Tag Archives: Agency

Atheist Jerry Coyne explains why morality is impossible for atheists

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson about to do philosophy
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson about to do philosophy

Let’s review what you need in your worldview in order to have a rationally grounded system of morality.

You need 5 things:

1) Objective moral values

There needs to be a way to distinguish what is good from what is bad. For example, the moral standard might specify that being kind to children is good, but torturing them for fun is bad. If the standard is purely subjective, then people could believe anything and each person would be justified in doing right in their own eyes. Even a “social contract” is just based on people’s opinions. So we need a standard that applies regardless of what people’s individual and collective opinions are.

2) Objective moral duties

Moral duties (moral obligations) refer to the actions that are obligatory based on the moral values defined in 1). Suppose we spot you 1) as an atheist. Why are you obligated to do the good thing, rather than the bad thing? To whom is this obligation owed? Why is rational for you to limit your actions based upon this obligation when it is against your self-interest? Why let other people’s expectations decide what is good for you, especially if you can avoid the consequences of their disapproval?

3) Moral accountability

Suppose we spot you 1) and 2) as an atheist. What difference does it make to you if you just go ahead and disregard your moral obligations to whomever? Is there any reward or punishment for your choice to do right or do wrong? What’s in it for you?

4) Free will

In order for agents to make free moral choices, they must be able to act or abstain from acting by exercising their free will. If there is no free will, then moral choices are impossible. If there are no moral choices, then no one can be held responsible for anything they do. If there is no moral responsibility, then there can be no praise and blame. But then it becomes impossible to praise any action as good or evil.

5) Ultimate significance

Finally, beyond the concept of reward and punishment in 3), we can also ask the question “what does it matter?”. Suppose you do live a good life and you get a reward: 1000 chocolate sundaes. And when you’ve finished eating them, you die for real and that’s the end. In other words, the reward is satisfying, but not really meaningful, ultimately. It’s hard to see how moral actions can be meaningful, ultimately, unless their consequences last on into the future.

Theism rationally grounds all 5 of these. Atheism cannot ground any of them.

Let’s take a look at #4: free will and see how atheism deals with that.

Atheism and free will?

Here’s prominent atheist Jerry Coyne’s editorial in USA Today to explain why atheists can’t ground free will.

Excerpt:

And that’s what neurobiology is telling us: Our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output. Recent experiments involving brain scans show that when a subject “decides” to push a button on the left or right side of a computer, the choice can be predicted by brain activity at least seven seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made it. (These studies use crude imaging techniques based on blood flow, and I suspect that future understanding of the brain will allow us to predict many of our decisions far earlier than seven seconds in advance.) “Decisions” made like that aren’t conscious ones. And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we’ve made them, then we don’t have free will in any meaningful sense.

If you don’t have free will, then you can’t make moral choices, and you can’t be held morally responsible. No free will means no morality.

Here are some more atheists to explain how atheists view morality.

William Provine says atheists have no free will, no moral accountability and no moral significance:

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.

Richard Dawkins says atheists have no objective moral standards:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference… DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music. (Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995))

When village atheists talk about how they can be moral without God, it’s important to ask them to justify the minimum requirements for rational morality. Atheists may act inconsistently with their worldview, believing in free will, expecting praise and blame for complying with the arbitrary standards of their peer group, etc. But there is nothing more to morality on atheism that imitating the herd – at least when the herd is around to watch them. And when the herd loses its Judeo-Christian foundation – watch out. That’s when the real atheism comes out, and you can see it on display in the Planned Parenthood videos. When God disappears from a society, anything is permissible.

Can atheists be moral? Sean McDowell and James Corbett debate

I got the audio for this debate from Apologetics 315, linked below.

Here is the MP3 file.

Sean’s case is similar to the one I make, but he only has 3 minimal requirements for morality.

First, he explains the difference between objective and subjective truth claims, and points out that statements of a moral nature are meaningless unless morality is objective. Then he states 3 things that are needed in order to ground objective morality.

  1. an objective moral standard
  2. free will
  3. objective moral value of humans

The question of the foundations of morality is without a doubt the easiest issue for beginning apologists to discuss with their neighbor. If you’re new, then you need to at least listen to his opening speech. He’s an excellent speaker, and his rebuttals are very, very smooth. The citations of atheist philosophers like Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, e.g. – to show that “religious” wars had nothing to do with religion, really hurt his opponent. He seems to cite prominent atheists like Thomas Nagel, Richard Taylor, Michael Shermer, etc., constantly in order to get support for his assertions. That took preparation. McDowell was very calm in this debate. It’s very hard to stay calm when someone is disagreeing with you in front of a crowd, but McDowell did a great job at that. He also seemed to be really prepared, because his rebuttals were crisp and concise.

