly what I think about it. The “God necessary for morality” argument, I think, is based on wanting to avoid that confrontation with reality. It is wishful thinking: that our freedom to choose our moral system might be out of our hands, that there might be an unquestionable, external authority upon with to ground it. The fact that it is comforting to believe that, however, does not make it more likely to be true.

  18. Posted July 27, 2007 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    You said, “your claim is anutter no sequitur. One could say “Without God, there is no X!” for any X the speaker chooses and the statement would make an equal amount of sense (in this case, nonsense).”

    Not a non sequitur at all, but intrinsic to the notion of morals. Morals are absolutely dependent upon a sense of right and wrong. If there is no reality to God, that sense is no more than quaint. Life is short and then we die. If one is to live, he’s got to live in the moment he has. The only “moral”, in that case, would be what I can get past all the other knuckleheads who quiver in conscience. A thing would be wrong only if the response of the powerful would stand in the way of getting what was wanted by the individual. And it’s not wrong intrinsically in that case, only pragmatically.

    “Answer this question: Why don’t atheists commit crimes at a greater rate than believers if they supposedly think they have no one to answer to?”

    I won’t get into now, but my viewpoint of biblical Christianity informs me that the criminals are atheitsts, at least practical ones.

    “If you believe that immoral actions are always the best way for an individual to get what he or she wants…”

    I’m not asserting any morality to actions in this argument, for I’m assuming the role of the non-believer. Whether you call me mean or ignorant or some other apparent insult is irrelevant. None of it can or does have any substance apart from an objective standard capable of being enforced upon me. Apart from God, there is no such standard, there is only that I can manage to get by the stone throwing mob. Actions are what they are, they are either successful at achieving their ends or not.

    “Actually, your entire outlook is appalling. Ignorant is one thing, ignorant with meanness restrained only by claptrap metaphysics is another.”

    My understanding of human nature is that it is willful above all other things. I would stand by that viewpoint as an accurate predictor of human behavoir, what do you have?

  19. Posted July 27, 2007 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    OK, I’m willing to accept that you’re a moral atheist. The question is why do you think that is something worth patting you on the back for, or for that matter, why would you expect any other human to be like you? What about the long history of human behavior would make you think such morality is innate or instinctive? You may be evolved to a higher plane, but on what basis could you expect any of the rest of us former knuckle-draggers to buy into it? I wouldn’t bet the farm on primate traits, recent documentaries don’t bear well on the romantic notion of altruism in primate groups.

    You may well enough care for the happiness of your family, but why should I give a spit apart from God? Why are your feelings moral, and the guy who decides to bump you and your children off and take your stuff for his family are not? He may feel taking care of his family was highly ethical like you. You feel morality, but what about all those that don’t. On what basis will you enforce your morals on them? In the end, your position, it seems to me flounders on arbitrariness.

    As for UN studies, what could I possibly care about a load of anti-Western, anti-Christian psychobabble not worth the paper it’s written on. The “findings” you cite don’t pass muster for evidence for me.

    You are right about at least one thing– it would be nice to have a preview pane.

  20. Posted July 27, 2007 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    So behaving ethically is worth a pat on the back if it’s motivated by religious belief, but not if it’s done for its own sake? Weird attitude. In any case, I don’t require a pat on the back, though it’s always nice if it’s deserved. I certainly always give one to my son when he behaves with consideration, which he has more often than not done since birth; if you’ve spent any time around very young children you’ll have noted that they will instinctively comfort someone who is hurt or sad, despite lacking theological instruction.

    As will apes. ‘Recent documentaries’ have shown that other primates do indeed display altruism. Rhesus monkeys will forgo their own food in order to avoid having a neighbor in the next cage get shocked (Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2002), 25: 45-46 Cambridge University Press), chimpanzees will retrieve objects ‘accidentally’ dropped by researchers even in the absence of reinforcing rewards (Warneken, F. & Tomasello, M. (2006). Altruistic helping in human infants and young chimpanzees. Science, 311(5765), 1301-1303.). Outside of formal studies there are many reports of apes acting to help other apes at considerable personal effort and risk (

    As for the long history of human behavior, most of what gets written as history is exceptional, and not all of that bad. The vast majority of human beings, as far as I can tell, have always treated at least their immediate communities well; it’s hard to imagine a society lasting any significant length of time if the selfish attitudes you consider default really were so. Whatever your prejudices against the UN, it’s a simple fact that largely secular societies do just fine; they do not collapse into individualist anarchies without God.

    I probably have spent more time thinking about ethics and morality than most, but my desire to help others is not an aberration. It is the norm, your unsupported religious doctrines to the contrary.

