A Meaning to Life without God?

Synopsis

In this piece I consider the question of whether life can have meaning in an atheistic universe (i.e. if God did not exist). I first consider a common theistic notion, according to which the meaning of life consists in the purpose or reason for which life exists. I argue that under this definition, life probably cannot have any true meaning without God, as there would be no reason for which life exists. I then proceed to contrast this theistic notion of meaning with some possible alternative naturalistic conceptions of the meaning of life. I argue that, although life probably does not have any intrinsic, mind-independent meaning in a naturalistic universe, nevertheless we can construct a cogent (albeit vague) inter-subjective understanding of the meaning of life. I therefore outline a notion of the meaning of life along these such, according to which an action or lifestyle is meaningful to the degree that those affected by the action or lifestyle hold it in a certain sort of ‘positive regard’, where this notion of ‘positive regard’ is a vague and loose conglomeration of many inter-related concepts and notions, but loosely corresponds to a form of quasi-nostalgic approval and believe that the action or life has been enriching in some way. I then consider some potential objections to this view, including that inter-subjective meaning of this sort is not ‘real meaning’ but is merely ‘made up’, and also the idea that any such atheistic conception of meaning is necessarily undermined by the eventual end of humanity and heat death of the universe. I close the essay with some reflective thoughts on nihilism and the challenge it can pose for us all at different times.

Theistic Conceptions of Meaning

There is no agreement among philosophers as to what is meant when we ask the question “what is the meaning of life?”. That said, let us consider the following working definition which I believe many (though of course not all) theists would be broadly happy to endorse:

(1.0) The meaning of (human) life is the reason or purpose for which humanity exists or was created.

Theists, as I understand it, would generally say that humans were created for the purpose of serving, glorifying, relating to, and obeying god, and as such these things are the (ultimate) meaning or purposes of life.

Under an atheistic worldview, of course, humanity was not created, but came into existence without the influence of any external agent (this is usually described as ‘by chance’ or ‘by accident’, though I think that words like ‘chance’ and ‘accident’ are somewhat vague in this context, so I will stick with ‘without the intervention of any external agent’). The question we then ask is: can there be any purpose or reason for which humanity exists, in the absence of any creator God (or other similar agent)?

To answer this question, we need to determine what is meant by the ‘reason for which humanity exists’. Suppose we interpret this phrase as follows:

(1.1) X constitutes a reason for which humanity exists iff X is some motivation or justification, in the absence of which humanity would not exist.

So, for example, if we take X to be “God’s desire for humans to enter into relationship with him” (theists who object to attributing desires to God can read this in the same analogical way in which they presumably read such attributions in their respective holy books), then we may say that absent this desire, God would not have created humanity, and therefore we would not exist. Thus, God’s desire is in a direct sense a necessary and intentional prerequisite for our existence, and therefore underpins the meaning of our lives.

Understood in this way, our question “does life have any meaning if there is no God?” becomes the following:

(1.2) If there is no God, does there exist some motivation or justification, in the absence of which humanity would not exist?

It seems to me that the answer to this question is fairly clearly ‘no’. Certainly there will be various physical causes in the absence of which humanity would not exist, however mere causes, in this analysis, are insufficient to imbue purpose. What is needed is some motivation or justification, and in the absence of any external agent influencing the process, there seems no possible way this could exist (absent sufficiently powerful aliens, but for our purposes here I will simply call that a variation of God).

I therefore conclude that, if we conceive of the meaning of life as the reason for which humanity exists, and if we interpret the reason for which humanity exists as the motivation or justification absent which humanity would not exist, then life has no meaning.

Naturalistic Conceptions of Meaning

As a naturalist, however, I do not accept (1.0) as being the only possible conception of what is meant by ‘the meaning of life’. In particular, I deny the premise that the meaning of life need bear any relation at all to the reason for which humanity was created or came into being. I believe that, at least potentially, meaning could be determined by the present nature and properties of human beings and they way they relate to one another, without any explicit reference to the reasons for which we came into being. Perhaps when we look for such meaning none will be found, but my point is that I don’t think we can rule it out definitionally by simply asserting that meaning necessarily related to purposes of creation. Some theists may reject this as being ‘not real meaning’, in which case I have nothing to say other than we differ on our understandings and usage of the word ‘meaning’.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says the following:
“Within the analytic philosophical community, the disinterest in the question of life’s meaning, and in some cases outright logical suspicion, is likely partly a result of the question’s inherent lack of clarity and partly a result of the suspicion that it is a request for which no answer exists because it is built on suspect assumptions about what would have to be the case in order for life to have a meaning. Indeed, it is not immediately clear what is being requested in asking the question of life’s meaning, nor is it clear that life could have such a meaning, given latent assumptions often accompanying the asking of the question.”

I tend to agree with this analysis. I believe that when people speak of ‘the meaning of life’, they have in their minds a fairly amorphous and often confused set of overlapping and intermingling ideas, connotations, and conceptions, which can often differ considerably from person to person. This, when different people consider the question of the meaning of life, they are in effect pondering different questions, as each person conceives of what the question is asking, and what a potential answer could look like, differently.

As such, I lean towards endorsing the Amalgam Thesis, according to which ‘the meaning of life’ is really a constellation of related questions, including ‘what is the purpose of life’, ‘what makes life valuable’, ‘what makes life worth living’, and ‘what does a good life look like’. As such, it is unlikely that the question will admit a single clear answer. This viewpoint informs my later analysis, and I think justifies a certain degree of imprecision and vagueness in answering what is, after all, a very imprecise and vague question.

Objectivist Naturalism

One proposed naturalistic basis for the meaning of life could be outlined as follows, which can broadly be described as ‘objectivism’, can be outlined as follows:

(2.0) The meaning of life is some natural property of the world external to humanity which exists independently of whatever human beings may believe

I know of no way to determine whether this statement is true or false. I do not know how it would be possible to look at the world and determine the existence of some meaning-giving natural property, but nor do I know of any argument by which we could rule out such a thing categorically (some may argue along the lines that mere facts about nature cannot imply any facts about meaning, however absent any justification for this assertion I consider it to be question-begging).

That said, I tend to think that this proposition is false, as I think it unlikely that such natural properties exist. I acknowledge that I do not have especially strong justifications for this belief, other than my fairly insubstantial sense that it is hard to imagine what such natural properties would look like, or how we could find out about them (though of course proponents of this view argue that we already do know what they look like and have considerable knowledge of them). Theists will probably not agree that strong justifications for this belief are lacking, however I maintain that the burden of proof falls on those making that claim that ‘meaning-giving natural properties of the world do not exist’ to justify how they can know this, and I believe that is quite difficult to do.

Inter-Subjective Naturalism

Having rejected this form of objective, naturalistic meaning of life, what is left? My views on the subject are quite uncertain and in flux, and I do not have a fully articulated or clearly worked out theory. However, I do have some thoughts on the matter, which I will outline below.

I tend to think that ‘meaning’ cannot exist absent some agent making an evaluation, and as such I do not think there are any facts about what outcomes or activities are meaningful ‘in themselves’. That said, I do think that there are ways of living which are relatively more meaningful than other ways of living. I think that this ‘meaningfulness’ consists not in any meaning imbued by an external agent (e.g. God), nor do I think it consists in certain outcomes or actions having meaning or purpose ‘in themselves’. Rather, I think that actions and lifestyles can attain meaning as a result of the impact they have on ourselves, and also other people. Importantly, these other people may be those living in the distant future, and so need not be people we will ever know personally or interact with directly. Thus, we have our first rough definition:

(2.1) An action or lifestyles is meaningful to the degree that those affected by the action or lifestyle hold it in a certain sort of ‘positive regard’

Exactly what sort of ‘positive regard’ this is I cannot say, precisely because this notion of the ‘meaning of life’ is so vague and difficult to pin down. That said, I can paint a broad picture of the sorts of actions that I am talking about, which includes helping others, striving for and achieving excellence in various fields, making scientific discoveries, producing great works of art, exploration, building and sustaining deep positive relationships with others, and many other such things. To me, meaningful activities are not merely those which produce pleasure or spark our interest in the moment, but those which we tend to hold in a certain sort of quasi-nostalgic positive regard when reminiscing about later on. This means, of course, that we may not be able to determine how meaningful something is at the time it occurs. Indeed, perhaps we will never know, as we have no way of nothing what impact our actions will have on others, now or in the future.

I do not think this idea should seem especially strange or unfamiliar. Most people, I think, can recall occasions when, after spending some time doing something, one looks back on this and thinks to oneself ‘that was just a total waste of time’. This need not, I wish to emphasise, necessarily have anything to do with said activity being ‘productive’ as we typically understand the word to mean. For example, if I spend a few hours playing marginally entertaining online games as a way of procrastinating for something else I should be doing, I might feel bad about this not only because I didn’t get done whatever I was supposed to, but also because this simply wasn’t a ‘meaningful’ use of my time: it neither enriched me as a person, nor did it enrich anybody else. It did not add to my flourishing as a human being, or help anyone else. It did nothing to contribute to the development of me as a person, or humanity as a group. As such, I am not likely to remember it with particularly fond or positive feelings. On the other hand, if (for example) I invited some friends around and we had a great afternoon playing exactly the same online games, I might look back on this as a very meaningful and enriching activity, as a result of the bonds of friendships strengthened and relationships built. Thus, I do not think that it is the inherent nature of the activity itself which determines whether it is meaningful or not; rather I believe it is the context in which we engage in the activity, and the attitudes which we and others have towards it afterwards, which will depend in part on the long-term effect the activity had on our flourishing as human beings (even if we may not consciously think of it in such terms)

I might also say, to avoid potential objections, that these attitudes with which the meaningfulness of an action or life is judged, should be properly informed and reflective attitudes. For example, perhaps I think that spending months learning a new musical instrument was a complete waste of time and not at all meaningful. But perhaps I am just in a bad mood when making this judgement, or perhaps I don’t actually realise the subtle positive effects this has had on me, which I would consider meaningful if I knew about them. Or to give another example, a person suffering from an episode of depression may not think that anything they have ever done is meaningful, even though when they are functioning more normally they would not hold this view at all. Thus, I adjust slightly my rough definition:

(2.2) An action or mode of living is meaningful to the degree those affected by the action or mode of living would hold it in a certain sort of ‘positive regard’ if they were considering the matter with access to all relevant information and in an appropriately uncompromised mental state.

Broadly speaking, therefore, I would say that my conception of meaning in life is ‘inter-subjective’, meaning that on the one hand it is determined by the subjective reactions of human beings (rather than some external mind-independent fact about the universe, or by some external agent), but on the other hand it is not purely subjective to each individual. Thus, even if a pure hedonist (for example) claimed that their lifestyle was meaningful to them, (and it is not clear to me that this would necessarily be true, because perhaps they merely crave more of the same sorts of pleasures, rather than being enriched and holding in positive regard the actual experiences they have had in the past), but even if this were the case, I would still say that their lifestyle was probably not particularly meaningful, because (presumably) few if any other people would similarly hold their life in comparable positive regard, as this sort of life is (in general) fundamentally selfish, and does not enrich other people or humanity as a whole.

Objectivity, Reason, and Meaning

One major line of theist attack on such an inter-subjective conception of the meaning is that it is not ‘real meaning’ – it is merely something that we have ‘made up’. In response to this, I would say two things. Firstly, this conception of the meaning of life is not subjectivist in the sense that it depends only upon the beliefs of the person in question. That is, I have not said that each person determines their own meaning in life, or decides for themselves based on their own totally arbitrary personal criteria whether or not their lives are meaningful. Rather, I have said that I think that the meaningfulness of a life is determined by facts about the sort of regard we and others hold that life in, when reflecting on it from an appropriately informed and sound mental state.

Meaning is thus subjective in that it is dependent upon the reactive attitudes of human beings (which is not something I think should come as a surprise given that meaning is generally understood to be an emotive and cognitive phenomenon), but that does not mean that it is totally arbitrary or just ‘made up’. The way we react to things and the attitudes we hold towards them are determined by very fundamental components of who we are as people. We can, of course, alter such attitudes through introspection and practise, but I do not think it is the case that they can (generally) be frivolously changed at whim. As such, I fail to see the force in the objection that such meaning is ‘just subjective’ or ‘made up’.

On a related note, many people seem to have an intuition that the meaning of life must, in some way, be derivable from reason alone if it is to count as ‘real meaning’. In other words, meaning cannot ‘merely’ be based on our reaction to things – there must be some factual, propositional content to it beyond that. I, however, question why this need be the case. Why is meaning derived from the nature of the world by reason to be preferred over one that is based on people’s inter-subjective sense of what is meaningful and important? Is it because we feel that we need this to be the case in order to convince others to agree with us about what is meaningful? This seems like poor justification, as even on many questions that are clearly matters of objective fact, there is still immense disagreement and inability to convince. Is it because we feel that the ultimate source of meaning needs to come from some transcendent force or power or agent in order to be ‘real’? But why should this be the case? If certain actions and mods of living enrich our lives in such a way that we hold them in a certain sort of positive regard (i.e. they are meaningful to us and others), then why is that source of meaning somehow less ‘real’ simply because it does not derive from a transcendent source?

Indeed, many theists already believe that reason alone is insufficient to lead one to submit one’s life to God – there also is some scope for a choice, or the work of the spirit, or ‘something’ else. However we describe this ‘something else’, theists are typically already comfortable with the idea that decisions about what ultimately matters, or what ultimately to commit oneself to, are not based purely on reasoning about facts, but that other considerations and motivations can be relevant too. Of course, the nature of these ‘other considerations and motivations’ is not identical in the cases of believing in God and deciding what we think the meaning of life is, but my point is only to highlight that there seems to be a similarity in ‘going beyond pure reason’ in both cases. As such, if the theist is willing to accept non-rational (or what I tend to think of ‘pre-rational’) motivations in one case, then what bases do they have for ruling such motivations as inferior or lacking in another case? If one can justifiably choose to follow God partly on the basis of reasoning, but also partly on the basis of one’s inner convictions and sense of what is right and good and true, then why cannot one similarly justifiably pursue what one believes to be meaningful for a similar collation of reasons?

The Temporal Question

Another line of criticism levelled against naturalistic conceptions of meaning argues that they fail to adequately address what I will call ‘the temporal question’, the fact that we will all die and, ultimately, the Earth and everything else that we know and care about will eventually cease to exist (e.g. through the heat death of the universe).

William Lane Craig outlines this view in the following quote:

“The universe is doomed to die anyway. In the end it makes no difference whether the universe ever existed or not. Therefore, it is without ultimate significance. The same is true of the human race. Mankind is a doomed race in a dying universe. Because the human race will eventually cease to exist, it makes no ultimate difference whether it ever did exist. Mankind is thus no more significant than a swarm of mosquitos or a barnyard of pigs, for their end is all the same. The same blind cosmic process that coughed them up in the first place will eventually swallow them all again.”

In response to these criticisms, I would ask what basis there is for the belief that the final end state of the universe is of unique (or even primary) importance in determining the value or meaning of our lives? I see no reason why the fact that something will eventually cease to be implies that it cannot have any meaning or value for the time while it does exist.

The Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy article on this subject includes a quote which aptly expresses my views on this matter:

“Critics of these strong and weak futility claims counter by calling into question what can be called the-arbitrary-privileging-of-the-future. They ask, “Why should the end state of affairs be given such veto power over the worth and meaning of the here and now?”… why give the future priority over the present and the past? If life is meaningful now, how can the fact that it will cease to exist make it less meaningful now? And, if life is not meaningful now, how could its un-ending continuation confer meaningfulness to it? Critics of such futility claims argue that the most plausible way to appraise the meaningfulness and worth of life here and now, is by adopting the here and now perspective, not the distant, detached perspective of some indifferent future of a universe in ruins.”

I cannot deny, however, that the fact of ‘ultimate cosmic ruin’ does resonate strongly with many people as being a strong argument against the notion that life has any ultimate meaning. Perhaps that is what some people believe ‘the meaning of life’ is – being able to make some ultimate difference to the final end state of the universe. If this is the definition we adopt, then I agree that in an atheistic universe life has no ultimate meaning. However, I see no reason to accept this very particular conception of what it is for life to have meaning.

In particular, I would ask people how, exactly, the eventual heat death of the universe in any way takes away from the meaningfulness of great acts of courage or kindness, deep and meaningful relationships one forges with friends and family, the awe inspiring beauty of nature and some of mankind’s greatest accomplishments in art and science. I think these things (and many others) are meaningful precisely because they have great emotional and cognitive significance to us here and now, and in many cases will continue to hold great meaning for generations to come. We may wish that such things could last forever – perhaps if they did, they would be even more meaningful. But why should we suppose that their eventual extinction undermines their meaning completely? Why does the temporality of our existence, our finite extension along the dimension of time, somehow undo or negate the positive attitudes and reactions that hold towards such things for that duration of time for which we do exist?

The Ugly Head of Nihilism

In my experience, it is often very difficult to remember, through times of pain and other trials, what we think the meaning or purpose of our lives to be. I think this is a problem for people of all philosophies and worldviews; Kierkegaard, for example, talked at length about the absurdity of the world, and though he believed that God acted as an ultimate source of meaning and a source of comfort against such absurdity, nonetheless he acknowledged and explored the ongoing difficulties in living in this mad world of ours.

Though I am often tempted by nihilism, and often it can seem to me that life as no meaning or purpose (or at least that my life has no meaning or purpose), ultimately I do not think that the justifications given for nihilism are particularly compelling. I believe that life does have meaning, even when it often seems like it does not. I believe that we can make sense of the meaning of life in an atheistic universe. This is not to say, of course, that God could not serve as a crucial serve of meaning if he does in fact exist – indeed, to many he clearly serves as a source of meaning regardless of whether he exists or not. It is, however, to say that we do not need God for our lives to have meaning. For this we need only ourselves, and perhaps also a few good friends.

Everyone is Right – Why Debating Religion is a Fool’s Game

I am increasingly coming to the view that religious debate, philosophy, and apologetics are little more than an elaborate game, and a tiresome one at that.

In my view, there are obviously both good arguments for, and good arguments against, the existence of God (and likewise for other similar issues). I fail to see how a great many ridiculously clever, thoughtful people can spend centuries going back and forth on an issue such as this unless there is some real controversy there – unless there are genuinely compelling reasons, and a plausible case to make, on both sides.

I challenge anyone to visit (for example) the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, pull up the page on any of the key philosophical theistic/atheistic arguments (cosmological, teleological, problem of evil – though not ontological, that one’s sort of a special case), read it, think about it, and then tell me with a straight face that there are is not a real issue here, that one side should clearly and decisively defeat the other upon consideration by any fair-minded, rational person. I make a similar challenge regarding my document concerning the resurrection appearances of Jesus: I challenge anyone to read it, think about it, and then tell me in all sincerity that I have not at least made a sufficiently plausible case such that it could be rationally believed by an informed, fair-minded person.

The trouble is that all of these arguments and questions are so complicated, so multi-faceted, and so interwoven with other related philosophical, scientific, psychological, and historical issues, that it is essentially impossible for any sufficiently well-read, clever person to be placed in a position where they feel compelled to significantly change their views. Such persons can almost always rationalise anything away by constructing some plausible-sounding justification, or by appealing to yet another aspect of the issue that their interlocutor (in their mind at least) just doesn’t understand or hasn’t thought about properly, or by delving yet deeper into the fractal subtlety of one particular point or argument. There can never be an end to the byzantine labyrinth of these discussions – there is always one more step to take, one more clarification or retort to make, one more line of rebuttal to give.

Speaking personally, I actually think I’m quite good at doing that: at arguing at such length with such persistence, making ever-finer logical and conceptual distinctions and clarifications with mind-numbing analytic pedantry, and employing a dose of pseudo-profound rhetoric and intellectualised sophistry, such that in the end my interlocutors, though seldom convinced, run out of things to say, or just decide that they have better things to do with their lives then continue talking to me about this (especially when to them I am quite clearly, if sometimes elusively, mistaken). Either that, or the debate is stopped in its tracks by an apparently unbridgeable chasm of some fundamental difference of underlying assumptions or values, for which no rational analysis seems possible. In both cases, it is not reason or evidence that wins the day, but rhetorical power, stubbornness, eloquence, and the sheer dogged tenacity to continually best one’s interlocutor by writing yet another blog post, facebook comment, or journal article.

It is my view that most people, atheists and theists alike, have very poor justification for their beliefs. But what difference does that really make when, even if we engage with the very best scholarship and literature on the issues and construct the very tightest, most plausible arguments possible, we are still left at a position of stalemate, where the rational belief is not uniquely determined by the reason or evidence? That’s not to say that theism/atheism are exactly equiprobable, or that the uniquely most rational position is agnosticism. Rather, what I’m saying is that there are wide range of rationally supportable positions ranging from atheism to strong theism, and including ‘strong agnosticism’ in the middle. Given that, what’s the point of all these fancy arguments? Why bother? Who really cares?

That’s what I mean about philosophy/apologetics being mostly a game: it is played in accordance with certain rules, it serves no real purpose other than to stay fit (mentally in this case) and have fun (though mostly people just get upset), and at the end of the day everyone goes home and forgets about it, coming back the next week rooting for the same team and going through all the same motions over again. Sometimes your team wins, and sometimes your team loses. Both teams get better over time: more prepared, more sophisticated, with better honed arguments. But at the end of the day, reason can’t tell you which team to support – you just pick one and stick by it.

The funny thing is that I can envision atheist and theist friends alike agreeing with my contention, though naturally drawing very different conclusions. The former may be inclined to say things like ‘I’ve been telling you all this religious stuff is a waste of time’ or ‘why don’t you spend your energies on something more useful or worthwhile’? The latter may be inclined to speak of the importance of personal experience/relationship with God/faith/etc over merely an intellectual engagement with these matters. Really, though, these sorts of responses exactly underscore my point: at the end of the day the decision to be religious or not is not primarily a rational one, as there are a wide diversity of rational positions. Rather, what it comes down to is our decision (which of course may be mostly or entirely unconscious) as to whether or not we desire to believe, or what we desire to believe in (I am strongly influenced by William James on this point).

So what is my takeaway after all this rambling? What do I think ought be done? Honestly, I really do not know. Disillusioned as I have become about the entire enterprise of religious philosophy/apologetics/etc, it is still nonetheless a game I feel compelled to play. It is one of the few things I actually seem to have an aptitude for, and it is something I feel drawn to do (feel free to interpret this through theistic, evolutionary, or Freudian perspectives in accordance with your preference). I still like to think it is a game worth playing, even though I see few good reasons for thinking so. Perhaps, in the end, it is all vanity, and vexation of spirit.

‘The Absurdity of Life without God’ – William Lane Craig’s Non-Argument

Synopsis

This piece is a critique of William Lane Craig’s piece The Absurdity of Life without God, in which he attempts to argue that under an atheistic worldview “life has no ultimate meaning, value, or purpose”. My contention is that Craig not only fails to establish his conclusion, but fails to advance any cogent or coherent argument at all. By ‘argument’, I mean, in essence, a connected series of defended propositions which taken together entail (or purport to entail) the conclusion one is seeking to establish. I argue that Craig’s ‘argument’ consists of little more than rhetorical questions, red herrings, and question-begging assertions. Much of this piece is comprised of quotes from the original piece; I mostly confine myself to making comments and observations. I believe that, perhaps with a small amount of guidance, essentially all readers should be able to easily see that in this piece Craig fails to deliver anything that can reasonably be described as a philosophical argument. At best it is a piece of rhetoric, but certainly it is not a serious argument. Parts of my critique may be somewhat repetitive, for which I apologise, however (at least by my reading) Craig’s piece itself was quite repetitive, as the same assertions are made and questions raised repeatedly. Text in italics are quotes from Craig’s article; regular text are my remarks.

No Ultimate Meaning without Immortality and God

If each individual person passes out of existence when he dies, then what ultimate meaning can be given to his life?

This is a question, not an argument or premise in an argument.

Does it really matter whether he ever existed at all? His life may be important relative to certain other events, but what is the ultimate significance of any of those events?

Another two questions.

If all the events are meaningless, then what can be the ultimate meaning of influencing any of them?

This is a conditional, the antecedent of which has not been established as true. It is also a question, not a premise or argument.

Ultimately it makes no difference.

This assertion is not established by anything Craig just said, for he didn’t actually say anything, he just asked a series of questions.

Look at it from another perspective: Scientists say that the universe originated in an explosion called the “Big Bang” about 13 billion years ago. Suppose the Big Bang had never occurred. Suppose the universe had never existed. What ultimate difference would it make?

Yet another question. If Craig wishes to establish his contention, he must provide an argument in favour of it. By continually asking questions he is merely shifting the burden of proof to his interlocutors, implicitly calling upon them to outline their own theory of how there can be meaning without God. This is very different to actually providing an argument that such a theory cannot exist, which is Craig’s contention. Merely asking questions does nothing to establish this contention.

The universe is doomed to die anyway. In the end it makes no difference whether the universe ever existed or not. Therefore, it is without ultimate significance.

This is a non sequitur. The fact that the universe will eventually cease to exist, does not imply that its current existence is of no value of significance – unless one presupposes what Craig is attempting to prove, namely that something must be eternal in order to have real meaning or value. In order for this inference to be valid, Craig must defend a premise (something like) ‘that which ceases to exist has no ultimate significance’, which he makes no attempt to do.

The same is true of the human race. Mankind is a doomed race in a dying universe. Because the human race will eventually cease to exist, it makes no ultimate difference whether it ever did exist. Mankind is thus no more significant than a swarm of mosquitos or a barnyard of pigs, for their end is all the same. The same blind cosmic process that coughed them up in the first place will eventually swallow them all again.

The fallacy here is the same as that which Craig committed above. The fact that something ‘makes no ultimate difference’ (in the sense of changing the final temporal state of affairs of the universe) does not entail that it ‘has no significance’ unless one accepts the premise ‘something has no real significance or value unless it makes an ultimate (i.e. eternal) difference’. Craig does not provide any reason to accept this premise, which I regard as highly dubious at best.

But it is important to see that it is not just immortality that man needs if life is to be meaningful. Mere duration of existence does not make that existence meaningful.

This seems reasonable, though it would also apply to theism: the mere existence of God does not by itself make anything meaningful, unless we also adopt the (highly questionable) premise that God’s existence necessarily imparts meaning to certain things.

If man and the universe could exist forever, but if there were no God, their existence would still have no ultimate significance.

This is an assertion made without any justification.

To illustrate: I once read a science-fiction story in which an astronaut was marooned on a barren chunk of rock lost in outer space. He had with him two vials: one containing poison and the other a potion that would make him live forever. Realizing his predicament, he gulped down the poison. But then to his horror, he discovered he had swallowed the wrong vial—he had drunk the potion for immortality. And that meant that he was cursed to exist forever—a meaningless, unending life. Now if God does not exist, our lives are just like that. They could go on and on and still be utterly without meaning.

Once again, Craig is presupposing his conclusion. He is attempting to argue that life without God is meaningless, by using the premise that an eternal life without God would have no meaning (just like the astronaut’s life). He makes no attempt to connect the analogy to his argument by any actual reasoning – he merely asserts that “if God does not exist, our lives are just like that“, which is precisely the contention he is trying to establish.

We could still ask of life, “So what?”

This is true, but the same applies to life with God. Even if God did exist and even if he did create us, we could still ask of life ‘so what?’ Some further reasoning and explanatory framework would have to be given before a claim like “God’s existence gives meaning to life” could be established.

No Ultimate Value Without Immortality and God

If life ends at the grave, then it makes no difference whether one has lived as a Stalin or as a saint. Since one’s destiny is ultimately unrelated to one’s behavior, you may as well just live as you please.

Craig’s premise does not entail his conclusion, unless we also adopt the additional premise that ‘it is necessary for one’s behaviour to make an ultimate (eternal) difference in order for it to matter how one lives’. This suppressed premise is, I think, very much open to debate. Craig provides no reason to accept it.

But the problem becomes even worse. For, regardless of immortality, if there is no God, then there can be no objective standards of right and wrong. All we are confronted with is, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s words, the bare, valueless fact of existence.

Craig seems to be presupposing that objective standards of right and wrong cannot be facts of existence outside of God. But this is precisely what he is attempting to show. He has not given a reason as to why naturalistic facts about the world cannot constitute or entail facts about value.

Moral values are either just expressions of personal taste or the by-products of socio-biological evolution and conditioning.

Craig gives no justification for accepting this dichotomy, which ignores a great many alternate possibilities proposed by philosophers over the centuries. I will not discuss them further here, but if Craig wishes to make the claim that “there cannot be any other possibility”, then he faces a significant burden of proof of ruling out all other possibilities. He makes no effort at all to do this, merely asserting it as established fact.

In a world without God, who is to say which values are right and which are wrong? Who is to judge that the values of Adolf Hitler are inferior to those of a saint? The concept of morality loses all meaning in a universe without God.

This is a red herring. The question at hand is not who will decide the truth of moral claims. The question at hand is whether moral truths can exist or make sense in the absence of God. It is not necessary to specify the former in order to answer the latter. This is to confuse the question of ‘does the question make sense’ or ‘can a solution exist’, with the quite different question of ‘how could we actually find the answer’ or ‘who would decide the answer’.

No Ultimate Purpose Without Immortality and God

If death stands with open arms at the end of life’s trail, then what is the goal of life? Is it all for nothing? Is there no reason for life? And what of the universe? Is it utterly pointless?

These are questions, not arguments or parts of arguments.

If its destiny is a cold grave in the recesses of outer space the answer must be, yes—it is pointless. There is no goal no purpose for the universe.

Craig twice asserts his contention, that there is no ultimate purpose in an atheistic universe, but provides no reason to accept it.

And what of man? Is there no purpose at all for the human race? Or will it simply peter out someday lost in the oblivion of an indifferent universe?

More questions.

The English writer H. G. Wells foresaw such a prospect. In his novel The Time Machine Wells’s time traveler journeys far into the future to discover the destiny of man. All he finds is a dead earth, save for a few lichens and moss, orbiting a gigantic red sun… But if there is no God, it will end that way, like it or not. This is reality in a universe without God: there is no hope; there is no purpose.

Craig does not provide any reason as to why an Earth that ends as he describes it cannot have an ultimate purpose. The suppressed premise would presumably be something like ‘a thing must make some everlasting difference in order to have an ultimate purpose’, but Craig does not make any argument for accepting this.

What is true of mankind as a whole is true of each of us individually: we are here to no purpose. If there is no God, then our life is not qualitatively different from that of a dog.

