Monday, April 19, 2010

The Englishmen are at it again

The atheist scientist P. Z. Myers recently posted some short comments on his view of morality from an atheist perspective--reposted on a Kentucky blog "Blue in the Bluegrass," not one of the more philosophically sophisticated sites in the blogosphere, and one on which the language often used indicates that there may have been a shortage of soap in the home of the proprietor for use in washing out mouths when he was young. But it is fairly representative of the kind of village atheism prominent on the web.

As I have said before, Myers and his ilk are what Friedrich Nietzsche called "Englishmen": like the Victorians themselves, they cling all the more to their own moral positions despite having a philosophy of the world which undercuts any moral judgment whatsoever. The frequency and fervor with which Myers, Jerry Coyne, and Ed Brayton issue moral condemnations of their detractors is a wonder to behold--party on account of the sheer energy that animates them and partly because of the audacity with which they pursue them despite their own stated beliefs.

Nietzsche, while an atheist himself, had this at least over his modern counterparts: he had the intellectual courage to accept the logical conclusions of his beliefs.

Myers says first:
... science as science takes no sides on matters relevant to a particular species, and would not say that an ape is more important than a mouse is more important than a rock.
Presumably this judgment includes humans, since, according to Myers, they are simply another species closely related to apes. And wouldn't it be fun drawing out the logical implications (as I have done elsewhere) for human rights from that position? But, of course, that men are no different from animals doesn't stop Myers and his atheist friends from complaining about men being treated like animals (particularly if the offenders are religious people).

Exactly how do you get a morality in which human beings have an obligation to treat each other humanely in a system of belief in which human humans are not different qualitatively from animals? In fact, this theme figures prominently in atheistic ethics:

What science is, is a policeman of the truth. What it's very good at is telling you when a moral decision is being made badly, in opposition to the facts. If you try to claim that homosexuality is wrong because it is unnatural, science can provide you a long list of animals that practice homosexuality freely, naturally, and with no ill consequences.

Let's see if we've got this straight:
It is natural for animals to engage in homosexuality
Humans are animals
Therefore, it is natural for humans to engage in homosexuality
If this logic is acceptable for homosexuality, then why isn't it acceptable for other common animal practices, such as, say, cannibalism (see here for a broader discussion of this point)?
It is natural for animals to engage in cannibalism
Humans are animals
Therefore, it is natural for humans to engage in cannibalism
Now I'm not saying that atheists are cannibals; I'm just saying that I wouldn't turn my back on them.

To Myers, there is no grand overarching morality:
"Science", if we're imagining it as some institutional entity in the world, really doesn't care -- there is no grand objective morality, no goal or purpose to life other than survival over multiple generations, and it could dispassionately conclude that many cultures with moral rules that we might personally consider abhorrent can be viable.
So if there is not "grand objective morality," what kind of morality can there be? Well, after basically pulling the rug out from anything that could possibly exercise an authoritative hold over human action, Myers attempts to come up with one:

However, I would suggest that science would also concede that we as a species ought to support a particular moral philosophy, not because it is objectively superior, but because it is subjectively the proper emphasis of humanity...and that philosophy is humanism. In the same way, of course, we'd also suggest that cephalopods would ideally follow the precepts of cephalopodism.

So don't look to science for a moral philosophy: look to humanism. Humanism says that we should strive to maximize the long-term welfare and happiness of humans; that we should look to ourselves, not to imaginary beings in the sky or to the imperatives written down in old books, to aspire to something better, something more coherent and successful at promoting our existence on the planet.

It causes visions of hand-holding atheists singing whatever it is they sing in place of Kumbayah, doesn't it? What relationship does humanism have to science? What is humanism? Why does humanism have any moral authority over humans? Myers doesn't say.

How can the Myers of the world consider any "particular moral philosophy" as superior to another without a "grand objective morality" to adjudicate between the two? Myers doesn't say. He just takes a leap of faith of the same kind he customarily condemns in others.

Since man is inherently religious, once he dispenses with one religion, he has to replace it with another, which is precisely what humanism is: a religion for people who claim not to have one.

Myers, by simply invoking the name of "humanism," then turns around and starts recounting what humanism "says." Humanism "says" something? Was this, like, handed down from some atheist Sinai? Where is the body of humanist "sayings"? Are they in a book? Who wrote it? Some human? Some group of humans? Where do they derive their moral authority?

Where does humanism "say" we should "strive to maximize the long-term welfare and happiness of humans"? How do we know humanism doesn't command us to eat each other? Where would we go to settle these questions?