  21. Posted July 27, 2007 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    I think you misunderstand my approach to the argument. I do believe in God, and so can start with the assumption that most, maybe all, people will demonstrate conscience and some moral facility. It is limited in my view, but that is a theological reckoning not necessary for the present subject. My expectation is, that not only humans, but all of nature will display the marks of the one who made them. My worldview has no difficulty explaining the genesis of morality or it’s tarnished exhibition in the world as we know it.
    What I don’t understand, and am trying to get you to explain, is where, if there is no God, did morality arise from? Why would it matter and why would the bold and brazen bother with such trivial fairy dust on the way to exerting their will? What objectively could any of us say to them if they did? I’ve clumsily tried to take a pro forma approach at times to explore the question. The “default position” for humans, as you call it, is not what I’m asserting that humans are, but what I see they would have to be if I followed your viewpoint.
    Anyhow, can you help me understand the why of your position?

  22. Posted July 27, 2007 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    SLW, it’s very simple. Behaviors considered “moral” by any standard are also those which, if practiced regularly, tend to increase the tangible benefits to the individual behaving in such a way. If I am recognized as someone who goes out of my way to help other people when there is no observable benefit to me, then it is that much more likely someone wil eventually reciprocate. If instead I am known to lie and steal, others will not be so kind or generous. I may even place my life in danger by upsetting others’ mates, or my own mate, through promiscuity, theft, and so on.

    I feel good when I see myself bettering the life of someone close to me. It upsets me to see people suffer. I could point you toward any number of biological theories for why this is, just as you could insist a priori that such things somehow imply that a grand puppeteer (who also enjoys gratuitous human suffering by the buttload) approves of, and underlies, the whole scheme.

    But the point is that I most assuredly do not believe in godsof anysort, and that in behaving as morally as the next guy I give no thought to the idea that not doing so will result in my being deprived of something in the cosmic (not legal) sense. There are people who live their whole lives as scoundrels and killers who wind up rich, fat and happy; the external reward-and-punishment system that theists so dearly like to think exists is farcical, as a simple look around at humanity is sufficient to reveal.

  23. Posted July 27, 2007 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Morality as mercenary– I would think that better described manipulation and self-centeredness more than morality. Perhaps that golden ring we’re stretching for evolved from baser metals: metaphysical alchemy? Doesn’t quite reach for the ideal does it, or begin to explain why we can perceive something so much higher?


  24. Posted July 27, 2007 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    slw, there are a number of evolutionary mechanisms which explain the development of altruistic behaviour – reciprocity, kinship promotion, group selection, potlach competition, and I’m sure I’ve missed a couple. It’s a deep and complex subject and I’m not even going to attempt to deal with it in a blog comment.

    If you’re genuinely curious I recommend you read the recent re-issue of ‘The Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins, and after that you may want to go on to ‘The Moral Animal’ by Robert Wright; I’d definitely recommend reading them in that order, as Wright assumes knowledge of some concepts which first appeared in TSG.

  25. Jared White
    Posted July 28, 2007 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    “there are a number of evolutionary mechanisms which explain the development of altruistic behaviour”

    Sorry, if they’re anything like the just-so stories I’ve already read about many times over the past few years, it doesn’t explain much of anything. Nobody ever said altruistic behavior couldn’t be found in animals. Altruism isn’t the problem — the why of human behavior is the problem. You’re focusing on the what.

  26. Posted July 28, 2007 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    I see, Jared. So it’s like this:

    JARED: “Humans behave morally because God grants humans morality.”

    OTHERS: “But animals exhibit the same behaviors and these can readily be explained using biological, not theological, principles.”

    JARED: “Sorry, biology doesn’t explain much of anything. Nobody ever said altruistic behavior couldn’t be found in animals. Altruism isn’t the problem — the why of human behavior is the problem.”

    OTHERS: “Jared, what we’re telling you is that the the same ‘why’ that applies to animal behavior applies to much of human behavior. Human beings, like as not, are animals. Smart ones, but so what?

    “What we’re telling you is that biological explanations we have for our ‘moral’ behavior more or less explode any ‘out of thin air’ ones. Just as storms and quakes don’t come from gods as shows of wrath, as was once thought, morals don’t arise from gods out of concern for humankind. Science has obviated these superstitious hypotheses.”

    JARED: (Sticks fingers in ears, hums loudly)

  27. Jared White
    Posted July 28, 2007 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    kemibe, an animal acts according to a certain set of rules. Complex rules yes, but rules. A dog doesn’t question why he barks when someone comes to the door. He just barks. He’ll never decide at some point that barking is silly and make some other sound or just remain quiet altogether.