Both assertions are question-begging (as no reasoning or justification is given), and also, as far as I can tell, factually wrong (in particular, human and canine lives, I contend, are very obviously qualitatively different).

But more than that: even if it did not end in death, without God life would still be without purpose. For man and the universe would then be simple accidents of chance, thrust into existence for no reason. Without God the universe is the result of a cosmic accident, a chance explosion. There is no reason for which it exists.

Craig’s argument here seems to assume that the purpose of a thing is inextricably bound up with its mode of coming into being, or facts related to its creation. He does not, however, provide any justification for this belief.

As for man, he is a freak of nature— a blind product of matter plus time plus chance. Man is just a lump of slime that evolved rationality.

This seems little more than derisive and emotive language. I could equally well say that Jesus was “just” a dead guy nailed to a piece of wood. Using such dismissive language avoids having to present any actual arguments or good reasons, and in my view contributes essentially nothing to the discussion.

Conclusion

Craig states near the end of his piece that:

If God does not exist, that means that man and the universe exist to no purpose—since the end of everything is death—and that they came to be for no purpose, since they are only blind products of chance. In short, life is utterly without reason.

I do not think Craig comes even close to establishing this conclusion. Indeed, I have argued that in this piece, all Craig’s ‘arguments’ are either questions, question-begging, or just irrelevant to the central issue. Coming from a highly esteemed Christian apologist with a PhD in philosophy, I find this somewhat surprising and rather disturbing. I honestly wonder if Craig is more interested in appealing to people’s emotions rather than outlining a cogent, clear argument which is actually philosophically defensible. My point here is not that I disagree with Craig’s conclusion – I do, but I have not outlined a clear argument as to why I think there is meaning without God. Here I have merely attempted to show why Craig’s piece is so lacking in establishing its contention. I personally believe that this piece is in broad terms representative of similar pieces found on various apologetics websites purporting to present an ‘argument’ as to why life without God lacks ultimate purpose or meaning, but which in fact mostly consist of little more than rhetorical questions and unfounded assertions. The extent to which this piece is more broadly representative, however, is something I will leave it up to the reader to decide. At the very least, I think that this piece, quite lengthy and published on Craig’s website, is very disappointing coming from someone as renowned and qualified as Craig.

 

 

Is Conciliationism Self-defeating?

Synopsis

In this piece I argue that conciliationism, the position that in cases of peer disagreement we ought to moderate our beliefs between the extreme positions, is not self-defeating, or at least is not self-defeating in any way which undermines the argument for conciliationism. I provide three related arguments in support of this contention. First, I argue that the ‘self-defeating objection’ can be applied to the ‘self-defeating objection’ itself, such that if conciliation is self-defeating, then so is this critique of it. Second, I argue that many apparently very reasonable epistemic standards also can be potentially self-undermining in some circumstances, thus illustrating that this problem is a general one not specific to conciliationism. Third, I will argue that there are good reasons to think that difficulties arise generally from the attempt to recursively apply epistemic principles to themselves, and therefore treating such self-referential cases as special is not arbitrary, but perfectly justified.

Introduction to the Positions

Conciliationism is the position that, when faced with disagreement between two epistemic peers (persons of roughly equal knowledge, intelligence, free of bias, etc), the most rational response is to conciliate: that is, either suspend judgement, or otherwise adopt some sort of compromise position between the two extremes. The idea is that when there exists disagreement between epistemic peers, there exists no rational reason to prefer one position over the other, and hence the most justifiable response is to conciliate.

This position has been attacked has being self-undermining. The idea is that there exists peer disagreement about the topic of peer disagreement itself – some philosophers advocate conciliationism, whilst others advocate steadfastness. It would seem, therefore, that the conciliationist position would in this instance advocate suspension of judgement, or some sort of compromise between these two extremes. Thus the conciliationist’s own position leads them to adopt a less conciliatory position. In this way, so the argument goes, conciliationism is self-undermining.

The ‘Self-defeating Objection’ is Self-defeating

Let us suppose that we accept the critique as outlined above, and conclude that conciliationism is self-defeating. How should someone who was antecedently convinced of the superiority of the conciliationist view respond? On the one hand, it seems that since this critique undermines conciliationism, existing conciliationists should abandon the view, or at least substantially reduce the credence they place in it – that is, they should adopt or move toward steadfastness (or something similar). On the other hand, what would it mean for such persons to adopt steadfastness? In this context, it would mean nothing other than sticking with their original position, namely conciliationism.

We thus arrive at a contradiction: it seems that if we accept the ‘self-defeating’ argument, it follows that existing conciliationists should abandon conciliationism, and simultaneously continue to uphold it. By applying the ‘self-defeating’ refutation to itself, we thus find that the ‘self-defeating rebuttal’ is, by its own logic, self-defeating.

As I will argue later, I do not actually think this is a problem, because a great many epistemic positions encounter difficulties when applied to themselves. As such, I am not arguing that the refutation fails because it is self-defeating, since I do not think being self-defeating in this manner is necessarily a problem. Rather, I am arguing that because it is not necessarily a problem for an epistemic principle to be self-defeating, the ‘self-defeating refutation’ simply has no purchase in the first place – the fact that conciliationism is (in this sense) self-defeating does not, by itself, constitute a good argument against it.

Many Epistemic Standards are Potentially Self-defeating

It is relatively easy to construct examples of highly plausible epistemic principles which are nevertheless self-undermining in at least some circumstances. For example, consider the principle “don’t place too much confidence in any new idea that you come up with at 4am in the morning after having drunk six beers”. This principle, subject perhaps to minor caveats or rewording, surely seems quite reasonable. However, as the astute reader will immediately notice, it is also potentially self-undermining – what if someone came up with this very idea at 4am in the morning after having drunk six beers? It seems that under these circumstances, the principle says not to place much confidence in itself, and so is self-undermining.

Consider another (I think) very plausible epistemic principle: “don’t believe anything important said by a pathological liar and known con-artist”. But what if a pathological liar and con-artist were to tell you this? Again, it seems that in this case the principle would assert disbelief in itself, and would therefore be self-undermining. These cases (and many more like them which can easily be constructed), I think allow us to see that merely because an epistemic principle is sometimes self-undermining, it does not follow that the principle is invalid.

Treating Self-Reference Differently is not Special Pleading

Is it not arbitrary special-pleading to say that “we should conciliate about all beliefs except for conciliationism”? Is this a sensible position to take? Though it may seem so at first, I do not think this position is arbitrary special-pleading. Rather, as I have mentioned previously, I believe there is something intrinsically difficult about applying epistemic (or semantic) principles to themselves, and as such applying conciliationism to itself is marked out as being ‘special’, and hence treating it differently to other cases of disagreement is justified.

To see why this is the case, imagine a consumer reports magazine, which conducts product reviews of a wide range of consumer goods and makes recommendations to potential buyers. Imagine that our hypothetical magazine has developed over many years a strong reputation for impartiality and delivering careful, critical reviews of the consumer goods they examine. Now suppose that our magazine wanted to undertake a comparison and review of consumer reports magazines themselves. Suppose further that our magazine already knows a great deal about its competitor magazines and the sort of product reviews they write, so there is no chance of our magazine uncovering new information in the course of its review or of realizing that it had been ‘wrong’ about any of its past product recommendations.

In such a situation where our magazine wishes to stand by all their past product recommendations, the only reasonable outcome is for them to rank themselves as the top consumer reports magazine. To do otherwise would be to contradict themselves by asserting that they stand by all the particular recommendations and rankings they had made in the past, and simultaneously asserting that they think the rankings and recommendations of some other magazine are superior to their own.

The point to be made here, is that it does not make any sense for us, as loyal readers, to angrily demand that our magazine provide a more neutral, unbiased analysis of the best consumer affairs magazine, just as they do for all other products. For if they wish to stand by their own previous decisions (which we presume they do, for they believe they are justified), there is only one possible consistent magazine recommendation for them to make. This is not a case of special pleading on behalf of the magazine; the decision stems from the very nature and logic of applying criteria such as this to themselves.

Though the magazine case is only an analogy, I think it helps to illustrate the point that self-reference is an intrinsically tricky problem. It is not arbitrary or special-pleading to declare that certain philosophical principles or ideas may work differently when applied recursively to themselves. We can see another example of this broad point in the form of Tarski’s undefinability theorem, which (loosely speaking) says that arithmetic truth cannot be defined within the language of arithmetic, precisely because of this problem of the ability to formulate recursive self-contradictory statements such as “this statement is false” in the language of arithmetic.

I am not arguing that Tarski or the magazine case are exactly the same as what is happening in the case of conciliationism. Rather, I am using these cases as illustrative of the broader point, which is that strange things can easily happen when we apply certain epistemic or semantic ideas recursively to themselves, and that as such it is not arbitrary or special-pleading for a conciliationist to say something like “we should conciliate about every position except for conciliationism”.

Conclusion and Caveats

In this piece I have argued that conciliationism survives the ‘self-defeating’ critique. The key reason why this critique does not hold is because applying epistemic or semantic theories to themselves quite often leads to problematic or potentially self-undermining consequences. I illustrated this broad problem by a number of examples, including the very ‘self-defeating critique’ itself. The problem lies not with conciliationism as a position; the problem lies with self-reference much more broadly. As a result of these considerations, the self-defeating critique of conciliationism fails.

Notwithstanding my arguments here, I do actually think that the presence of peer disagreement about the question of peer disagreement should make both conciliationists and steadfasters less confident in their respective positions – peer disagreement does still matter when applied to itself. I do not, however, think the degree of conciliation need or ought be as great as I would ordinarily advocate for other questions, because as I have argued, things get ‘tricky’ when applying such concepts to themselves. Since this principle applies broadly across many epistemic theories, I do not think it is arbitrary or special pleading for a conciliationist not to conciliate about conciliationism as much as they would ordinarily conciliate on other questions.

Refuting Criticisms of Utilitarianism and Effective Altruism

Synopsis

This piece is a response to Robert Martin’s piece critiquing Peter Singer’s views concerning utilitarian ethics and Effective Altruism (EA). I do not address every point raised in this article, but restrict my response to four key lines of argument. First, I argue that Martin’s response presumes a binary conception of morality (moral versus immoral) which utilitarianism itself denies, and as such the criticisms he levels on the basis of this assumption have little relevance to utilitarianism. Second, I consider Martin’s argument that EA ethics inevitably leads to its attempted practitioners experiencing unbearable guilt, and argue that this falsely presupposes both that guilt has any place in a utilitarian ethic, and also that a perfect ideal needs to actually achievable in order to have merit as an ideal. Third, I argue that contra Martin’s argument, it is actually the EA supporter, and not the EA critic, who is more loving and caring towards his neighbour. Fourth, I argue that Martin’s critique of EA fails to adequately come to grips with the fact of opportunity costs in the use of resources, while in contrast EA very naturally and deliberately takes opportunity costs into consideration when making ethical judgements.

Note that the quotes at the beginning of each section are taken from Martin’s original article.

Binary Thinking about Morality

“To be truly objective the maxim, ‘to do the most good we can’ would be binding on all people regardless of whether we believe it or not. Therefore at any point if one is not ‘doing the most good we can’ we are actually acting immorally!”

“Hence justifying simply ‘moving in the right direction’ is inconsistent because it means that you don’t actually need to ‘do the most good we can’. The ethic is reduced to, ‘do the most good you feel you’re able to afford.”

“Effective altruism and the consequentialist ethic of Peter Singer reduces ethics to a kind of communist race to the communal bottom. Everyone is equal and if one person has utility above the lowest, then it becomes unethical.”

“My point is that given the claim of the objectivity of this particular ethical system it becomes immoral to do anything which does not save lives of those in extreme poverty.”

Utilitarian ethics has little place for binary notions like “moral” and “immoral”. At best, these may be useful as heuristics to guide behaviour in the face of uncertainty or insufficient time to fully consider the likely outcomes of a particular action in greater depth. They may also serve as shorthand to be used in particularly extreme cases (murder, robbery, rape, gross abuse, etc). In general, however, utilitarianism considers the morality of essentially all actions to be one of degree: action A is morally preferable to action B insomuch as the expected consequences of A serve to increase total utility more than the expected consequences of action B.

Under such an ethical framework, it makes no sense (other than in the purely heuristic sense as outlined above), to assert in any absolute, unqualified way, that an agent has acted “immorally” when they take an action which produces lower expected utility than some possible alternate action. Rather, what they have done is take an action which does less good than another action they may have performed – no more, and no less.

References to non utility-maximising actions as being ‘immoral’ thus exhibit a misunderstanding of the nature of the ethical claims made by utilitarians. Such statements simply fail to say anything non question-begging with respect to the suitability of utilitarianism as an ethical framework; for in criticising utilitarianism for pronouncing every action other than the very best possible one as being ‘immoral’, they are necessarily importing binary absolutist notions of ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ which utilitarianism itself rejects. In order to proceed with this line of critique, therefore, it would be necessary to make an argument as to why incorporating such a binary, absolutist notion of ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ actions is necessarily in order to provide a suitable ethical account. Absent some such plausible account as to why this is in fact the case, however, this line of attack on utilitarianism fails.

Effective Altruism and Guilt

“Ethical altruism has some helpful contributions to make in assessing how scarce resources be allocated, but my criticisms would be less savage if Singer didn’t claim it as an ‘objective’ system. If consequentialism and ethical altruism is objective then we are all condemned under a brutal loveless, ethical system which will lead to social improvement in the developing world but at the cost of an ascetic guilt-ridden hypocrisy.”

“In this ethical framework there is nothing to avoid the slide into a guilt-ridden (how can I ever enjoy chocolate again?) asceticism. Nothing beyond the basics could ever be enjoyed because they would be declared objectively ‘immoral’.”

“There is no forgiveness in ethical altruism, if you eat a chocolate for yourself, you are condemned under the objective guilt of knowing that lives could have been saved elsewhere in the world.”

The argument here seems to be that Effective Altruism is unliveable as an ethical system because it is too demanding, meaning that no one can live up to its dictates, and since no one can live up to its dictates, all those who try will inevitably be subject to a great deal of guilt and anxiety over their perceived moral failings.

My first response takes the form of a question: in what way does this constitute a refutation of EA as an ethical framework? EA says, in essence, that 1) it is morally right to produce as much utility/benefit/happiness/etc as possible, 2) certain courses of action, according to our best evidence, produce much more utility/benefit/happiness/etc than others, therefore 3) it is morally good for us to undertake those courses of action. How is this argument in any way undermined by the fact that it may be difficult, or even impossible, to carry out to its fullest extent? It seems even if the EA ethic is unliveable and tends to produce a great deal of guilt, that in no way casts doubt on any of the statements 1)-3). Thus this objection merely comes down to an assertion that the EA framework is inconvenient for us, as we would rather avoid all the bother and potential guilt. Needless to say, this does not constitute a philosophical argument of any substance for the inadequacy of effective altruism as an approach in applied ethics.

