On Jerry Coyne and godless morality

Jerry Coyne at "Noorfest", Duke Univ...

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Earlier this month,  Jerry Coyne wrote an op-ed piece for the USA Today called “As atheists know, you can be good without God”. Coyne is an outspoken evolutionary scientist and an atheist. Coyne tries to prove that theists do not have the moral high ground, and to that end I agree with him in some sense. Atheists, of course, can be moral too. But I will argue that he has no basis for thinking that this morality is grounded in anything factual given his atheism.

Jerry seems to share in some of the fundamental misunderstandings that many atheists have when it comes to the moral argument for God’s existence. First, he brings out our old friend the Euthyphro Dilemma. I’ve written here recently that the Euthyphro Dilemma is really a false dilemma, but Coyne throws in a new wrinkle when he brings up that God not only can command us to do evil, but that He has! Coyne cites several examples of what modern Westerners would view as the more abhorrent commands of the Old Testament. Genocide! slavery! stoning! Oh, my!

Forgive me for being flippant, because I think these are valid concerns that should be thoughtfully answered.  The “abhorrent commands” objections take me beyond the scope of my point of this post, but I do recommend you to these helpful posts on Old Testament Ethics by Matthew Flannagan:

Mr. Coyne says that morality is not grounded in God but rather based upon evolution and our own reasoning.

So where does morality come from, if not from God? Two places: evolution and secular reasoning. Despite the notion that beasts behave bestially, scientists studying our primate relatives, such as chimpanzees, see evolutionary rudiments of morality: behaviors that look for all the world like altruism, sympathy, moral disapproval, sharing — even notions of fairness. This is exactly what we’d expect if human morality, like many other behaviors, is built partly on the genes of our ancestors.

First let me say that I do think atheists, theists, pantheists and pastafarians alike can recognize moral facts. Human beings recognize that being kind is morally right, and that burning down orphanages for fun is morally wrong. But are these moral facts simply natural facts? If moral facts are simply natural facts, I would argue that they simply descriptive but not prescriptive. Altruism, sympathy, moral disapproval, sharing and the notion of fairness is how the world happens to be, but if the atheist is correct and we’re all here by a massive string of cosmic flukes and not for a real purpose, then there is no way things are supposed to be.  The difficulty for Mr. Coyne and atheists like him is saying this is how it ought to be.

When a male duck forcibly mates with a female duck, that is the way nature is, but we don’t say that the duck is doing something it is morally wrong. When we see hyenas eating a young gazelle alive chunk-by-chunk (forgive me if you’re eating while reading this), that is the way nature is, but we don’t see it as morally wrong, it’s just nature functioning as nature does. Unless an atheist is committed to some sort of moral platonism, then for them natural facts are the only kind of facts. They apply to the duck, the hyena and the human being. When humans are nice or when humans are not so nice (think child abusers, rapists, terrorists, serial killers and the lot) we’re just merely describing what is, but it says nothing about what ought to be. Was it necessary that human beings evolved with this sense of morality?  Charles Darwin didn’t seem to think so. In his book, The Descent of Man, he says:

…[if] men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.

Michael Ruse, an atheistic philosopher at Florida State says:

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

So there is nothing objective about morality on the evolutionary account, they’re just illusions “fobbed on us by our genes”.  But if God exists, then he provides the necessary foundation for moral duty. And if God designed us with a certain end in mind, he can make human beings in His image with the ability to recognize and discover what is right and wrong.

While Jerry is right that all of us can recognize the difference between right and wrong, naturalism provides no foundation for moral duty; rather it’s just telling us how it is. Telling us how it ought to be is rather meaningless on naturalism because there is no telos to the universe on their view. They can continue to do right because that’s what they prefer, but it’s hard to see how morality would be objective on atheism. I think it makes sense to say that if moral facts exist, then atheism is very unlikely to be true, to put it modestly. I don’t think Coyne wants to say moral facts do not exist, but atheist philosophers like Michael Ruse (as well as J.L. Mackie, Nietzsche and others) are at least consistent in denying that moral facts exist in a godless world. Coyne tries to stick the theist in a dilemma, but I think at the end of the day he’s the one finding himself in a pickle when it comes to plausibly explaining  moral facts in purely naturalistic terms.


