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I was an Atheist Until I Read “The Lord of the Rings”

lotr

I grew up in a loving, comfortable atheist household of professional scientists. My dad was a lapsed Catholic, and my mom was a lapsed Lutheran. From the time that I could think rationally on the subject, I did not believe in God. God was an imaginary being for which there was no proof. At best, God was a fantasy for half-witted people to compensate their ignorance and make themselves feel better about their own mortality. At worst, God was a perverse delusion responsible for most of the atrocities committed by the human race.

What broke the ice? What made me consider God’s existence a real possibility? The Lord of the Rings. I was a young teenager when I first read the Tolkien tomes, and it immediately captivated me. The fantasy world of Middle-Earth oozes life and profundity. The cultures of the various peoples are organic, rooted in tradition while maintaining a fresh, living energy. Mountains and forests have personalities, and the relationship between people and earth is marked by stewardship and intimacy. Creation knowing creation. Tolkien describes these things with beautiful prose that reads like its half poetry and half medieval history. Everything seems “deep” in The Lord of the Rings. The combination of character archetypes and assertive “lifeness” in the novel touches on an element of fundamental humanity. Every Lord of the Rings fan knows exactly what I’m talking about.

In my narrow confines of scientism, I had no way of processing what made Tolkien’s masterpiece so profound. How could a made-up fantasy world reveal anything about the “truth”? But I knew it did, and this changed my way of thinking. Are good and evil merely social constructions, or are they real on a deeper level? Why am I relating to ridiculous things like talking trees and corrupted wraiths? Why was I so captivated by this story that made fighting evil against all odds so profound? Why did it instill in me a longing for an adventure of the arduous good? And how does the story make sacrifice so appealing? The Lord of the Rings showed me a world where things seemed more “real” than the world I lived in. Not in a literal way, obviously; in a metaphorical, beyond-the-surface way. The beautiful struggle and self-sacrificial glory permeating The Lord of the Rings struck a chord in my soul and filled me with longing that I couldn’t easily dismiss.

My attempts to explain these problems in my naturalistic, atheistic worldview fell flat. The idea that being, beauty, and morality were merely productive illusions imposed on us through biological hardwiring crafted through the random process of natural selection rang hollow. If things so fundamental to human existence as meaning and morality are nothing more than productive illusions, what else is untrustworthy? Our five senses? Logical process? Our whole minds? If our being is nothing more than a collection of atoms reacting with each other in enormous complexity through cause and effect chains stretching back to the beginning, then we are floating blindly through space and time: there’s no rhyme, reason, or purpose. And, if that’s the case, then so much of what we consider essentially human is tragic a joke. After all, the human race, the earth, and the universe will go extinct. With a long enough timeline, what’s the point? Even the idea of accomplishing something is finally an illusion. At this juncture, the fruits of atheism were inevitable: nihilism, despair, and, most ironically, confusion.

Though seriously questioning atheism, I still had many objections. If God were real, why isn’t there more evidence for his existence? If God were real, why are there so many religions? Wouldn’t God want to clearly direct humanity to the source of truth? My doubts about atheism, however, continued to haunt me. If the supernatural does not exist, how can there be genuine moral obligations? The classic atheist response is that evolution has created a sophisticated herd instinct in the human race that causes us to want to be good to each other. Those people who lacked a moral compass were simply outcompeted by those of us with a sense of morality – those who could work together for our collective benefit.

Deep down, though, I knew this was specious. Even if it could fully account for our moral sense, which I questioned, it did not explain genuine moral obligations. Supposing the classic evolutionary theory of morality is true, it only explains why we perceive moral obligations; not whether (or why) there are moral obligations. Instead of explaining morality, it explains it away. The thorough-going immoralist could always object on the basis that he has been freed from the restrictive, outdated biological hardwiring of merely perceived moral obligations. My atheist friends and family would inevitably respond with something like, “Well, the immoralist’s position has never been fully successful, while there is historical evidence that generally being a ‘good person’ leads to a better ability to succeed, pass on ‘good person’ genes, etc.” Only sort of true. Much of history teaches that violence, greed, and domination pay off handsomely in the worldly sense.

But, the responses miss the point. Just because being a thorough-going immoralist hasn’t seemed to work to date doesn’t mean it wouldn’t later. After all, the hallmark of natural selection is random genetic change granting certain creatures a better ability to survive in a given environment. In the end, all the atheist can say to the immoralist is, “I disagree that your course of action will help the human race succeed.” That kind of statement, which is merely an opinion, is simply not what we mean when we say an action is immoral. Furthermore, who pronounced from on high that the success of the human race was the ultimate good? That itself is an assumption that cannot be empirically proven. Going back to the original problem, does “good” even exist? I realized that within the purely naturalistic worldview, all morality is finally a matter of opinion. All the moralist can say to the immoralist is, “My opinion is different than yours.” No more productive than arguing whether red is better than blue. I should clarify here that I never doubted the theory of human evolution. Nothing about it contradicts God’s order of creation. I’m also not saying that atheists are immoral. They just can’t account for the existence of genuine moral obligations. They are, like I was, living in great tension.

At some point the tension was too much: either morality is a farce, everything is random with no meaning, and the human mind is mired in inescapable confusion or atheism is false. I chose the latter. That was the logical side. On the emotional side, so many joys in this world have nothing to do with self-preservation or successful reproduction: art, music, a beautiful sunset, etc. I think deep down we all recognize that those kinds of aesthetic experiences may be the most joyful in this life, and these joys serve no productive purpose. The richness of life, which is on full poetic display in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, made me recognize that supposedly rational atheism did not reveal the truth of things; instead, it removed their intrinsic wonder and worth.

Having abandoned atheism, I still faced several objections to organized religion that are beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that my critique of atheism gave me a natural monotheistic theology while The Lord of the Rings predisposed me to a sacramental spirituality. For now, however, let us remember the evangelistic power of beauty and narrative. Much like The Lord of the Rings, they are effective precisely because God is hidden and able to fly below the atheist radar that balks at anything overtly religious. In Middle Earth, the effects of a God-created universe are everywhere, but the source, God Himself, is hidden. No, it’s not that we believers understand The Lord of the Rings on some special level that the atheist does not. Just the opposite. The atheist who truly understands The Lord of the Rings is more of a believer than he thinks.

Fredric Heidemann

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Fredric lives with his wife and their daughter in the Lansing, Michigan area, where he also works as an attorney. Born and raised in an atheist family, Fredric dismissed religion until his late teenage years when he abandoned atheism. He entered the Catholic Church in 2006 during his freshman year of college and loves sharing his story.

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  • Kevin Aldrich

    The headline is true for me as well.

    This does not imply any criticism of atheism, because my rejection of the Catholicism in which was raised was that of a very stupid sixteen-year old who mostly wanted to be able to justify doing whatever he wanted to do.

    • MNb

      Yeah, that was pretty stupid. As a sixteen-year old unbeliever (not an atheist yet) I already realized it was better not always to do whatever I wanted to do.

    • Alexandra

      Kevin! So nice to hear from you again. I imagine God already knew you needed to be that rebellious 16 year-old to become the good man you are today. May you and your family have a Merry Christmas.

  • “My opinion is different than yours.” No more productive than arguing whether red is better than blue"

    And what's your superior alternative? Something like "My god says your opinion is wrong"? What does that add? Depending on the issue, the Muslim, Buddhist and naturalist may still disagree with you, then what?

    so many joys in this world have nothing to do with self-preservation or successful reproduction

    Natural selection is descriptive, not prescriptive, so enjoy away.

    • ClayJames

      And what's your superior alternative? Something like "My god says your opinion is wrong"? What does that add? Depending on the issue, the Muslim, Buddhist and naturalist may still disagree with you, then what?

      It seems that the superior alternative would be to believe things that are actually objectively true. This is of course an impossibility when it comes to morality given naturalism.

      However, a better alternative given naturalism, is to stop treating morality like it is anything more than a subjective belief that is a byproduct of evolution. Sexual desire helps us reproduce but we are also aware enough to be able to disregard it and not act on it whenever we feel this desire. The moral belief that we should not steal helps us live in harmony with our neighbors but it makes no sense that, unlike sexual desire, we should never disregard it when it is in our self interest. Just like Frederic, I have always found the naturalist treatment of morality somewhat un-naturalistic.

    • FH: “My opinion is different than yours.” No more productive than arguing whether red is better than blue

      JSM: And what's your superior alternative?

      I'm not Fredric, but how about: letting others carve their sins into your flesh? That's what Jesus did and he said that those who wish to follow him ought to deny themselves and take up their crosses. Paul speaks of "filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions". Nonviolent protest seems based on this principle. Instead of imposing yourself on others, you let them impose themselves on you while denying them the standard legitimization that at the core it's just power v. power.

  • Steven Dillon

    Fredric: I love how natural it was for you to pursue these questions philosophically: that's human nature in action.

    Couple thoughts. First, one way of spelling out your argument from purpose using classical metaphysics could be as follows:

    1. If there is no God, there is no final end for ends to be essentially ordered to.
    2. If there is no final end for ends to be essentially ordered to, then there are no ends.
    3. If there are no ends, there's no point to anything, not even life.
    4. Therefore, if there is no God, there's no point to anything, not even life. [(1)-(3) H.S.]

    Second, as a polytheist, I'd love to discuss this remark with you a little more in depth: "Suffice it to say that my critique of atheism gave me a natural monotheistic theology..." One consequence of the classical polytheism advocated by Neoplatonists like Proclus is that theism just is polytheism, so that "monotheism", strictly speaking, concerns something less than what is divine, and thus would not follow from a critique of "atheism."

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Paul Brandon Rimmer

      I am curious about the statement from your last full paragraph, about how theism just is polytheism. It would seem naively to me that there's theism, the belief that there exists a God, or in other words, that the number of Gods is an integer, n, and n > 0. Isn't monotheism just theism where n = 1? And polytheism is theism where n > 1? I suppose a probabilistic argument could be made that, if you have generic evidence for theism, then that should be distributed over all the values of n > 0, so it's exceedingly unlikely that n = 1 (or any other specific value) without further evidence. That being said, critiques of atheism (the lack of belief that n > 0) would seem to favour belief in theism; they'd increase the odds that n > 0, and therefore the odds that n = 1. Is this wrong?

      • Steven Dillon

        Hey Paul, that schema starts with a different concept of "Godhood" than classical polytheism does, and thus allows for things that aren't allowed for under classical polytheism. I'm gonna summarize a lot here, so let me know if this makes sense:

        In classical polytheism, the foundational concept through which philosophical analysis proceeds is not "being" -- as it becomes with the Scholastics -- but "oneness." 'Oneness' or 'unity', it could be argued, is more fundamental than 'being' because it is common to both being and non-being, and thus more general or abstract than either of them: "non-being" couldn't even be spoken of unless we understood what it meant to not be, and thus what the unity or identity of non-existence is.

        Under this schema, a distinction is drawn between units on the one hand, and unities on the other. A unit (or "henad" as the Platonists call them) is irreducibly individual, so that it has nothing in common with anything. A unity, by contrast, is a combination of individual elements with common elements. The element that is common to a group, manifold or class is called a "monad": it is an external principle of unity; imposing an intelligibility on to something.

        Classical polytheists describe "Godhood" at least in part through the concept of 'henadicity': to be a God is to be henadic; it is to be a unit. On this understanding, "Godhood" is not a monad which an individual has either exclusively or in common with others. And it is here that monotheism turns out to be a confusion on this model: when it says there is only one God, it treats "Godhood" monadically, or as something that only one individual has. In doing so, monotheism ceases to talk about what is truly divine or henadic. But, one might protest, can't monotheists just do what classical polytheists do and not treat "Godhood" monadically, but instead as referring to a unit in its perfectly peculiar individuality? The answer is that of course they could! But, then their claim that there is only one God is a claim that would be trivially true of all the Gods, and would not contradict polytheism.

        So, at the end of the day, classical polytheists do not regard "monotheism" as an alternative to polytheism, or as a denial of atheism: theism, in other words, just is polytheism.

        • Paul Brandon Rimmer

          Couldn't this be simplified by just getting rid of both "mono" and "poly" (most people would seem to think that "polytheism" really is referring to more than one God, like some enumerable amount of gods, so the classical version might mislead...? I don't know)

          You could just have theism with a simple God, such that no property we have applies univocally to God. That would include numbers. It would be false to say that God is one in the same way that the number of U.S. presidents named Obama is one. It would also be false to say that God is many in the same way that the number of pieces on a chessboard at the start of a game is many. "Many" and "one" would only apply to God, if at all, by analogy. In which case, theism isn't just polythism or just monotheism. People could debate about which analogies are best. And classical (mono)theists might say that God being one by analogy makes the most sense in that Godhood is a property that we and other beings do have, insofar as we partake in divinity, but God does not have Godhood in the way that we have Godhood.

          For myself, I wouldn't mind abandoning all these distinctions, just to say that there is one God and that we are all in God, and end it there. But if we are to distinguish God from nature in any way, it seems as though there wouldn't be one unique way to do so, at least not one unique way that just is polytheism. Am I understanding you at all, do you think? Or am I still missing the mark?

          • Steven Dillon

            In the proposition "that what is divine transcends quantification", what does "the divine" refer to? If it's a monad, like a nature or essence, then the proposition isn't about henads or Gods, because henads are utterly individual and can have no monad -- or external principle of unity/identity. If it's a henad, then all it says is [YHWH, Odin or Poseidon, etc.] transcend quantification, which is compatible with YHWH, Odin or Poseidon existing as non-identical individuals; their individuality just wouldn't be mediated by the monad of quantification.