Myers remarks would be laughed out of any serious academic philosophical discussion of ethics, but he seems somehow to consider it some kind of significant contribution to ethics. He should just come out and admit that he doesn't know what he's talking about.

19 comments:

Lee said...

For a Thomist, Martin, you do a very decent job of expounding Christian apologetics from a presuppositional perspective.

I mean that as a sincere compliment, of course.

The Sanity Inspector said...

I've got no brief for or against his conception of ethics, at least not right now. Instead, I was appalled by his soft-pedaling of the horrors of communism.

Thomas said...

I would think science would lead to social darwinism before it leads to humanism. At least with social darwinism there's a logical connection.

Martin Cothran said...

Lee,

We Thomists invented presuppositionalism. But we call them "first principles."

Lee said...

> We Thomists invented presuppositionalism. But we call them "first principles."

:)

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presuppositional_apologetics

> "The conclusion of evidential apologetics is that the Bible is probably more accurate about what it reports than not, thus the whole of Biblical revelation is probably true, and where we don't have absolute certainty we must accept the most probable theory. The goal of presuppositional apologetics on the other hand, is to argue that the assumptions and actions of non-Christians require them to believe certain things about God, man and the world which they claim they do not believe. This type of argument is technically called a reductio ad absurdum in that it attempts to reduce the opposition to holding an absurd, i.e. contradictory position; in this case, both believing in facts of Christian revelation (in practice) and denying them (in word). So in essence, evidential apologetics attempts to build from a common starting point in neutral facts, while presuppositional apologetics attempts to claim all facts for the Christian worldview as the only framework in which they are intelligible."

I have been told that Aquinas was perhaps the greatest philosopher who ever lived. You're making me curious to find out what he said.

Martin Cothran said...

Lee,

It seems to me evidentialists and presuppositionalists always argue past each other. It's hard to figure out where the stasis of the disagreement is. It seems to be at the point where the Van Tillians say that it is unethical to use any other kind of argument than a reductio (the transendental argument, essentially).

I have problems with that view. First because it makes no rational sense, and second because it would render Paul's approach at Mars Hill unethical.

On the other hand, there his nothing about evidentialism that would prohibit the evidentialist from using a reductio.

The strict presuppositionalists seem to confuse epistemological order with ontological order. "We must start with the Bible" is an ontological principle, but it can never be the epistemological principle. But that's their view, and their argument for it doesn't take account of the distinction at all.

I don't agree with the characterization of the evidentialist view here concerning it only rendering the faith probable. All views have to take account of the gap between probability and certainty. Just assuming what you're trying to prove doesn't solve the problem.

Lee said...

Thanks for the response, Martin, I'll keep your critique in mind as I try to figure all this out.

As a Reformed Presbyterian and not a classically trained one, I have had more exposure to Van Til and Bahnsen than to the more traditional wisdom.

Presuppositionalism does sound question-begging, granted. I think their point, though, is that everyone is forced to beg the question. The objection to begging questions in the first place is that it is illogical, but even here we are forced to beg the question whether logic is valid.

If I understand the issue correctly, the presuppositionalists are asking where first principles come from, and how can they even exist as such if the Bible is not true?

But at times, both perspectives sound amazingly alike.

Thomas said...

Is the presuppositionalism/evidentialism debate about rhetorical strategy (how best to convince non-believers), or does it concern epistemology more broadly (how Christians ought to determine the truth)?

Martin Cothran said...

Thomas,

It depends on who you ask. If you are an evidentialist, the question is an epistemological one. If you are a presuppositionalist, it is an ontological one. The evidentialist, however, knows it is epistemological because he recognizes and understands the distinction between the two modes; the presuppositionalist thinks it is ontological because he neither recognizes nor understands the distinction.

Lee said...

> Is the presuppositionalism/evidentialism debate about rhetorical strategy (how best to convince non-believers), or does it concern epistemology more broadly (how Christians ought to determine the truth)?

As best as I can tell, it is more concerned with the former; but with those presuppositionists I'm familiar with, it isn't precisely the same as trying to convince non-believers. Maybe it's as much about instilling confidence in believers. Bahnsen (for one) was very concerned with arming young Christians with the intellectual tools necessary for countering the anti-Christian slant of popular and academic culture.

> the presuppositionalist thinks it is ontological because he neither recognizes nor understands the distinction.

Perhaps, but I'm not sure a presuppositionalist would be comfortable with that characterization. I think what they're saying is, "We'll get to epistemology later, if and when the opponent has proven he is entitled to employ its principles."