Science Sez So: Man Made God

This week the L.A. Times ran an op-ed piece written by two atheists who use neuroscience to show us that God is a human invention. Cutting edge stuff, I know.

In recent years scientists specializing in the mind have begun to unravel religion’s “DNA.” They have produced robust theories, backed by empirical evidence (including “imaging” studies of the brain at work), that support the conclusion that it was humans who created God, not the other way around. And the better we understand the science, the closer we can come to “no heaven … no hell … and no religion too.”

Like our physiological DNA, the psychological mechanisms behind faith evolved over the eons through natural selection. They helped our ancestors work effectively in small groups and survive and reproduce, traits developed long before recorded history, from foundations deep in our mammalian, primate and African hunter-gatherer past.

Game over, right?  As I gather it, their argument runs something like this:

  1. Psychological mechanisms are the byproduct of natural processes, viz. natural selection.
  2. Faith in God, religious experience, etc. is the result of these natural, psychological processes.
  3. Therefore, religious belief is invalid.

This all seems so groovy and scientific, but at bottom it is a bunch of fallacious hooey. (Hooey, I say! Fighting words!)

1. The argument commits the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy is based solely on something or someone’s origin and not its current meaning or context. The truth of a belief is independent of how we came to know it. I could believe that Des Moines is the capitol of Iowa from reading tea leaves. It doesn’t mean that Des Moines isn’t the capitol of Iowa; it just means I have some lousy justification for thinking that such is the case. Even if we grant that human beings have some fallible and possibly sketchy reasons for believing God might exist, it doesn’t follow that God doesn’t exist.

2. The argument is bulverism. Bulverism is when the argument is assumed to be wrong and then we’re told why the person believes the argument instead of being told why it is really wrong.The writers say that the religious believe for their need of attachment and protection. They go on to write that  “among the psychological adaptations related to religion are our need for reciprocity, our tendency to attribute unknown events to human agency, our capacity for romantic love, our fierce “out-group” hatreds and just as fierce loyalties to the in groups of kin and allies.”  What’s being said goes something like this:

  1. You say God exists.
  2. Because of your psychological need for attachment, protection, to explain the unexplained, etc, you personally want there to be a God.
  3. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

That doesn’t follow at all. It would be an equally fallacious assertion for the Christian to say to the atheist “you say God doesn’t exist only because of your psychological wish to make your own rules and have no higher accountability for your life”. That’s just attacking the person, not the arguments. I will say that I do find it ironic that the writers of this piece act like they’re being objective and are themselves free from psychological factors. Along these lines, I find this truthful admission from atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel to be refreshing. Nagel says

“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and naturally hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope that there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Again, this doesn’t prove atheism to be true or false. The point is that no one is completely free from psychological factors in their beliefs.

3. The argument is question-begging. What the writers are saying is “we know religious beliefs aren’t true because there is no God, so religious beliefs have to be explained by purely natural means”.  If there is no God, then our religious beliefs are selected by evolution strictly for survival value, not for truth. But if God exists, wouldn’t it be rational to think He would want us to know that He does, in fact, exist? So God could either guide the process of evolution in such a way that human beings will develop basic cognizance that He is real, or He could simply just instill a belief in us that He does exist and that he wants a relationship with us. We then could choose to suppress that knowledge or not. That seems to be the point of what Paul was saying in Romans 1:

…The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened…

4. The argument is self-defeating. If naturalism is true, then all of our beliefs; not just religious ones, are the byproduct of blind, unguided material forces. If our cognitive faculties cannot be trusted to have true spiritual beliefs, what makes us think we can we trust them to produce true beliefs about anything related to the real world? Purely naturalistic evolution is not concerned with learning truth, but survival:  feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing.  Charles Darwin himself admitted:

With me, the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?