            The problem classical polytheists raise for monotheists is that the only substantive negation of polytheism is atheism (which they regard as a confusion like monotheism, but for different reasons): to say there is only one God fails to contradict polytheism either because it treats "God" like a monad and thus of an individual that is not divine, or because it treats "God" like a henad, and says little more than that there is only one [YHWH, Odin or Poseidon, etc.].

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            If henads are utterly and univocally individual, then they have the property of "being individual" and so are not simple. So a classical theist would look at these and say "those aren't god". Now, maybe belief in the existence of henads then would reduce to atheism, under a classical theist's eye. The henads exist, none are God, henads are the only possible God candidates, therefore there is no God.

            And why would you have to listen to that classical theist anyway? I'm not sure the classical theist makes any sense as it is.

            Finally, to make sure I understand where you're coming from, since I deny any fundamental individuality (at bottom, everything is in God or Nature), would that make me the only genuine sort of monotheist, a polytheist of One, who thinks there's no such fundamental substances as Odin, Poseidon, YHWH, just one infinite substance worthy of the name God under your view? Or would that make me an atheist, under your view? It will help me understand your position to figure out where I'd fit into it.

          • Steven Dillon

            Ah, but it's a contradiction for what is utterly individual to have properties. Henads are, as the Scholastics would later say, "divinely simple."

            You certainly don't have to listen to classical polytheists, but I think their arguments deserve at least as much consideration as those from atheists or monotheists.

            I think your view would be classified as atheistic because an infinite substance is a unity of parts whereas a God is a unit.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            The last statement you make:

            I think your view would be classified as atheistic because an infinite substance is a unity of parts whereas a God is a unit.

            would be a mischaracterisation at least of Spinoza's position and maybe mine (I'm not sophisticated enough to constantly think in terms of parts versus properties versus propria).

            A part would be something that could be conceived of separate from the whole, and so for Spinoza, God has no parts, since fundamentally nothing can be conceived of separate from God, for if it were conceived of separate from God, it would be without a cause, and this would violate one of Spinoza's axioms (I ax. 4). This is actually quite beautifully laid out in Yitzhak Melamed's "Spinoza's Metaphysics: Substance and Thought". He devotes two chapters to Spinoza's conception of God without parts (Chapters 1 and 4). God instead has propria, defined by Melamed as qualities that follow from the essence of the singular substance (i.e. given that there is a singular substance and nothing else, whatever qualities would follow from the essence of that substance are its propria).

            Taking this into account, I would say that God would be without parts, but not without propria. Indeed, God has the propria of being me and the propria of typing this exact comment right here and now.

            But as you would have it, henads are divinely simple, and so (presumably) would not have even propria. Nothing follows from their essences. Since I believe that there is one substance and that the one substance has propria, I believe that Gods, substances without propria, do not exist. Therefore I am an atheist.

            Or maybe even more directly, I can argue:
            (1) Henads have nothing in common.
            (2) All things are in one substance.
            (3) All things share in common that they are in one substance. (from 2)
            (4) All things share something in common. (from 3)
            (5) There does not exist something that has nothing in common. (from 4)
            (6) Henads don't exist. (from 1, 5)

            Is that accurate? Do you think I understand you better now?

            Thanks for taking the time to help me sort this.

          • Steven Dillon

            I don't know much about Spinoza, really need to remedy that! But, spot on, henads wouldn't have propria.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            Excellent! I learned something about your worldview! Thank you. Classical/Neoplatonic polytheism is quite an interesting system of thought, and I should read more about it. Any suggestions?

            For Spinoza, I recommend Michael Della Rocca's book "Spinoza". And, of course, the best way to learn about Spinoza is to read Spinoza. The appendix to Ethics Part 1, and the preface to Ethics Part 3 give a good flavour.

          • Steven Dillon

            Thanks for the suggestion, I'll definitely give it a read! As far as recommendations for classical polytheism, Proclus' Elements of Theology is the go to primary text, but I've found Edward Butler's exposition of henadology indispensable. You can find lots of his works for free on his site under the philosophy tab at henadology.wordpress.com, including his dissertation on the subject. But, I'd especially recommend his papers Polytheism and Individuality in the Henadic Manifold, and The Gods and Being in Proclus.

        • SJH

          I stumbled upon this old thread and it piqued my interest. It is way above my head but it sounds like you are describing the Trinity, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Each being eternally in union but eternally individual. Is it of your opinion that the Christian concept of God is polytheistic?

          • Steven Dillon

            Hello SJH, it seems to me that the Christian idea of God is committed to monotheism. So, while I think we can only make sense of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as Gods, Christianity could never allow for this -- at least without fundamentally changing.

          • SJH

            Please explain the difference in your description of the gods and the Christian description of God. It seemed to me that you were explaining multiple god's as being one in union though eternally separate which sounds to me like the Christian God. From my reading of your explanation, I gather that you are monotheistic because the gods are one but expressed in separate persons. Is there a subtle distinction that I am not understanding? The main difference that I can see is that the Christian god is only expressed in three persons rather than many.

          • Steven Dillon

            Gods are absolutely unique or individual, so they have no what in common (e.g. no properties, relations or nature, etc.), but the persons of the Trinity would have a "what" in common; namely, a divine nature. For Christians, "God" is what the persons of the Trinity are. In this respect, polytheists do not consider Christians to have transcended ontology into theology proper, so that, while YHWH may be a God, they are unwittingly treating him like a being (or as "ontological") rather than as one who precedes being.

          • SJH

            I am no theologian but I don't think this is the case. Christians would say that God just is. Are you saying that your gods somehow exist in a state prior to being? If they aren't being then what are they?

          • Steven Dillon

            The very question of “what” the Gods are involves ontology. Beings are “whats”, but Gods are “whos.” Because the Gods give rise to and ground being, they are not any sort of “what.” In order to transcend ontology, and speak about Gods we must speak of them only as who he or she is.

          • SJH

            Would it be better to describe the Christian god as "is" as opposed to what or who? YHWH simply is "I Am". Not a what or a who but just is.

          • Steven Dillon

            Equating YHWH with "is" will reduce to understanding YHWH as either "who" or "what": to say, for example, that Poseidon "is not" will either mean little more than that Poseidon is not YHWH, in which case "is" has been reduced to "who", or it will mean that Poseidon lacks being, in which case "is" has been reduced to "what."

          • SJH

            I may be wrong but I think I disagree with your assertion:
            "Equating YHWH with 'is' will reduce to understanding YHWH as either 'who' or 'what' "
            If YHWH just is, then there is no who or what. Who or what implies a relationship does it not? YHWH just is. We are defined by our relationships but God is not. If you eliminate all other relationships and all other beings then he still exists on his own. We use "what" and "who" to define God because we have to but it is not so for God.

          • Steven Dillon

            I guess I'm not sure what it means to say that YHWH just is if it is not to say who or what YHWH is. I mean, I'm inclined to say it is true of each God that he or she just is, such that the phrase "just is" means something different depending on the Deity.

          • SJH

            This is where I get confused with even the Catholic vision of the Trinity. If there are multiple gods and they are in relationship to each other then there is a who and a what. If they would speak to each other then they would define themselves relative to each other and as a what (god). If there is one God then he is it and there is nothing else. There is no other. Now this is where the Trinity gets complicated for me and why I felt you were describing a sort of trinity in your description of unity among gods. It seemed to me that you were describing one god represented in multiple persons all in union with one another but all individual persons.

          • Steven Dillon

            This does become complicated. If you're interested in reading a brief, accessible primer on what I'm talking about (it's called "polycentricity"), you can't do better than this: https://henadology.files.wordpress.com/2016/11/wp32-butler-pp3538-version-2.pdf

      • Steven Dillon

        In other words, in the proposition "There is only one God", the term "God" is either used monadically or henadically. If it is used monadically, the proposition is not theistic. If it is used henadically, it says nothing of substantive disagreement with polytheism. It'd be like saying "There's only one [YHWH, Odin, or Poseidon]".

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          Interesting stuff Steven. I always like your comments.

          So, a standard trinitarian thing to say is that the Creator God is both (henadically, I guess) beyond the created world and yet also active within it, sharing (monadically, I think) his "beingness" with creation so that creation can "be", and perhaps also sharing his creativeness with creation, so that creation itself can create. Do you regard that as trying to have one's cake and eat it too?

          Another way of asking my question might be: do you think it is reasonable to believe that the monadic / henadic conceptual distinction breaks down at the deepest levels of reality?

          • Steven Dillon

            Hey Jim, thanks for the question. Classical polytheists affirm that the Gods are both beyond being (hyperousios) and active within it, but regard each henad as unparticipable or incommunicable. So, while divine causation is an impartation of self, we would not be said to literally participate in a God so much as resemble that God. The Gods are seen to cause both what gets participated in (the Forms, you might say) and what participates in them (substances).

    • Tim Dacey

      Hey fellows,

      Been awhile since I've been here, but this topic captured my interest. Steven, what do you think of the following revision to your argument 1-4 above?

      1*. If God is the final (or essential) end for all ends, then our lives should be ordered towards God.
      2*. However, there are no real or essential ends.
      3*. Therefore, (by modus tollens), there is no God

      Though 1* is ambiguous (i.e., what does it mean to live a life ordered towards God?), it seems all theists would necessarily have to agree with it so, disagreement aside of how living a life ordered towards God exists is vital for purposes here. 2* is going to need some evidence; I'll suggest naturalism (more in just a sec). The conclusion follows logically, and I would suggest is 'safer'. I don't think individuals who subscribe to 2* (i.e., error theorists, naturalists, anti-realists) would be inclined to agree with your conclusion that "there's no point to anything, not even life"

      Next, I have a more general concern with the article that I'd be interested in everyone's thoughts on. Consider Frederic's statement: "My attempts to explain these problems in my naturalistic, atheistic worldview fell flat. The idea that being, beauty, and morality were merely productive illusions imposed on us through biological hardwiring crafted through the random process of natural selection rang hollow. If things so fundamental to human existence as meaning and morality are nothing more than productive illusions, what else is untrustworthy?"

      This coincides with premise 2* above, and I think the naturalist has some very powerful responses. First off, the naturalist might say that we have very good reason to believe that natural selection would be sensitive to the truth of at least some of our beliefs. The issue would be to make some kind of inference like 'adaptability' towards 'truth' (see Paul Griffiths' "When do evolutionary explanations debunk belief?" for example).

      The naturalists (pace Griffiths, Richard Joyce, Michael Ruse, Sharon Street--keeping in mind they all have significant internal disagreements) might say that morality and beauty do exist, but *not* in the way they are commonly described to; that is, morality may be adaptive, but the truth of moral claims are not. At least, not in the way 2 - 1 = 1 would be; that is, if a early hominin thought 2 -1 = 0 while being chased by predators, then he'd soon discover that he was wrong. So there is good reason to speculate that some beliefs are true (or aimed at truth) precisely because if they weren't, then they would detrimental to survival.

      That there are no objective moral facts or values that exist in the metaphysical sense they are often portrayed in is a result of natural selection not being sensitive to whether or not moral facts and values are true. Or, at least, that is how their argument generally goes. So these folks could say that 'I love you' or 'murder is wrong' but still insist that we don't get ourselves caught up in metaphysical tomfoolery (something I can sympathize with). To conclude, I don't buy their argument, though I think it should be dealt with to some degree given arguments such as Frederic's.

      • Steven Dillon

        Hey Tim, as stated your argument looks like this:

        1. If p, then q
        2. But, not r
        3. Therefore, not s

        Modus tollens is all about denying a proposition 'p' because it implies something that isn't true -- call it 'q'. So, we'll want the argument to look like this:

        1. If p, then q
        2. But, not q
        3. Therefore, not p

        Now, if your conclusion is that there is no God; then, plugging this into our formula above, we get "not p" = "there is no God", meaning that "p" = "there is a God."

        So far, we've got:

        1. If there is a God, then q
        2. But, not q
        3. Therefore, there is no God.

        So, what shall q be? In other words, what does a God's existence falsely imply? That there are such things as "ends"? That ends are "essentially ordered"? That essentially ordered ends presuppose a "final end"? It's unclear to me from what you've said, but that's the direction we'd need to pursue to flesh out this modus tollens for atheism.

  • bdlaacmm

    Beautiful article! Although I myself was never at any time an atheist, I did experience the full-blown evangelical atheistic onslaught in my college years. (Don't we all?) A good deal of the credit for my successful rejection of such efforts has to be laid at the feet of Tolkien's best friend C.S. Lewis - especially his three science fiction novels, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. For reasons very similar to Fredrick's, I saw in those stories the basis for a reality that was both larger and deeper than that perceivable to our senses or our instruments. They gave me a valuable perspective (and they still do).

  • Doug Shaver

    Some atheists say they believed in God until they read the Bible. I don't consider that a good argument for atheism.

  • LOTR is fiction and lay in a long line of works that divide people into good or bad, black and white, without acknowledging much grey at all, and that idolize war, calling it "adventure." Apparently complex peace-making skills, and engaging in complex analysis of world politics is not so much an adventure as drudgery. So give us sword, give us sorcery, and give us tons of end times prophecies that easily separate those with the mark of the beast from "true believers."

