Nature is a Jerk, Part III–Reversing the Argument

Thank you to everyone who watched live stream or came out, in person, to my talk on Sunday night (4-3-16), “Nature is a Jerk (Part 1)”  at the Bible and Beer Consortium at World of Beer in Fort Worth. The talk was based on an earlier article of mine with the same title. Anticipating questions and comments more than I could handle that the time, I developed that theme a little more into a sequel, “Nature is a Jerk, Part 2”. If you have take issue with Part 1, or just want to see more on that theme I encourage you to read both parts. It’s not necessary to read Parts 1&2 before this one, Part 3, but you might be able to get more out of it that way.

I really appreciate the questions and comments afterward. Your insights help me see my blind spots, or gaps in my argument. I might be a stubborn arguer, but I do change my mind sometimes and I can always learn and grow in my understanding.

That said, the original thrust of the argument in “Nature is a Jerk” remains intact, even strengthened but some words of clarification are desperately in order.

First, Atheists can be moral people

It’s a good idea when broaching this subject matter–naturalistic ethics–to preface the talk with an admission that atheists and naturalists can be moral and many theists/supernaturalists are liable to be very immoral. While it’s been said in different ways across my blog, my talks, and my publishings, that atheists can be moral at least in a general/popular sense (i.e., noninterference, nonmaleficence, and benevolence), it could use some re-emphasis sometimes and my original talk didn’t do that.

I do wonder why this preface is as necessary as it is. I suspect there’s a bit of moral insecurity, either Christian theists (for example) are too judgmental, aggressively accusing atheists of worse evils than they are doing, or atheists themselves feel conditioned guilt or a sense of judgment (by the holy spirit? conscience? society?) and want to be vindicated in light of that felt sense of condemnation. Either way, it’s at least a fitting courtesy to preface these sorts of talks with admitting the obvious: Atheists can be moral people, and theists can be immoral people. Atheists don’t have to believe in God to use the moral fixtures that might have come from Him.

Second, theism/supernaturalism is only minimally addressed, if at all.

I shouldn’t be surprised, but the questions after my talk quickly shifted into a critique of theism. Technically, the lecture was about faults and failings of naturalism, with no particular critique of supernaturalism broadly or theism specifically. Perhaps I could have said, “That’s off topic!” but it’s still related, even if it wasn’t specifically what my argument was about. My argument is that nature, including mankind, is too ill-suited and too faulty for establishing objective moral facts. Some manner of relativism might be possible, but even that outcome invites a bevy of critiques against relativism and for several reasons doesn’t commend itself as particularly strong option for ethics minded naturalists.

Third, relativism is no safe ground either.

As expected, I found the atheists whom I spoke with retreated to relativism. I consider relativism a sophomoric response to the problem of moral facts (in naturalism). They grant that nature isn’t suited for rendering objective moral facts, so they suggest that morals are social conventions such as social contract theory. It’s sophomoric because it’s too hasty a retreat. If atheists and naturalists will not stand their ground for objective moral facts then they risk surrendering all their own righteous indignation and moral sentiments, reducing all of them down to the trivial status of “opinion.” We are left unable to judge between feuding cultures (i.e., Germany vs. Poland), unable to speak truthfully about immorality in other societies (i.e., cannibals) or past civilizations (i.e., slaving societies). We can’t even truthfully commend a person as praiseworthy (according to subjectivism) if their moral world has only one member, as does your moral world or my moral world. Even if we grant that reasoning, and natural facts can inform our ethical decision making, we are still unable to make even one moral value an absolute. It’s only ‘absolute’ relative to the shifting trends of people and environment. Evolution may have made it ‘ethical’ to care for each other, but in the next generation, a vast ice age could render such charitable sentiments hopelessly naive; transforming our civilized “ethics” into such animalistic behavior as to make barbarians blush. When all biological life is filtered through evolutionary forces, we are bound to relative and arbitrary outcomes of mindless violent evolution.

Relativism also struggles because it’s a universal negative; claiming that of all the moral fixtures in the world (values, principles, rules, laws, etc.) not one of them satisfies the demands of objective morality. That’s a bold claim. Theoretically, it could be proven, but practically it’s unlikely that a person will have encountered a sufficient sample of all the (claimed) moral knowledge in the world, and various evidence and arguments to that end, so that he or she can reasonably conclude that not even one objective moral fact exists. Even one objective moral fact is enough to satisfy the need for a moral absolute (unchanging moral fact) thus grounding objective ethics.

Relativism also struggles to account for moral revolutionaries and to account for the transcultural judgments across geographic stretches or across time periods.