J.B.S. Haldane, the famous biologist said something similar:

“If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of [physical materials] in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true … and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of [physical materials].”

In his book Miracles, C.S. Lewis also addresses this in the chapter aptly titled “The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism”

“If all that exists is Nature, the great mindless interlocking event, if our own deepest convictions are merely the by-products of an irrational process, then clearly there is not the slightest ground for supposing that our sense of fitness and our consequent faith in uniformity tell us anything about a reality external to ourselves. Our convictions are simply a fact about us-like the colour of our hair. If Naturalism is true we have no reason to trust our conviction that Nature is uniform.”

Any theory that leads us to such radical skepticism about our beliefs – not just our religious beliefs, but all of our beliefs, including our scientific beliefs – is self-defeating. On the contrary, the theist has no reason to doubt her cognitive faculties if they are given to them by God; who would want her to have true beliefs. The theist is actually justified in believing that they actually can take advantage of “our mind’s greatest adaptation: our ability to use reason”.

Imagine that.

Finally, I have to say something about this –

 It is conceivable that St. Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus was, in reality, a seizure caused by temporal lobe epilepsy.

So Paul may have had a seizure that caused him to have a religious experience and go from persecuting the church to being its greatest advocate? Did the women at the tomb have an epileptic seizure that caused them to see an empty tomb and an angel? Did the disciples who said they saw Christ after his crucifixion and burial, did they also experience some sort of seizure that caused them to believe they saw the risen Jesus? The disciples claimed they saw the risen Jesus individually and in groups; were they experiencing some sort of seizure that caused them all to hallucinate the same thing?  Does that even remotely explain the historical facts? But I guess I’m just leaning on some psychological crutch and not using my ability to reason. Right?

Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

Gottfried Leibniz

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It’s a deep thought, I know. The mere existence of the universe is something we tend to take for granted. Perhaps the older we get, the more the world loses its enchantment. I tend to think this is a negative thing. As adults get so focused on “reality” that we forget about the big questions of life.

My mom was on business trips a lot when I first moved to the St. Louis area as a kid. Sometimes while she was away and I’d feel a little lonely, so I’d step outside just to think. I remember looking at the stars on a clear night and thinking to myself “where did this all come from?” I think we’ve all asked ourselves this question at one time or another.

Was Carl Sagan right – is the cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be? Or is there a cause to it all? The German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz believed there was a cause of it all. “Monadology” aside (don’t ask), Leibniz developed one of the more popular arguments for God’s existence, one that has been discussed for several centuries now. It’s been streamlined throughout the years.

Basically, in its simpler form, it shakes out like so:

  1. Anything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or for contingent things, an external cause.
  2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  3. The universe exists.
  4. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence.
  5. Therefore, the explanation of the existence of the universe is God.

So what premises would the atheist attack? Only a nut would deny 3. 1 seems pretty uncontroversial and self-evident. Let’s you were in an airplane, flying from Chicago to Los Angeles, and you look out your window and you see a large, round, red stone floating in mid-air. You begin to notice other passengers in the plane gasping and pointing out the window, wondering how the rock got there. Then the captain comes on the radio and informs everyone to stay in their seats, and goes on to say “don’t worry about that, folks. That floating rock just exists inexplicably”.

You’d think that the captain was nuts, or start to suspect his involvement in some sort of conspiracy. Now, say that if this rock was larger; maybe the size of a baseball stadium, or a small town, or the size of the state of Iowa, or the size of a universe; it would still require an explanation. Merely increasing the size of the rock doesn’t give you less of a reason to need an answer for it being there.

Someone might say “it’s impossible for the universe to have an explanation” But that’s just arguing in a circle, because such an objection assumes atheism is true.

