This post is my final offering in an exchange with James A. Lindsay Ph.D. His responses to me can be found on his blog here.
I realize that a number of things I wrote are easily described as bizarre by atheist readers. Akin to a question like, “Which taste better, adjectives or seven?” It simply makes no sense. I think most of the discrepancies between our understandings of one another could be quickly cleared up over cold beers or deep cups of coffee. Since that is not an option available to us, I will settle for this exchange.
The dilemma I posed was not intended to be a slick trick or word games. Rather, I wanted to be focused and clear.
- Either objective morality is real or it isn’t.
- If we affirm objective morality, either the truths we hold most fundamental can make sense of that assertion or they can’t.
- The necessary implications of atheism either can or they cannot make sense of objective moral truth claims.
You and I disagree both on the necessary implications of atheism and whether or not objective morality can be sufficiently grounded in a godless universe. While you reject how or that I define the necessary implications of atheism, certainly you believe there are implications. If there are no implications then atheism would be an inconsequential idea. That would have to be a demeaning label after reading how you eloquently argued for your position.
I remain unmoved by Dan Barker’s and your responses to my 3 necessary implications. I can’t help but wonder if they were misread or misinterpreted.
1. If there is no god then the universe is only material or natural. If there is a supernatural reality of any kind, how could any expression of atheism continue to be affirmed? I will take you and Dan Barker at your word when either assert,
“We atheists are open to new knowledge, and would be astonished to learn that there is ‘something more’ out there.”
Being open to new information does nothing change this necessary implication of the assertion the truth claim, “God does not exist.” True, there are many nuanced expressions of atheism. It is not my intention to lump all into one pot. Rather, I’m concerned with the implications of there being no god.
You are right to assert that abstract thought is a serious problem for naturalists. And I don’t pretend that all atheists are naturalist, though I do believe naturalism is the only reasonable choice if no god exists. My personal opinion is that trying to avoid this dilemma explains why Sam Harris and others affirm determinism and reject free will. Perhaps the most troubling reality for naturalists is the reality of the laws of logic. But that’s a discussion for another time.
2. The universe is scientific. You may have me on this one. I’ve been repeatedly accused of writing at a level that is higher than the average person reads. In an attempt to be accessible, I may have been inaccurate. The issue here is the word I chose, not the idea. The intent is to communicate that universe is knowable and yes, governed by the laws of physics. I completely agree with you when you write,
“Natural laws, like the laws of physics, are descriptive, not proscriptive. That is, natural laws do not govern how nature operates. Instead, they provide us with a method of describing the operation of nature. Those descriptions, the “laws of physics,” are abstract entities that exist in our minds; they are tools by which we try to understand the world we live in.”
A great question is why nature operates the way it does. But like the laws of logic, that is a discussion for another time. We operate as though the way nature operates is fixed. We believe it has always operated this way and will continue to do so, even if we can’t explain why.
“Altogether, there are fifteen physical constants whose values current theory is unable to predict. They are givens: they simply have the value that they have. This list includes the speed of light, the strength of the weak and strong nuclear forces, various parameters associated with electromagnetism, and the forces of gravity. The chance that all of these constants would take on the values necessary to result in a stable universe capable of sustaining complex life forms is almost infinitesimal. And yet, those are the parameters that we observe.” – Francis Collins (The Language of God)
If we open the door to the possibility that all of this could change, we open the door to the possibility that we don’t really know what we think we know. Or, if we are open to the idea that natural explanations could be inadequate to explain the universe we have left the door open to the supernatural. Again, the furthest this would allow us to remove ourselves from theism is agnosticism.
3. The universe is impersonal. Both you and Dan Barker have misread this point. The assertion was clear, though muddied in your responses. The universe does not have a consciousness or will and it is not guided by a consciousness or will. That does nothing to refute that there are conscious, volitional species in the universe. You may have missed the point, but not the blow this levies against atheism if denied.
Allow me to be clear, again. Any atheist is free to ignore or reject these implications.
I won’t spend much time referring to the rest of Dan Barker’s attempt at defending meaning. Though he may find it loathsome, I believe he has conceded the point of my article. There is no objective meaning so people create their own meaning in life. That is by definition subjective and possibly an illusion. Further, this view lacks any moral imperative for one to honor another’s sense of meaning. The gate is left open for the most horrific worldviews to run rampant.
It’s at this point that I fear we both retreat to our respective corners. Our own views make the most sense to us. You have a robust and thoroughly integrated view of Harris’ Moral Landscape. I hope that I can count you a friend and not an enemy in our shared insistence of objective moral value.
There are many areas in which we continue to miss one another. I’ll only address two of them. I don’t expect our differences to be remedied in this exchange. You countered with a number of caveats to rebuff the “horrors in the reaches of my imagination.” That was a clever line that I’m sure made it easy for your readers to dismiss me. I live in the real world. It is grotesque.
While your caveats appear to counter what I submitted as defeaters, they do not adequately account for possible actions or possible worlds in which your caveats would be accounted for. (Man, I just used the word caveat a lot.) I’ll leave it at that because I’m not interested in arguing for the moral neutrality of such actions.
Here is the biggest point of difference. It is a contention that has been continually side stepped by Sam Harris and you. In Harris’ own words, avoiding the worst possible suffering has to be assumed. I agree with him that it should be. Where I don’t agree with him or with you is that doing so is an objectively true moral imperative derived at by observation. Various definitions of “faith” not withstanding, Harris is asking us to take it as a given. This moral imperative simply is, even though we can’t observe it or find evidence for it. I expect that you will find this confounding. In all seriousness, the moral imperatives he asserts are non sequiturs. One could assume his same starting point and reasonably argue for nihilism. Another point I’m sure you will dismiss.
Finally, I have read Dan Barker and many others affirm repeatedly that the Bible endorses slavery the raping of women. That is utter nonsense. Giving an account of horrific acts is not the same as giving an endorsement of horrific acts. Yes, God did command acts of violence against people who transgressed his holiness. This will make absolutely no sense if the idea of a holy God is nonsense to you.
If there is a holy God who created, and that God gave commands that emanated from his character and agents rebelled against that God—how could he be immoral for holding his creation accountable for transgressing his holy commands?
I have no doubts that this will evoke all kinds of responses from you and your readers. I hope you can trust that it was my intention to rile people up, but not to insult you or any others. I believe that atheism, like Christianity is a serious response to serious questions. I believe that you are a serious minded person who has meaningful questions that deserve thoughtful, serious responses.
I will end our exchange here. If ever you find yourself in the Salt Lake City area, I’d love to buy you a beer. I’m always open to new friends, even if our deeply held ideas are contentious. Should you choose to write a response, I will leave the last word to you.