    Real world questions involve more grey, and real world books about battle and wars do not idolize warfare so much.

    Let me list some examples of the complexities of the real world:

    1) During the Thirty Years War in Europe right up to the American Revolution you had Christians fighting and killing Christians. Britain was definitely a Christian nation.

    2) Prior to the American Civil War there was a large increase in church attendance along with the development of Sunday schools and introduction of religious tracts, and ministers were among those crying loudest for secession (and defending slavery the loudest in the South, nor did any major denominations in the North condemn slavery as a sin). And in fact the South's three largest Christian denominations split from their northern brethren just prior to the Civil War.

    3) Germany in Hitler's day was filled with Christians, mostly Lutherans and Catholics, and Hitler himself won a democratic election after winning more votes in the heartland, the countryside--the more religious people voted him into office, while his vote totals in the cities were equal with other candidates. The vast majority of Christians did not oppose Hitler but embraced him and all his promises to make Germany great again, and drive out atheistic communist and Jewish bankers. Even Christians who doubted Hitler in the beginning were won over after his seemingly miraculous victories in war, sweeping through Poland all the way to France, and making Germany itself rich in the process, quite a reversal from the depression-riddled Germany when Hitler was first elected. This seemed like a divine miracle to many. Some Churchmen did not love Hitler but didn't hate or oppose him either, they just wanted their church administration to remain independent of interference from the state.

    So real history is not LOTR fiction, it is far more complex. That includes modern day decisions to dethrone dictators and how such decisions affect the future, along with economic influences that are entwined with such decisions.

    • "LOTR is fiction and lay in a long line of works that divide people into good or bad, black and white, without acknowledging much grey at all,"

      Have you actually read The Lord of the Rings? This couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, I can't think of a single character in the book that is presented as wholly good or wholly evil. Every character is a mix of good and bad, displaying virtue in some scenes and vice in others.

      • Paul Brandon Rimmer

        Brandon, that's a good point about most of the characters. Tolkein is actually quite good at making sure the line between good and evil runs through every halfling heart.

        That said, what are the virtues of Sauron, or the vices of Gandalf? I can think of a couple potential vices for Gandalf, but I can't disentangle vices from wizards working in mysterious ways... is Gandalf inconsiderate of other peoples' time, or are wizards never late and arrive always when they mean to?

      • The grand sweep of the saga is very black and white. Very few bad elves and good orcs. The evil eye on the tower in a land of darkness versus a white wizard.

      • Edited to hopefully lessen misunderstanding....

        LOTR is fiction and lay in a long line of works that divide the world into good or bad, black and white. Very few bad elves and good orcs. The evil eye on the tower lies in a land of darkness versus a white wizard. Such works demonize enemies and idolize war, calling it "adventure."

        Apparently complex peace-making skills, and engaging in complex analysis of world politics is not so much an adventure as drudgery. So give us sword, give us sorcery, and in the parallel world of exclusivist religions give us tons of end times prophecies that easily separate those with the mark of the beast from "true believers."

        
Real world questions involve more grey, and real world books about battle and wars do not idolize warfare as "adventure" quite so much. Read All Quiet on the Western Front, or The Red Badge of Courage, or Mark Twain's famous "War Prayer" to gain more insight into real world grayness.

        
Let me list some examples of the complexities of the real world:

        
1) During the Thirty Years War in Europe right up to the American Revolution you had Christians fighting and killing Christians. Britain was definitely a Christian nation.

        
2) Prior to the American Civil War there was a large increase in church attendance along with the development of Sunday schools and introduction of religious tracts, and ministers were among those crying loudest for secession (and defending slavery the loudest in the South, nor did any major denominations in the North condemn slavery as a sin). And in fact the South's three largest Christian denominations split from their northern brethren just prior to the Civil War.

        
3) Germany in Hitler's day was filled with Christians, mostly Lutherans and Catholics, and Hitler himself won a democratic election after winning more votes in the heartland, the countryside--the more religious people voted him into office, while his vote totals in the cities were equal with other candidates. The vast majority of Christians did not oppose Hitler but embraced him and all his promises to make Germany great again, and drive out atheistic communist and Jewish bankers. Even Christians who doubted Hitler in the beginning were won over after his seemingly miraculous victories in war, sweeping through Poland all the way to France, and making Germany itself rich in the process, quite a reversal from the depression-riddled Germany when Hitler was first elected. This seemed like a divine miracle to many. Some Churchmen did not love Hitler but didn't hate or oppose him either, they just wanted their church administration to remain independent of interference from the state.


        So real history is not LOTR fiction, it is far more complex. That includes modern day decisions to dethrone dictators and how such decisions affect the future, along with economic influences that are entwined with such decisions.

    • bdlaacmm

      Ed, what book did you read? It certainly wasn't The Lord of the Rings!

      Boromir: Struggles with his inner desire to possess the ring for himself, and although he fails at the critical moment, ultimately redeems himself with his dying breath.

      Samwise: His provincialism and narrow-mindedness is a major cause for Gollum's treason at Cirith Ungol.

      Gollum: Despite his long career of evil deeds, betrays a tortured soul who longs to be rid of his addiction (to the ring), and nearly succeeds.

      Legolas and Gimli: Both struggle to overcome generations of bigotry and a failure to forgive. They succeed, but not without pain along the way.

      Gandalf: Often has to control his temper.

      The Riders of Rohan: Justifiably proud, yet maybe just a bit too much. Suspicious of strangers and slightly lacking in hospitality.

      Butterbur: Good-hearted but almost criminally negligent in his duties.

      Sauron: Rotten through and through by the time of the novel's action, but even he was originally an angelic being who subsequently fell.

      As for the Hobbits themselves, look at how easily they were taken in by Saruman and his Quislings.

      And even the lordly Aragorn shows flashes of black temper.

      • Paul Brandon Rimmer

        This is a great list.

        Gandalf's "vices" seem cheap. Gandalf has a temper. God and Jesus both have tempers. Are these really vices? Gandalf seems fleshed out, not two-dimensional at all, but I don't think any vices or grey area rounds his character out. Galadriel is pretty flat in LotR, but she sure was exciting (and pretty dark) in the Silmarillion!

        Similarly, Sauron's virtues seem pretty "cheap". Sure, he was an 'angel of light', but the fact that he came from a good place makes him an even more evil character. You could almost replace his and Morgoth's names with "Satan". Great for a fantasy epic, but not really grey at all.

        These seem to me to be exemplar black and white characters. Compare these with even the gods and heroes of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Even Homer's characters seem to have much more interesting moral lives. At the same time, I like black and white, I like ideals in stories. I love comic books and am a fan of Atlas Shrugged, so I'm not saying this as a negative... it's just that trying to make the case of "LotR is gritty and all the characters are morally grey" seems hard to really justify.

      • I edited my reply to hopefully lessen misunderstanding....

        LOTR is fiction and lay in a long line of works that divide the world into good or bad, black and white. Very few bad elves and good orcs. The evil eye on the tower lies in a land of darkness versus a white wizard. Such works demonize enemies and idolize war, calling it "adventure."

        Apparently complex peace-making skills, and engaging in complex analysis of world politics is not so much an adventure as drudgery. So give us sword, give us sorcery, and in the parallel world of exclusivist religions give us tons of end times prophecies that easily separate those with the mark of the beast from "true believers."

        
Real world questions involve more grey, and real world books about battle and wars do not idolize warfare as "adventure" quite so much. Read All Quiet on the Western Front, or The Red Badge of Courage, or Mark Twain's famous "War Prayer" to gain more insight into real world grayness.

        
Let me list some examples of the complexities of the real world:

        
1) During the Thirty Years War in Europe right up to the American Revolution you had Christians fighting and killing Christians. Britain was definitely a Christian nation.

        
2) Prior to the American Civil War there was a large increase in church attendance along with the development of Sunday schools and introduction of religious tracts, and ministers were among those crying loudest for secession (and defending slavery the loudest in the South, nor did any major denominations in the North condemn slavery as a sin). And in fact the South's three largest Christian denominations split from their northern brethren just prior to the Civil War.

        
3) Germany in Hitler's day was filled with Christians, mostly Lutherans and Catholics, and Hitler himself won a democratic election after winning more votes in the heartland, the countryside--the more religious people voted him into office, while his vote totals in the cities were equal with other candidates. The vast majority of Christians did not oppose Hitler but embraced him and all his promises to make Germany great again, and drive out atheistic communist and Jewish bankers. Even Christians who doubted Hitler in the beginning were won over after his seemingly miraculous victories in war, sweeping through Poland all the way to France, and making Germany itself rich in the process, quite a reversal from the depression-riddled Germany when Hitler was first elected. This seemed like a divine miracle to many. Some Churchmen did not love Hitler but didn't hate or oppose him either, they just wanted their church administration to remain independent of interference from the state.


        So real history is not LOTR fiction, it is far more complex. That includes modern day decisions to dethrone dictators and how such decisions affect the future, along with economic influences that are entwined with such decisions.

        • Rob Abney

          You could see more distinctions in the "grey areas of life" if you make a distinction between Catholics and other Christians. It's easy to see everything as grey if you don't consider real distinctions that actually exist.

      • VicqRuiz

        What makes a "shades of gray" story is bad men who occasionally do good things or good men who occasionally do bad things.

        I'm trying hard to think of an instance in LotR when a character actually makes a difficult moral decision in which a wrong has to be done in order to advance the greater good. You know, the kind of thing we are told that God does all the time.

        It's been at least fifteen years since I read the books, so my memory may be at fault here.....

  • I agree that moral decision making comes from somewhere deep inside people, but on the other hand, we begin to embody concepts like right and wrong so early in life that we don't recall them being imprinted on us by parents and culture, which may explain why they seem mysterious to us. Their origins are indeed hazy since we begin embodying such actions and concept so early in life, kind of like the difficulty one has trying to remember how one came to learn how to speak one's native tongue. Also, moral decision making is more complex for adults, as is biblical interpretation, and many other things as well. Moral decision making also appears to be a subset of decision-making in general. And we know that making any decision in life involves multple factors such as hormonal impulses, past lessons and hands on training, familial and cultural pressures and biases, memory, reason, shared nerve cells that detect pain, shared paychological fears and desires, such that it Is unlikely that any single completely isolated explanation for making a moral decision, or other kinds of decisions, exists.

  • Paul Brandon Rimmer

    The problem of morality, and how is relates to ought, changes radically if God is present or absent. The kinds of proposed answers and the specific problems change if God is there or not, but the problem does not go away. The Lord of the Rings may provoke someone rightly into thinking that good and evil are real, but neither the Lord of the Rings or any other Lord will solve the problem of good and evil for us.

    • The instant a person "solves" the problem of good and evil and imposes it on everyone else, [s]he becomes the Lord of the Rings.

  • There is so much wrong with your thinking here. You throw out unanswerable philosophical questions and gave up atheism after reading a fiction book? I guess your upbringing as an atheist did not include science-based thinking. You revealed a total lack of understanding of how the brain is flawed and can easily deceive us. The fact that you used the pejorative term "scientism" gives you away as biased against science-based thinking. Here is a link to my blog. Delve into it if you honestly wish to be educated. https://understandrealitythroughscience.blogspot.com/

    • Here is a link to my blog. Delve into it if you honestly wish to be educated. https://understandrealitythroughscience.blogspot.com/

      From the beginning of your most recent blog post:

      I have been a very active and vocal promoter of science-based thinking. What has it led to? In truth, not much. Want evidence? The 2016 US Presidential election will do. (We Are Talking To Ourselves As The World Collapses)

      You remind me of the following:

      In the 1960s, for example, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, wrote that

      It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people. ... Who indeed could afford to ignore science today? At every turn we seek its aid. ... The future belongs to science and to those who make friends with science.[3]

      Views like Nehru's were once quite widely held, and, along with professions of faith in the 'scientific' political economy of Marx, they were perhaps typical of the scientism of politicians in the 1950s and 1960s. (Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science, 2)

      What seems to be the case is that whatever it is that people like you mean by "science-based thinking", it doesn't work. Indeed, the evidence indicates that either it doesn't work, or the vast majority of 'intellectuals' do not employ it:

      “The historical record leaves little doubt that the educated, including the highly educated, have gone astray in their moral and political thinking as often as anyone else,” write the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels in their new book Democracy for Realists, echoing Lippmann. What the educated are better at is sounding like they know what they are talking about, because they have been trained in how to make an argument. “Well-informed people are likely to have more elaborate and internally consistent worldviews than inattentive people, but that just reflects the fact that their rationalisations are better rehearsed.” Education gives you the ability to tailor your arguments to suit your personal preferences, which is why it is a big asset on the job market. But it does little to help tailor your personal preferences to suit the best arguments. (The Guardian 2016-10-05 How the education gap is tearing politics apart)

      From a renowned sociologist:

          Another exaggeration may have been the conventional view of the reach of scientific rationality. One does not have to look at religion only in order to find this thought plausible. It is amazing what people educated to the highest levels of scientific rationality are prepared to believe by way of irrational prejudices; one only has to look at the political and social beliefs of the most educated classes of Western societies to gain an appreciation of this. Just one case: What Western intellectuals over the last decades have managed to believe about the character of Communist societies is alone sufficient to cast serious doubt on the proposition that rationality is enhanced as a result of scientifically sophisticated education or of living in a modern technological society. (A Far Glory, 30)

      So... what gives? Perhaps what you mean by "science-based thinking" is different from what is generally employed by the intellectual elite? Or perhaps you take issue with the excerpts above? It would be helpful if you could provide solid evidence of the goodness of what you call "science-based thinking".