For those of you who want to understand how these things work, listen to the debate. There is a period of cross-examination if you like that sort of thing. I do!

Can atheists be moral? Sean McDowell and James Corbett debate

I got the audio for this debate from Apologetics 315, linked below.

Here is the MP3 file.

Sean’s case is similar to the one I make, but he only has 3 minimal requirements for morality.

First, he explains the difference between objective and subjective truth claims, and points out that statements of a moral nature are meaningless unless morality is objective. Then he states 3 things that are needed in order to ground objective morality.

  1. an objective moral standard
  2. free will
  3. objective moral value of humans

The question of the foundations of morality is without a doubt the easiest issue for beginning apologists to discuss with their neighbor. If you’re new, then you need to at least listen to his opening speech. He’s an excellent speaker, and his rebuttals are very, very smooth. The citations of atheist philosophers like Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, e.g. – to show that “religious” wars had nothing to do with religion, really hurt his opponent. He seems to cite prominent atheists like Thomas Nagel, Richard Taylor, Michael Shermer, etc., constantly in order to get support for his assertions. That took preparation. McDowell was very calm in this debate. It’s very hard to stay calm when someone is disagreeing with you in front of a crowd, but McDowell did a great job at that. He also seemed to be really prepared, because his rebuttals were crisp and concise.

For those of you who want to understand how these things work, listen to the debate. There is a period of cross-examination if you like that sort of thing. I do!

Is the concept of moral responsibility compatible with physicalism / materialism?

I saw that Brian Auten of Apologetics 315 linked to this post by J. Warner Wallace.

Excerpt:

When examining the causes for an event (such as a death) we can separate them into two categories: event causation and agent causation (prior physical events cause things to happen and free agents cause things to happen). It’s important to recognize that free agents alone have the freedom to act or respond without a prior physical causal event. Physical objects, like dominoes, cannot cause themselves to fall over; they require a prior event to cause them to fall. But you and I have the ability to cause the first domino to fall as a simple matter of choice (we don’t need a prior event to cause this action). You can’t blame a car for running over a victim; the car is simply a physical object subject to a series of physical processes, none of which can be held morally culpable. But we can blame thedriver of the car for driving the car over the victim. The driver is a free agent, and we recognize that his choices are just that: free choices. The driver is not like the car. His choice is not simply the result of a series of purely physical processes, like dominoes falling. He had the freedom to choose otherwise, and this is why we seek to arrest and prosecute him.

Our recognition of the moral culpability of the driver (rather than the car) is an admission that materialism (physicalism) fails to explain who we are as humans. Consider the following argument:

No Physical System is a Free Agent
Physical systems are either “determined” (one event necessarily following the other) or “random”

Therefore No Physical System Has Moral Responsibility
Moral responsibility requires moral freedom of choice

Human Beings DO Have Moral Responsibility
We recognize that each of us has the responsibility and choice to act morally, and indeed, we seek to hold each other legally accountable for each other’s free-will choices

Therefore, Human Beings Are NOT Simply Physical Systems
Our recognition of moral responsibility and our efforts to hold each other accountable are irrational and unwarranted if humans are merely physical systems

If we, as humans, are only physical systems (merely matter), we ought to stop trying to hold each other accountable for misbehavior. In fact, there can be no misbehavior if we are only physical brains and bodies; there can only be behavior. Our actions have no moral content at all unless we truly have the freedom to choose and the ability to break the bondage of physical event causation.

I finally learned what the “Twinkie defense” was by reading that post. It’s worth it for that reason alone.

This quote by JWW reminded me of a famous chapter in Theodore Dalrymple’s famous book “Life at the Bottom”, in which he explains the worldview of the lower classes in Britain. The chapter is called “The Knife Went In“, and it shows how people in the underclass describe their crimes in a way that completely minimizes their own free choices and their own responsibilities.

Take a look:

It is a mistake to suppose that all men, or at least all Englishmen, want to be free. On the contrary, if freedom entails responsibility, many of them want none of it. They would happily exchange their liberty for a modest (if illusory) security. Even those who claim to cherish their freedom are rather less enthusiastic about taking the consequences of their actions. The aim of untold millions is to be free to do exactly as they choose and for someone else to pay when things go wrong.