    Humans have the unique ability to override any instincts for any reason. My natural impulse when someone punches me in the face would be to punch them back. But I can override that impulse and chose to run away, or to talk to them, or to act clinically insane and scare them, or any number of acts that may or may not make any logical sense whatsoever.

    Someone might be born with altruistic instincts, but they can easily override such instincts and chose to perform selfish acts of harm and chaos. Other people seem to be born without altruistic instincts at all. Either way, our genes are not the sole arbiter of our actions. Again, this is something that starkly differentiates ourselves from animals. On top of being able to choose to override our natural impulses, we can question why we do so. We can question why others do so. We can even argue just to what extent we can question why, and why we even question why — like we are right now on this blog. :)

    There’s a lot more going on here than the mechanics of biology.

  28. Posted July 28, 2007 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    You’ve highlighted some of the differences between human cognition and that of other animals as well as made a number of erroneous statements that exaggerate these differences.

    Humans can certainly override our impulses to a greater degree than other anmals. We can even override the “best interests” of our own DNA and hence evolution (think condoms and other forms of contarception).

    But contrary to what you say, genes are plainly not the sole determinants of nonhuman animals’ actions. For example, dogs can be trained to know when barking is inappropriate.

    What’s more, the neurological basis for complex decision-making and the basis or bases for what we call “morality” are clearly not one and the same. I have yet to regale you with various examples of behavior in the animal kingsom that is clearly “moral” even if it could be somehow proven that absolutely no thought goes into it. And that is the key consideration: We may have big frontal lobes that allow us to think in some depth, but we’re fundamentaly propelled by drives we don’t think about.

    We consciously enjoy sex, but that’s not why we pursue it. We have favorite foods and look forward to eating them, but that’s not why we take nourishment. And by the very same token, whilewe can stand back and appreciate our moral sense, there’s nothing whatsoever about it that is unique innature.

    So you still have an important and unaddressed task: Demonstrate that the differences between humans and other animals you cite – the ones that actually exist, that is — are rooted in divine grace and not in basic biology.

    I’ll leave you with this: Baacteria, while not intelligent, are better survivors than humans ever will be. They were here longbefore us and will be here after we’re gone. Is this because of basic evolutionary principles or because the “bacteria god” smiles more brightly on them than yours does on you?

  29. Posted July 28, 2007 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Okay, so your subjective feeling that a nebulous unseen entity instills these drives into human beings through some ineffable divine grace rises somehow to the highest level of proof, whereas logically consistent and coherent hypotheses of physically observable mechanisms which have proven out predictively in the objective world are just-so stories.

    I’m done here. Your mental faculties have been damaged (assuming they once worked) beyond the point where we can profitably discuss such matters.

  30. Jared White
    Posted July 28, 2007 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    All right guys, it looks like we’ve reached an impasse. Since you honestly believe that basically evolutionary biology is the key motivating factor for all human behavior, more power to you. Enjoy your super-animalistic world.

    As for me, I prefer to look to the Creator of Life, rather than bees or monkeys, to explain my own personality. And there’s plenty of scientific evidence to back my conclusion.

  31. Jared White
    Posted July 28, 2007 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    P. S. I hope to outlast the bacteria, thank you very much. :)

  32. Posted July 28, 2007 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    “Since you honestly believe that basically evolutionary biology is the key motivating factor for all human behavior, more power to you. Enjoy your super-animalistic world.”

    Straw man. What your interlocutors have said here is broader than this — to wit, that biology per se explains not only human behavior but everything human; more to the point, that “God” does not.

    You’re free to argue against this concept, but you’ll need to supply evidence — “I know God is there” isn’t sufficient to convince skeptics, just as my saying “I know there’s $100,000 worth of gold doubloons buried in your yard” would not be sufficient to have you digging up your property.

    “As for me, I prefer to look to the Creator of Life, rather than bees or monkeys, to explain my own personality. And there’s plenty of scientific evidence to back my conclusion.”

    Oh, so you do have evidence. What is this scientific evidence? (By the way, just because you may not relish the fact that you have more in common with “lower” animals than you think doesn’t mean this isn’t so, Jared.)

  33. ngong
    Posted July 28, 2007 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    There certainly have been a number of studies that compare the morality of folks from various affiliations. They use proxies like rates of imprisonment, or questionairres. The individual results differ from study to study, but it’s fair to say there aren’t any radical differences between atheists and self-identified Christians in terms of the “morality” that the studies attempt to measure.

  34. B8ovin
    Posted July 29, 2007 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    Let’s consider your position: there is no moral imperative without a belief in religion (forget god, because god can exist without religion but the moral imperative needs religion to communicate god’s morality). You say atheists can have nothing but relative morals, what feels good they believe they can do. I say you are wrong.