My second line of response is to say that this line of rebuttal seems to presuppose that effective altruism is only valid or relevant as a moral principle if it is possible to be a perfect, completely effective altruist. As far as I can see, this principle is totally unfounded and without any basis. One is a better EA to the degree that one accords one’s actions with EA principles. This is a matter of degree, and not a binary decision. This is hardly a radical concept: essentially all normative systems incorporate ideals that are unattainable in their pure form, but which nevertheless constitute a valuable ideal to strive towards, and to focus our thoughts and efforts around, even if we know we will never reach them. A cook my strive to make “the perfect dish”, even if they know such a thing is in reality impossible. In science, philosophy, and the legal system, we often speak of epistemic virtues like objectivity, rationality, and impartiality. Everyone accepts that such virtues, in their pure, idealised form, can never be achieved by any actual person in any real situation. We do not, however, conclude on that basis that the notions or theories themselves are flawed, or that therefore everyone is everywhere and always being “irrational” or “partial”. We accept that these virtues are only ever be exercised in greater and lesser degrees, and that the impossibility of the actualisation of their perfect ideal form does not somehow undermine the concept in its entirety.

A third line of response would be to point out that notions of guilt have very little relevance to either a utilitarian ethic in general, or an EA framework in particular. Guilt is simply of no interest to the EA supporter, except insomuch as it may be relevant to ethical outcomes, either by promoting giving, or inhibiting action by leading to despair or discouragement. The EA supporter views guilt as a real and important aspect of human psychology which one needs to seriously consider. It does not, however, play any critical or central rule, motivating or otherwise, in a utilitarian ethical theory. As such, it is simply false to assert that a person who chooses an action which yields less than maximal utility is “condemned under the objective guilt”. Likewise the notion of forgiveness – this notion just has no place in a naturalistic, utilitarian ethic. Arguing that the utilitarian/EA ethical framework is defective because it has no place for forgiveness is simply to beg the question against utilitarianism, because precisely the point of utilitarianism is that such notions about binary abolute moral/immoral decisions, guilt, and forgiveness are largely irrelevant to the question of morality, which is instead concerned with degrees of goodness determined by the consequences of different possible actions. A cogent critique of utilitarianism as an ethical theory cannot proceed by simply pre-supposing aspects of morality which utilitarianism itself rejects, as this is to simply beg the question.

Misconstrual of Love

“Indeed love is absent from the brutal consequentialist system advocated by Singer.”

“All good things are to be seen as gifts of God and to be received with thanksgiving (1 Tim 4:4). This means I can enjoy a chocolate cake!”

“Yet the imperatives also broadens the concept of ‘neighbour’ to include not just our global neighbours, but also our local ones, meaning we can build a school hall to the betterment of our local society and love our neighbours with cancer and perform research to help them. Therefore caring for the ‘good’ of our neighbours is achieved through both the Christian ethic and consequentialism, but the Christian ethic is more nuanced and sophisticated.”

The sincere Effective Altruist strives to do as much good for their fellow man as possible, knowing that they will never succeed completely, but always attempting to do better, and endeavouring to use the best reason and evidence available to seek out new and better ways to do the most good with the limited resources at their disposal. They seek to serve as many of their neighbours as possible, not discriminating by race, class, distance, or convenience, but deciding purely on the basis of how much help they can do to their fellow man.

The EA critic, it seems, is content to eat chocolate cake, donate to their local school hall, and then maybe also donate some money to EA charities as well, justifying this to themselves by saying that one could never be truly and completely effectively altruistic anyway, and also by pretending, through various logical contortions, that somehow the resources and time spent on their chocolate cake and local school hall could not have actually been used to help the world’s poor and needy anyway. They seek to serve their neighbour, but with a special preference for neighbours who are conveniently located close by (note: I hope this is not taken as a personal attack against anyone – it is not intended as such, I’m just trying to make a point).

I ask the reader in all sincerity: which now of these two, thinkest thou, was most loving?

Ignoring Opportunity Costs

“If Singer and the effective altruism ethic is correct, then virtually every economic, social and moral choice made in Australia today is ‘immoral’”

“This is because when these decisions are compared with saving lives of people in extreme poverty then on the simple consequentialist metric outlined by Singer, saving lives of those in extreme will always ‘win’ i.e. they will always be morally preferable. Therefore when posed with the question, ‘should we build a new road in Melbourne? The answer under effective altruism will be ‘no, because this money could save lives of people in extreme poverty’. Should I eat a chocolate cake on my birthday? ‘no, because this money could save lives of people in extreme poverty’ Should we build a new school auditorium? Should we treat an injured knee? Should I treat my friend’s cancer? The answer to all these questions is the same – ‘no, because this could save lives of people in extreme poverty’.”

“Moreover other decisions which would have enormously beneficial outcomes for the extreme poor are also rendered ‘immoral’. For example this ethical framework would preclude funding Ebola virus research because the net ‘utility’ of lives saved in developing countries would be greater by providing Malaria nets or immunisation compared with lives saved through Ebola research.”

It is unclear to me what these sorts of statements are attempting to accomplish. If we consider the tripartite core EA argument which I outlined above, which of the three propositions are these arguments supposed to address? They seem to be total non sequiturs. To take the Ebola research example, why would it be a bad thing for EA to recommend that we ought to put resources into bed nets and vaccinations rather than Ebola research, if it is true that the former will save more lives than the latter? Is it because Ebola research will save more lives in the long run, or have other indirect benefits that we haven’t considered? If this is the case, then we have simply denied the premise that vaccinations and bednets will actually do more good than Ebola research, in which case the effective altruist would support the Ebola research as well, so there is no disagreement. On the other hand, if it is agreed that the Ebola research will do less good than vaccinations and bednets, even when factoring in future benefits and side-effects, etc, then what possible justification can there be for preferring the Ebola research over the bednets and vaccinations? How is it a defect of the EA framework for coming to this conclusion?

I wish also to say a few words regarding resource use in developed countries. Taken at face value, the EA ethic would seem to imply that since building roads, medical expenditure – indeed most public expenses of any sort in developed countries – are not as effective uses of funds as donating to the leading EA charities, then we ought not do them. The first point to say here is that it is simply a fact that resources have opportunity costs. Instead of building a new road or paying a doctor’s salary or whatever else, that money could have been used to save lives in the developing world. This is a fact about reality. It has nothing to do with one’s ethical framework, or the worldview one is operating under. Opportunity costs exist, and (needless to say) they don’t go away merely because we don’t like the sound of them, or thinking about them makes us feel uncomfortable about the difficult tradeoffs we must make.

The second point, however, is that it is necessary to exercise some care when making statements like “we should donate money to EA charities rather than build a new road”, because there is in fact no moral agent to which such collective pronouns apply. “We” are not a moral agent; individuals are moral agents. “We” don’t have any money or any ability to choose how it is spent, so it makes little sense to ask how “we” should spend our money as a nation or a community or whatever. What makes sense from a moral framework is to ask how should you and I spend our money, as individual moral agents who can take particular moral actions. So rather than asking what “we” should do, we should be more careful in our thought and speech, and consider exactly who we are saying should do this or that with the resources they have at their disposal.

The third point to make about this comparison is that, as an attempted reductio against EA, it is a very poor one. The reason is because, if EA were applied ‘universally’, or even in a much more systematic way by many more people and organisations, there would be no need at all to redirect money from road building or hospitals (or whatever else) to fund EA charities, because all such charities would already have been fully funded many times over through funding sourced by forgoing other expenses. Every effective charitable cause could be fully funded many times over with the enormous amount of money that could be diverted from non-essential spending by westerners (I leave it to the reader to imagine precisely what is included in this category), without any need to sacrifice truly important things like roads, schools, and hospitals.

 

How to get an Ought from an Is

Synopsis

Is it possible to get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’? That is, can we derive normative claims about what ‘should be’ from descriptive claims about what ‘is’? David Hume, and many others since, have argued that there exists an insurmountable gap between these two types of claims. In this piece I will argue that this view is mistaken. I begin by outlining a theory of morality, based on the reductive naturalistic account developed by Peter Railton. I will then outline how, given such a conception of morality, the ‘is-ought’ gap rests on a conceptual confusion, since ‘ought’ claims simply are a certain type of ‘is’ claim, and as such there is no intrinsic problem in deriving one from the other. I then proceed to consider in turn the issues of moral motivation and moral relativism, arguing that the moral framework I have presented is sufficient to provide objective, non-relativist reasons for action for any morally-competent person. In doing so I argue that the notion of a rationally compelling reason for action that is totally independent of the desires or objectives of the agent in question is incoherent, and so the inability of my metaethical theory to provide one does not constitute a limitation of the account, but merely reflects a constraint on what itself reason can do.

Railton’s Reductive Naturalism

‘Non-Moral’ Good

First of all, let me present an account of what an ‘ought’ claim is. The account I present here is a condensed version of that outlined by Peter Railton, and is a form of reductive naturalism. Railton constructs his account of the good in two stages. First, he defines a concept that he calls ‘non-moral good’:

“An individual’s (non-moral) good consists in what they would want themselves to want, or to pursue, were they to contemplate their present situation from a standpoint fully and vividly informed about themselves and their circumstances, and entirely free of cognitive error or lapses of instrumental rationality.”

The basic idea of this account is that what is (non-morally) good for a person is what would satisfy their idealised preferences. By ‘idealised preferences’, I mean the preferences they would want themselves to hold if they were ideally rational, and fully informed about all possible considerations and alternative courses of action, ways of living, consequences of different alternatives, etc. This additional element of abstraction enables the account to incorporate the fact that we often don’t know what we actually want, or what would be good for us, and so frequently hold mistaken beliefs about what will satisfy us or be helpful for us.

Moral Good

Next, Railton generalises this conception of the ‘non-moral good’ into ‘moral good’ by introducing a social dimension:

“X is morally right if and only if X would be approved of by an ideally rational and fully informed agent considering the question ‘How best to maximize the amount of non-moral goodness?’ from a social point of view, in which the interests of all potentially affected individuals were counted equally.”

So, by Railton’s account, the moral good consists in maximising non-moral good from a social point of view, treating the interests of all individuals equally. I think this captures a very significant aspect of morality, which is its intrinsic social, relational dimension. Morality is about incorporating the concerns of others into one’s own decision making, and not privileging one’s own interests over those of others. I think this is key aspect of morality is captured very well in Railton’s account, and this acts as a powerful consideration in its favour.

‘Nasty Preferences’ Objection

What if someone has nasty preferences? What of the person whose preference is to rape little children, or torture animals, or whatever other depraved action we may care to contemplate? If they have a preference to do these things, does that mean that such actions are good by this account?

I believe this objection rests on a twofold failure to understand Railton’s account of moral goodness: an initial failure to understand his notion of ‘non-moral goodness’, and a subsequent failure to understand its extension into ‘moral goodness’. In regard to ‘non-moral goodness’, this objection presumes that what an individual’s preferences are now is the same as what a fully informed and instrumentally-rational version of that individual would want their preferences to be. This assumption is unwarranted, because precisely the point of introducing such a concept  is because the two are often considerably different. If we consider, for instance, the cat torturer or the child molester, we must ask the question: what sort of life would they want themselves to pursue, and what sort of preferences would they desire themselves to have, if they had access to all relevant information about possible alternative lifestyles, approaches to living, sources of meaning, etc? If they could somehow consider all the alternatives and choose carefully which they most preferred, would they still choose child molestation or cat torturing? I consider this to be very unlikely; I just don’t think it is the case that many people would actually find those to be the good life for themselves, if they had proper access to alternatives and the time and mental clarity to consider them. To an extent, this is an empirical question, and one I would welcome further research into. Nonetheless, it seems to me that it is at least highly plausible to argue that at least a sizeable proportion of cases of ‘objectionable preferences’ would be eliminated by simply considering idealised, rather than actual, preferences.

That being said, let us say for the sake of argument that there is some subset of people who, even after considering all the other possible modes of living and their comparative virtues, nonetheless would still prefer a lifestyle which we would view as abhorrent or undesirable in some way (e.g. cat torturing, child molesting, etc). Does Railton’s account require us to say that such a lifestyle (and its constituent actions) are morally good? Not at all, for such an inference rests on a misunderstanding of the second aspect of Railton’s account, the distinction between ‘non-moral good’ and ‘moral good’. Even if we accept the premise that, for some small number of depraved persons, their ‘non-moral good’ consists in doing things which we would consider to be repugnant, when determining the moral good we must also take into consideration the interests of others. If, from a social point of view, these interests outweigh the non-moral good of the individual in question (as I think they inevitably will for the sorts of abhorrent acts mentioned above), then it will still be the case that Railton’s account declares such actions to be immoral. In essence, it is not the ‘non-moral good’ of a particular person which is the most important; what is fundamental to this account are the interests of all individuals considered from a social point of view. And needless to say, the abhorrent preferences of a depraved few will be easily outweighed by the former. Thus, the ‘nasty preferences’ objection fails as a substantive critique of Railton’s account of morality.

Deriving ‘Ought’ from ‘Is’

Dissolving the Problem

Having outlined Railton’s reductive naturalistic account of morality, I now wish to return to the main question with which I began this essay: how to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. My answer, in essence, is that there is actually no real problem, because ought claims just are ‘is’ claims. By Railton’s reductive naturalistic account, moral claims constitute a particular subset of factual claims about the way the world is. Specifically, moral claims are statements about what would satisfy the idealised preferences of individuals in a society, treating every person equally. By this account, therefore, moral claims are both ‘ought’ statements and ‘is’ statements – the former is in fact a subset of the latter. The alleged difficulty of deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ thus rests on a conceptual confusion, namely presupposing ex ante that the two claims are of a fundamentally different sort – a view which I see no reason to accept. I believe that a perfectly sensible reductive naturalist account of the nature of moral values can be provided (viz Railton’s reductive naturalism), and as such there is simply no difficulty in deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’, since ‘ought’ claims just are a particular type of ‘is’ claims.

But how can I make the leap from the statement “X will maximise idealised preference satisfaction from a social point of view” to the statement that “X is morally good”? Isn’t the first simply a claim about facts of the world – an ‘is’ statement – while the latter is an evaluative claim – an ‘ought’ statement? How to we get from the one to the other? Asking the question in this way is, I think, betraying precisely the sort of conceptual confusion which I am here attempting to defuse – namely, that there is some unbridgeable gap or ultimate chasm between ‘is’ and ‘ought’. This is precisely what I am denying. I am arguing, in fact, that the set of actions and states of affairs which satisfy the predicate “maximises idealised preference satisfaction from a social point of view” is the same as the set of actions and states of affairs which satisfy the predicate “is morally good” (caveat: I am not actually claiming the sets are precisely equal. More carefully, I am saying that the sets are close enough for this account of morality to be a very good one).

Moore’s Open Question Argument

It is important to understand that I am not saying that these two things (‘moral goodness’ and ‘maximising social preferences’) are the same by definition (this point formed the basis of Moore’s famed ‘Open Question Argument’ against ethical naturalism). Rather, what I am saying is that we begin with this concept called ‘morality’, which is rather fuzzy and confused in some ways, but which we nonetheless seem to posses some basic intuitive understanding of. We then think very hard, look around at the world, and ask the question: “does this concept of ‘morality’ refer to anything real?” That is, we ask ourselves whether we can give a sensible account of this thing we call ‘morality’, or, alternatively, will we find that no sensible account can be given, and that like so many other naive concepts (such as bodily humours, phlogiston, absolute space and time, élan vital, and many more), we must consign morality to the dustbin of history? What I am arguing is that in thinking hard about our concepts and looking around at the world, we do find that there is in fact something which matches up quite well to our notion of morality, and as such our conception of morality is validated – not by definitional fiat, but by conceptual analysis and empirical investigation.