In the past few decades, a peculiar and distinctive psychology has emerged in England. Gone are the civility, sturdy independence, and admirable stoicism that carried the English through the war years. It has been replaced by a constant whine of excuses, complaint, and special pleading. The collapse of the British character has been as swift and complete as the collapse of British power.

Listening as I do every day to the accounts people give of their lives, I am struck by the very small part in them which they ascribe to their own efforts, choices, and actions. Implicitly, they disagree with Bacon’s famous dictum that “chiefly the mould of a man’s fortune is in his own hands.” Instead, they experience themselves as putty in the hands of fate.

It is instructive to listen to the language they use to describe their lives. The language of prisoners in particular teaches much about the dishonest fatalism with which people seek to explain themselves to others, especially when those others are in a position to help them in some way. As a doctor who sees patients in a prison once or twice a week, I am fascinated by prisoners’ use of the passive mood and other modes of speech that are supposed to indicate their helplessness. They describe themselves as the marionettes of happenstance.

Not long ago, a murderer entered my room in the prison shortly after his arrest to seek a prescription for the methadone to which he was addicted. I told him that I would prescribe a reducing dose, and that within a relatively short time my prescription would cease. I would not prescribe a maintenance dose for a man with a life sentence.

“Yes,” he said, “it’s just my luck to be here on this charge.”

Luck? He had already served a dozen prison sentences, many of them for violence, and on the night in question had carried a knife with him, which he must have known from experience that he was inclined to use. But it was the victim of the stabbing who was the real author of the killer’s action: if he hadn’t been there, he wouldn’t have been stabbed.

My murderer was by no means alone in explaining his deed as due to circumstances beyond his control. As it happens, there are three stabbers (two of them unto death) at present in the prison who used precisely the same expression when describing to me what happened. “The knife went in,” they said when pressed to recover their allegedly lost memories of the deed.

The knife went in—unguided by human hand, apparently. That the long-hated victims were sought out, and the knives carried to the scene of the crimes, was as nothing compared with the willpower possessed by the inanimate knives themselves, which determined the unfortunate outcome.

I wonder how much the secularism and atheism of the Britain academics has now seeped down to the lower classes and caused them to view themselves as lumps of meat or animals, rather than responsible free agents. Britain is the country of Charles Darwin and the idea of unguided Darwinian evolution. If you believe that you are an animal who evolved by accident in an accidental universe, then you don’t believe in free will, moral choices or moral obligations. The funniest thing in the world to me is how atheists go about their lives helping themselves to moral language that is not grounded by their worldview. Like parrots who have been trained to talk about the stock market. There is no realm of objective moral values and duties on atheism, so why are they using moral language and making moral judgments? On their view right and wrong are just social customs and conventions that vary by time and place, and human actions are biologically determined anyway. There are no choices. There is no responsibility.

You can read the whole Dalrymple book for free online, and I’ve linked to all the chapters in this one post.

Is the concept of moral responsibility compatible with physicalism / materialism?

I saw that Brian Auten of Apologetics 315 linked to this post by J. Warner Wallace.

Excerpt:

When examining the causes for an event (such as a death) we can separate them into two categories: event causation and agent causation (prior physical events cause things to happen and free agents cause things to happen). It’s important to recognize that free agents alone have the freedom to act or respond without a prior physical causal event. Physical objects, like dominoes, cannot cause themselves to fall over; they require a prior event to cause them to fall. But you and I have the ability to cause the first domino to fall as a simple matter of choice (we don’t need a prior event to cause this action). You can’t blame a car for running over a victim; the car is simply a physical object subject to a series of physical processes, none of which can be held morally culpable. But we can blame thedriver of the car for driving the car over the victim. The driver is a free agent, and we recognize that his choices are just that: free choices. The driver is not like the car. His choice is not simply the result of a series of purely physical processes, like dominoes falling. He had the freedom to choose otherwise, and this is why we seek to arrest and prosecute him.