    First of all understand the atheist view: we do not have a history or an innate reluctance to deny morality, we do not, in fact, think living without it is feasible. However, we argue that religion and particularly Christianity is not the arbiter of morality. In short, some things are universal, evolutionarily mandated morals, and some things are civic laws, but some things are not immoral just because the Christian claims providence. Example taken from many debates with Christians about gay marriage.

    As a human being I understand the following as civic responsibility:
    a) sex is only MORAL between two parties that can express mutual and unequivocal assent for the sex act.
    b) animals can not express mutual and unequivocal assent for the act of sex.
    c) it is immoral to have sex with animals.

    We can see here that such things as gay sex, and even multiple partnered heterosexual sex is moral, but the inevitable slippery slope fallacy that gay marriage is a gateway practice leading to bestiality is defeated.

    You may argue that proposition “a” is arbitrary but you I doubt you can find any christian or atheist that would disagree with it. You may find some that disagree or choose to ignore it but these individuals are immoral according to social definitions and are punished when they are caught, whether they go to hell or not. You may assume they are going to hell, but I would wager you also and more persistently hope they go to jail, thus protecting, in the here and now sphere of THIS life, your children, wife and even pets.

    In short you may wish to live your life by moral rules you gleam from biblical writing, but you rely on the morality that is not god centric just as we atheists do. What you do that stresses me is to impose those personal moral extras on everyone else, and denounce everyone who doesn’t accept them as immoral (by you I am assuming the Christian moralist, not necessarily YOU).

    Beyond the social and civic contract of morality you have the universal or evolutionary morality (I use morality to comply and be consistent with the concept, though there are different words and subtleties that could be used). Given that there was a an absence of religious morality, and christian morality in particular for the majority man’s ascent, we can assume that some aspects of morality are implicit in nature, else man and his ancestors would not have been able to survive.

    I do not comprehend how any Christian can claim that 1) morality is a religious concept and 2) that morality is absent in the absence of religion. There is no data suggesting this and no logic that presumes it. As an atheist I live by the rule that if I feel like doing something or am confronted by a situation that calls for moral guidance, I turn not to god but myself. How would I wish to be treated. You may say this is a variant on the Golden Rule, but I say this is another universal moral imperative dictated by the social and civic arenas we have ALWAYS adopted in order to survive. It also should show the lie to the ridiculous and ignorant hypothetical found at the link given in post #7.

    I do wish to say this: I do not find you despicable but I do find you self-deceptive. However, I have immense respect for the fact that you favor the debate and do not resort to personal insult. Often that is not the case on such sites.

  35. eric
    Posted July 29, 2007 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that there is a deep philosophical misunderstanding behind all of the pro-evolution posts. Biology can indeed explain human behavior in a sense, but what it decidedly cannot do is explain morality. When a biologist offers an explanation for, say, altruistic behavior, all he has done is explain why members of a certain species do in fact act in a particular manner, a manner that we label ‘altruistic.’ But the important point everyone seems to be missing here is that this conclusion has nothing whatsoever to do with morality! We label altruistic acts as ‘moral’ ex post facto. The moral/immoral label comes after the scientific explanation, and does not in any way follow from the scientific data. All the biologist is saying is, “Behavior b is explained by phenomena p.” The fact that we consider behavior b to be moral or immoral is a judgement we make that is in no way influenced by the scientific data.

  36. Posted July 29, 2007 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    The only people with deep misunderstandings are those who cannot grasp the fact that no one here has supplied any evidence that something “supernatural” even exists, much less underlies morality or anything else.

    It’s very simple, Eric: “Morality,” as you say, is nothing more than a label assigned to certain behaviors, just as “God” is a fanciful label some people choose to label something that would be kinda cool in certain limited ways if it actually existed. If, as you also acknowledge, behaviors can be explained on the basis of material principles (in this case, biology), then it follows that biology can in fact explain morality.

    To simplify even further: Biology is a subset of nature; behavior is a subset of biology; morality is a subset of behavior. There’s no need for “gods” in any of this. But if you, unlike everyone else, have some evidence for such things, or can produce evidence of anything that cannot be adequately explained without resporting to a hearty cry of “God did it!”, then by all means introduce it, because poor Jared has been absolutely marauded in what he so earnestly calls a “debate.”

  37. ngong
    Posted July 29, 2007 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    Eric, it seems to me that science is a good starting point for morality. After all, most of what we term “moral” behavior is that which gives each agent a fair shot at reproduction and resources. This sort of thing is ripe for mathematical modeling and analysis. And, to the extent you believe that math is “absolute”, this morality is also absolute.