It is true that the account of morality that Railton provides is (as he calls it) a ‘reforming definition’, by which he means that it does not, absolutely and in all respects, match up perfectly to our naive, unreflective conceptions of morality. However Railton also argues, as do I, that the account is sufficiently close to that of ‘naive morality’, and also has sufficient explanatory power, such that we are adequately justified in maintaining the concept of morality and declaring that we now have a reasonable account of what it refers to. This contrasts, say, with the concept of a ‘vital life force’, which was not found to match up sufficiently with any real-world phenomenon, and as such the idea was discarded.

Water and H2O are not defined to be the same thing – we know they are the same thing because we went out into the world and looked, and discovered that they are the same. I am saying that something analogous can be done with morality: we begin with a naive concept, we go out and see if there is anything that is a reasonably close match for this concept that we can give a sensible account of. Since we are able to do this, the concept of morality is validated, and we are affirmed in our use of it (and indeed our understanding of it is heightened). Morality refers to idealised preference satisfaction from a social point of view. We have not defined it to mean that – we examined our concepts, we examined the world, and we matched the two together. We constructed an empirical explanatory account of the concept of morality, just like we have done in the sciences for many other entities.

A Restatement

So, bringing the threads together, how do we make the leap from the positive to the normative? I am saying that there is no leap. We have constructed an account of the normative by which we understand that it just is one class of claims about matters of fact. The problem is simply dissolved; there is no ‘is-ought’ gap under a reductive naturalistic metaethic.

Reasons for Action

Rationality and Moral Motivation

It is important to understand that there is one thing which this account of morality does not do: by itself, it does not provide us with any universal reason to be moral, or even to care about morality at all. At this point, I will say that if what one expects morality to provide is some reason for action which is in some way ‘binding’ or persuasive to all rational agents of any sort, regardless of their particular goals or objectives or preferences, then one will be disappointed, because this is something this account does not provide. I do not, however, consider this to be any real problem, because I think that the notion of something which is universally rationally compelling to all agents, regardless of their particular preferences or goals, is simply incoherent. I understand ‘rationality’ to mean “taking effective means to one’s ends” (as borrowed from D. A. Lloyd Thomas). By this understanding, there is simply no fact of the matter as to what is ‘rational’ for an agent to do or pursue absent some predefined ‘end’ or ‘purpose’ or ‘objective’.

Appeals to Teleology

Taking an Aristotelian perspective on the matter, one might say that there is a fact of that matter as to what a rational agent should do, even absent any particular end or objective which they hold to, and that relates to the agent’s underlying ‘innate’ teleology, or purpose in being. For example, Aristotle famously argued that humans are rational creatures, and so our teleology lies in the pursuits of reason, wherein man achieves his greatest excellence. Though I think there are some valuable insights to be gleaned from this approach, overall I find it unpersuasive as a metaethical theory as it fails to provide any clear notion of what constitutes an innate teleology or whence such a notion can be derived. Perhaps a notion of teleology could be constructed via some reductive account of the moral good, for example by using aspects of Railton’s account. However in that case the notion of teleology is doing no explanatory work, as it is merely being defined in the same manner as morality, rather than providing a more ‘ultimate’ basis out of which the latter can be defined or understood. As such, ultimate teleology is either a mistaken concept (as it does not refer to anything real), or an unnecessary one (because it is merely parasitic on the concept of morality, instead of underpinning it as we had hoped).

Though there is much more to say on the notion of teleology, I will forebear at present, and merely summarise this portion of the essay by restating that I do not believe there is any fact of the matter as to what it is rational for an agent to do sans any account of their particular interests or desires. As such, I do not believe there are any universally-compelling reasons to be moral. On the other hand, I also do not think there are any universally-compelling reasons to believe in the truths of mathematics or logic or science, or indeed to care about truth or good arguments at all. In short, I do not think there are any universally-compelling reasons for anything at all. Every reason of any sort must, at bottom, make some sort of appeal to a pre-existing goal or value or presumption; reason always has to begin somewhere. As such, I think a notion of objective-independent reasons which are rationally compelling to all rational agents independent of their goals or desires is simply incoherent, and is not something we should demand from an account of morality.

Reasons to be Moral

I must emphatically emphasise, however, that I am not saying that we do not have good reasons to be moral. I believe there are immensely good reasons to be moral, none of which are particularly innovative on my part: acting morally helps others, it allows us to reduce suffering and promote human flourishing, it brings us joy and helps us to become better people (in either a moral or non-moral sense), etc. Are these not good enough reasons to care about being moral and doing good? I think they should be perfectly good reasons, perfectly sufficient reasons for action, for any morally competent person. They will not, of course, be compelling to a person who does not already possess some fundamental, underlying ‘moral competence’, but why is this a concern? Do we really expect that the reason people lack moral motivation is that they are actually irrational; that there exists some ‘killer reason’ or ‘overwhelming argument ‘ which would cause them to become morally motivated by the sheer force of reason? To me that sounds absurd on the face of it, and even more absurd in the light of the analysis I have given about the nature of rationality. I think we all have ample reasons to be moral. If those reasons are uncompelling to a particular person (assuming they understand them), it is because said person is simply not morally competent. That is unfortunate, but is a defect of that person’s character, and not of the account of morality which I am here defending.

Relativism and Subjectivity

A Non-Subjective Morality

In metaethical discussions, the question of relativism inevitably rears its ugly head. Is the account that I have here presented of the meaning of and basis for moral claims a relativistic one? That is, when I say “it is wrong to murder” or “you ought not murder”, am I merely expressing a subject personal preference against murder? Is it simply a question of taste – some people like murder and some people don’t, and we just happen to be fortunate enough to live in a society in which most people share my distaste for it?

To answer this question: no, I do not think that moral claims are subjective or relative in this way. By the account that I have defended, moral claims are statements of fact which can be true or false. Their truth or falsity depends upon the manner in which the world is constituted, including certain properties of human beings, their desires and preferences, how these preferences are socially distributed, etc. These facts are objective, in the sense that they are not dependent upon the minds of those making the judgement. It may be the case that peanut butter is delicious ‘for me’ and disgusting ‘for you’, but by Railton’s account of morality, it cannot be the case that X is morally right ‘for you’ (say because you dislike murder), but not morally wrong ‘for me’ (say because I’m not bothered by murder), since what is morally good is determined by facts of the world which are invariant to the perspective of the person considering them. Of course, different people may disagree about what these moral facts are, but disagreement does not imply that there is no fact of that matter at all.

What maximises idealised preference satisfaction from a social point of view does so regardless of whatever your or my attitudes about murder or anything else might happen to be. As such, this account of morality is not relativist, and does not degenerate into mere preferences. (Note: the concept of ‘non-moral good’ is subjective in this way, because it depends on the agent’s idealised preferences, however the notion of ‘moral good’ is not subjective in this way, because it depends upon the preferences of all individuals, and not merely the subjective attitude of the person making the ethical judgement).

Moral Injunctions

When I make the injunction “you ought not murder”, am I merely expressing a personal, subjective attitude towards murder, which at base is no more or less justifiable than any other possible attitude? I do not think so. Rather, what I am doing is making a statement concerning what would maximise the idealised preferences of individuals from a social point of view, which is an objective claim that is not dependent upon any single person’s attitudes towards the claim. Now, of course, whether or not the person whom I am addressing cares about what is right or wrong is completely separate question; they may accept that murder does not maximise the idealised preferences of individuals from a social point of view, but simply not give a damn. That is unfortunate, and I would of course try to persuade them that they should care (by appealing to the ‘reasons to be moral’ I outline above), but as I previously argued, if my interlocutor does not share at least some fundamental concern about the welfare of others, or a desire to do good (or something like that), then there is simply no reason I can give  them which will rationally ‘compel’ them to care about doing good. As I argued, the notion of ‘bootstrapping’ any motivation from ‘pure reason’ in this way, without any reference at all to pre-existing desires or concerns, is simply incoherent. This, however, is not a limitation of my account of morality – it is imply a fact about the limits of reason. Nor does it follow that moral injunctions are mere statements of preferences. They are statements of facts about the world, which one may or may not happen to care about. If one does not care about these moral facts, that does not necessarily make one irrational. But it does make one immoral, in an objective, mind-independent sense.

Moral Obligations

What of objective moral obligations? Do they exist, and do they have any normative force? Can we make sense of them within the framework I have outlined? I would argue that the notion of ‘moral obligation’ is mostly (if not entirely) redundant, as to say that someone has a ‘moral obligation to do X’ is just to say that ‘it is morally good to do X’ or ‘you ought to do X’, which, in turn, simply means that ‘doing X will maximise the satisfaction of idealised preferences from a social point of view’. As such, I do not believe that the concept of ‘moral obligation’ offers any addition insights or provides any additional moral or motivational force beyond that which existing concepts already possess, and so while I think objective moral obligations are perfectly compatible with a reductive naturalist account of moral value, I also think they are a rather superfluous addition.

Conclusion

In this essay I have argued that there is no fundamental problem with deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’ claims, because ‘ought’ statements are in fact merely a special type of ‘is’ statements. In making this argument I first outlined Peter Railton’s reductive naturalist conception of moral good, and defended it against the objection of ‘nasty preferences’. I then argued that on the basis of this account, the ‘is-ought’ gap can be dissolved as resting on a conceptual confusion, because ‘ought’ claims simply are a special type of ‘is’ claims. Morality is validated, I argued, on the basis of our ability to construct a plausible naturalistic account of its relationship to objects in the real world. I then considered the issue of moral motivation, arguing that this account of morality will not motivate those who lack even the most basic moral competence, but that this does not constitute a limitation of the account, as the notion of a reason that is rationally compelling to all agents regardless of their personal preferences is simply incoherent. Finally, I considered the issue of subjectivity, arguing that the account of morality I outlined  is not subjective, and does not rest merely on the attitudes of those making moral statements.

 

 

 

The Ethical Imperative of Effective Altruism

Synopsis

In this piece I argue for the ethical imperative of Effective Altruism, by which I mean that I believe we are ethically obligated to donate as much money as one can to the charities which save the most lives per dollar spent. I take a rough figure of $2000 per live saved from GiveWell, and argue that we must always consider this as the benchmark against which all other proposed donations and causes are judged. I then expand this argument to apply not only to charitable donations, but also to all our purchasing decisions. I argue we must seriously consider the lives we could save for every single dollar we spend on anything.

Saving More Lives is Better

How much does it cost to save a life? Many people don’t even like to think about such a question – after all, isn’t it crass and vulgar to put a dollar value on human life? I don’t think so. Indeed, I think it’s positively immoral not to ask this question, and seriously consider the answer. We simply must ask the question of how much it costs to save a life. Why? Basically the argument goes like this:

1) Holding other relevant considerations approximately equal, we ought to take the action that saves more lives over any actions that save fewer lives
2) Donating all one’s charitable contributions to the charity which saves lives for the lowest cost will lead to more lives being saved than any other action we could take
3) Therefore, we should donate all our charitable contributions to the charity which saves lives for the lowest cost

Some Responses

There are a lot of ways one could object to this argument. One could debate about the merits of attempting to deal with deeper structural or social problems, rather than donating exclusively to specific global health initiatives. One could question the value of present lives versus future lives, and how that might affect our analysis. One could argue that life itself is not all that matters, and that we also should consider the good being done in improving the quality of life. All of these objections, and many others like them, are completely valid and worthy of discussion and serious consideration. They also, I think, largely miss the point. And what is that point? The point is, whatever else one proposes that we use or money or resources for, whether it be environmental activism or political reform or human rights protection or art preservation or whatever else, we must everywhere and always remember this fact: that every dollar spent on such causes could (in general) have instead been used to save lives. This is a concept called opportunity cost – the forgone benefit that we could have received had we used our resources in another way. In arguing that we ought to donate time or money to a particular cause, we must always and everywhere remember that this represents time and money that could have been used to save lives by instead donating to the most cost-effective charities.

Our Opportunity Cost

So how much does it cost to have a life? GiveWell has some excellent analysis of this question, some of which can be found here. The issue is stupendously complicated, but let me just pick a ballpark figure. Based on the GiveWell data, let’s say that the best charities can save a life for about $2000. Maybe its really $1000, or $5000. And maybe there are other benefits of these programs too besides just saving lives. That’s not really important. The rough figure is what matters, and it seems pretty clear that it is on the order of a few thousand dollars.

So what does that mean? First of all, I think it ought to put a lot of things in perspective. When I’m considering whether to give to an art gallery or an environmental lobby group or to cancer research, I must remember that every $2000 I give is one less life saved. That’s my opportunity cost. So I had better be pretty damn sure that the money I’m donating to this other cause is going to have some very significant impact, if this is to outweigh the forgone benefit of one life saved. This isn’t some abstract intellectual exercise. GiveWell considers all sorts of factors in evaluating charities, including actual on the ground effectiveness and room for more funding. That means, as best as we can tell, you can, in fact, actually increase the number of lives saved by providing these charities with additional funding, allowing them to expand their operations (e.g. buy more bed nets, disperse more money, fund more deworming programs, etc). I’m not saying here that none of these other causes can ever be worth it. My point is simply that we have an ethical obligation to be aware of what we could be doing with our funds, and what we are giving up when we donate to charities other than the most cost-effective charities.

Doing Both?

But can’t we do both? Can’t we donate, say, to deworming and also to cancer research or greenpeace or whatever else? No, you can’t. At least, not in any meaningful sense. Unless you are someone like Bill Gates, your funds are very limited compared to the capacities of the organizations in question. This means that every dollar you don’t give to the most cost-effective charities is failing to have as much impact as it could. You can’t just pretend that the opportunity cost somehow magically disappears just because you donated some of your money to the more effective charity. That alternative still exists for every single dollar you give away. So you simply cannot ‘do both’. For every dollar, the question is the same: donate to the most effective charities which can save a life for $2000, or donate so some other organisation. Again, I’m not saying that the ‘some other organisation’ option is never the better choice (though I do think it very rarely is). I’m just saying, this is the alternative that we always have. This is the reality we face.

The Ethics of Every Purchase

My argument here, however, does not extend only to our charitable donations. It also can (and I think ought to) be applied to absolutely every purchase decision we ever make. Here is the brute fact: every dollar we spend on anything is one less dollar that could have been spent on GiveWell top charities, saving (something like) one life per $2000 donated. Thus, every single purchase we make is a moral act. Every time we hand over money for anything, we are handing over some part of a chance to save a life. Whenever you see a price tag, you should mentally divide by 2000, because that’s the number of lives you are not saving by buying that thing. How much does a car cost? Several thousand dollars for a used one. That’s a couple of lives right there. How much does it cost to attend a music concert? A hundred dollars? Several of those in a year is maybe a fifth of a life. How much does a cup of coffee cost? A few dollars? How often would you buy one? Ever other day? Every day? That’s some non-trivial fraction of a life. How much does an overseas holiday cost? Several thousand dollars? Another couple of lives. How much do you spend on jewellery? Alcohol? Eating out? Electronics? DVDs? Airfares? Vacations? How much money do you earn every year? How much do you spend in things that you do not really need to get by? How many lives could you have saved, but did not?