Even the act of knowing something requires faith that something can be known. Acquiring knowledge begins with certain assumptions about rationality, about evidence, about the power of inferring that physical laws are predictable, about right and wrong, and so forth.

The presuppositionalist asks a question: how does each camp explain these "first things"? He refuses to let the debate (with an atheist) proceed until the atheist can provide an accounting, from a godless world, of why we should accept them as authoritative. Obviously, both atheists and Christians do accept them as authoritative. But does it makes sense that an atheist would, given their world view?

The presuppositionalists believe that, as soon as you grant the atheist a "shared, common ground" of reason, morals, and so forth, you lose. You have implicitly accepted the notion that reason, morality, and order can be the offspring of a godless universe.

Thomas said...

I've never directly read anything from either side that I'm aware of, so I'm feeling my way around in the dark a bit. A few questions though:

How do evidentialists and presuppositionalists regard the traditional arguments for the existence of God?

Is the presuppositional approach exclusively deductive? It seems that the approach of requiring an account of reason, morality, etc. prior to engaging in any argument inherently requires a deductive proof where one starts with first principles, and reasons geometrically from them.

Do presuppositionalists reject natural law?

As a rhetorical tactic, presuppositionalism (as I understand it) may be effective for those who buy into certain kinds of modern philosophy. I'm not sure it would work that well on someone who rejects a model of knowledge that says we need to begin with first principles and deduce everything else.

Martin Cothran said...

Lee,

But the assumptions about rationality prior to reason itself are recognized as necessary by both evidentialists and presuppositionalists, so that cannot be the ground for any distinction between the two schools of thought.

These are matters of pure intuition (I think the word "faith" has different sense to it, but wouldn't be entirely out of place here).

The presuppositionalist account of first principles--that they only make sense in light of the existence of a theistic God--is, again, accepted by both sides. But, again, the presuppositionalist confuses this ontological principle with an epistemological one: demanding that the unbeliever admit this before the argument can proceed rather than arguing for it from common ground.

In fact, the presuppositionalist doesn't really follow his own program, which is why you hear presuppositionalists arguing for the transcendental argument. If it is supposed to be taken for granted, the why are they arguing for it?

The presuppositionalist refutes himself the minute the first word comes out of his mouth in defense of his position: you can't argue for your position that your position must be presupposed. You can only presuppose it.

The evidentialist recognizes that, as an ontological principle, there are assumptions we must make in order to think at all, but even that can be shown by using common ground. How else could you argue for it? How else can you argue for anything?

Martin Cothran said...

Thomas,

Presuppositionalists reject all arguments for the existence of God except the transcendental argument.

I don't know if "deductive" is the right word. I think "circular" would be better.

And they do reject natural law.

In terms of effectiveness, I can't imagine any apologetic methodology less effective than presuppositionalism, which may account for the fact that I have not only never met a person who was brought to the faith by it, but have never met anyone who knows anyone else who has been brought to the faith by that procedure.

Presuppositionalism assumes a philosophical sophistication on the part of the unbeliever that none but a few unbelievers even possess. It is very much a philosopher's argument.

In my opinion it is an extreme form of theistic rationalism.

Lee said...

Well, Martin, with all respect to you, I'm not the champion that presuppositionalists would like to have in their corner, but I'm the only one here, apparently. So here goes...

> But, again, the presuppositionalist confuses this ontological principle with an epistemological one: demanding that the unbeliever admit this before the argument can proceed rather than arguing for it from common ground.

I don't know how it works in philosophical discourse, but it can't be that dissimilar to math, can it? In standard calculus, we have the Identity Property -- a = a. Mathematicians presuppose it -- or, in your preferred term, it is a "first principle". From that and a handful of other assumptions, the entire framework is built.

Now, let's say you have an antagonist who has a history of arguing vehemently with you that the Identity Property is a lie, a fairy tale that has been concocted by ignorant shepherds, maliciously taught to the young, and stubbornly adhered to by the zealous idiots.

Well and good. But here's the question: what if he then proceeds to argue for the use of integral equations for determining the area under a curve? "It's instinctive," he says, "It's common ground." What do you then say to him? Of course, *you* accept the validity of integrals for many reasons, but it makes sense in your world view because first and foremost you have accepted the Identity Property. But in his world view, it makes no sense at all.

So, do you mention to him at all that *you* are entitled to make such a case for integrals, but he is not? That his position is self-contradictory and thus absurd? Or should you accept the "common ground" approach and try to reason him back to the Identity Property?

In math, it is perfectly valid to prove a theorem by doing nothing more than showing its opposite, based on its own premises, to be contradictory. I would think that holds true in philosophy as well...?