      • I think the main reason why society is not a better place is because, on a large scale, it has never been science-based in its thinking. However, the correlation between secular (non-religious/evidence-based) societies and well-being is clear. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-secular-life/201410/secular-societies-fare-better-religious-societies

        • I think the main reason why society is not a better place is because, on a large scale, it has never been science-based in its thinking.

          You've ignored the two excerpts which deal not with society as a whole, but the intellectual elite, those who allegedly engage in more "science-based thinking". Why? Where is your evidence that "science-based thinking" is better?

          However, the correlation between secular (non-religious/evidence-based) societies and well-being is clear. https://www.psychologytoday.co...

          Let's take the following from that article:

          As I’ve discussed in my book Society Without God, and as I extensively elaborate on in my newest book Living the Secular Life, those democratic nations today that are the most secular, such as Scandinavia, Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, etc., are faring much better on nearly every single indicator of well-being imaginable than the most religious nations on earth today, such as Colombia, Jamaica, El Salvador, Yemen, Malawi, Pakistan, the Philippines, etc. (Secular Societies Fare Better Than Religious Societies)

          Surely you are aware of the fact that correlation ⇏ causation. How do you think that fact matters, with regard to the above from Phil Zuckerman? Where are the peer-reviewed scientific studies which painstakingly tease out the causal factors which make secular societies better? I will take your answer to these questions as an operationalized definition of "science-based thinking".

          • To point 1: Accurate knowledge is vital for proper reasoning and just action. Science is the best method to maximize knowledge. If you disagree, tell me how you verify "knowledge" found through other methods (i.e. intuition, revelation, personal relationship with a god, et al). Science is the only method that inherently is self-correcting, with results always provisional but based on prior probability and evidence. https://sciencebasedlife.wordpress.com/resources-2/thinking-scientifically/

            To point 2: Of course I know correlation does not necessarily equal causation. I gave the link to show that, contrary to prevailing religious opinion, evidence does not show religious societies superior in quality of life. Google the subject and every study supports my stated correlation. Since these studies are social science, it is difficult to factor out all of the causes. That said, please provide even a correlation study supporting the claim that secular societies have poorer qualities of life.

            My bottom line in this discussion: I prefer to know the truth as much as possible rather than protect opinions that give me comfort.

          • (1) It's really hard to see how you are doing anything but 100% ignoring the evidence I presented. You make an initial comment praising the benefits of "science-based thinking", I present evidence against your claim in some absolutely critical domains, and you just ignore it. What am I to conclude, other than that you ignore evidence which conflicts with your deeply held beliefs?

            (2) Until you factor out e.g. how much of the "well-being" of secular society is derived from exploiting the rest of the world (see e.g. How many slaves work for you?), the way you've framed the matter is irrelevant. That the poor and oppressed would be more likely to believe in a God of justice and vengeance than the oppressors is hardly eyebrow-raising.

            (3) It's hard to think of something less comfortable than denying oneself, taking up one's cross, and following Jesus. In my experience, perhaps the hardest thing for humans to do is to experience extreme injustice and not strike back (if they have the power) or grow in ressentiment (if they don't). And yet, this is precisely what Jesus did: he let humans carve their sins into his flesh without doing either of these things. Letting go of self-righteousness and practicing kenosis is extremely difficult for humans. If anything, my belief in Jesus makes my life less comfortable, not more.

          • There is no evidence for anything supernatural. There is no evidence for an Original Sin. There is weak evidence for an historical Jesus, much less a Jesus who did miracles and was resurrected. This is dogma. Dogma is resistant to reason. Reason based on evidence is necessary to make good decisions. You have not provided any real evidence against the above. Good day. I will not waste my time with you again.

          • That all seems irrelevant to the topic at hand, which is the power (or lack thereof) of "science-based thinking" in domains such as politics and the human sciences.

      • Doug Shaver

        Indeed, the evidence indicates that either it doesn't work, or the vast majority of 'intellectuals' do not employ it:

        Does the latter seem improbable to you?

        • Both seem plausible to me. After all, modern science is predicated more on control than on understanding; this works great on non-humans, not so well on humans. It is as if control is a terrible way to order human society. However, all this must be qualified by the fact that @tom_rafferty:disqus appears to mean more than just the art of doing experiments and theory when he says "science-based thinking".

          • Doug Shaver

            However, all this must be qualified by the fact that Tom Rafferty appears to mean more than just the art of doing experiments and theory when he says "science-based thinking".

            Whatever Tom Rafferty means has nothing to do with what I mean or whether I can defend it. However, it would probably keeps things a lot simpler if I stayed out of any conversation between you and him. Please excuse the intrusion.

          • Tom is no longer on speaking terms with me ("I will not waste my time with you again."), so feel free to redirect the conversation.

          • Doug Shaver

            You said, "Both seem plausible to me," but I'm not sure that addresses my question. Given that certain problems have been solved, it could be because science cannot solve them, or it could be because scientific solutions have not been seriously attempted. It is not clear to me, though, how the former could be demonstrated unless the latter is denied.

          • There seem to be at least three possible scenarios:

                 (1) The objectives can be achieved, if only the currently understood means are applied with sufficient discipline.
                 (2) The objectives can be achieved, but not through the currently understood means, no matter the discipline.
                 (3) The objectives simply cannot be achieved.

            Most of the time, (3) cannot be known with certainty. Instead, one can merely suspect ¬(1) after it has been tried for a while. That pushes one to try various instances of (2). The suspicion of (3) rises if enough instances of (2) fail.

            The above applies to any notion of a 'true Christian', by the way. Well, at least if one wishes to attach any predicted results to being a 'true Christian'. "You shall know them by their fruits" and all that.

          • Doug Shaver

            The above applies to any notion of a 'true Christian', by the way. Well, at least if one wishes to attach any predicted results to being a 'true Christian'. "You shall know them by their fruits" and all that.

            I think I see a connection here with another discussion we recently had about a hypothetical political party that claimed to be committed to a science-based agenda.

            However, I don’t recall hearing the advocates of any attempted remedies to social problems claiming a scientific basis for their reforms. Not in my lifetime, at any rate. I’ve heard that some progressives a hundred years ago were making such a claim, but today’s progressives seem to really not want to go there.

          • Just last night I watched a clip from Jonathan Haidt where he said the following:

            And when we add that work to the mountain of research on motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and the fact that nobody's been able to teach critical thinking. [...] You know, if you take a statistics class, you'll change your thinking a little bit. But if you try to train people to look for evidence on the other side, it can't be done. It shouldn't be hard, but nobody can do it, and they've been working on this for decades now. At a certain point, you have to just say, 'Might you just be searching for Atlantis, and Atlantis doesn't exist?' (Jonathan Haidt - The Rationalist Delusion in Moral Psychology, 16:47)

            I'm actually not convinced that Haidt is right—I would want to rule out the possibility that the experiments to-date have been attempts to control people, to reprogram them to the scientist's specifications instead of pursue some common good with them—but the above could be enough to dissuade folks from thinking that anything like "science-based thinking" would be helpful in anything like a political party.

            What really saddens me is that people on all sides have developed ways to avoid the slide toward the conclusion of ¬(1). @tom_rafferty:disqus appears to have simply stuck his head in the sand, declaring that his defeat is only due to lack of money. A family member decided that Trump enriching himself by $1bil might not be that big of a deal. Settle for mediocrity and you can preach (1) until you die. Plenty of Christians seem resigned to being stuck in the rut of their sins, as if there's approximately zero power available from God except for the occasional miracle story of a drug addict recovery. If anything reigns in our day and age, it's mediocrity.

          • Doug Shaver

            I would want to rule out the possibility that the experiments to-date have been attempts to control people, to reprogram them to the scientist's specifications instead of pursue some common good with them

            If a proposed reform depends on some people changing their behavior, then anyone trying to implement that reform is going to be accused of trying to control people. If you are not the accuser, then somebody else will be.

          • Being accused of controlling people doesn't mean you're controlling people. I'm also open to the possibility that there is no option other than controlling people. Are you open to the possibility that there are ways to pursue a common good which don't require a great deal of control? (I suspect that even utopias need prisons.)

          • Doug Shaver

            Being accused of controlling people doesn't mean you're controlling people.

            Yes, but this is a situation where the perception matters as much as the reality. There can be no good government without the consent of the governed. A claim that people are being controlled is, almost by definition, tantamount to a claim that they have not consented to whatever is being done to them.

            Are you open to the possibility that there are ways to pursue a common good which don't require a great deal of control?

            That opens a can of semantic worms. I think it possible to establish a society in which most of its members are freely motivated to act for the greatest good of the greatest number. Whether we can get from here to there without a transition period during which lots of people will be very unhappy, I’m not so sure.

            (I suspect that even utopias need prisons.)

            As do I.

          • Let me fire a test particle through your reasoning. Star Trek TNG episode Half a Life explores a "culture [where] it is an accepted practice for all to undergo [ritual suicide] on their 60th birthday to avoid old age, infirmity, indignity, dependence on others, and the cruel uncertainty about when the end would come." Were such mass consent possible, I'll bet it could only be obtained via "a transition period during which lots of people will be very unhappy". Now, are you ok with such a culture, or do you think that perhaps everyone is manipulated into accepting such tradition? Could such consent be manufactured and thus a means of control which appears to be voluntary choice?

          • David Nickol

            It seems to me an impossible task to classify with certainty which human actions are the result of manipulation and which are made freely. I was out with the little people the other day and was struck by how many people say things like sorry, or pardon me, or excuse me when navigating through a crowd. Later, while watching a movie, and adult gave something to a child, and the child's parent said, "Now, what do you say?" The child dutifully said, "Thank you." I was once robbed on the street by two young men, one of whom had a knife and the other (possibly) a concealed gun. They took my wallet from me, took all the cash out, and handed the wallet back. I am almost certain I said, "Thank you." Was that polite behavior, or programmed behavior, or is there even a way to tell?

            Admittedly, whether or not I freely say "thank you" at what society deems appropriate times, or whether I say it because I have conditioned since childhood by "outside forces" is itself not of major importance in a debate of free will or determinism. But certainly a great many of our choices are heavily influenced (determined?) by our socialization.

            One might even argue that persons at some point in their lives are (to some degree) their socialization. I am a polite person because I was thoroughly socialized to be one as a young person. It is an automatic characteristic. It's part of who I am. All the socialization we undergo, and the other learning we acquire, can't be stripped away to find the "free" core that remains.

            I am fond of a Lenin quote: "Give me four years to teach the children and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted." Not only will the seed never be uprooted. It will be impossible to analyze the adults and determine which parts of their make-up were "planted seeds" (by Lenin and others) and which parts are "pure."

          • Why would we need access to certainty? The current dogma is that even scientists don't need it. Instead, they progress toward less and less error along with more and more knowledge. Why can't we progress toward less and less manipulation along with more and more growth?

            The problem, of course, is if one cannot establish "any genuine distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations"; Alasdair MacIntyre thinks the answer is "no" on emotivism, which he thinks characterizes "to a large degree [how] people now think, talk, and act". (After Virtue, 22–23) That is, modernity has drastically eroded any basis for making a true distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative relations.

            As to socialization, I think the following from Noam Chomsky puts to rest the initial shock that many of your actions are not freely chosen:

            younger Chomsky: While it's true that our genetic program rigidly constrains us, I think the more important point is the existence of that rich, rigid constraint is what provides the basis for our freedom and creativity.Q: But you mean it's only because we're pre-programmed that we can do all that we can do.A: Well, exactly; the point is, if we really were plastic organisms without an extensive pre-programming, then the state that our mind achieves would in fact be a reflection of the environment, which means it would be extraordinarily impoverished. Fortunately for us we are rigidly pre-programmed, with extremely rich systems that are part of our biological endowment.(Noam Chomsky on "Education and Creativity", 15:56)

            But how can one get freedom in the face of such determination? More Chomsky:

            Specifically, Descartes speculated that the workings of res cogitans—second substance—may be beyond human understanding. So he thought, quoting him again, "We may not have intelligence enough to understanding the workings of mind." In particular, the normal use of language, one of his main concepts. He recognized that the normal use of language has what has come to be called a creative aspect; every human being but no beast or machine has this capacity to use language in ways that are appropriate to situations but not caused by them—this is a crucial difference. And to formulate and express thoughts that may be entirely new and do so without bound, may be incited or inclined to speak in certain ways by internal and external circumstances, but not compelled to do so. That's the way his followers put the matter—which was a mystery to Descartes and remains a mystery to us. That quite clearly is a fact. (Noam Chomsky - "The machine, the ghost, and the limits of understanding", 9:58)

            Does this make any sense? The connection to language and freedom may seem tenuous; perhaps the saying "The pen is mightier than the sword" will help.

          • Doug Shaver

            Star Trek TNG episode Half a Life explores a "culture [where] it is an accepted practice for all to undergo [ritual suicide] on their 60th birthday to avoid old age, infirmity, indignity, dependence on others, and the cruel uncertainty about when the end would come."

            I hadn’t seen that episode since its original broadcast, so I watched it again. It deals with some important questions, but the writers weren’t concerned with the ones we’ve been discussing.

            Now, are you ok with such a culture, or do you think that perhaps everyone is manipulated into accepting such tradition?