Yet even relativism might not stand, in naturalism, if the sophisticated features of mind (consciousness, intentionality, prescriptive ability, free will, etc.) have no feasible account within naturalism. To be fair though, atheists abound in philosophy of mind, and there are many schools of thought about how those sorts of things can arise by natural (or non-natural?) processes without any appeal to a God. I counter that, the hard problem of consciousness (i.e., David Chalmers), the aboutness problem and related difficulties (John Searle, Thomas Nagel, et al.) are an unusually large and overbearing body of problems for naturalism, exposing how even atheists have to punt to a mystical unknown, not unlike faith in magic, or supernature. I haven’t developed that argument here, but I can at least say that I make that claim in full awareness of epiphenomenalism, emergent dualism, property dualism, mind-brain identity theory, dual-aspect monism, eliminative materialism, etc. etc. I have a brief treatment of this subject here but have not posted or published an in-depth treatment. I’d recommend the works of Thomas Nagel (Mind and Cosmos, “What’s It’s Like to be a Bat”), John Searle (Mind: A Brief Introduction, and the Mystery of Consciousness), and David Chalmers (“Facing Up To the Problem of Consciousness”). All of these authors, to my knowledge, are naturalists although Nagel and Chalmers might be leaning more panpsychist in their naturalism.

Fourth, if naturalism fails to ground moral facts that doesn’t prove that supernaturalism succeeds.

Because I was not specifically addressing supernaturalism, or theism specifically, I didn’t clarify that it’s entirely possible that both supernaturalism and naturalism fail to ground moral facts, such that objective ethics fails. If relativistic ethics fails too, for lack of the requisite human abilities of volition and intention, then we are not left with Christian theism but with amoralism (in the metaphysical sense of “no morality” as opposed to the psychological/motivational sense of “lacking moral motivation”). Perhaps absurdism and nihilism might also be included, at least with respect to ethical categories. In that way, naturalism, if true, could entail that morality just doesn’t exist in any real sense. Our moral language is, at best, useful fictions. Moral claims are not relatively true or objectively true, they aren’t even false. They just fail to achieve a correct or incorrect correspondence with their referent, because they don’t function in a correspondence relation at all.

Fifth, naturalism fails to justify moral oughts for lack of a transcultural, mental basis of morality.

This insight is what I should have said at some point in the argument; it came to me in the discussions afterward. Transcultural status is needed for mitigating the problems with relativism–triviality, revolutionaries, cross-cultural disputes, etc. Mental status is necessary because of the metaphysics of “oughtness.” Prescriptive states are metaphysically awkward for naturalism, and reductive materialism specifically. They are a sort of ideal, a telos to which we are somehow directed. Yet teleology, allegedly, was banned from the natural sciences 150 years ago. It’s part of the trash heap in the front yard after Darwin remodeled our paradigm.

Now we could retreat to some variation of Aristotelean natural teleology, but if we are going to do that we surrender a great deal of the modern scientific paradigm (a mixed bag of good and bad, at best), and we’d still be leaving open the possibility, as Aristotle did, of a whole supernatural realm creating and sustaining the teleological causes (a.k.a., final causes) in nature. To my knowledge, naturalists aren’t a fan of Aristotle since his understanding of “nature” is haunted with immaterial entities (such as forms, souls, life-force, final causes, etc.) unsuited to the modern scientific project. Aristotelian metaphysics (including his ethics) might represent a strange brand of non-naturalism, which is a sort of half-way point between reductive materialistic naturalism and, say, Christian theism. But he seems an odd alternative for naturalists trying to avoid supernaturalistic implications.

One major problem is that Aristotle and his medieval Christian counterpart Thomas Aquinas suggested the universe had no temporal beginning. This is a variation on steady-state theory. Aquinas, of course, affirmed the Christian God even then (by way of a sustaining cause). But science has, since then, pointed to a finite past, where the universe came into existence (Big Bang). It does not go on infinitely into the past. Since it turns out that the universe had a beginning, then Aristotle would have had great reason to join Aquinas, in asserting a creative cause behind all of nature’s teleology. For one thing, nature would need a first cause anyway–Aristotle had no problem with that notion. Second, nature would need a cosmological first cause, as in the Kalaam Cosmological argument (contra, the Sustaining Cause version of the argument). Third, personal agents are known to be able to generate telos through artifacts created for the craftsman’s purposes. Fourth, impersonal aspects of brute nature, whether in part or in whole, are not known to originate telos but seem to have goal-directed behavior built into them. That is, all of nature requires (a) prior cause/s, sufficient to explain it’s properties and relations, including telos. Since no part (or whole) of nature is a sufficient explanation/cause for itself, then there must be (a) prior cause/s generating such things as “telos” within the nature/species of natural objects. Simply put, Aristotle would have to affirm a sufficient cause of nature’s apparently teleological order, and if nature isn’t the kind of thing that is a sufficient cause/explanation for itself, then there would have to be an artisan at back of  nature that could bring about the substance and form of nature (the cosmos) including the designs he sees in nature (telos). Aristotle would be led by the force of his own reasoning to affirm a fairly conventional creator God in the overlapping regions of the teleological, cosmological, and moral arguments for God (on Aristotle’s teleology see the marvelous and exhaustive work on this subject by Monte Ransom Johnson, Aristotle on Teleology).

Sixth, conversely, supernaturalism can be argued–via the moral argument–insofar as it offers a transcultural and mental basis of morality (i.e., God).