    Religion often confounds this morality. One sacred text says that eating pork offends God, another says that eating beef is sinful. God gets angry if you wear a certain mix of textiles, or wash the dishes in the wrong way. It’s almost as if the writers of these texts had overactive morality glands.

    At the same time, many religions condone behavior that is obviously immoral from the point of view of allowing each person fair opportunities to flourish. The classical example is slavery.

  38. B80vin
    Posted July 29, 2007 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure I agree with your statement, “After all, most of what we term “moral” behavior is that which gives each agent a fair shot at reproduction and resources”.

    Taken to its logical conclusion this would make murder moral as it would give a weaker agent a much fairer shot at both reproduction and resources. And so would adultery, in the realm of reproduction; after all the more mates the better chance of passing on genetic progeny, the whole basis of reproduction.

    Every other point you make is solid and well said, but I think we need a better definition of the term “moral” something less confining than your choice and less arbitrary than “what the Bible tells me”.

    I think it would be good to start with the idea that, contrary to Eric’s argument, morality begins with altruism, or the natural inclination to secure social harmony in support of each individual within that society. Morality must then include civic and personal responsibility. I firmly believe that human beings are capable of setting these boundries and definitions without recourse of feality to an unknown myth. But what are the absolutes if any?

    I would begin with respect to life and property. These two notions seem to be the backbones of human social interaction. Where, then do we go from here?

  39. YYoshii
    Posted July 29, 2007 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    Too bad our protagonist exited the scene.
    BT has a good point about the cultivating and propagating of faith in societies, for the practice of accepting propositions without objectively verifiable evidence surely is not conductive to bring forth a society that expends its energy for the sake of the living.
    When everybody firmly believes that disobedient children who talk back to its parents must be put to death by stoning, as the Abrahamic God prescribes, surely it is only right for such children to be executed. While this act may go against one’s instinct and affinity for one’s children, I suppose it is a good act, especially in the eyes of the ‘Creator of Life.’ :P Though this act may be what was considered good, in the so-called civilized world this is now considered cruel and barbaric. It wouldn’t take too much thought to consider why we should ignore this particular God’s rule, though certainly with much fear and trembling due to our disobedience of His Word in the Holy Bible :P . There are better ways to promote obedience, with scientists laboring daily to undermine God’s rule.

  40. ngong
    Posted July 30, 2007 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    B80vin…I didn’t make any statements about “weaker” or “stronger” agents. I said, in fact, that each agent should get a FAIR (read, “equal”) opportunity for reproduction and resources. Here, murder is clearly unfair. Adultery is the breaking of a contract that’s very much concerned with reproduction and resources!

    It should be obvious that what we normally call “morality” is hugely (sometimes obsessively) concerned with sexual behavior. That’s no surprise, from an evolutionary point of view…I should be very concerned about that unaccounted-for 30 minutes you spent with my wife last night. So I’d certainly place “reproduction” before “property”.

    The absolutes you speak of might emerge when you throw all the variables into a smart computer, and find that there’s one (or, perhaps, very few) optimal outputs to the problem you pose.

  41. B8ovin
    Posted July 30, 2007 at 9:28 am | Permalink


    Point take in the equal/fair – weaker/ stronger regard.

    I am not certain there are “absolutes” as I would argue that as a society grows and learns from it’s own history of injustice and intolerance it modifies it’s sense of morality. It was perfectly moral at the beginning of the American experiment to own slaves, but became intolerable as the implications of slavery were examined. Another example is women rights, and even the tolerance of other religions.

    There seems, historically, to be a cyclic tendency to these moral examinations on a broader social scale. I wonder, nay fear what sort of cycle we will encounter if even some of the more benign effects proposed to ensue from global warming are realized. History suggests that there will be a large swell in the fundamental religious beliefs.

    As for “reproduction” before “property” I’m not sure. I understand your point, and applying your “fairness” it makes sense.

  42. eric
    Posted July 30, 2007 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Kembie, B80vin, and Ngong,

    I may not have been clear enough in my previous post, so I’ll try to clarify some of my main points.

    First, I’d argue that any explanation of “moral” behavior at the biological level would be insufficient. A simple thought experiment can bring this point out. Imagine a possible world in which the people who populate the planet Aynrand consider altruism to be immoral. (Please note, first, that there is no contradiction here — one may consistently say, “Altruism is immoral.” Hence the posible world in which altruism is believed to be immoral.) The people on Aynrand are the same as the people on earth in every other respect. Now, imagine a biologist studying altruistic behavior on planet Aynrand. His biological explanations of altruistic behavior would be exactly the same as the biological explanations of altruism here on earth. The only difference would be the fact that here on earth altruism is believed to be moral, while on Aynrand it is considered to be immoral. From this it follows that a biological explanation cannot tell us whether a particular behavior is moral or immoral (after all, the same exact biological explanation of altruistic behavior is consonant with the disparate views of altruism on earth and on Aynrand). All the biological explanation can do is tell you why a particular individual, group, or species engages in a particular behavior. As I said earlier, the “moral/immoral” labels are added ex post facto. Nothing in the biologist’s scientific data can lead us to conclude that the altruistic behavior is moral or immoral (as the thought experiment suggests, either evalauation is consistent with the biologist’s explanation).