            I think it’s quite irrelevant whether I would be OK with it. One premise of the story is that (a) the people living in that culture are OK with it and (b) no other people are affected by it unless, as Lwaxana did, they choose to involve themselves in it.

            As for the manipulation issue, the writers didn’t provide the kind of information I would need to offer a relevant opinion. We are not told how the tradition was first instituted or what kind of social controls are used to maintain it. We should also remember that this was not a human culture. I cannot imagine any community of Homo sapiens even instituting, let alone maintaining, such a practice without recourse to methods that I would judge to be both morally and politically unacceptable. The nearest exception I can think of is certain hunter-gatherer societies that expected some of their older people to just leave the community and go off to die alone. (I’m not counting actual senicide as relevantly similar to the Star Trek plot.)

            Could such consent be manufactured and thus a means of control which appears to be voluntary choice?

            I don’t know. You’ll have to describe the circumstances in which a given successful act of persuasion is not an instance of manufacturing consent. Of course there are certain methods of persuasion of which I do not approve, but the mere fact that the result is someone’s changing their attitude about something is not, in itself, a problem in my judgment.

          • Michael Murray

            Doug you might be interested in Jarrod Diamond's book "The World Until Yesterday" where he describes the following society

            The Kaulong people of New Britain used to have an extreme way of dealing with families in mourning. Until the 1950s, newly widowed women on the island off New Guinea were strangled by their husband's brothers or, in their absence, by one of their own sons. Custom dictated no other course of action. Failure to comply meant dishonour, and widows would make a point of demanding strangulation as soon as their husbands had expired.

            This wasn't perhaps so much an old person issue as a widow issue

            Widow-strangling occurred because the Kaulong believed male spirits needed the company of females to survive the after-life.

            https://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/jan/06/jared-diamond-tribal-life-anthropology

            In the same book he talks about the kinds of societies which you describe and the ones that just abandon their old people when it becomes too hard for them to accompany the group as it moves.

          • Doug Shaver

            Doug you might be interested in Jarrod Diamond's book "The World Until Yesterday"

            I probably would be. Thank you for the notice.

          • Wow, thanks for getting sufficiently interested in this matter to rewatch Half a Life. I agree that the episode itself references nothing like "a transition period during which lots of people will be very unhappy". While I don't see how the senicide-at-age-60 could have been accomplished without something in gross violation of your "consent of the governed", we can table that particular aspect for now.

            What we do have in the episode is an individual, who used to accept societal norms, begin questioning them. Incredible pressure is put on the individual to stop questioning. Is such incredible pressure consonant with "consent of the governed"? Surely you recognize the trope of an outsider getting someone in a culture to question its norms, and how many cultures are quite resistant to such things, quickly resorting to force if necessary? Of course in this episode, there is no physical force, but the threat of being banished from one's culture and especially to be denied the opportunity to contribute from one's talents to that culture seems just as effective as force, if not more effective.

          • Doug Shaver

            Is such incredible pressure consonant with "consent of the governed"?

            I don’t see a problem with it, but I also don’t think it’s part of the moral equation. I’m not denying that political philosophy and ethical philosophy are inseparable in substantial part, but the consent of the governed goes solely to the issue of legitimizing political power. There can be times when one’s moral obligations are inconsistent with one’s obligation to obey the law, no matter how legitimate the government that enacted the law.

          • At what age did I consent to my government and thereby legitimize it?

          • Doug Shaver

            The legitimacy of any presently existing government is not relevant to the position I'm defending in this thread.

          • We could just as easily ask when the alien in Half a Life consented to his government and thereby legitimized it. Recall that the context of this conversation is the following:

            LB: [...] I would want to rule out the possibility that the experiments to-date have been attempts to control people, to reprogram them to the scientist's specifications instead of pursue some common good with them [...]

            DS: If a proposed reform depends on some people changing their behavior, then anyone trying to implement that reform is going to be accused of trying to control people.

            LB: Being accused of controlling people doesn't mean you're controlling people.

            DS: Yes, but this is a situation where the perception matters as much as the reality. There can be no good government without the consent of the governed. A claim that people are being controlled is, almost by definition, tantamount to a claim that they have not consented to whatever is being done to them.

          • Doug Shaver

            We could just as easily ask when the alien in Half a Life consented to his government and thereby legitimized it.

            We could ask, yes. I'm not sure how we could get an answer, since the writers of that episode said nothing about the political structure of that world.

            Possibly to your point . . . . There are morally legitimate ways to try persuading people to assent to certain ideas, and there are morally illegitimate ways of coercing them into assenting. I am not claiming that it is always easy to discern one from the other. When the platypus was discovered, biologists had a hard time deciding whether it was a mammal or a reptile, but they did not conclude that there was therefore no difference between mammals and reptiles.

          • It's more that your notion of "consent of the governed" seems very problematic. It sounds really nice until you actually try to apply it in the muckiness of the real world. You won't answer when a member of society 'consents' to his/her government because there is no answer—'consent' is a one-time mythical action. The idea that the government loses legitimacy if "the people" [successfully] rebel is in no way predicated upon any social contract theory. The American South refused to consent and they were stomped into the ground as a result.

            Now, you asked for an example of "a given successful act of persuasion [that] is not an instance of manufacturing consent". I haven't read the detailed history, but I suspect that William Wilberforce's efforts to abolish slavery in England would qualify.

            Please note that I'm not attempting to collapse the distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations. Instead, I merely take Alasdair MacIntyre seriously:

            For one way of framing my contention that morality is not what it once was is just to say that to a large degree people now think, talk, and act as if emotivism were true, no matter what their avowed theoretical standpoint might be. Emotivism has become embodied in our culture. (After Virtue, 22)

                What is the key to the social content of emotivism? It is the fact that emotivism entails the obliteration of any genuine distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations. (After Virtue, 23)

            That is, our intellectual resources for maintaining a genuine distinction between manufactured consent and free assent have been through a nuclear holocaust. (In chapter 1 of AV, MacIntyre makes an implicit comparison to A Canticle for Leibowitz.) There is a lot of pretending that such a distinction exists; one recent work which tries to clear away a lot of mythology is Democracy for Realists. Until we stop believing in clearly false myths (not all are clearly false), the manipulation will continue if not increase without bounds. I see absolutely zero guarantee that a low-manipulation society is stable or in any way a likely trajectory of biological evolution.

          • Doug Shaver

            I see absolutely zero guarantee that a low-manipulation society is stable or in any way a likely trajectory of biological evolution.

            I don't think that's relevant to my thesis, which has nothing to do with the legitimacy of any government. My claim is only that evolution suffices to account for the existence and enforcement, within any stable human society, of rules of behavior that are accepted by a substantial portion of that society. It doesn't matter how that acceptance is produced in any particular society, so long as most people are actually of the opinion that certain behaviors are acceptable and certain others are unacceptable.

          • Do you think that the forces of biological evolution push, in any way, toward the abolition of slavery or the end of genocide? If you do, is that because of soundly scientific reasons (i.e. there are peer-reviewed articles you could point me to), or because of something pre-scientific or non-scientific (that is, something net yet distinguishable from a "just-so story")?

            What I want to be clear on is that I'm pressing, quite hard, to distinguish between what can be said on a solidly scientific basis—where explanations of how reality works have been tested through rigorous attempts at falsification and/or built upon to empirical or maybe purely theoretical success—and what is currently indistinguishable from mythology. It is so, so easy to play off just-so stories as science. Even the idea that any society actually operates via "consent of the governed" is a dubious claim, dubious on grounds of being empirically false or true on pain of a very distorted definition of "consent of the governed".

            Now, it's not clear that we can actually operate with no myths; in The Myths We Live By, Mary Midgley argues that myths are unavoidable, and that we must merely ensure we're operating on good ones. That we no longer deploy myths is itself a myth of the Enlightenment, a very bad one. We could construe the OP as suggesting a different myth from the disenchantment of the Enlightenment, famously symbolized by Max Weber as the stahlhartes Gehäuse (less-than-perfect English translation: 'iron cage'). This different myth would allow us to travel places which cannot be powered solely by the forces of biological evolution, nor forces solely derived from the forces of biological evolution.

            Does this make sense? Another way to say all of this is that any given explanation of our state of affairs must abide by Underdetermination of Scientific Theory: any given set of data points can be fit by infinitely many curves. You have one curve, Fredric a different curve. The additional determination of settling on one curve over another—something the data cannot do—is done by myth. Myth guides us into the unknown. Here's the rub. We can better explore the rub if we compare & contrast our myths—including trying to bring others' myths to life as well as criticizing them—than if we merely try to render another myth unnecessary†.

            † Yes, I recall the following:

            DS: I am not attempting to rule out any other source. I am defending the position that we did not need any other. It’s true that I don’t believe there ever was another source, but that isn’t what I’m trying to prove.

            But regardless of what you are attempting to do, the net effect of this is to strongly imply that Fredric's viewpoint is unnecessary, if not wrong. All you need to do is add the aura of science to your position and the effect is complete. That is, unless we distinguish between science and myth.

          • Doug Shaver

            But regardless of what you are attempting to do, the net effect of this is to strongly imply that Fredric's viewpoint is unnecessary, if not wrong.

            I must be missing a point. In a forum like this, exactly why am I not supposed to be doing that?

            Do you think that the forces of biological evolution push, in any way, toward the abolition of slavery or the end of genocide?

            No, it is not pushing toward anything so specific. Natural selection cares nothing about personal freedom. And up to a certain limit, it is also indifferent to how many of each other we kill. Genocide is just mass killing with a particular motivation that modern moralists like to condemn at every possible opportunity, and natural selection cares nothing about our reasons for doing anything.

            I'm pressing, quite hard, to distinguish between what can be said on a solidly scientific basis—where explanations of how reality works have been tested through rigorous attempts at falsification and/or built upon to empirical or maybe purely theoretical success—and what is currently indistinguishable from mythology. It is so, so easy to play off just-so stories as science.

            Falsification is difficult when you’re doing any historical science — a category in which I would include ordinary history — because you can’t do much in the way of replication. What you can do, though, is stipulate certain kinds of evidence that, if discovered, would be inconsistent with whatever hypothesis you’re proposing.

            It is so, so easy to play off just-so stories as science.

            I assume you understand the difference between a hypothesis and a theory. If so, I would suggest that it is quite easy to dismiss any hypothesis that one doesn’t like as a just-so story.

            in The Myths We Live By, Mary Midgley argues that myths are unavoidable,

            When I get the opportunity to examine her argument in detail, I will be able to critique it then.

            That we no longer deploy myths is itself a myth of the Enlightenment, a very bad one. We could construe the OP as suggesting a different myth from the disenchantment of the Enlightenment, famously symbolized by Max Weber as the stahlhartes Gehäuse (less-than-perfect English translation: 'iron cage'). This different myth would allow us to travel places which cannot be powered solely by the forces of biological evolution, nor forces solely derived from the forces of biological evolution.

            Does this make sense?

            If you mean, Do I understand what you’re saying? the answer is: I think so.

            Another way to say all of this is that any given explanation of our state of affairs must abide by Underdetermination of Scientific Theory: any given set of data points can be fit by infinitely many curves.

            And therefore, what? That we’re not justified in believing any scientific theory? Or that for any theory up for consideration, any other theory merits equal consideration?

            The additional determination of settling on one curve over another—something the data cannot do—is done by myth. Myth guides us into the unknown.

            This is one labeling issue I’m not going to argue about. If you wish to call any portion of my argument a myth, go right ahead. Then we can get back to debating the cogency of my argument, because that is the only thing that matters to a judgment of its credibility.

          • This is long, because I couldn't figure out how to communicate my idea in less text.

            LB: But regardless of what you are attempting to do, the net effect of this is to strongly imply that Fredric's viewpoint is unnecessary, if not wrong.

            DS: I must be missing a point. In a forum like this, exactly why am I not supposed to be doing that?

            You really don't see what's problematic about failing to: (i) look for anything of value that the other person brings to the table; (ii) making it clear that you looked; and/or (iii) noting if you might not have competently looked? I'm not criticizing the act of criticizing; that I completely expect in a forum like this. Instead, I'm criticizing the act of carefully and silently (that is, apparently without any hesitation) choosing just that interpretation which lets you be pretty much totally correct and the other person be wrong/​irrelevant anywhere [s]he disagrees with you. Such behavior has at least a pinch of the following:

                We have to try to understand the meaning of this inhuman insanity. To scorn is to condemn the other person to complete and final sterility, to expect nothing more from him and to put him in such circumstances that he will never again have anything to give. It is to negate him in his possibilities, in his gifts, in the development of his experience. To scorn him is to rip his fingernails out by the roots so that they will never grow back again. The person who is physically maimed, or overwhelmed by mourning or hunger, can regain his strength, can live again as a person as long as he retains his honor and dignity, but to destroy the honor and dignity of a person is to cancel his future, to condemn him to sterility forever. In other words, to scorn is to put an end to the other person's hope and to one's hope for the other person, to hope for nothing more from him and also to stop his having any hope for himself. (Hope in Time of Abandonment, 47)

            That's the extreme form, but there are plenty of ways to achieve death by a thousand cuts, or even ten thousand. Each person's contribution is so small that they can easily convince themselves that they did absolutely nothing wrong. What is going on, at root, is that social groups decide that either some whole person has nothing of value to offer them, or that part of that person has nothing to offer them. After all, why marginalize when you can simply reject those aspects of the person which don't fit in with the group and accept everything else? The full powers of scorn can be laser-focused on 'religion', for example.