This, or so it seems to me, is the goal of presuppositional apologetics. Belief in the Christian God is the Identity Property; they're not arguing a case for God directly, but indirectly, by showing other world views to be absurd based on their own presumptions.

Lee said...

> In terms of effectiveness, I can't imagine any apologetic methodology less effective than presuppositionalism, which may account for the fact that I have not only never met a person who was brought to the faith by it, but have never met anyone who knows anyone else who has been brought to the faith by that procedure.

And you may be totally correct about that, Martin. But I would harbor doubts that apologetics of any sort is an effective tool for evangelism. That's not what apologetics is for; I think it is to strengthen the faithful.

Colossians 2:8 "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ."

Thomas said...

Lee,

The first part of your argument is very similar to Aristotle's argument in the Metaphysics for the principle of non-contradiction. Aristotle says it cannot be shown demonstratively, but it must be presupposed in order to deny the principle.

Where Aristotle would differ from you is on the claim that God must be presumed in order to speak coherently. God is causally necessary for coherent speaking (because he is the prior condition of any speech at all, so if there weren't a God there wouldn't be a human speaker), but Aristotle doesn't show it by the same presuppositional method. Instead of showing that one must assume God to believe in coherent speech, Aristotle shows that if one accepts a coherent world, it follows (through a series of arguments) that God is a prior cause. Thus, the order of proof is the reverse of the order of causation. Aristotle starts with what is caused, and ends with what caused it.

It's worth noting that Aristotle only uses the "presuppositional" approach when it's the only method available. The problem is that it doesn't show a first principle is true, it just shows one has to assume it to make certain propositions. He doesn't regard it as worthless, but he does regard other proofs as more useful.

Not that one should just agree with Aristotle without seeing his arguments and finding them convincing; I'm just trying to see if I can figure out the lines of agreement and disagreement.

Now if it were true that the other proofs were invalid, he may perhaps have endorsed the presuppositional approach to other first principles. Perhaps that's where much of the difference lies, since the transcendental argument comes right out of Kant's "Critique of Practical Reason", and the rejection of these arguments was a big part of Kant's system.

Lee said...

Your post is very helpful, thanks, Thomas.

Van Til said about his apologetic method, "The only proof for the existence of God is that without God you couldn't prove anything." Very much like Aristotle's proof of the principle of non-contradiction.

> Where Aristotle would differ from you is on the claim that God must be presumed in order to speak coherently.

A presuppositionalist would say that coherence itself requires God, that without Him, all would be chaos. He would say that the first mistake a Christian can make in the debate would be to assume a neutral ground can possibly exist -- it's like handing the debate to the other side, or at least making the debate more competitive than it needed to be. Since the opponent does not believe in God, we should not grant him those debate tools which require God, at least not without first showing he is entitled to use them.

Mind you, these are presuppositionalist views (or so I have intended to present them), and I have been somewhat trained in them. I'm still a student and haven't quite mastered why order and logic are dependent on God. (E.g, why can't they be simple chemical states of mind?) But morality? I'm convinced. If there is no God, then there cannot be any immutable, absolute standard of morality -- which means there is no morality at all, just instincts and preferences.

So someone like Christopher Hitchens should just settle for telling us what he prefers, and quit fulminating like an Old Testament prophet. But he can't resist. I tend not to begrudge him his use of logic, but I do begrudge him his invocations of moral principle, particularly when he employs them against the Church. He has to stand on God's principles even to condemn His Church.

> The problem is that [presupposing] doesn't show a first principle is true, it just shows one has to assume it to make certain propositions.

I think that's a fair statement. I haven't really heard or read many presuppositional arguments trying to prove God exists. They seem quite happy to assume He exists and argue instead that any position that does not presuppose Christianity contradicts itself.

Frankly, I don't understand other schools of apologetics well enough to offer much in the way of contrast. You and Martin have inspired me to try to backfill this gaping hole in my education.

Thomas said...

Lee,

If you get a chance, I think you would enjoy reading Nietzsche. He's an atheist, of course, but his critique of liberal atheists is withering and entertaining. And, as the main post shows, it can be used in apologetic ways, since he is intent on showing the real consequences of atheism.

Lee said...

I appreciate that, Thomas. Thanks. I only know Nietzsche second-hand, mainly since (as a music student) I was deeply into Wagner and he played a part in Nietsche's life. (Nietzsche was deeply smitten with Cosima Liszt von Bulow Wagner, whose charm appears to have belied the evidence apparent in what few photographs we have of her.)