    The reason for the confusion about biology and its capacity to explain morality rests, I think, on a confusion between description and prescription. The biologist’s explanation is descriptive, whereas morality is prescriptive. Of course, it is possible to treat morality descriptively, as an anthropologist would (or, indeed, as the biologist does), but this is not the treatment of morality Jared is talking about, and this is why most criticisms of his position based on biology have failed. Jared is clearly talking about prescriptive morality. So biology can explain (descriptive) behavior, but it cannot explain
    (prescriptive) behavior, which is what Jared is looking for.

    I’d like to point out the fact that my argument (that there is a limited sphere of work for biology to do with respect to explanations of morality) in no way disparages biology. One cannot provide a biological explanation of general relativity, either. It is just as important to recognize the limits of a discipline as it is to be aware of its capacities. Also, I’d like to point out the fact that nothing that I have said, in this post or in my previous post, could be construed to imply that I am a theist: I am not. I am an agnostic, and I’m as vociferous an advocate of evolution (as the best explanation we currently have of speciation) as anyone. I only mention this because some have inferred from my argument about the limitations of biology that I must be (or probably am) a theist. It should be obvious now that this is a silly non sequitur.

  43. Jared White
    Posted July 30, 2007 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    #43: I really enjoyed reading your comment, Eric. I also appreciate such a viewpoint coming from a non-theist agnostic. I think we likely agree on several points as they concern the limits of biological explanations of morality and the impulses that drive the human quest for meaning and purpose in the world.

  44. Posted July 30, 2007 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Jared writes of “the limits of biological explanations of morality.”

    Well, Jared, until someone defines them (and you yourself haven’t tried), it’s safe to say that there are no such limits. All you’ve done is posit their existence. Your argument comes down to, “I don’t like the idea that there exists a non-magical, not-teleological explanation for everything, and so, in spite of the massive, ongoing success of ‘materialism’ in advanceing human knowledge and how increasinglky ridiculous the Bible appears as time passes, I’m going to stick to my story.”

    You can’t blame people for calling you unreasonable, and if less charitable folks are calling you an idiot (I don’t know what “M” said today that you erased), well, you blame them for that either.

    It’s one thing for you to say, “I believe what I believe and that’s that.” You’re close to this, and if you were to commit fully to the admission that reality doesn’t concern you, people would likely leave you alone. But as long as you continue to play by the real world’s rules and claim that you have some kind of evidentiary support for your beliefs about gods and morality and other things, people are going to challenge you, and you will continue to lose.

  45. ngong
    Posted July 30, 2007 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    B80vin….I’m just trying to rebut the idea that there CAN’T be moral absolutes without the supernatural.

    Biology gets invoked because folks are interested in a tangible basis for the behaviors we normally call moral. Altruism, behavior that allow others to gain at one’s own expense, seems to overlap reasonably nicely, and imagining alternative worlds with new definitions won’t change that.

    It’s frustrating that there isn’t a list of morals engraved (prescribed) in the sky. The best we have seems to be various old texts, which conflict with each other, condone behaviors that are immoral (e.g. slavery) by almost any other standard, and often conflict greatly with science. I’ll pass on those texts.

  46. B8ovin
    Posted July 30, 2007 at 5:36 pm | Permalink


    You say: “one may consistently say, “Altruism is immoral.” Perhaps so, providing one feels free to create definitions to one’s argument. If you were to posit that altruism is purely a natural reaction while morality is purely a philosophical notion I can agree with the entirety of your post.

    That being said, humanity did not evolve in a vacuum. If we have the brains that give us the intelligence to posit philosophy in the first place, we have the intelligence to posit morality. But the birth of that morality must have stemmed from our altruistic natures. There is no reason to assume that we would have survived as a species, from our earliest ancestors without this naturally imposed ability to cooperate, or altruistic behavior. Thus I would argue that all discussions of the basis of morality must BEGIN with altruism, just as a real discussion of sport history would begin with the evolutionary adaptation of standing.
    It should be mentions that we have exactly a single example of a moral animal. And while thought experiments are fun, they do not provide answers for the this example. I agree that the definition of altruism is biological and morality is the realm of philosophy and anthropology, but that still doesn’t deny the origins of morality being altruism. Whether this is so, I don’t know, I am neither a biologist nor a philosopher.