Conclusion

I do not paint a very attractive picture here. I’m saying that most of what we spend our money on is frivolous in comparison to the good that we could do by donating this money to the most effective causes. And I don’t mean to put myself on a pedestal. I do try to limit unnecessary purchases. But am I really any better? I doubt it. There are numerous luxuries that I allow myself which I nonetheless don’t really need. But however much of a hypocrite I may be, I don’t think that in any way diminishes our ethical obligation to do better. We simply must do better. Many, many lives depend on it.

What Lennox Got Wrong: A Refutation of his Key Arguments

Synopsis

In this piece I offer a critique to some of the major arguments raised by John Lennox in his recent talks at Melbourne, both at the Friday night ‘Cosmic Chemistry’ public lecture, and also the Saturday ‘Reasons for Faith’ conference. Quotes that Lennox uttered over the course of these two events are presented at the beginning of each section in italics and quotation marks. These are taken from my notes made at the events in question. I have divided them up into topics, which I respond to in turn. The topics I address are: Lennox’s denial of evolutionary science, the argument that Christianity is responsible for the scientific revolution of the 17th century, the argument that language and semantic meaning cannot in principle be explained naturalistically, the notion that the very rational intelligibility of the universe must be taken for granted for science to even begin to function, the assertion that Christians were responsible for the abolition of slavery and the declarations of human rights, attacks on Atheism based on the evils done by Hitler and atheistic communist regimes, and the argument that without God there can be no objective grounding for morality. In general terms, I argue that Lennox misrepresents facts about history, fails to engage with philosophical disputes and the views of those thinkers who disagree with him, oversimplifies complex issues, and generally fails each time to present a cogent case for his arguments. (Note: Lennox also mentioned the evolutionary argument against naturalism, which I will not address here but will save for a future piece.)

Denial of Evolution

Lennox made a number of statements that were critical of evolution, or questioning of certain aspects of the current Neo-Darwinian consensus. In my view all of these arguments have been more than adequately refuted many times over by scholars far more learned than me, and such arguments are not taken seriously by biologists. As such, I don’t feel the need to rebut his claims specifically. I’m just going to list some of his most egregious assertions here for reference, as illustration of the profound extent to which of scientific denialism is to be heard even from a prominent mainstream Christian apologist such as Lennox.

  • “Where I have difficulty is in seeing this natural process (mutation and selection) as being creative, in the sense of generating new information. Evolution can explain about the survival of the fittest but not the origin of the fittest”
  • “You can arrange cars in a hierarchy, but that doesn’t mean that they are related…the tree of life has been turned upside down by biologists”
  • “Until you can give a mechanism for the progress of the lower organisms to the higher ones, you’ve just got an empty word (referring to the word ‘evolution’)
  • “Ideas coming out in the recent decades seriously questioning established wisdom…about the gradual accumulation of mutations” (note: I think what he was referring to here is growing evidence for punctuated equilibrium rather than gradualism, but he did not clarify this and made it seem that biologists were questioning evolution itself)
  • “I’m reacting as a non-biologist…but popular accepted wisdom in the blind watchmaker seems to be dying out”

The Christian Origins of Science

“Christian belief in God far from hindering science was actually the engine that drove it”
“Historically we owe modern science to Christianity”

A Dubious Thesis

The argument that Christian beliefs facilitated the scientific revolution in early modern Europe is not a new one. The usual argument goes that Christian belief in the presence of a lawgiver who created a universe governed by regular laws that we humans, imbued by God with the powers of reason, are capable of comprehending, was instrumental in facilitating the rise of the empirical scientific method in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. I have a number of comments about Lennox’s use of this argument. The first point to make is simply that this historical thesis is, at best, highly controversial, and Lennox really made no effort at all to substantiate it – he just asserted it as if it were a proven fact.

Second, it obviously is not the case that Christianity per se led to the scientific revolution, since Christianity was widespread in Europe for some thousand years before the scientific revolution, and it seems exceptionally implausible to argue that cause can proceed effect by over a millennium in this way. A more reasonable argument would be that some particular form of Christianity arising from the reformation, or as Lennox puts it “the particular way the reformers read the bible”, led to the genesis of science. But even this adjusted argument has major problems. For one thing, it is unable to explain why so much good science was done in Catholic countries (especially France and Italy; case in point – Galileo). Additionally, it’s not at all clear just what reading the bible has to do with science, or what specific beliefs were so new to the Reformers that could have been relevant to the scientific enterprise (the idea of natural law certainly wasn’t new, and some of the reformers, such as Luther, were actively hostile to human reason).

Science in Other Civilizations

Third, this explanation of the origins of science is just inconsistent with history. Much early pioneering mathematics and science was done in ancient Babylon, and more by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Chinese in the first and early second millennium were advanced in many areas, notable inventions including movable type, gunpowder, banknotes. The Arab World for centuries led the Christian world in philosophy, science, and mathematics. If we are to take the religion argument seriously we would have to say that paganism, Buddhism/Confucianism, and Islam all at different times and different places contributed to the rise of science, but later stopped doing so as these regions ceased to be world scientific leaders. This seems quite ad hoc and to lack much of any explanatory power.

A far more plausible explanation, I think, is that scientific progress is the product of an immensely complex interplay of economic, political, social, environmental, and ideological factors, with religion at best playing a contributory, and by no means mono-directional role (i.e. the same religion could help or hinder science, depending upon the context). Lennox’s simplistic thesis totally fails to account for the facts, and is ridiculously naive in its oversimplification of historical reality. As such I see no reason to take it seriously as an argument for anything. Of course, I agree with Lennox that scientific progress is consistent with Christian belief, but that’s a much weaker and also, I think, far less interesting claim.

Explaining Language and Thought Naturalistically

“That writing there that you take to have meaning cannot be reduced to the physics and chemistry of the paper and ink on which these symbols appear…the problem is that it cannot be explained reductionistically”
“The one area when explanations do not move from the complex to the simple is in language”

Lennox made this argument in a number of different ways at different times. It was not entirely clear to me whether he was arguing that language cannot be explained by reductionistic/naturalistic means, or whether meaning itself cannot be so explained. I think probably what he meant was something like the semantic-bearing component of language – the fact that language means something – can’t in principle ever be explained by reductionistic materialism.

Theorists Who Disagree

Like the Christian origins of science, this issue is a very complex and controversial one; and yet as before, Lennox gave no hint of this in his presentation. He made no mention of thinkers like Paul and Patricia Churchland, David Marr, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Fodor, Hilary Putman, and many others who do think such a program is possible. Of course Lennox would also find support for his position in thinkers like John Searle (with is famous Chinese Room argument) and Rodger Penrose. My point here is not to decide that matter, but simply that the issue is a complex and controversial one, so Lennox’s confident claims that we can be sure that providing such an explanation is not possible are very difficult to justify – especially when he doesn’t even mention the controversy in the academic literature.

Progress in Semantics

Let me now consider whether we have made any progress in constructing a naturalistic explanation of meaning and/or semantic content. I’ll just list a few theories, schools of thought, and fields of research which I think are relevant:

  • Natural language processing
  • Context-free grammars
  • Semantic networks
  • Neural networks
  • Machine learning and pattern recognition
  • Formal semantics of logic (model-theoretic, proof-theoretic, and truth-value semantics)
  • Neurolinguistics
  • Machine translation
  • Computational linguistics
  • Neuroimaging and lesion analysis of brain regions associated with language

I am certainly not saying that these and similar fields or theories constitute a complete naturalistic explanation of the nature and genesis of meaning. Obviously we still have a great deal to learn, and much remains a mystery. What I am saying is that, as I think any honest analysis of these fields and theories will show, we have, over the past few decades, made considerable progress in understanding meaning and how the brain processes language, and there is ample reason to suppose that such progress will continue. Will there be absolute limits to this endeavour which leave any naturalistic explanation ultimately incomplete? Perhaps so, but my point here is that Lennox is dramatically overselling his case by simply asserting that this must be the case, ignoring the significant progress that has already been made in linguistics, computer science, psychology, and neuroscience, and also ignoring the significant philosophical disputes and complexities on the subject.

Understanding Reductionism

Furthermore, it seems patently false to say, as does Lennox, that ‘explanations of language are not reductionistic’. It’s true that such explanations do not attempt to reduce linguistic meaning to the physics and chemistry of the paper and ink, but that is a ridiculous strawman vision of the purpose of science and of the meaning of reductionism. We don’t attempt to reduce economic or sociological theories to chemistry and physics, but does that mean they are somehow mistaken or incomplete? Even biology cannot always be reduced to chemistry to any significant degree (e.g. we still don’t know the molecular bases of a good portion of biological functions).

Nonetheless, reductionistic explanations are still possible, if we think of them in the correct way. In the case of language, the reduction occurs by considering the symbols in which symbolic meaning is instantiated, and also the physical systems responsible for decoding those symbols (e.g. the human brain), and determining how they work. Current approaches in linguistics, machine translation, neuroscience, etc, are precisely reductionistic in this sense. But no sensible person thinks the meaning of symbols is to be found in a chemical analysis of the paper and ink. I find Lennox’s claim about this to be a totally bizarre strawman argument.

The Rational Intelligibility of the Universe

“Physics is powerless to explain its faith in the intelligibility of the universe, because you have to accept this before you even do any physics”

Intelligibility as a Working Hypothesis

I have always found this claim puzzling. It sounds to me like arguing that one needs to believe that a particular cake recipe will taste good, and that one will be able to follow all the steps of the recipe successfully, before one can even begin to bake the cake. Of course, I need not believe any such thing; all I need to believe is that these things might be true, and that it is worth my while to give it a try to see if they are or not. In my view, this is precisely what happens in science. We cannot say ex ante that a given theory or technique will work, or whether some phenomena will even be rationally intelligible at all – but nor do we need to. We try a bunch of different approaches and see if any of them work. If not, we try something else. Perhaps there will come a time when we say ‘we have tried every conceivable scientific approach to answer this question and all have failed, so it’s time to give up and admit defeat’. But I do not think we are in that situation about any topic of importance in science at the moment.

Lennox does think we are in that situation with respect to the origin of life: he said “if there is no possible natural explanation for the origin of life what you’d expect is for all attempts to do so will fail, and the problem will just get worse over time, and this is exactly what we have seen since the Urey-Miller experiments in the 1950s”. Looking at the state of the literature in that field I can’t say I agree with his assessment at all. Nonetheless, my point remains: just as we don’t have to believe that we can successfully bake a delicious cake in order to try out a recipe, so too we don’t have to believe that the universe necessarily is rationally intelligible in order to try out the scientific method and see if it works.

Lennox’s Questionable Axiom

While I am on the subject of foundational axiomatic beliefs, I will quote another thing Lenox said: “There is a basic axiom behind everything I do, and it’s a biblical axiom”. (Rom 1:19) ‘for what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it…so they are without excuse'”

I’m not precisely sure what Lennox was claiming to be his axiom here – that the bible is true, or that the world of God is plainly revealed in the bible, or that God has plainly revealed himself to the world? Whatever the case, I would wonder what justification Lennox would offer for this axiom, and why he considers it to be more plausible than, or superior to, the empirically far more successful presupposition of science that the universe is rationally intelligible. If he is allowed to adopt this highly controversial axiom without any particular justification, why cannot science proceed on the basis of a (generally less controversial) axiom (or as I prefer to think of it, a working hypothesis) that the universe (or parts thereof) is rationally intelligible?

Christian Contributions to Society

“It was Christians who helped with the abolition of slavery”
“Christianity is behind the declaration of human rights”
“So many of our institutions, universities, hospitals, and so on, are due to Christianity”

I generally find these sorts of arguments irrelevant and rather silly. They always seem to end in a game of counting up Gandhis verses Stalins on each side in a futile attempt at one-upmanship. This proves nothing either way – Christianity could be beneficial and false, and vice-versa for Atheism. That said, I do want to address the factual accuracy of some of Lennox’s claims here, because I think he is playing a bit fast and loose with the truth, and that is something I find objectionable.

Christianity and Abolitionism

Were Christians the leading proponents of the abolition of slavery? Certainly the early abolitionist movement in the UK was led by a number of religious figures, including evangelical Anglican William Wilberforce and the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which was founded mostly by Quakers. On the other hand, virtually everyone in the UK at that time was a Christian of some form, so it’s not completely clear what this tells us. If anything the main distinction of relevance seems to have been between mainstream Christian groups such as Anglicans on the one hand, and Dissenters (who were not eligible to serve in parliament) such as Quakers and Anabaptists on the other. So at best the UK abolitionist history gives us mixed support for Lennox’s thesis.

If we consider the situation in France, we note that the abolition of slavery first occurred under the First Republic in 1794 led by Robespierre, famous for his dechristianization policies and advocacy of the Cult of the Supreme Being, a rationalistic Deistic religion designed to replace Christianity as the French religion. Prior to the revolution, enlightenment figures such as Montesquieu had also argued against slavery. I’m not exactly sure what his religious views were, but he certainly is not strongly associated with any particular Christian group. Thus the French case does not appear to support Lennox’s thesis: the early abolitionist movement was largely non-Christian in origin. Note that after the revolution slavery was reinstated by Napoleon, who was a Catholic.

In the United States, the abolitionist movement was also in large part spearheaded by Quakers. On the other hand, as in the UK, virtually all those who opposed abolitionism were also Christians. Consider, for example, Virginian Baptist minister Thornton Stringfellow, who defended the institution of slavery on various biblical grounds. So once again we find mixed evidence.

So putting it all together, did Christians help with the abolition of slavery? Most definitely, especially the Quakers and other nonconformist groups. Did Christians hinder the abolition of slavery? Most definitely. Did non-Christians help the abolition of slavery? Definitely, as we see from Robespierre. Were there non-Christians who hindered the abolition of slavery? Probably: Hume had some rather unsavoury views about Negros, so he might be an example, though I’m not sure what his views were on slavery per se. My point here is that Lennox was just not being careful when he spoke about this. The facts are so much more complex, and it’s by no means clear that the reality of history supports his implication that Christianity per se (as opposed to people who were Christians) was instrumental for the abolition of slavery.

Christianity and Human Rights

Lennox’s claim that “Christianity is behind the declaration of human rights” is an intriguing one. I wonder which declaration he is referring to – there have been many. Perhaps he is referring to the famous statement from the American Declaration of Independence: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. If so, it is very dubious indeed to say that ‘Christianity’ was behind this declaration, as a number of the most prominent of the Founding Fathers were either Deists or held various hybrid beliefs that some scholars have described as ‘Theistic Rationalism’. The famous 1798 Treaty of Tripoli also states “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”. The precise meaning of this statement has been debated, but I think there is ample reason to be dubious of the notion that Christianity was “behind” this statement in the American Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was passed by the French National Assembly following the French Revolution, was very much a secular document with derived much of its intellectual heritage from Enlightenment thought, which was in general not atheistic, but also seldom supported traditional Christianity either. So considering these two cases, we once again find a much more complex and messy picture than is painted by Lennox. Christians were certainly involved in the early declarations of human rights, but to say that ‘Christianity’ as such was ‘behind them’ I think is a gross misstatement of history.

I think my point has already been sufficiently made, so I won’t comment specifically about hospitals and universities (look up ‘hospital’ on Wikipedia – Christians hardly invented them). I restate my core objection: Lennox’s history is sloppy, and his conclusions drastically oversimplified and premature.