            I'm particularly sensitive to the above because I have had it done to me my entire life. I maybe overreacting, but I don't think so in this case. Your behavior is very well-modeled as "suppressing the transcendent", as denying that there is any appreciable 'more' to what we've discovered and explained. I need to investigate the matter more, but Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man may be an archetype of "suppressing the transcendent"; he doesn't deny that more events will happen and surely he believes that more scientific progress will happen, but simultaneously there is a great deal about human behavior which is heading toward a fully known and understood ideal. Nothing transcends that ideal. All has been revealed.

            If there really is nothing more, if there are no transcendentals to further explore, then there is a really significant category of truths which I possess fully, such that I can forever remain closed to other individuals. After all, they cannot offer me anything truly new. Theologian Alistair McFadyen identifies this situation with Adam and Eve's choice to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil:

                The doctrine of the fall means that the question of the right practice of relations (ethics) has to be relocated. The ethical question cannot be equated with possession of the knowledge of the difference between good and evil, for that is precisely the form of self-possession which led to the fall. Adam and Eve thought they could dispute what God's Word really meant, get behind it to judge both it and God.[35] The assumption that we have the capacity to know the difference between right and wrong and to act upon it is in itself and on its own already a corruption of the image. It isolates one from God and others because what is right for one and others is assumed to be already known. The assumption that one already knows what is right stops communication because no new information or external agency is necessary. In what follows I will describe the image and its redemption as a relational process of seeking what is right in openness to others and God and thereby to the fact that one's understanding and capacity are fundamentally in question.

            The choice between good and evil implies that people are already in touch with reality and their only task is its administration . . . The choice between good and evil calls elements within our environment into question: the real ethical question calls us into question.[36]

            Consequently the focus on our own possibilities is replaced by an emphasis on our need of, and thereby our relations with, God and others. (The Call to Personhood, 43–44)

            The ancient Hebrews understood the heart to be something like the "seat of the understanding". A hardened heart is an understanding which cannot grow or be corrected. When you stop looking for things of value others might have to offer (even in some restricted domain), you isolate yourself from them; "no new information or external agency is necessary". Possibilities for growth and correction are curtailed. One is no longer open to others, one no longer seeks what is right—at least, these things are abridged.

            In my experience, people want to have something of value to offer, much more than they want to be 100% correct. People don't want to be entirely overwhelmed by the Other (whether another person or the whole culture), such that anything unique they bring to the table is crushed, or squeezed entirely into some 'private' realm such that society will continue as if that person never existed.

            There are aspects I've left unexpressed, but I'll wait to see if you can extract anything of value from the above. A response would also help me compress the rest and/or restate more compactly and coherently.

          • Doug Shaver

            the net effect of this is to strongly imply that Fredric's viewpoint is unnecessary, if not wrong.

            I must be missing a point. In a forum like this, exactly why am I not supposed to be doing that?

            You really don't see what's problematic about failing to: (i) look for anything of value that the other person brings to the table; (ii) making it clear that you looked; and/or (iii) noting if you might not have competently looked?

            This is not a philosophy class, I am not a professor, he is not my student, and I was not grading the entire essay that he posted. I was disagreeing with one statement he made and stating my reasons for disagreeing. I mentioned nothing else in the post because I judged everything else to be irrelevant to my argument, regardless of what value any of it might have in some other context. If you deem that judgment of mine to be in error, you are perfectly free to quote some portion of the post that you think does address some point I made, thereby proving that I failed to read it thoroughly or carefully enough.

            I'm criticizing the act of carefully and silently (that is, apparently without any hesitation) choosing just that interpretation which lets you be pretty much totally correct and the other person be wrong/?irrelevant anywhere [s]he disagrees with you.

            If you think I interpreted him incorrectly, you may state what you think is the correct interpretation.

            What is going on, at root, is that social groups decide that either some whole person has nothing of value to offer them, or that part of that person has nothing to offer them.

            If I had been attempting a personal attack against Fredric, I’d have written something very different from what I did write. I was commenting on an idea that he expressed, not on his character or his worth as a human being.

            The full powers of scorn can be laser-focused on 'religion', for example.

            Why the scare quotes? Are you talking about religion or something that pretends to be religion?

            Whatever . . . I think some religious ideas (as well as a boatload of secular ideas) are fully deserving of maximal scorn, but that is not to say that all people accepting those ideas are likewise deserving of any scorn. I do not assume that anyone holding a belief, on any subject, that I disagree with must be either mentally incompetent or morally deranged. I short, I can judge a belief without judging the believer.

            Your behavior is very well-modeled as "suppressing the transcendent", as denying that there is any appreciable 'more' to what we've discovered and explained.

            In claiming to have discovered it, you presuppose its existence. Neither you nor anyone else has convinced me that you have discovered anything real. I get it that you think, sincerely and in good faith, that you have discovered something real. I believe you are mistaken, but in saying that, I impugn neither your intellect nor your character.

            When you stop looking for things of value others might have to offer (even in some restricted domain), you isolate yourself from them;

            You say you have something to offer, but when I ask you to show it me, you can’t. If that makes you feel isolated, then that’s a feeling you’ll just have to live with.

            Possibilities for growth and correction are curtailed.

            I’ve been growing and correcting myself for my entire life, and I’m still doing it. I read books constantly, and they’re seldom works of fiction. From practically every one of them, I learn something I didn’t already know or change my mind about something I thought I knew but was wrong about.

          • You say you have something to offer, but when I ask you to show it me, you can’t.

            What are you talking about?

          • Doug Shaver

            What are you talking about?

            A transcendent reality.

          • Where did I say or imply I could offer you a transcendent reality? What I've said is that you cannot explain modern morality which repudiates genocide and slavery, except as a spandrel spinoff which has experienced change over time†, change which involved rebelling against natural selection, against selfish genes. You have attempted to explain skyscrapers via mud hut building skills; I say that doesn't work, I say there is a huge explanatory gap.

            Now, I do find the concept of 'transcendent reality' to be intriguing. How much is there beyond our current understanding, whether it be scientific, moral, political, aesthetic, etc.? If God were to non-coercively interact with us, what would be required of us before we could sense his actions in any way other than a deeply intuitive, nigh-incommunicable fashion? But in all this, if we aren't careful in how we define our terms and how we go about understanding reality, we can easily shut out the transcendent, constructing a philosophical prison which cannot be detected with sight, sound, texture, taste, or smell.

            † You've said 'social evolution', but you have given it no meaning in addition to "change over time". I doubt very many people would describe "change over time" as an explanation.

          • Doug Shaver

            Where did I say or imply I could offer you a transcendent reality?

            It is what, considering the context, I thought you were doing when you made this statement:

            When you stop looking for things of value others might have to offer (even in some restricted domain), you isolate yourself from them;

            If I misunderstood you, then to what "things of value" were you referring?

          • Nope, I just meant Fredric might see certain things better than you, such as the insufficiency of current explanations of things such as "being, beauty, and morality". One can see problems without necessarily having solutions.

          • Doug Shaver

            I just meant Fredric might see certain things better than you,

            I have not denied that that is possible, but I have yet to see a reason to think it probable.

          • Sure, you render it "not probable" via really weird changes-in-meaning, such as "genuine moral obligation" → "social behavior which protects the tribe but is happy to murder and enslave outsiders". When challenged with a morality which you admit rebels against natural selection, your response is "change over time", full stop. All we need is the little child who points out that the Emperor is wearing no clothes explanation.

          • Doug Shaver

            you render it "not probable" via really weird changes-in-meaning, such as "genuine moral obligation" → "social behavior which protects the tribe but is happy to murder and enslave outsiders".

            I said it was genuine if it was necessary for survival. I am aware of no time or place in which any tribe's survival depended on its enslaving other people. For most tribes, though, killing has indeed been necessary on many occasions. To call any killing a murder is to presuppose that it was not necessary and thus to beg the moral question.

          • Oh give me a break, the OP is clearly interested in more than bare survival. Much more than bare survival.

          • Doug Shaver

            the OP is clearly interested in more than bare survival.

            I have not suggested otherwise.

          • You effectively deny it by hijacking the strongest language the OP uses, when weaker language is available for what you're actually talking about. It's like when the Left went after Mitt Romney with their entire adjectival arsenal, and then couldn't get more intense when it came to Trump.

          • Doug Shaver

            You effectively deny it by hijacking the strongest language the OP uses, when weaker language is available for what you're actually talking about.

            You can criticize my reasoning, or you can criticize the rhetoric with which I present my reasoning. Your obsession with the latter suggests an inability to do the former.

          • I don't have any critique of your "morality" which permits genocide and slavery, other than to say that it lines up much better with Fredric's "evolution has created a sophisticated herd instinct in the human race that causes us to want to be good to each other" than his "genuine moral obligations". Although on reflection, I think your "morality necessary for survival" sets a lower bar than Fredric's "sophisticated herd instinct".

          • Doug Shaver

            I don't have any critique of your "morality" which permits genocide and slavery, other than to say that it lines up much better with Fredric's "evolution has created a sophisticated herd instinct in the human race that causes us to want to be good to each other" than his "genuine moral obligations".

            We've been over all that already. I see nothing to be gained by a recapitulation.

          • Doug Shaver

            You've said 'social evolution', but you have given it no meaning in addition to "change over time".

            I assumed you were familiar with the term. Was I assuming that in error?

          • There's WP: Social evolution, but it's pretty generic. It's not clear how much more it encompasses than evolutionary psychology (for that, see WP: Criticism of evolutionary psychology) and the restriction I see to "favors mutually beneficial or selfish behaviors" seems to run up against what we might call the 'tribalism barrier': one cannot use these ingredients to prohibit all slavery, all genocide, and insist on egalitarianism. At least, I see nothing in that Wikipedia entry exceeds Dawkins' 'selfish gene', and we know what he said about that:

            One of the dominant messages of The Selfish Gene (reinforced by the title essay of A Devil's Chaplin) is that we should not derive our values from Darwinism, unless it is with a negative sign. Our brains have evolved to the point where we are capable of rebelling against our selfish genes. (The Selfish Gene, xiv)

            Perhaps you have an alternative concept in mind for 'social evolution'?

          • LB: It is so, so easy to play off just-so stories as science.

            DS: I assume you understand the difference between a hypothesis and a theory. If so, I would suggest that it is quite easy to dismiss any hypothesis that one doesn’t like as a just-so story.

            I would lay out at least four levels:

                 (1) just-so story
                 (2) hypothesis
                 (3) theory
                 (4) research paradigm

            There is not always a clear distinction between any two levels. What distinguishes a hypothesis from a just-so story is when you start to do actual science, when you bring that rigorous discipline to the table. Hypotheses are careful to establish the sample set and observables, such that all descriptions have operational or theoretical definitions. Hypotheses are also explicitly falsifiable—until you know what phenomena would falsify them, they are indistinguishable from just-so stories. When a hypothesis has not been tested, it is very close to a just-so story, although one can probably assign it a higher prior probability than any random just-so story. Also very important is that one sharply distinguish between what a non-falsified hypotheses directly indicates, and how you might extrapolate it to aspects of reality not directly tested.

            What I'm especially sensitive to is the attribution of any scientific respectability to any of the following:

                 (a) untested hypotheses
                 (b) just-so stories which don't clearly lay out what phenomena would falsify them
                 (c) hypotheses with very parochial sample sets

            What is important is that we be disciplined in classifying how much support some claim has, such that in discussions, the elements with least support are discussed as most tentative. The more tentative some matter is, the more willing we ought to be to consider alternatives. That is, if we are claiming to be scientific. Science earned its reputation via excluding many ways of thinking and acting; I will mercilessly attack illegitimate, explicit claims to being scientific & I will shine bright lights on statements which can be plausibly interpreted to lay claim to scientific legitimacy. This includes usage of the term 'hypothesis', if uttered in certain milieux.

            Are you aware of the difference between the 'Results' and 'Discussion' sections of scientific papers? The former strictly reports what was actually observed, along with qualifications resulting from imperfections. The latter extrapolates from what was actually observed to what might be true. This is scientific discipline, and one cannot think clearly about matters in the OP without it. Even the OP could be made better, but it's pretty good as it stands. Many Christians do much worse of a job, and I'm not sure how many do a better job (my sample set of the best out there is not very good).

            By the way, I know a scientist at a world-class research institution who is working on one of the most famous problems in science. One of his key strategies is to figure out when scientists have improperly classified claims as being stronger than they really are. But this strategy is also employed in the better debates between theists and atheists. Finally, explanations which explain everything, explain nothing. This goes for "God did it" with no accompanying 'rationality principle' (see Theism and Explanation) and it goes for reductionistic explanations which fail to provide robust schema for falsification, schema which clearly articulate phenomena which would falsify.

          • Doug Shaver

            I would suggest that it is quite easy to dismiss any hypothesis that one doesn’t like as a just-so story.

            I would lay out at least four levels:

            (1) just-so story
            (2) hypothesis
            (3) theory
            (4) research paradigm

            There is not always a clear distinction between any two levels. What distinguishes a hypothesis from a just-so story is when you start to do actual science, when you bring that rigorous discipline to the table.

            What concerns us here is the distinction between just-so story and hypothesis.

            I did a bit of googling to confirm my understanding of how those terms are used in current scientific discourse. Two of the best concise statements I found were on Protestant evangelical websites, one of which is committed to young-earth creationism.