Our recognition of the moral culpability of the driver (rather than the car) is an admission that materialism (physicalism) fails to explain who we are as humans. Consider the following argument:

No Physical System is a Free Agent
Physical systems are either “determined” (one event necessarily following the other) or “random”

Therefore No Physical System Has Moral Responsibility
Moral responsibility requires moral freedom of choice

Human Beings DO Have Moral Responsibility
We recognize that each of us has the responsibility and choice to act morally, and indeed, we seek to hold each other legally accountable for each other’s free-will choices

Therefore, Human Beings Are NOT Simply Physical Systems
Our recognition of moral responsibility and our efforts to hold each other accountable are irrational and unwarranted if humans are merely physical systems

If we, as humans, are only physical systems (merely matter), we ought to stop trying to hold each other accountable for misbehavior. In fact, there can be no misbehavior if we are only physical brains and bodies; there can only be behavior. Our actions have no moral content at all unless we truly have the freedom to choose and the ability to break the bondage of physical event causation.

I finally learned what the “Twinkie defense” was by reading that post. It’s worth it for that reason alone.

This quote by JWW reminded me of a famous chapter in Theodore Dalrymple’s famous book “Life at the Bottom”, in which he explains the worldview of the lower classes in Britain. The chapter is called “The Knife Went In“, and it shows how people in the underclass describe their crimes in a way that completely minimizes their own free choices and their own responsibilities.

Take a look:

It is a mistake to suppose that all men, or at least all Englishmen, want to be free. On the contrary, if freedom entails responsibility, many of them want none of it. They would happily exchange their liberty for a modest (if illusory) security. Even those who claim to cherish their freedom are rather less enthusiastic about taking the consequences of their actions. The aim of untold millions is to be free to do exactly as they choose and for someone else to pay when things go wrong.

In the past few decades, a peculiar and distinctive psychology has emerged in England. Gone are the civility, sturdy independence, and admirable stoicism that carried the English through the war years. It has been replaced by a constant whine of excuses, complaint, and special pleading. The collapse of the British character has been as swift and complete as the collapse of British power.

Listening as I do every day to the accounts people give of their lives, I am struck by the very small part in them which they ascribe to their own efforts, choices, and actions. Implicitly, they disagree with Bacon’s famous dictum that “chiefly the mould of a man’s fortune is in his own hands.” Instead, they experience themselves as putty in the hands of fate.

It is instructive to listen to the language they use to describe their lives. The language of prisoners in particular teaches much about the dishonest fatalism with which people seek to explain themselves to others, especially when those others are in a position to help them in some way. As a doctor who sees patients in a prison once or twice a week, I am fascinated by prisoners’ use of the passive mood and other modes of speech that are supposed to indicate their helplessness. They describe themselves as the marionettes of happenstance.

Not long ago, a murderer entered my room in the prison shortly after his arrest to seek a prescription for the methadone to which he was addicted. I told him that I would prescribe a reducing dose, and that within a relatively short time my prescription would cease. I would not prescribe a maintenance dose for a man with a life sentence.

“Yes,” he said, “it’s just my luck to be here on this charge.”

Luck? He had already served a dozen prison sentences, many of them for violence, and on the night in question had carried a knife with him, which he must have known from experience that he was inclined to use. But it was the victim of the stabbing who was the real author of the killer’s action: if he hadn’t been there, he wouldn’t have been stabbed.

My murderer was by no means alone in explaining his deed as due to circumstances beyond his control. As it happens, there are three stabbers (two of them unto death) at present in the prison who used precisely the same expression when describing to me what happened. “The knife went in,” they said when pressed to recover their allegedly lost memories of the deed.

The knife went in—unguided by human hand, apparently. That the long-hated victims were sought out, and the knives carried to the scene of the crimes, was as nothing compared with the willpower possessed by the inanimate knives themselves, which determined the unfortunate outcome.

I wonder how much the secularism and atheism of the Britain academics has now seeped down to the lower classes and caused them to view themselves as lumps of meat or animals, rather than responsible free agents. Britain is the country of Charles Darwin and the idea of unguided Darwinian evolution. If you believe that you are an animal who evolved by accident in an accidental universe, then you don’t believe in free will, moral choices or moral obligations. The funniest thing in the world to me is how atheists go about their lives helping themselves to moral language that is not grounded by their worldview. Like parrots who have been trained to talk about the stock market. There is no realm of objective moral values and duties on atheism, so why are they using moral language and making moral judgments? On their view right and wrong are just social customs and conventions that vary by time and place, and human actions are biologically determined anyway. There are no choices. There is no responsibility.

You can read the whole Dalrymple book for free online, and I’ve linked to all the chapters in this one post.