The Evils of Atheism

“A corollary to this argument is that atheism is to blame for nothing…Imagine a world without Stalin. Without Hitler and Pol Pot”
“They (atheists) do not want anyone to draw a comparison between the communist attempts to obliterate religion and the current New Atheist attempts”
“The amount of blood that has been spilled by atheistic philosophies is colossal”

I’m not entirely sure why Lennox even brought this topic up. I don’t think he was arguing that Atheism was false because it has (allegedly) led to these evils. So why mention them in the context of a discussion about ‘reasons for faith’ and ‘science and faith’? These statements seem to be an almost complete red herring.

Hitler was no Atheist

There are many other problems with Lennox’s remarks here. First of all, he seems to be implying that Hitler was an atheist. Lennox did not say so explicitly, but he did say ‘atheism is to blame’, and then mentioned Hitler in between the names of two very staunchly atheistic communists (Stalin and Pol Pot), so I think it is legitimate to infer that he was at least implying that Hitler was an atheist. As anyone who has investigated the topic knows, the religious views of Adolf Hitler are a highly complex and controversial subject (I’m getting tired of saying this actually). Hitler made numerous statements on the subject that were often unclear or potentially contradictory. He certainly didn’t approve of mainstream Christianity, but of course that doesn’t make him an atheist. I personally don’t think the evidence supports the notion that Hitler was an atheist – I think he had too much of a sense of destiny and teleology for that view to make sense (though he wasn’t a very deep thinker so he might have just been inconsistent). Either way, I certainly think that casually throwing in Hitler in this way and implying that he was an Atheist is at best intellectually lazy, and at worst intellectually dishonest.

Atheism and Communism

As to the remark that atheists “do not want anyone to draw a comparison between the communist attempts to obliterate religion and the current New Atheist attempts” – is that supposed to come as a surprise? What Lennox is doing here is a dishonest and misleading bait and switch. Communism was atheistic, therefore contemporary atheists (or atheism generally) necessarily have some connection to the deeds of past Communist regimes. If this notion were to be applied consistently, it would mean that Christianity would have some necessary connection with the evils of the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, anti-Semitism across history, and any number of other evils perpetrated in the name of Christianity. Lennox argued that such evils should not be placed at the feet of Christianity because Jesus would have abhorred such things, and “no one who disobeys Jesus is a true Christian”. This is just the No True Scotsman fallacy – every Christian who does evil is not really Christian, but every Atheist who does evil is still a perfectly ‘real’ atheist.

Lennox’s Double Standards

Lennox, rightly, does not want to be associated with those Christians who advocated religious warfare or defended slavery on biblical grounds. Similarly, I do not want to be associated with communist leaders like Stalin and Pol Pot. For starters, I (like I think most atheists) am not a communist, and do not agree with much of their philosophy or politics. Furthermore, even modern-day communists generally deny that Stalin or Pol Pot (etc) were real or true communists. They were not following Marx’s actual teachings, nor would Marx have approved of their actions, so how could they be real Marxists? Sound familiar? Anyone can play this game.

I’m quite happy to agree that Stalin was an atheist. So what? Why would we think that his atheism was responsible for his crimes. He was also a Georgian – maybe that was to blame. Or maybe it was because he attended seminary. Or maybe it was because he had a moustache. Hitler had a moustache too, and modern-day moustache-wearers don’t like to compare Hitler’s and Stalin’s moustaches with their own pro-facial hair positions. To (mis)quote Lennox: it’s very important that we realise where the facial hair bus is going before we get on.

The Impossibility of Naturalistic Ethics

“The problem (with naturalistic ethical theories) is that if you leave god out and elevate any of these systems to the top, you run into serious problems. Well Hitler decided that the maximum benefit to the maximum number of people was to eliminate the Jews, Poles”
“On what principle can we say ‘Hitler you’ve got to obey this’? Why?”
“If there is no external basis for morality external to morality, how can any conception of morality be anything other than the mere opinion?”

Most Atheist Philosophers are Realists

This is another common apologetic argument – without God there can be no objective grounding for morality. Often this is defended by invoking certain quotes from Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and others (in a manner that I think misrepresents their views, but I won’t get into that here). I always find this strategy to be rather dishonest: selectively quote-mine some nihilistic or apparently nihilistic philosophers, whilst ignoring the fact that 59% of philosophers who are atheists are also moral realists (compared to 81% of theists – not actually such a big difference). So prima facie this argument already faces an uphill battle – most philosophers don’t buy it.

But what of Lennox’s specific arguments for this thesis? He didn’t actually offer many. At least in my experience, this is another common apologist tactic: to simply repeatedly assert that there is no objective morality without God, without actually giving any clear argument as to why this is the case.

Hitler was no Utilitarian

First let’s look at the case of Hitler. To begin with I’ll just say that its absurd to speak as if Hitler was a utilitarian in any sense. It is totally disingenuous of Lennox to make this insinuation. But even if Hitler had said that “the maximum benefit to the maximum number of people was to eliminate the Jews”, he would have been wrong. It’s hard to define what is meant by ‘benefit’ here, but however we cash out the concept (suffering, utility, human flourishing, whatever), it seems incontrovertible that the Holocaust did not promote human benefit. How could the Nazis get around this? They could, and in fact did, argue that Jews were sub-human, and therefore not worthy of ethical consideration. But how did they defend this assertion? They used pseudoscientific arguments drawn from bad anthropology and worse social Darwinism. They used misrepresentations of history and manipulation of contemporary social indicators (e.g. the Nazis argued that hardly any Jews fought for Germany in WWI, illustrating their cowardice, but this was just factually incorrect).

So the Nazi justification for oppressing the Jews was based upon bad reasoning and inaccurate information. As such, we can marshal any number of reasons against their contention that ‘the Jews were subhuman’, without invoking God at all. Indeed, God contributes nothing to this analysis. There’s nothing surprising about this. When we think about why the Nazis were wrong, we talk about the horrific harm they did, and the false beliefs they had about race (among other things). God does not figure into the explanation at all. No appeal to a creator is needed to understand that Auschwitz was a horrific crime – the suffering and death of so many sentient beings speaks for itself.

Why be Moral?

But suppose our imaginary utilitarian-Hitler were to really push the gauntlet. Suppose he were to say “I’m not saying the Jews are subhuman in any real biological sense. I’m just saying that I don’t wish to accord them any moral value. My moral framework only accords moral value to Aryans. Thus the Holocaust, by benefitting Aryans, was a morally good action according to my utilitarian framework.” This would be where Lennox would insert his rejoinder: “on what principle can we say ‘Hitler you’ve got to obey this’? Why?” How can the naturalist say that Hitler is wrong about not according moral value to Jews? Well, I think the naturalist can make an argument about that, but it would take rather a long time to explain, because meta-ethics is complicated.

For now, let me just reverse the challenge: what can the theist say to Hitler? According Jews zero moral value is wrong because God says so? Why should Hitler care what God says, even if he did believe that God exists? Who says that God gets to dictate morality? God said that? But that’s circular: Hitler says that he gets to dictate morality. Is it because God is all powerful? That’s just a variant of might makes right. Perhaps Hitler might be persuaded by that sort of argument, but the naturalist likely will not. God gets to dictate morality because God is good? But how can you say ‘God is good’ without antecedently having a concept of what the good actually is? Good with reference to what standard of good – God’s own standard? Hitler too was good by his own standard of good; why is God’s standard superior? Because he is more powerful? Now we are back to might makes right.

These are deep questions, and of course this brief post will by no means exhaust the debate. But hopefully I have illustrated my main point: Lennox has got a lot more work to do if we wishes to show that theistic ethics succeeds where non-theistic ethics fails.

Subjective doesn’t mean ‘Not Real’

Let me address a final comment Lennox made: “If there is no external basis for morality external to morality, how can any conception of morality be anything other than the mere opinion?” I find this to be a strange thing to say. First of all, I don’t think any naturalist would want to say that there was ‘no external basis’ for morality. Surely morality would be based on the interactions and circumstances of people (and perhaps also animals), facts about the external world which are not ‘mere opinion’. But I think perhaps what Lennox means is something like “why would any statement to the effect that we should place value on some external state of affairs be anything other than mere opinion?”

In responding to this, I want to draw attention to the phrase “mere opinion”. I would ask Lennox why he thinks that ‘opinion’ is necessarily ‘mere’ in any sense? Why should the fact that something is solely the product of human evaluative opinion make it any less real or important? Is the beauty of Mozart’s music ‘merely’ human opinion? The fact that money is valuable is certainly the product of ‘mere human opinion’ – there’s no value to money outside of the value we place on it. Similarly with language – there’s no meaning at all to the sound ‘tree’ other than that we humans place on it as a result of our subjective opinion. Would Lennox also ask “if there is no external basis for the value of money, how can any conception of the value of money be anything other than mere opinion”? Of course the value of money is ‘merely opinion’, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value, or that the value of money is somehow less ‘real’.

And to push the analogy further, if a divine being declared that money was valuable by fiat, that wouldn’t actually change anything. People would still only place value on money if in their opinion it had value (this is why governments do not always succeed in having their fiat currencies accepted by the population). Likewise for language: the best attempts of the Académie Française aside, no external being or body can imbue meaning in a word by fiat, unless people themselves also had a subjective sense that this is indeed what the word means. All the world’s governments could declare tomorrow that ‘green’ actually means ‘blue’, but unless people’s subjective opinions on the matter also changed in this way, the governments would simply be wrong – the words would not mean that. Furthermore, people may disagree about the beauty of a Mozart piece, of the value of a particular currency, or the meaning of a word. But such disagreement does not entail the fact that ‘all opinions are equally valid’, or that all such talk is meaningless and without meaning or real purpose.

My point here is not to say that morality is the same as aesthetic value, or monetary value, or linguistic meaning. Obviously there are differences. My point is simply that things can be both ‘mere opinion’ and still also be perfectly real and meaningful. If Lennox wishes to argue that morality is useless or meaningless if it is ‘mere opinion’, then he will need to present a cogent argument to that effect – something he did not do in his presentations.

Conclusion

Though he did say some things that I agreed with, such as calling for more civil dialogue between believers and non-believers and rightly calling out many of the New Atheist thinkers for their sloppy philosophy, overall I was disappointed with Lennox’s presentations. I felt that his arguments were, generally speaking, unstructured, sloppily presented, imprecisely expressed, and inadequately researched. He frequently oversimplified complicated and controversial questions, and seemed far too willing to dismiss the fact that a sizeable majority of experts in the relevant field disagree with his opinion (e.g. in the case of evolution and his views about moral realism and theism). Of course Lennox’s time was limited, so he was unable to go into complete depth on any subject, but he did have over four hours in total at his disposal, and I think he could have done much more than he did in that time. Overall I did not find the case that Lennox presented for Christianity to be very compelling at all, nor do I think it dealt very directly or ably with any of the core philosophical questions at the heart of the dispute. In my view, Christian apologetics deserves better than this.

PolesWikipedia: The Poles are a nation of predominantly West Slavic ethnic origin who are native to East-Central Europe, inhabiting mainly Poland. The present population of Poles living in Poland is estimated at 36,522,000 out of the overall Poland population of 38,512,000. The preamble to the Constitution of the Republic of Poland defines the Polish nation as comprising all the citizens of Poland.

Christian Evangelism – Ministry to the Gullible?

Synopsis

In this piece I present some personal experiences and impressions of how Christians have tended to engage with me over the years. I argue that such engagement is usually fairly superficial, with Christians generally not seeming to be very well informed or having put much thought into their positions, nor are they very willing to seriously discuss difficult ideas. I contrast this lack of engagement with the very strong Christian focus on evangelism, and argue that the two observations can be reconciled by notion that Christians are primarily interested in spreading their message to people who don’t think too much or ask too many questions. Thus I argue that most Christians are not in fact very interested in serious intellectual discussion of their beliefs.

A Personal Anecdote

As some of my readers may know, last week I attended the Melbourne University Christian Union (CU) midyear Summit, which is a five-day long camp featuring sermons, bible readings, discussions, and some social activities. I write this post partly as a response to some of my experiences there, but also drawing more broadly on my numerous past interactions with Christians.

One of the major themes of this Summit was evangelism, or Christian mission, as it is also called. One evening there was a particularly forthright sermon on the subject, by which I mean that it was very frank in exhorting Christians to take their faith generally, and evangelism specifically, very seriously. Some illustrative quotes from this sermon: “Christianity cannot be some kind of hobby or interest that you have – it’s all or nothing”, and “your former way of life is dead, and you are dead to the world…you no longer have to fulfill the expectations of the world”.

Following this sermon I commenced a discussion with a few fellow attendees (Christians) about some of the matters raised that I found perplexing or troubling. This included questions like ‘why is Jesus worth following to this extent?’, ‘is it not a profoundly negative outlook to talk of being ‘dead to the world?”, and various other such things. The sermon had troubled me in a definite, though slightly ineffable way, and I was desirous to discuss this issue further, hoping that the Christians may aid in my own understanding and interpretation of what was said.

I say all this by way of setting the scene for what happened next. As it turned out, there was a musical ‘cafe night’ scheduled to be held shortly after the conclusion of the sermon, and so, within a few short minutes of beginning our discussion, all three of my Christian discussants departed to join the party. Looking around me I found the dining room, which previously had been filled with well over one hundred people, completely deserted. Having no particular desire to participate in the festivities (I don’t think there was any heavy metal in the lineup), I retired to my room. As I walked back to my cabin, it struck me how incongruous it was that, immediately following a sermon which strongly extolled the overwhelming importance of evangelism, the Christians with whom I had been speaking all thought it a better use of their time to attend a musical cafe night, than to engage in meaningful religious discussion with a non-believer.

‘Serious Engagement

I narrate this incident not in order to cast particular aspersions on the persons involved, but merely so as to motivate and illustrative the broader point that I wish to make in this piece. That point is this: in my experience, most Christians most of the time are not very interested in engaging in serious intellectual discussion about their faith. Let me clarify a few points. When I say ‘most Christians’, I don’t mean ‘most random people off the street who call themselves Christians’; what I mean is ‘most Christians who attend CU events, bible readings, talks, or other such events that I go along to’. When I say ‘serious intellectual discussion’, I don’t mean ‘exchanging a few pleasantries, attesting to their own person conviction, and affirming the importance of dialogue’, I mean ‘engaging in serious, thoughtful discussion of their own world view, my own world view, and the many difficult questions which stem therefrom’.

What does such engagement look like? I don’t think it looks like any one specific thing. Different people do it in different ways. Some characteristic properties of such serious, genuine engagement might include: sincere attempts to understand the other person’s viewpoint, asking questions about why the other person believes what they believe, thoughtfully considering one’s answers, asking what sorts of reasons or evidences could hypothetically change their mind, some acknowledgement of uncertainty or the complexity of the issues being considered, attempts to identify common ground and also specific points of disagreement, and importantly (when practical), attempts to followup the discussion later and continue the engagement for as long as both parties find the issue to be important and worth discussing.