    I must say, however, I enjoyed the naming of the hypothetical planet.

  47. eric
    Posted July 30, 2007 at 6:04 pm | Permalink


    I enjoyed reading your response. When I said that the proposition, “Altruism is immoral” is not contradictory, I was speaking entirely about logic (hence my appeal to a possible world). There is no contradiction inherent in the notion of a flying pig, either, but we just happen to live in a world where pigs don’t fly. (It’s important not to confuse different kinds of possibility here: It may indeed be physically impossible for a pig to fly, given the laws of physics that obtain in our universe, but the notion is logically possible.) Now, it is contingently true that pigs don’t fly in our universe, just as it’s contingently true that altruism is often identified with morality. But the purpose of the thought experiment is to show that any biological or mechanistic explanation of altruistic behavior need not presuppose nor entail
    the notion that altruism is moral. If this is so, then it follows that biological explanations of altruistic behavior cannot explain (prescriptive) morality, since they are consonant both with the notion that altruism is moral and the notion that altruism is immoral.

    I’m not so sure altruism is necessary from an evolutionary point of view. The arguments get very messy and tricky here, and a lot is determined by how you define your terms. But I’ll just say that while I may be willing to admit that altruistic behavior which is selective may be beneficial, there is a difference between saying, “x is beneficial” on the one hand and “x is necessary” on the other. Antibiotics are certainly beneficial, but the fact that human beings managed to survive and multiply for roughly 200,000 years without them suggests that they are not necessary. And while a selective altruism (towards one’s family and group) may also be beneficial, it doesn’t follow that altruism towards others is (I know that sundry explanations of general altruism have been offered, but I’ve yet to find any persuasive), and this is what most of us mean when we speak about altruism (we don’t call a racist altruistic, no matter how selflessly he acts with respect to his family and what he considers to be members of his ‘”race”).

  48. ngong
    Posted July 30, 2007 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Eric…some of us poor wretches DON’T KNOW what your platonic morality is! Thus we look for concepts that obviously overlap with “morality”, but are more testable. Altruism works nicely, because we can attempt to measure the losses and gains conferred to self and others.

    Your “alternative world” attempt to utterly disconnect the concepts is lame. It verges on contradiction…you might as well say “self-sacrifice is selfish” on another planet.

  49. eric
    Posted July 31, 2007 at 1:49 pm | Permalink


    First, I’m not a Platonist, and I honestly cannot see how you could have inferred that from anything I’ve said, provided you understood it. Perhaps you confused my use of the possible worlds methodology with a platonic ontology; I don’t know.

    Second, “that’s lame” is hardly a refutation.

    Third, the possible worlds (or, as you called it, “alternative world”) approach to examining concepts is used quite frequently in philosophy to examine modality (which is precisely what I was looking at in my thought experiment). You don’t seem to be familiar with it, so perhaps you should check it out. There are critics of the approach, to be sure, but their criticisms are usually more substantive than “that’s lame.”

  50. ngong
    Posted July 31, 2007 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    When you disassociate “morality” from any measurable, common-sense correlates (e.g. altruism), it would seem to indicate you think that morality exists “out there”, free of any grounding. Thus…”platonic”.

    In the sentence that followed, I explained the lameness of your argument.

  51. eric
    Posted July 31, 2007 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    I think you’re confusing the content of the thought experiment with its purpose. I was not arguing that morality cannot be grounded in anything “measurable”; rather, I was arguing that biology cannot provide us with any data sufficient to ground morality. But to say that biology cannot do it is not to say that it cannot be done by any scientific discipline — as I said in an earlier post, you cannot use biology to understand general relativity; clearly, it doesn’t follow from this that general relativity is thus “free of any grounding.” Yet this is exactly the same form of argument you’ve used to infer my supposed paltonism from my earlier remarks. The silliness of any such inference should now be clear.

  52. ngong
    Posted July 31, 2007 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    You propose, via an abstract thought experiment, that altruism has no connection whatsoever to what we call “morality”. For you, the two concepts don’t even intersect, since it’s possible (for you) to imagine an alternative reality where “altruism is immoral”. Since altruism is a term largely used in biology, you then say you’ve proven that biology has nothing to say about morality.

    This might be acceptable in the world of abstract philosophy and theology, and it might even win you a debate, but I sincerely hope you don’t think you’re actually honing in on reality.