But what if one were to say that the universe has no explanation, that the universe just exists by the necessity of its own nature? First of all, that’s just the logical equal to premise 2, that if the universe has an explanation, that explanation is God. If atheism is true, then logically there is no explanation. Secondly, this conclusion is a radical leap and few atheists are willing to take such a stance. Take for instance atheist Thomas Nagel, a professor of law and philosophy at NYU. He says:

The existence of our universe might be explained by scientific cosmology, but such an explanation would still have to refer to features of some larger reality that contained or gave rise to it. A scientific explanation of the Big Bang would not be an explanation of why there was something rather than nothing, because it would have to refer to something from which that event arose. This something, or anything else cited in a further scientific explanation of it, would then have to be included in the universe whose existence we are looking for an explanation of when we ask why there is anything at all. This is a question that remains after all possible scientific questions have been answered.

Now we’re really going to get nerdy to demolish this objection. The universe does not exist because different elementary particles could have existed. A different collection could have existed, but that would’ve given rise to a completely different universe from the one we know now. So we can’t say the universe exists necessarily. Furthermore, everything which exists necessarily exists forever. Infinite is infinite. And whatever is infinite can’t be advanced by adding to it, nor can it be decreased from taking away from it, so we could never reach the present. So the universe itself can’t be infinite. And anyone with any elementary knowledge of cosmology knows the the universe is not infinitely old.

Let’s think about what the universe is: all of space, time and matter. It follows that the cause of the universe would have to be a non-physical, immaterial being beyond space and time, not to mention a being that is immensely powerful. Hmmm…I wonder what type of being fits that description? The Judeo-Christian God, maybe?

Finally, someone might ask “what is the explanation of God?” For the answer, go back to premise 1. God is not a contingent being, He exists out of the necessity of his own nature. The very idea of God basically implies it. Some mathematicians think of numbers, sets, etc. in the same way; that they just exist out of their own nature.

I’m not saying this argument proves God’s existence beyond all doubt, but then again I don’t think any of the arguments for God’s existence prove with 100% certainty that God does exist. But there are very few things we are 100% certain of, and we seem to get along OK for the most part.  What I do think is that it seems eminently more plausible that God is the reason anything at all exists, compared to the alternatives.

related: The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument by J.W. Wartick

Leibnizian Cosmological Arguments by Alexander Pruss (long!)

On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision Dr. William Lane Craig

The Tucson Tragedy and the Problem of Evil

Like most of you, I’d prefer not think too much about the tragic events that happened last week in Tucson. I’m a parent, and the thought of having my own little child or wife gunned down by someone like Jared Loughner is heart-rending. Many will ask how could God let such a terrible thing to happen, and I can’t say that I blame them. Honestly, one of the things that prevented me from faith in God for a long time was the so-called problem of evil.

To give you some personal history, I grew up in a home where both my parents were alcoholics. There was constant fighting going on and it made my life a living hell at times. I couldn’t have friends over, I had trouble concentrating on homework, it warped my ability to feel adequate socially, and then later in my teenage years, I became rather rebellious against society.

I since have had a good relationship with my parents. I don’t want to make them look bad, alcoholism is a terrible disease to try and overcome. But back then, it seemed to me that an all-powerful, all-loving God could not exist given my pain and suffering, not to mention all the evil in the world. At first, I was mad at God, then eventually I quit believing at all. God and suffering seemed to mix like oil and water.

I think hidden in my assumptions were that if God were omnipotent, He just could’ve created whatever world he felt like creating. And if he is Love like the Bible teaches, He obviously would prefer a world that didn’t include suffering. But suffering exists, so my reasoning was that God didn’t exist.

In light of the horrible tragedy in Arizona, I hope that I don’t come across with the coldness of one of Job’s comforters when giving what philosophers have called  “free will defense”. But I think it’s important to see that there is no explicit contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of suffering. “But the contradiction is pretty implicit!”, one might remark. But the person who says that has taken a huge burden of proof in showing how suffering and an all-powerful, all-loving God is logically inconsistent.

It isn’t true that God can create any world he wants and give us free will, because it’s not logically possible to force anyone to do something freely. It’s like “smelling the number 9” or the idea of a square circle. Given the possibility of free will, people can choose evil over good. I think most agree that it is good of God to create a world where we’re not His toy robots, but persons who can make decisions. Moreover, it seems apparent that evil is just a perversion of the good. C.S. Lewis once wrote –

Evil is a parasite, not an original thing. The powers which enable a bad man to be effectively bad are in themselves good things – resolution, cleverness, good looks, existence itself.