            The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry site (https://www.carm.org/), founded by Matt Slick, seems at least tolerant toward some form of theistic evolution. Here is Slick’s explanation of the distinction between hypothesis and theory:

            A hypothesis is an attempt to explain phenomena. It is a proposal, a guess used to understand and/or predict something. A theory is the result of testing a hypothesis and developing an explanation that is assumed to be true about something. A theory replaces the hypothesis after testing confirms the hypothesis, or the hypothesis is modified and tested again, until predictable results occur. (https://carm.org/difference-hypothesis-theory)

            Answers in Genesis (https://answersingenesis.org/), founded by Ken Ham, is explicitly and unambiguously opposed to any accommodation between scripture and modern science. Here is what Ham has to say about what a hypothesis is:

            A theory has its genesis in a hypothesis, which is a working assumption as to why we observe something—an educated guess. To test this assumption, scientists conduct experiments that either disprove or correlate with the hypothesis.

            Over time, if a hypothesis continues to stand up to scrutiny and many different experiments, the scientific community may begin referring to it as a “theory.” In essence, this means that because the hypothesis has not been disproved over many years and no other known hypothesis works, then we can be reasonably sure that it’s accurate. (https://answersingenesis.org/theory-of-evolution/evolution-not-even-theory/)

            Both statements are entirely consistent with the understanding I have acquired from years of voluminous reading in the sciences. I believe that both CARM and AIG often misrepresent science, but that is why I have used them in this case. On this issue, they are exactly right, and if they can get it right, anybody can.

            Both hypothesis and theory are terms of the scientific art. What you suggest is that a just-so story is actually not scientific at all—which is precisely the point of applying the term to any proposal. It is meant to be derogatory, an accusation of scientific illegitimacy.

            I claim that the hypothesis I am trying to defend in this thread is falsifiable. It could be falsified by a demonstration that either (a) nothing in our genes has any effect on our behavior or (b) our ancestors’ survival could not have been affected by any notion they might have had about a difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Perhaps you would dispute even that, but otherwise, all you can mean by calling it a just-so story is “I don’t believe it.”

            What I'm especially sensitive to is the attribution of any scientific respectability to any of the following:

            (a) untested hypotheses
            (b) just-so stories which don't clearly lay out what phenomena would falsify them
            (c) hypotheses with very parochial sample sets

            I have addressed your concern about falsification.

            A hypothesis is not scientifically unrespectable just because it has not been tested. It is scientifically unrespectable if it cannot be tested.

            I’m not sure what you mean by a “parochial” sample set, but some hypotheses may depend for their credibility on treating certain relevant data as if they were irrelevant.

            Finally, explanations which explain everything, explain nothing. This goes for "God did it" with no accompanying 'rationality principle' (see Theism and Explanation) and it goes for reductionistic explanations which fail to provide robust schema for falsification, schema which clearly articulate phenomena which would falsify.

            I don’t know what you mean by “rationality principle,” and I’m not going to buy the book for which you provided an Amazon link just to find out.

            I get the impression that you accept the theory of natural selection in some general way, and that what we’re debating here is just whether it provides a sufficient explanation for our moral sense. Your claim is that it cannot, that a sufficient explanation must include some insight provided by religion, perhaps but not necessarily a Christian insight. I’m still waiting for you to say exactly what it is about morality that is inexplicable absent such an insight.

          • First, 'hypothesis' is only a "[term] of scientific art" if it involves "rigorous discipline". Rigorous discipline in empirical study is not something I associate with creationists (qua creationists) in any way shape or form; that you would draw on their definitions of 'hypothesis' would seem to indicate that you wish to appear scientific while not bringing the rigorous discipline to the table.

            I claim that the hypothesis I am trying to defend in this thread is falsifiable. It could be falsified by a demonstration that either (a) nothing in our genes has any effect on our behavior or (b) our ancestors’ survival could not have been affected by any notion they might have had about a difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

            Nothing Fredric said is contradicted by ¬(a) and/or ¬(b). Once again, recall his "evolution has created a sophisticated herd instinct".

            I’m not sure what you mean by a “parochial” sample set [...]

            This is the only relevant definition:

            dictionary.com parochial:
            3. very limited or narrow in scope or outlook; provincial

            The idea is that if your sample set is not representative, your generalizations will be unreliable.

            I get the impression that you accept the theory of natural selection in some general way, and that what we’re debating here is just whether it provides a sufficient explanation for our moral sense. Your claim is that it cannot, that a sufficient explanation must include some insight provided by religion, perhaps but not necessarily a Christian insight. I’m still waiting for you to say exactly what it is about morality that is inexplicable absent such an insight.

            When someone says, "X explains Y", the assumption is that X is a good explanation, that it is a sufficient explanation†. If by 'morality' one includes modern-day Western notions such as "slavery is wrong" and "genocide is wrong", then "biological evolution‡ explains morality" is like saying "mud hut building skills explain skyscrapers".

            I don't recall saying or implying that "some insight provided by religion" is required.

            † For the nitpickers, one possibility is that a great deal of un-analyzable randomness is also involved. Then one can have a very unsatisfactory explanation which nevertheless cannot be improved upon. But I'm not sure anything in our discussion has fallen in this domain.
            ‡ Yes, you wrote the following:

            DS: The modern demonization of slavery was a result of our social evolution, not our biological evolution. But that social evolution could not have happened if we had had no notion of right and wrong to begin with.

            But the only meaning of 'social evolution' we have from you so far is "change over time"; here's what you said about that:

            DS: Change over time happens, and when we see it happen we want to explain how and why it happens.

            The OP can easily be seen as wanting that explanation, one you've not provided while simultaneously claiming that natural selection provides 'genuine morality'.

          • Doug Shaver

            Rigorous discipline in empirical study is not something I associate with creationists (qua creationists) in any way shape or form; that you would draw on their definitions of 'hypothesis' would seem to indicate that you wish to appear scientific while not bringing the rigorous discipline to the table.

            You missed my point entirely. Whatever you or I as individuals might associate it with is irrelevant. I am using the word hypothesis scientifically if I am using it the same way as scientists in general use it. I was noting that I do use it that way, and remarking that is such a well-established usage that even creationists accept it without quarrel. Any alternative definition that you might prefer would therefore be idiosyncratic in the extreme, even by creationist standards.

            If by 'morality' one includes modern-day Western notions such as "slavery is wrong" and "genocide is wrong", then "biological evolution‡ explains morality" is like saying "mud hut building skills explain skyscrapers".

            I have said several times that I am not defining morality in those terms. If you insist that it must be defined in those terms, then further discussion between us will be pointless.

            I don't recall saying or implying that "some insight provided by religion" is required.

            Then what insight do you think is required, and what do you think is the source of that insight?

          • Sample1

            No, it is not pushing toward anything so specific. Natural selection
            cares nothing about personal freedom. And up to a certain limit, it is
            also indifferent to how many of each other we kill. Genocide is just
            mass killing with a particular motivation that modern moralists like to
            condemn at every possible opportunity, and natural selection cares
            nothing about our reasons for doing anything.

            Not only is it (natural selection) not pushing toward anything specific, it is, without careful context, almost always nonsensical to speak of it pushing anything at all. The believer sees agency in such phrasings though I know you don't mean that. I also think that to say it "cares nothing" also implies an agency for those of Aristotelian beliefs.

            Such are the challenges, I suppose, of language when disparate systems of thinking come up against one another.

            Mike
            Edit done.

          • Doug Shaver

            Such are the challenges, I suppose, of language when disparate systems of thinking come up against one another.

            Challenges indeed. Discussions like this require considerable good faith on both sides if they're to be productive.

          • Sample1

            Forces of biological evolution, as a phrase, needs clarification outside a biology forum where in the latter it could mean an environmental factor (i.e.: geographic isolation) conducive to speciation as interpreted by one particular mammal on this planet. :-)

            Mike

          • Doug Shaver

            In a forum like this, I try to be careful talking about forces, but I appreciate your having my back.

      • Doug Shaver

        Perhaps what you mean by "science-based thinking" is different from what is generally employed by the intellectual elite?

        It can be, depending on which segment of the elite you’re referring to. Any advocate can claim a scientific basis for whatever cause they are promoting, but their say-so won’t make it so. Some creationists will assure you that science, when properly practiced, has falsified the theory of evolution.

    • I respectfully disagree. There is a great deal that can be said about the details of belief, or disbelief. But in deciding for one over the other, we each engage in a sort of gestalt involving the various perceptions and experiences that we accumulate. That is an essentially human act. We can and should examine it using all the tools of science and logic at our disposal. We should account for truth wherever we find it -- in science, art, everyday life, relationships. We should share our experiences. We shouldn't belittle people with whom we disagree.

      • We shouldn't belittle people with whom we disagree.

        Or: If we do, they'll eventually rise up and elect a Trump. A human being can only take so much denigration before [s]he ceases to resemble anything like a "rational actor" and takes actions which will at best benefit himself/​herself, and at worst burn the whole thing down, including the mockers. The bravest thing Jesus probably did was remain silent in front of Pilate. He could have incited a violent revolution—he was much more loved by the people than the religious elite.

        But here's the problem. Humans desperately need other humans to look down on and scapegoat. We have René Girard's work and Gore Vidal's "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail." It is not without reason that above anything else, YHWH hates arrogance and pride. "I am better than you"—that is, 'self-righteousness'—is the pox on humanity. What's wrong with the world? "I am", says G.K. Chesterton. But this posits an inherent sinfulness to all humans, and that is something that many simply cannot tolerate. It starts out as an approximation—"I am less bad than you"—but it ultimately slips so close to "I am righteous and you are evil" that the difference becomes irrelevant.

        • David Nickol

          The bravest thing Jesus probably did was remain silent in front of Pilate. He could have incited a violent revolution—he was much more loved by the people than the religious elite.

          If what you say is true, why did the crowd choose to save Barabbas (as attested to in all four Gospels) rather than Jesus?

          • They wanted someone to start an insurrection, to save them from oppression outside their skin, rather than the oppression within their skin. Jesus had the chance and refused, so Barabbas was the next best option.

          • David Nickol

            So are you saying Jesus was so popular that, if he had advocated violent revolution just prior to his crucifixion, the people would have followed him, even though he had never advocated violent revolution before? The masses who heard him misunderstood him, and turned against him when he failed to incite a revolution after his capture? That is certainly not the way I understand the Gospels.

          • Yes. I started thinking along these lines after hearing a sermon from one of Timothy Keller's disciples, suggesting that Judas may have thought he was advancing things to the violent stage by 'betraying' Jesus. That is, perhaps Judas thought Jesus would whip out some badass miracles in a final confrontation with the corrupt religious elite and oppressive Roman elite.

      • Read my blog in depth. If you find something with which you disagree, have at it.

    • ClayJames
      • To clarify my position, which is also NDT's: we both claim, with evidence, that science is the best method to obtain evidence. It is up to society to take that evidence and justly apply it. Now, what is the best way to justly apply it? Reason, wisdom and humanism. Why not religion? Every religion is based on dogma and not evidence. In fact, much of dogma is contrary to evidence. Thus, there is no way to reason a religious person out of his or her dogma. This is what is happening within the US Republican party, and Trump is just an end result of such thinking. How can one have a reasoned, evidence-based discussion with someone like that?

        • ClayJames

          Saying that we should apply scientific knowledge according to humanistic principles is by definition, not science-based thinking.

          Why should Bob not apply scientific knowledge to increase his own wealth? Why humanism?

          • Let's get focused. I am saying that science-based thinking is the best route to maximize knowledge of reality. Such knowledge HAS to be use by decision-makers who respect such over non-evidence-based ideology or there is no base for discussion. IWO, how can one come to a reasonable action plan if it is blocked by those whose opinion is dogmatic and resistant to change under any circumstances?

    • ClayJames

      In your blog, you said this:

      I have been a very active and vocal promoter of science-based thinking. What has it led to? In truth, not much. Want evidence? The 2016 US Presidential election will do.

      I have a friend, his name is Bob, he personally voted for Trump because he is a wealthy business owner and Trump will lower his taxes and make him more wealthy. He accepts that others might suffer as a result but he prioritizes his own wealth and happiness over the well being of muslims, mexicans or those without healthcare, maternity leave or access to higher education.

      What exactly is ¨un-scientific¨ about Bob´s rational?

      • Trump has a serious problem with the truth of anything, and has explicitly denied scientific consensus on many topics.

        • ClayJames

          You didn´t answer my question. Bob uses science-based thinking to conclude that if Trump were president it would help increase his wealth. Based on that, Bob votes for Trump.

          You seem to think that Bob has come to the wrong conclusion and I want to know why. Saying that Trump has a serious problem with telling the truth or accepting scientific consensus does not mean Bob came to the wrong conclusion.

          • Of course Bob did not use science-based thinking, that is my point. Your Bob used selfish motives, as did most who voted for him. In addition, it is a long-shot that much of Trump's tax cuts will pass muster because his ideas for such ARE NOT SCIENCE-BASED, and even many Republicans can see through them.

            Trump manipulated the ignorant public beautifully. The man has no philosophical compass beyond "winning." Literally, 75% of what he said during the campaign was not truthful. In virtually every issue where science can provide knowledge, Trump has rejected it. He won. The win confirmed that us science-based thinkers lost. Thus the reason for my frustration noted in my first paragraph of the post in question.