While my talk was not on the moral argument, the content lends well to a variation on the moral argument. Many folks have used the moral “authority” or “moral law” variation of that argument wherein “Objective moral laws imply an objective moral lawgiver; Objective moral laws exist; therefore there exists an objective moral lawgiver.” I find that laws aren’t quite ultimate enough to get at the heart of the grounding problem (i.e., what makes good ‘good’?) and this model seems vulnerable to various critiques of divine command theory. I don’t consider myself a divine command theorist, and I’m not as studied in the subjects of moral authority or moral psychology. I prefer to deal with grounding issues so I focus the moral argument on “moral facts.” It looks like this.

(Premise 1) Objective Moral facts are things requiring moral “oughts” as truthmakers (the reference point to which the claim correctly correspondence)
(Premise 2) Objective Moral facts exist
(Premise 3) Therefore, there exist moral “oughts” as truthmakers.

This streamlined version of the argument deals in moral facts, a bridge category between “is” (facts about nature) and “ought” (moral prescription). In essence, one has to resolve the is-ought problem for the category of “moral facts” to even make sense. Thus premise 2 is a challenge since the is-ought problem is no small matter. Premise 1 can be challenged with regard to correspondence theory (the default definition of truth–i.e., that which corresponds to its referent), and it needs clarification regarding objectivity and regarding the difference between moral oughts and non-moral oughts. It would seem I have my work cut out for me then.

However, one great advantage to this argument is that moral objectivists already grant objective moral facts. And many skeptics, atheists, and naturalists who otherwise wouldn’t grant moral objectivism can be prodded into accepting it when they realize that they themselves believe in the objective wrongness undergirding their indignation about heinous acts (genocide, rape, torturing babies, etc.). I’ve been known to use this methodology in responding to the problem of evil (see my debate with David Smalley).

As for the correspondence theory, I generally don’t try to defend it unless someone else brings it up. The correspondence theory, as best I can tell, is practically inescapable. Perhaps some hardline evolutionary naturalists have been stymied by Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism and were forced to an austere epistemology where they don’t grant any correspondence theory but only a pragmatic theory of truth. But even then, one can simply ask, “Is that true of reality?” If pragmatic theory correctly describes how, in fact, human evolutionary psychology works, then that’s a correspondence relation and correspondence theory is vindicated in the end.

As for the is-ought problem, I lean more towards the Humean phrasing (fact-value dichotomy) rather than the G.E. Moore phrasing. Don’t get me wrong I’m happy to use G.E. Moore’s work in establishing the definitional challenges within naturalistic morality, but I also affirm something about nature which he doesn’t and which Hume, oddly, might agree with (Hume was a deist). I affirm natural teleology. Teleology is “goal-directedness.” That is, natural objects like seeds, trees, Bees, and people all have design plans or natures whereby all of these have proper ends to which we are all directed. Now I don’t think nature alone is a sufficient explanation for these apparent goals/ends, or “proper functions”, I think a designer is still needed to account for these things, but I also don’t think we have to believe in God to be able to discover designs in nature, even moral designs. It seems we are somehow engineered to be able to do such apparently ethical things as selfless behavior, mate for life, tell the truth, care for our young, and rebel against baser evolutionary instincts which might aid survival but are still unethical. I don’t find “mirror neurons” and “natural” empathy to be a sufficient account, of ethics in any significant part (much less “in whole”). Without getting too deep into these already deep waters, I can summarize my point about teleology and the is-ought problem this way. The is-ought problem isn’t very difficult if there exist irreducibly personal causes, in this case, a mind. That is, human minds might be reducible to prior causes, but there may exist another mind which isn’t reducible to prior causes, a mind capable of teleologic ordering (design) and moral teleology (intending rightful goals to which created beings are responsible). God has mental ability including all of that: the ability to design, create, desire, prescribe, hypothesize, etc. As such, the wide realm of “ought” can locate its truthmakers in him. If those divinely prescribed “oughts” are somehow coextensive with his self-existence (God is good, intrinsically; He doesn’t just have goodness) via the doctrine of simplicity, immutability, eternality, and so on, then God’s ethical prescriptions are not just true, they are objectively and absolutely true.

I generally identify moral values as the most helpful level for assessing objective ethics, since, admittedly, laws, rules, and principles can be relative to a given society (i.e., legality isn’t morality). But there’s no culture yet which celebrates cowardice as a virtue. At least some moral values seem to be universal even if the majority of moral stuff diverges by geography and history. I, therefore, trace my objective ethics case through moral values (including natural rights/human rights) asking for truthmakers which would translate those value-claims into facts. That method looks something like this: “If it is true that we have natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness then those value-claims need a truth-maker. But moral claims need to correspondent to ‘oughts.’ Since nature doesn’t deal in such sophisticated mental stuff as ‘oughtness’ there would have to be a supernatural basis. Indeed, natural rights exist. Therefore, a supernatural basis for moral truthmakers exists.”


In conclusion, I think that covers all the additional thoughts and follow-up from last Sunday’s talk. If you spot any problems or have further questions feel free to comment below. I’ll be checking in here regularly.

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