  53. eric
    Posted July 31, 2007 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t say that altruism has no connection whatsoever with morality, or that the two concepts don’t intersect. What I did say is that a biological explanation of altruism cannot ground the type of (prescriptive) morality that Jared was talking about, and the reason is that the same biological explanation of altruistic behavior would obtain if we considered altruism to be moral or if we considered it to be immoral. This is the key move in the argument: If an explanation of altruism at the biological level would be the same whether we considered altruism to be moral or immoral, then it follows that this kind of explanation is not sufficient to explain the prescriptive morality that Jared is concerned with. If you don’t like the thought experiment, then think of it this way: Objectivists (i.e., people who advocate and live by the philosophy of Ayn Rand) argue that altruism is immoral since it advocates self-immolation. Would a biological explanation of altruism differ if the subject (or group) being considered is an Objectivist from the biological explanation of altruism if the subject (or group) is not, and instead advocates a more traditional moral code?

  54. ngong
    Posted July 31, 2007 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    Some (next to none, I’d guess) argue that altruism is immoral. Some portion of biology discusses altruism. Therefore, morality absolutely cannot be grounded in biology. (???)

    Part of my confusion with your arguments is this: why do you stop at biology? Do you intend to come up with a check list composed of scientific disciplines, and find interesting, abstract reasons as to why each one can’t be prescriptive? Or…do you really think any science can offer moral prescriptions, and you’ve just got to find the right discipline on the list? Personally, I think it’s a waste of time to try to squeeze the word “should” out of ANY scientific data.

    Let me make the case against biological altruism easier: biological altruism always assumes deferred reward of some sort. But most folks believe that highly “moral” actions aren’t concerned with rewards. Therefore, biological altruism (not “biology”, per se) cannot subsume morality. How’s that?

    However, I’ve yet to see evidence for morality that is “greater” than modest “biological altruism”. Just as evolution might predict, ordinary, real world, Biblical morality is hugely concerned with sexual behaviors, territory, etc. No surprise, really.

    In fact, a good chunk of morality seems concerned with suppressing biological desires…there’s a whole other angle on the “morality can/can’t be grounded in biology” argument. (and it doesn’t invoke “altruism” at all!)

  55. B80vin
    Posted August 1, 2007 at 7:42 am | Permalink


    Wonderful post, clear and unambivalent. But I think some could argue that ALL morality is altruistic, and particularly religious morality. If morality is not concerned with rewards while altruism is concerned with deferred rewards, religious based morality is concerned with the biblical idea of deferred heavenly rewards.

    We, and be ‘we’ i mean the entire discussion, (not ngong and me) keeps going around the nature of morality and the morality of nature. But the original point is can an atheist be moral and can a religion or portions thereof be considered immoral.

    I personally think morality is a natural phenomenon stemming from altruism, in that social groups learn cooperation for the whole tribe to survive. In man’s worst experiment with altruism, war, the individual’s live is risked for the sake of the whole tribe or country. There is nothing innately religious about this sacrifice, and it assumes no god. While you can be infused with religious belief and go to war, you can just as well be an atheist and make the same choice. And remember, eric, this is for an ideal: the defence of nation, the service of forms of government, etc.. I know it is not necessarily altruistic for a government to go to war, but it is certainly true at the individual level.

    Moving to your analogies: would a flying pig be a pig or a “pig-like” flying animal? I accept that others may define something differently or consider outcomes contrary to accepted understanding. I don’t know, however, if all such definitions and considerations are valid. I suppose that is the point of philosophy and science, in the intellectual and natural worlds, respectively. Mind you, I am not arguing with you, I am merely saying I don’t know how to supply a definitive or even an informed answer ( I am not a scientist, a philosopher, nor do I have any expertise in the relevant specialities).

    I would certainly argue that altruistic behavior is necessary in a species which has evolved social cooperation as a survival strategy. Disease will only kill a portion of a population, regardless of how pernicious that disease is, and only a portion will get deadly bacterial infections. So no, it is not NECESSARY, but an altruistic society will work to develop cures.

    I understand you arguments, Eric, but I think they are dangerously close to relativism, and if there’s one thing I find disingenuous, intellectually, it’s relativism. I do think, however, that we are all trying to find some common ground.

  56. ngong
    Posted August 2, 2007 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    Yes…if “true” morality acts without expectation of reward, then given the Abrahamic emphasis on rewards and punishments in the afterlife, perhaps the question should be: can followers of those religions be truly moral?

    The biological problem with “true” morality is that as soon as any cheaters arise, they gain a reproductive advantage over the masses, and this cheating tendency might be passed on to further generations.

    To prevent this, altruists must, at the very least be aware of the possibility of cheating, and be ready to thwart or punish cheaters. But then there’s the philosophical question: can you be a pure-hearted do-gooder and still be intensely aware of all the connivances that cheaters are likely to employ?

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