Tag Archives: Moral Values

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. (Note: link is dead)

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 – the atheism that we’ve seen before in countries that turned their backs on God, and the moral law. When God disappears from a society, anything is permissible.

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. (Note: link is dead)

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 – the atheism that we’ve seen before in countries that turned their backs on God, and the moral law. When God disappears from a society, anything is permissible.

Physicist Victor Stenger debates William Lane Craig: Does God Exist?

This debate took place on March 1, 2010 at Oregon State University.

In this debate, Victor Stenger does affirm his belief that the universe could be eternal in his second rebuttal (1:02:30), thus denying the standard Big Bang cosmology. He also denies the law of conservation of energy and asserts that something can come from nothing in his concluding speech (1:33:50). He also caused the audience to start laughing when he said that Jesus was not moral and supported slavery. There is almost no snark in this summary. Instead, I quoted Dr. Stenger verbatim in many places. I still think that it is very entertaining even without the snarky paraphrasing.

The debate includes 30 minutes of Q&A with the students.

Here’s the video of the debate:

Dr. Craig’s opening speech:

  • The ontological argument
  • The contingency argument
  • The cosmological argument
  • The moral argument
  • The resurrection of Jesus (3-fact version)
  • Religious experience

Dr. Stenger’s opening speech:

  • There is no scientific evidence for God’s existence in the textbooks
  • There is no scientific evidence for God acting in the universe
  • God doesn’t talk to people and tell them things they couldn’t possibly know
  • The Bible says that the Earth is flat, etc.
  • There is no scientific evidence that God answers prayers
  • God doesn’t exist because people who believe in him are ignorant
  • Human life is not optimally designed and appears to be the result of a blind, ad hoc evolutionary process
  • The beginning of the universe is not ordered (low entropy) but random and chaotic
  • It’s theoretically possible that quantum tunneling explains the origin of the universe
  • The laws of physics are not objectively real, they are “our inventions”
  • Regarding the beginning of the universe, the explanation is that something came from nothing*
  • Nothing* isn’t really nothing, it is “the total chaos that we project existed just before the big bang”
  • If something has no structure, then “it is as much nothing as nothing can be”
  • Consciousness is explainable solely on the basis of material processes
  • There are well-informed, rational non-believers in the world and God would not allow that

Dr. Craig’s first rebuttal:

Stenger’s argument that there is no objective evidence for God’s existence:

  • First, it is not required that God rely only on objective evidence in order to draw people to himself (Alvin Plantinga)
  • Second, God is not required to provide evidence to everyone, only to the people who he knows would respond to him
  • Third, Craig gave lots of objective evidence, from science, history and philosophy
  • Stenger asks for certain evidence (answered prayers, prophecy, etc.), but Craig presented the evidence we have

Stenger’s argument that the balance of energy is zero so “nothing” exists:

  • if you have the same amount of assets and liabilities, it doesn’t mean that nothing exists – your assets and liabilities exist
  • Christopher Isham says that there needs to be a cause to create the positive and negative energy even if they balance
  • the quantum gravity model contradicts observations
  • the vacuum is not the same as nothing, it contains energy and matter
  • the BVG theorem proves that any universe that is expanding must have a beginning

Stenger’s argument that mental operations can be reduced to physical operations:

  • mental properties are not reducible to physical properties
  • epiphenomenalism: is incompatible with self-identity over time
  • epiphenomenalism: is incompatible with thoughts about other things
  • epiphenomenalism: is incompatible with free will
  • substance dualism (mind/body dualism) is a better explanation for our mental experience
  • God is a soul without a body
Dr. Stenger’s first rebuttal:

Craig’s cosmological argument:

  • Craig’s premise is “everything has a cause”, but quantum mechanics has causeless events
  • There are speculative theories about how something could have come into being uncaused out of nothing
  • “I don’t know of a single working cosmologist today who believes there was a singularity prior to the Big Bang”
  • “If there wasn’t a singularity then there’s no basis for arguing that time began at that point”
  • “There’s no reason from cosmology that we know of that the universe can’t be eternal”
  • “When I talk about an eternal universe, I mean a universe that has no beginning or end”
  • The Hartle-Hawking model doesn’t have a beginning
  • “There was no violation of energy conservation by having a universe coming from nothing”
  • “The universe could have come from a previous universe for example or even just from a region of chaos”
  • The paper by Vilenkin is counteracted by other papers (he doesn’t specify which ones)

Craig’s moral argument:

  • Dr. Craig is arguing from ignorance
  • But morality can be decided by humanity just like governments pass laws, and that’s objective
  • Dr. Craig has too little respect for the human intellect
  • I don’t need to tell me that slavery is wrong
  • The Bible supports slavery
  • Atheists can behave as good as theists
  • Morality just evolved naturally as an aid to survival

Craig’s resurrection argument:

  • No Roman historians wrote about the execution of Jesus
  • The empty tomb is doubtful because it is only mentioned in the gospels, not by Paul
  • John Dominic Crossan says there was no empty tomb
  • Christianity only survived because the Roman empire thought that they were useful

Dr. Craig’s second rebuttal:

Craig’s cosmological argument:

  • There is no reason to prefer an indeterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics
  • Dr. Stenger himself wrote that deterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics are possible
  • The vacuum in quantum mechanics is not nothing
  • The quantum vacuum he proposes cannot be eternal
  • The cosmological argument does not require a singularity
  • The Hartle-Hawking model is from 1983
  • Hawking says that there is a beginning of space and time after that model
  • The Hartle-Hawking model does still have a beginning of time – the model is not eternal
  • The BVG theorem that requires a beginning for expanding universes is widely accepted among cosmologists

Craig’s moral argument:

  • Stenger redefined objective to mean that most people agree with it – but that’s not what objective means
  • Objective means right and wrong whether anyone accepts it or not
  • Richard Dawkins himself says that on atheism there is “no evil and no good” – why is he wrong?
  • Even Dr. Stenger says that morality is the same as passing laws – it’s arbitrary and varies by time and place
  • But on his view, right and wrong are the same as deciding which side of the road to drive on
  • But somethings really are right and some things are really wrong

Craig’s resurrection argument:

  • Josephus is a Roman historian and he wrote about Jesus, for example
  • There were four biographies of Jesus are the best sources for his life
  • The scholars that Stenger mentioned are on the radical fringe

Dr. Stenger’s second rebuttal:

Knowledge and the burden of proof:

  • Dr. Craig has to bear the burden of proof, not me – because his claim is more “extravagant”
  • “I don’t have to prove that a God was not necessary to create the universe”
  • “I don’t have to prove that a God did not design the universe and life”
  • “I don’t have to prove that the universe did not have a beginning”
  • “I don’t have to prove that God did not provide us with our moral sense”
  • There are a lot of books written about how morality evolved naturally
  • “I don’t have to prove that the events surrounding the supposed resurrection of Jesus did not take place”
  • Bart Ehrman says that the gospels are generally unreliable (Note: Ehrman accepts all 3 of Craig’s minimal facts)
  • Just because people are willing to die for a cause, does not make their leader God, e.g. – the Emperor of Japan

Aesthetic concerns about the universe:

  • I don’t like dark matter and I wouldn’t have made the universe with dark matter
  • I don’t like the doctrine of penal substitution
  • I don’t like the doctrine of original sin
  • I don’t like the heat death of the universe

Dr. Craig’s conclusion:

The case for atheism:

  • Dr. Stenger had two arguments and he has to support his premises
  • Dr. Craig addressed his two arguments and each premise and Dr. Stenger never came back on it

The contingency argument:

  • Dr. Stenger has dropped the refutation of this argument

The cosmological argument:

  • The theoretical vacuum he proposes cannot be eternal

The moral argument:

  • He asserts that things are wrong, but there is no grounding for that to be objective on atheism

The resurrection of Jesus:

  • There are surveys of scholars on the empty tomb and 75% of them agree with it
  • Bart Ehrman agrees with all 3 of the minimal facts that Dr. Craig presented
  • Ehrman’s objection to the resurrection is not historical: he’s an atheist – he thinks miracles are impossible

Religious experience:

  • No response from Dr. Stenger

Dr. Stenger’s conclusion

The cosmological argument:

  • “I argued that we have very good physical reasons to understand how something can come from nothing”
  • “There is a natural tendency in the universe… to go from.. simpler thing to the more complicated thing”
  • The transition from a vapor to a liquid to ice shows how something could come from nothing
  • “It cannot be proven that the universe had a beginning”

The moral argument:

  • Objective morality, which is independent of what people think, could be developed based on what people think
  • “Jesus himself was not a tremendously moral person… he had no particular regard for the poor… he certainly supported slavery… he was for the subjugation of women” (audience laughter)

The resurrection argument:

  • Bart Ehrman says that the majority of the gospels are unreliable

Religious experience:

  • I don’t see any evidence that there is anything more to religious experience than just stuff in their heads

God’s purpose of the world should be to make people feel happy:

  • God could have made people feel happier
  • God could have made people not die
  • God could could have made the universe smaller: it’s too big
  • God could have made it possible for humans to live anywhere “even in space”