We may not like the suggestion I’m going to make, but as far as we know, a world with suffering may actually be preferred to a world without suffering. While we may not like the idea, as long as it’s even logically possible it defeats the claim that God prefers a world without suffering. It could be the case that a world including suffering could be, all things considered, better than a world without suffering.

In fact, it’s plausible that suffering and God are consistent. Maybe God could not have created a world with as much good as, but less suffering, than this world. We could very well be living in the best of all worlds. God could even have good reasons for permitting the suffering in the world. Or it could be possible (and this is what I believe), that God might want less suffering in the world but will allow it if we will allow it. Theologically, there are the doctrines of prayer, of angels and demons, and the authority of the believer. We see this authority demonstrated when Jesus calmed the winds, healed the sick, cast out devils etc. Jesus included his disciples and the healing ministry as well. We also see multiple instances in the bible when intercessory prayer prevented certain calamities from happening, and how the lack thereof allowed certain things.

It’s possible that God designed the program of prayer as spiritual training for the believer to “take dominion”, just as God commanded Adam to do in Eden. Sin allowed suffering to come into the world, but we who are redeemed by Jesus are to take up where Adam failed. God may not wish to go “over our head” in many instances, but chooses us to be his agents of change on the earth. (see Genesis 1:26-28 and Romans 5:17)  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once observed –

It seems God is limited by our prayer life–and He can do nothing for humanity unless someone asks Him.

Allow me to illustrate. One morning, while I was in prayer back when I was going to bible college in Tulsa, I had an inner-perception or premonition that my mother, who lived in St. Louis, was going to be involved in a car accident. As a Christian, I believe this was the Holy Spirit warning me. (See John 16:13) I asked the Lord that he would somehow see to it that my mom was delayed.  When visiting over Thanksgiving, I asked my mom if  such a thing occurred. I was pretty confident in my experience, but for all I knew it could’ve been the pizza from the night earlier.

As it turned out, my mom confirmed that she did indeed get distracted and then later was stuck in traffic because there was a multi-car pile up on the freeway. She recalled that seeing the wreckage that day was a little unnerving and she was glad she left later than usual. My mom was not a real believer in the supernatural at that time, but needless to say, my story made quite an impression on her. Now why would God not keep my mom from the accident by acting on His own if that is what he wanted? Why did He instead choose to prompt me to pray? It’s an interesting thought.

Now, I don’t want to give off the impression that God will warn us every time with every detail before something tragic happens, but He may be doing much, much more than we might realize. Christians need to be sensitive to His subtle direction. While this may not be plausible to some of you, it is at least possible God actually may wanted to avert the tragedy in Tucson and alerted people to not go to the event, or tried to alert people to Loughner’s suspicious behavior but for whatever reason, people failed to respond. Based on his character, I’d like to think He did, but as finite creatures, we’re really not in place to make such a probability judgment in all circumstances. (see Deuteronomy 29:29)

And on the scope of the other evidences we find for God’s existence – God being the reason that the universe came into being out of nothing in the finite past, God being the grounds of objective moral values, God being the basis of many people’s spiritual experience, or the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, etc – God’s existence is arguably more probable than not even given the existence of evil.

We should also keep in mind in the light of suffering, Christ entered our fallen world and endured a suffering beyond all human understanding. He became sin, bearing the punishment for the iniquities of the entire world. No one can even begin to fathom such suffering. He was a completely innocent, but voluntarily underwent a frighteningly excruciating and terrible death and separation from God. Why? Because He loved us and wanted to redeem us. How can we reject Him who entered into our pains and gave up all for us, and moreover, who promises us that He will one day fully bring justice?

If God doesn’t exist, then we’re trapped in a world filled with pointless pain and tragedy. But on Christianity, God is the last answer to problem and suffering. He gives us fellowship with Himself and gives us this tremendous promise –

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.