My Experiences with Christians

Sometimes my interactions with Christians have looked a lot like this. More often, however, the following (stylised) outcomes are more common:

  • Even immediately following a sermon or bible reading , Christians I speak to will not say anything at all about what was discussed. The conversation will proceed as if we just bumped into each other on the street
  • The Christian will ask why as an atheist I am attending the event, I will tend them I like to discuss matters of faith and understand alternative viewpoints better, and then they express some general approval of that endeavor, but without any apparent interest in actually engaging in such a discussion
  • The Christian will engage in discussion with me for a time, often asking a number of questions, but then before long, either they seem to become uncomfortable or lose interest or something, but for whatever reason they break off the discussion
  • An engaging discussion will commence and continue for some time, but the Christian will not actually thoughtfully consider my views, objections, or doubts. In many such instances it seems that eventually each line of inquiry or discussion is ended by some platitude about faith, or the power of the bible, or God being relational, or an account of their own personal conviction
  • The Christian will engage seriously, but then seem uninterested in continuing the discussion on later occasions after further considering the matter

Let me make a few further points. Again, bear in mind that when I say ‘Christian’ I mean ‘people I meet at these events’, not ‘random professed believer off the street’. In my experience:

  • It is rare to find a Christian who knows (or at least seems to know – I don’t usually ask explicitly) what the word ‘epistemology’ means. That might seem petty, but given what protestations to knowledge they have and their mandate to spread it throughout the world, one would think it at least somewhat important that Christians (at Melbourne University no less) have some idea of what knowledge is and how it can be justified
  • It is rare to find a Christian who has any familiarity with even the most basic issues of New Testament historicity, such as the short ending of Mark, the debate about authorship of the gospels, the discrepancies between (for instance) the birth narratives, etc
  • It is very rare indeed to find any Christian who seems to have even considered the problem of many faiths – that is the question of how they can be so confident of their own religious experiences or revealed texts given the existence of so many conflicting experiences and revelations in other religions
  • Very few Christians seem to know anything more than the most superficial facts about religions like Islam, Mormonism, or Buddhism – other than the fact, of course, that said religions are not true
  • Though many Christians seem to have some notion that morality requires a ‘grounding’ of some sort in God, few seem to have even a basic familiarity even with terms such as ‘metaethics’, ‘moral realism’, ‘divine command theory’, and the euthyphro dilemma

My point here is not to show how much cleverer I am than all those silly Christians. I’m really not very clever at all – just annoyingly curious. My point is exactly as I stated it before: that most Christians most of the time are not very interested in engaging in serious intellectual discussion about their faith. If they were, they would, it seems to me, at least be minimally informed about some of the basic issues I outlined above, and be far more receptive and willing to critically engage than my experiences above seem to indicate.

Ministry to the Gullible?

Some readers may wonder what business I have complaining about Christians not seriously engaging about their faith. Isn’t that their own business? Of course it is, but I find it puzzling given the seemingly high degree of lip service that is paid to the importance of discussing one’s faith with others, with evangelising – as my recent experience at Summit clearly illustrated. I have a theory about this. It is a very cynical theory. I don’t really have much specific evidence for it, other than that it seems to fit the facts as I related them above.

Here is my theory: Christians are interested in talking about their faith, and they are enthusiastic about evangelism, but generally speaking most Christians are only interested in doing so when it does not require them to think very much or very hard. Inviting people to read the bible, praying for them, bearing testimony about Jesus, sharing some of the key teachings of the gospel – these things may be scary at times, but none of them requires much real thought or intellectual effort. I know – I’ve done it. After a few times practice, its really pretty easy to go through the same basic points and invitations and deal with the same common but fairly simple objections or questions. When someone starts really engaging and asking tough, innovative, thoughtful questions you hadn’t considered before – that takes real effort to deal with. Probably better to find someone else who will just believe what we tell them without asking too many questions.

Conclusion

Am I being too cynical? Too harsh? I have listened to numerous Christian conversion stories. Often they are five or ten minutes long. In my experience,very few of them make any reference at all to any sort of reason or evidence or intellectual examination, or anything of the sort. Some people literally say things like ‘I was invited to read the Bible, and as I learned more about Jesus I was just amazed at how much he loved us, and I knew that I wanted to follow him’. Because, they don’t let you print books that aren’t 100% true, right? Because, everything I ‘feel’ about God must be 100% veridical, right?

My thesis here is that these are the sorts of people that Christians want to evangelise to. For the most part, they don’t care to evangelise those who actually think through the matter carefully and desire to engage in continued substantive dialogue. Christians may even acknowledge this – perhaps they will describe such people as ‘prepared’ or ‘receptive’, or say that the ‘spirit was working in them’. Personally I would use words like ‘credulous’, ‘unthinking’, and ‘gullible’. Whatever words one chooses to use, my point is this: most Christians seem to want to evangelise to people who will accept what they say without much challenge. They are not very interested in evangelising those who are really interested in seeking the truth, difficult and complex though such an undertaking can be.

How can Christians be so Certain?: Why Subjective Evidence isn’t Evidence

Synopsis

In this piece I ask the question ‘how can Christians be so confident in their beliefs’? I argue that it cannot be reasons and evidence, because the reasons and evidence available relate to matters that are too uncertain and about which we know so little that they cannot possibly justify the level of confidence that Christians have. I then turn to subjective evidence, and argue that it does not fulfill the crucial criteria of evidence, namely to distinguish true from false beliefs in some reliable way. Thus, I argue that subjective evidence cannot justify confident Christian belief. I then examine the claim that God could grant us a direct, indubitable spiritual witness if he so desired. I argue that even if God could do this, he does not, as we can see from the conflicting claims to possess such a witness from those of different faiths. I therefore conclude that, whilst Christians can adopt belief as a choice, they cannot justifiably claim high degrees of confidence in that belief.

A Motivating Anecdote

Below is a paraphrased and simplified, but accurate in essentials, outline of the final portion of an exchange I once had with a Christian:

Me: “So how do you that Christianity is true?”
Christian: “One compelling reason is all the Old Testament prophecies that Jesus fulfilled”
Me: “But Jews read the same Old Testament and they don’t accept that Jesus fulfilled those prophecies”
Christian: “Yes but that’s because they are blinded by their beliefs. Jesus threatens their preconceptions so they don’t want to believe”
Me: “But what about your preconceptions? How do you know you aren’t biased by your beliefs?”
Christian: “Well just look at all the prophecies in the Old Testament that Jesus fulfilled”
Me: “Yes but Jews don’t agree that Jesus fulfilled those prophecies, so how do you know you are right and they are wrong?”
Christian: “But the Jews are blinded by their beliefs. They don’t want to believe in Jesus so they reject the evidence”
Me: “But how do you know that you are not blinded in a similar way? Maybe your beliefs are causing you to reject evidence”
Christian: “The life of Jesus, the prophecies of the Old Testament that he fulfilled, its very compelling evidence”
Me: “Yes but Jews don’t accept that evidence. They read the same books and come to very different conclusions. How do you know you are right and they are wrong?”
Christian: “I see what you’re trying to do here…” *ends discussion*

Disagreement and Doubt

I am perpetually puzzled by the degree of confidence that (many?/most?) Christians have that their beliefs about Jesus, God, the Bible, etc, are definitely true, or almost certainly true, or very likely true. Where does this confidence and certainly come from? It surely cannot come from the evidence, for the evidence and arguments are highly equivocal. Fine-tuning arguments? We just don’t know enough about such matters. Cosmological arguments? So many disputed concepts and so little evidence either way. Moral arguments? Disputed concepts, many arguments, very little agreement. Historical evidence? Limited in what it could ever prove with high degrees of confidence, subject to many different interpretations of the same evidence, and unable to deal with the issue of comparably attested historical evidence for other religions. I could go on. My point here is not that the arguments for Christianity are all unsound or clearly refutable, but simply that there is a great deal of doubt and uncertainty surrounding all of them.

Christians even say this in discussions with me: “humans are limited and there is so much we don’t know”. I totally agree! But how on Earth can anyone in their wildest dreams think that the fact that “humans are limited, fallible, and feeble in our knowledge”, can possibly constitute a reason to believe in God, or a reason to be more confident in such belief, or a reason to reject reasonable doubts of such a belief? It truly baffles me that anyone can think that.

I don’t care if you call me an agnostic or an atheist (I think they are basically two words for the same thing), here’s what I am saying: we don’t know. And because we don’t know, I don’t believe. For I don’t make a habit of believing things that I don’t know enough about, nor do I think Christians should either – or at least, if they care about truth and believing accurate things, they ought not to believe things they don’t know enough about. The Christian, however, says that we do know, and that the truth is found in Jesus. But where does that confidence and certainty come from? The evidence is sparse, the arguments are equivocal, the experts (insomuch as there are any) are in disagreement, and the track record for people having accurate beliefs about any of these sorts of things is very bad indeed. So where whence the certainty?

Subjective Evidence

I think we all know where it comes from. It comes from what I will call ‘subjective evidence’. This means different things to different people, and is really a diverse category of experiences exhibiting some ‘family resemblance’, rather than any clearly defined or specific class of things. By ‘subjective evidence’ I mean things like: “God answers my prayers”, “I have a relationship with Jesus”, “I feel God’s love”, “God helps me though tough times in life”, “I really feel the power of Jesus in reading the Bible”, “I was healed by the power of the spirit”, and all the many other things of that sort. Christians might prefer to call them “spiritual witnesses” or some such thing. My argument in this piece is that I do not think such subjective evidence is of very much help at all in justifying Christian beliefs, because it is so very, very, very unreliable.

A Very Brief List of Things that People Believe in on the basis of Subjective Evidence

  • Homeopathy
  • Psychokinesis
  • Neopaganism
  • Acupunture
  • The Lunar effect
  • Graphology
  • Vaccination causes autism
  • Islam
  • ESP
  • Hinduism
  • Palmistry
  • Raelism
  • Mormonism
  • Phrenology
  • Laundry balls
  • Baha’i
  • Spiritualism
  • Sikhism
  • Voodoo
  • UFOs
  • Christian Science (Baker Eddy)
  • Crystal healing
  • Scientology
  • Bigfoot
  • Reincarnation
  • Iridology
  • Dowsing
  • Buddhism
  • Pyramid power
  • Astrology
  • Atheism

The Christian Response

The common response to lists of the sort that I provide above is to point to various reasons, arguments, and evidences that Christianity is in fact more rational, more reasonable, and hence superior to these other belief systems. “All miracle claims aren’t equal, you have to look at the details”. “Hindu philosophy just doesn’t make sense”. Etc. That’s all fine. That’s exactly what the Christian should do. But the catch is when I ask my question about where the confidence comes from in the face of all the sorts of uncertainties that I mentioned above. The answer, of course, is that reason and evidence is not enough. You need to have faith as well. You need to build a relationship with God.

So here is the argument as far as I can make it out. Christians can be confident in Jesus because of the subjective evidence (spiritual witness/relationship/etc) they have. They know that this subjective evidence is valid, not mistaken like most subjective evidence is, because of the objective facts, evidences, and arguments that back it up. The reason they can be confident that such reasons, evidence, and arguments actually do lend sufficient support for their beliefs, despite the disagreement and uncertainty surrounding such matters, is because of the subjective evidence that they have. This seems to be little more than a slightly more intricate version of this argument, which (in essence), I have actually heard Christians make: “Jesus is Lord, which I know because Jesus said that Jesus is Lord, which I know because Jesus said that Jesus is Lord, which I know because…”

What Evidence is For

As I see it, evidence, reasons, and arguments serve one purpose and one purpose only: they help us to distinguish (not perfectly, but with some degree of reliability) true from false beliefs. If something does not do that, then it is not a useful or relevant evidence, reason, or argument. Subjective evidence does not help us to distinguish true from false beliefs (at least not when it comes to spiritual/worldview/philosophical type questions, as opposed to “what did I have for breakfast this morning?”), which is clear given the vast number of inconsistent and false beliefs that various people believe on the basis of subjective evidence. Therefore, subjective evidence does not constitute relevant or useful or compelling evidence either for or against Christianity. That is, it does not help us to determine whether it is true or not, and hence Christians cannot justify their confidence on the basis of such evidence. Nor does it help to argue that “it is justified by the combination of objective reasons and evidence and subjective experiences”, because the whole point of my argument is that the objective reasons, evidences, and arguments are too uncertain to do the job, and subjective experiences are too unreliable to add any justification of their own. Thus arguing that ‘together they can do it’ does not address the core criticism of my argument.

But God can do Anything

But couldn’t God give us a firm, indubitable (or at least extremely compelling) spiritual/subjective witness if he wanted to? Why couldn’t he just ‘implant’ some sort of ‘justificatoryness’ in our minds/souls directly, so that all that person need do is introspect, and they would “just know”, with full justification in that belief. After all, he is God right? Well, I think a case can be made that this is actually logically impossible, but I’m not sure that such an argument would ultimately succeed. So let me make a more modest claim: regardless of whether God could do that, he does not. (I think there are good reasons why he doesn’t – e.g. its hard to see what scope would be left for free will or faith if God merely implanted an indubitable belief in our minds/souls).

But how do I know that he doesn’t? Well, let me ask this question: is it possible for a believer (chosen at random from any religion) to determine with confidence whether or not their religion is true, merely by introspecting to determine whether or not God (or whatever they believe in exactly) has granted them a direct spiritual witness of such truth? I say the answer is obviously ‘no’, because we have people from multiple spiritual and religious traditions claiming contradictory spiritual witnesses. Yahweh and Jesus and Allah cannot all have simultaneously granted such indubitable direct spiritual witnesses to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. They are inconsistent. But none of them can tell if they are the one who is right simply by introspecting, because the others do the same and think that they are the ones who are right!

In order to overcome this, the Christian would have to believe that they have a uniquely powerful direct, indubitable spiritual witness of the truth of Christianity, and simultaneously be willing to just dismiss and reject essentially identical claims (even at times based on the same scriptures – e.g. Jews and Mormons) from other equally honest, reasonable, pious believers of other religions. If a Christian is actually willing to do that, is actually willing to reify their own subjectivity over and above all other subjective claims, including even those that come from almost the same religious tradition, and if they think that such a witness is capable of delivering certain or near-certain belief that their faith is true; if a Christian is actually willing to say this, then I think they are not really worshiping Jesus at all – they are worshiping themselves, or as I have described it elsewhere, they “worship their own ego”.

The Value of Subjective Evidence

Christians reading this might get the impression that I am saying their subjective experiences of Jesus, etc, are not real – that they are imaginary, and that they have no value. I’m not saying that. They could be completely real. They could really be from God. My point is that you cannot tell just by looking at the subjective evidence. You need other reasons, evidence, and arguments that allow you to be confident that subjective experiences are veridical. I am also not saying that subjective experiences have no value. If Christianity were true, they would be of immense value in building faith/trust in God, in building a relationship with God, in learning to rely on God, in gaining comfort, etc. What they cannot do, however, is tell you whether or not Christianity is actually true.

Concluding Remarks

I return now to my original question: whence the high degree of confidence that Christians have? I have argued that it cannot justifiably come from the reasons and evidence, for we know too little, and there is too much doubt and uncertainty surrounding such matters. I then argued that it cannot justifiably come from subjective experiences, for they do not serve the crucial task of reasons and evidence – namely to distinguish between truth and falsity. Subjective experiences are just too unreliable to do that. I therefore conclude that Christians cannot justifiably sustain their confident belief in the truth of Christianity. At most they can justify a claim of the sort “I don’t really know that its true, but I think it might be, so I’m choosing to live my life as if it is”. But I think most Christians want more than that. They want to know. They want to be confident. And they want to say things like “James, you ought to accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour”. To that, I say simply: show me something that allows me to be reasonably confident that accepting Jesus would not be a mistake based on a false belief. Evidence, reasons, and arguments would do the trick. Show me something like that which can avoid the problems of uncertainty and lack of knowledge that I discussed above. If it exists, I want to know.