          • Of course Bob did not use science-based thinking, that is my point. Your Bob used selfish motives, as did most who voted for him.

            What does "science-based thinking" have to do with "selfish motives"?

          • Holy crap, what don't you get? Seriously!!! Bob was either ignorant of the evidence against Trump or didn't give a poop. Either way, it was not science-based thinking.

          • What I don't get is whether you mean "science-based thinking" to necessarily conflict with "selfish motives". If you do, then you'll have quite the idiosyncratic definition. I'm pretty sure plenty of scientists do great science while operating on selfish motives.

            As to Bob, it does seem to me that he'll do better, personal fortune-wise, under Trump. At least, in the short term—before climate change starts to crimp his style. But perhaps he'll be dead by then or have plenty of money (and power) to weather the storm. Perhaps when you say "science-based thinking", you mean to include humanistic values? But humanism isn't part of science.

          • ClayJames

            Bob, used science-based thinking to analyze Trump´s behavior. He realized Trump is a liar but he also realizes he is a wealthy businessmen who will surround himself with republicans who will lower taxes for the rich and businesses. Bob prioritizes his own wealth being above all the negative aspects Trump brings to the table and votes for him.

            The point here is that you keep bringing non-scientific believes into the conversation (such as the believe that one ought not be selfish) and at the same time saying that one should only use science-based thinking. It makes no sense.

  • MNb

    I was in my early twenties when I read LotR for the first time, before I decided to call myself an atheist. And I never deluded myself with "a made-up fantasy world reveal anything about the “truth”
    Because it doesn't. It reflects the catholic views of the author, combined with influences from Germanic and Scandinavian myths.

  • David Nickol

    According to Wikipedia, Tolkien himself said:

    The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion', to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.

    Perhaps I am misreading the OP, but I get the sense that Fredric Heidemann is intending us to understand, "I was an atheist until I read—and, folks, you're not gonna believe this!—The Lord of the Rings!" But given the "fundamentally religious" nature of LOTR, it is perhaps no more of a surprise than if Mr. Heidemann had been inspired by The Seven Storey Mountain or Mere Christianity.

    • David Nickol

      I was not an atheist in my teenage years, even after I graduated from an all-boys Catholic high school and went to a great pagan university, where I was warned anti-Catholic professors would make me stand up in class and ridicule my religion. Nothing even remotely like that happened to me or anyone in any of my classes or to anyone else at all of Ohio State, to the best of my knowledge. Nor did any roommates or anyone else I ever met at OSU attempt to convert me to atheism. Whatever "religious" conflict took place was extraordinarily minor, and was more Protestant versus Catholic than atheist versus theist. I remember one of my first roommates told me that when he left for OSU, his mother told him very solemnly that the one thing she asked him never to do was to date a Catholic girl. It was not long before he had a girlfriend who was Catholic.

    • Craig Roberts

      The quote doesn't make sense. To eliminate all traces of religion in order to make it "fundamentally religious" is just blather. It would be more honest to say that Middle Earth is an attempt to imagine a world without religion or God.

      It sounds more like an atheist endeavor to me. Perhaps Tolkien was an subconscious atheist. Reading Tolkien as a kid only made me realize that it is possible to imagine a world without any religion.

      But of course Tolkien's primary contribution to the atheist cause was to essentially claim that fairy tales were at the heart of religion.

      • David Nickol

        The quote doesn't make sense. To eliminate all traces of religion in order to make it "fundamentally religious" is just blather.

        The quote makes perfect sense. You fail to note that Tolkien uses the word religion in quotation marks. I take Tolkien to be saying that he gave the world no explicit, "organized" religion, no cults, and no practices to imbue the whole thing with spirituality. As a Catholic, he may very well not have wanted to invent a fictitious religion for Middle Earth. Much as Catholics object to this in the real world, I think Tolkien created a world that was "spiritual but not religious."

        But of course Tolkien's primary contribution to the atheist cause was to essentially claim that fairy tales were at the heart of religion.

        You can't be serious. You're just trying to provoke here. Hopefully no one will take the bait.

        • Craig Roberts

          It makes sense if you're atheist. Not if you're Catholic.

          You may be right about Tolkien being "spiritual but not religious" but that means he was anything but Catholic.

          "Claim" was the wrong word. I probably should have used the word 'equates'.

          • David Nickol

            You may be right about Tolkien being "spiritual but not religious" but that means he was anything but Catholic.

            I didn't say Tolkien himself was spiritual but not religious. By all accounts including his own he was a Catholic. I said he made his fictional world spiritual but not religious.

          • Craig Roberts

            Interesting. Do you think that Tolkien must have been Catholic because he claimed to be? Throughout the history of the Church there have been people that claimed to be Catholic that were deemed heretics by the authorities of the very Church they claimed. I'm not saying that Tolkien was a heretic, just that there are all sorts of people running around claiming to be Catholic (and even more claiming to be Christian) that don't agree on anything.

            You see this sort of spiritual schizophrenia in polls where some people claim to be Christian but then turn around and say they don't believe in God.

            What would you say about somebody that said they were atheist and then professed that there were things that science could not explain and were not only immaterial but existed on an immaterial plane.

            All of our basis for Tolkien's supposed religiosity come from himself. If you were to read his books without this knowledge would you come to the conclusion that he was Catholic, or even Christian for that matter? I've read books by self avowed atheists that have the same amount of spiritual content as LOTR.

        • Doug Shaver

          I first heard someone trying to distinguish spirituality from religion about 30 years ago. It seemed to me at the time to be an effort to distinguish true religion (one's own) from false religion (anybody else's) without being accused of religious bigotry.

  • Craig Roberts

    Doesn't it occur to anybody that the underlying assumptions of 'Middle Earth' are blatantly racist? You're either born good or evil and there is nothing you can do about it. It makes more sense to say that Tolkien viewed the world from a WWII era perspective in which Nazis were Orcs, Sauron was Hitler, Italians were Goblins, French were Elves etc. etc. and they all have to fight it out to see if good will triumph over evil. No redemption, no salvation, no savior, no God...just good guys and bad guys in a big war.

    There is really nothing Catholic about that at all.

  • Wow. I was referred to this blog because of its supposed "higher information" characteristics and that it was recently chosen as the 4th best atheist blog on the internet. If my several hour/few days experience is any indication, this blog is just the usual echo chamber for Christian apologetics. Not one of you who have responded to my comments on the few posts I have responded to approached me with an open-minded inquisitive posture. Instead, all I have received is diversion from my comments into non-related areas. Why can't you directly and succinctly respond to my comments? I'll tell you why. You cannot compete with reality. You are the typical bunch who pose unanswerable questions and then use a "God of the Gaps" argument to make your point. It will not fly with me, nor any other science-based thinking atheist. I will not respond to any reply to this comment. If you are not typical and are sincerely wanting to know reality, respond on my blog. https://understandrealitythroughscience.blogspot.com/

    • Not one of you who have responded to my comments on the few posts I have responded to approached me with an open-minded inquisitive posture.

      So the following—

      LB: It would be helpful if you could provide solid evidence of the goodness of what you call "science-based thinking".

      —isn't "an open-minded inquisitive posture"?

    • ClayJames

      Thank you for dropping by, Merry Christmas!

  • Craig Roberts

    "I was an atheist until I read (a really long and pretentious fairy tale written by somebody that claimed to be religious but apparently thought that a world without religion or God made perfect sense)."

  • Neil Gough

    I cannot see why the deep meaning of mythology has passed you by until LOTRs.

    All mythology is imbued with such and why it appeals to us on a near instinctive level and I speny my childhood reading Greek myths so it came as something as a shock when I found people actually believed teh Christians myths were real.

    LOTR's turned me on to Fantasy but I'd think it rather a mistake to assume it Truth above the level of poetic prose personally.

    //The classic definition of myth from folklore studies finds clearest delineation in William Bascom’s article “The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives” where myths are defined as tales believed as true, usually sacred, set in the distant past or other worlds or parts of the world, and with extra-human, inhuman, or heroic characters. Such myths, often described as “cosmogonic,” or “origin” myths, function to provide order or cosmology, based on “cosmic” from the Greek kosmos meaning order (Leeming 1990, 3, 13; Bascom, 1965). Cosmology’s concern with the order of the universe finds narrative, symbolic expression in myths, which thus often help establish important values or aspects of a culture’s worldview. For many people, myths remain value-laden discourse that explain much about human nature.//

    https://faculty.gcsu.edu/custom-website/mary-magoulick/defmyth.htm

  • Alexandra

    Beautiful writing! Thank you. The search for deeper moral truths wholly resonates with me. We each all are graced with recognizing goodness and righteousness.

  • I also have a habit of listening to the audio-book of the Silmarillion while playing some video games. This is essentially the Bible of the world Tolkien created that includes Middle-Earth.

    It is interesting to me how different the theology of it is than C.S. Lewis, a colleague of Tolkien, who was not convinced by Catholicism, but wrote a much more Christian fantasy.

    Tolkien seems to be equally, or more inspired by Norse and Greek paganism, but places the pantheon under a God of Christian theism.

    Some interesting elements that come from this. Tolkien's treatment of evil and the devil (Melkor) in this world are interesting. God (Eru) creates the Valar (Pantheon of Gods) who, with Eru design the material world through music. But one of the Valar, the strongest and most versatile, goes to the "void" and seems inspired to create himself and to bring discord into the music of the Valar, but every time is confounded by Eru's way of making it into harmony, and Eru chastises him for thinking he could create anything himself, even his discord, as all things have their source in Eru and were contemplated by him.

    Tolkien contemplates evil of "darkness" as being a thing in of itself, rather than just lack. Like Christian theism, there seems to be no ultimate source of this darkness and evil. Morgoth seem just intent to corrupt and take the works of the other Valar and to be inherently be selfish and cruel. We are never given any explanation for this. Why did not Manwe have similar desires, or the other Valar. They seemed utterly content to fulfil the wishes of Eru, and indeed do seem to rule over Arda and Middle-Earth.

    Ultimately, Tolkien's fantasy universe is one in which there are fundamental forces of good and evil. There are some who become corrupted by evil and are lost forever, such as Melkor, Sauron, the elves who became orcs.. There are some elements that are just manifestations of evil, greed, and corruption such as Ungoliant the spider, and Shelob, balrogs. The action is this ultimate fight between good and evil with some of the plot surrounding trying to save some from being corrupted, such as Saruman, Theoden, Denethor, Smeagol and Frodo. But ultimately, there is no saving the true evil in Mordor, it can only be fought against and vanquished by force.

    I think this is what keeps Tolkien in the world of popular fiction instead of great literature, as pure good and pure evil are fun in a comic book way, but it lacks the depth of a story like we see in Dickens or Dostoevsky, Shakespeare,or even an adventure story like Moby Dick. In these latter works, while there may or may not be pure evil in the world, the antagonists do not do evil just for its own sake. What makes these authors great is how we can see how they may go down the road to evil, whether the Brothers Karamozov feeling without God, anything is permitted, or Ahab fuelled by revenge, MacBeth convinced that his greatness is fated. Whereas in Tolkien, Sauron becomes a barely embodied evil essence.

    In terms of literature, Tolkien quite intentionally is mirroring the sagas, and Anglo-Saxon lays such as Beowulf, which arose in the early middle ages. And I share this interest. But it is worth pointing out that they lack the depth that we find in the western tradition arising out of classical Greek theatre.

  • neil_pogi

    quote: ''If the supernatural does not exist, how can there be genuine moral obligations? The classic atheist response is that evolution has created a sophisticated herd instinct in the human race that causes us to want to be good to each other. Those people who lacked a moral compass were simply outcompeted by those of us with a sense of morality – those who could work together for our collective benefit.''

    -- evolution is based on 'survival of the fittest', then how can atheists explain how morality ''kicked in'' their brain? i have never met a true atheist who practices this 'survival of the fittest' behavior or activity!

    • VicqRuiz

      A serious and exhaustive examination of how our internal moral codes came to be would probably lead one more to deism than anything else.

      I agree that human concepts of morality are difficult approaching impossible to explain by pure naturalism.

      They are also difficult versus impossible to explain by attributing them to the jealous, vengeful caudillo Yahweh.

      • Doug Shaver

        I agree that human concepts of morality are difficult approaching impossible to explain by pure naturalism.

        Why? Do you think moral behavior is inconducive to survival?

      • neil_pogi

        objective morality: do not kill

        relative morality: a person can kill IF someone is trying to kill him as a defense..

        remove that objective morality, then you can kill ay body you want.

    • Doug Shaver

      evolution is based on 'survival of the fittest',

      That is not its basis. That is its outcome.

      • neil_pogi

        how come that there is morality running in your blood if you are not an outcome of it (''survival of the fittest'')?

        • Doug Shaver

          how come that there is morality running in your blood

          I don't believe there is.

          • neil_pogi

            of course, because you are an atheist. if you truly are,then you must believe in 'survival of the fittest'

          • Doug Shaver

            because you are an atheist. if you truly are,then you must believe in 'survival of the fittest'

            You are continuing to exhibit your incorrigible ignorance. Being an atheist does not oblige me to believe anything of the sort.

          • neil_pogi

            that is your belief (survival of the fittest), evolution holds into it!

          • Doug Shaver

            Can you name one book that you have read on the subject of either atheism or evolution?

          • neil_pogi

            you don't know all about it? evolution teaches that!

          • Doug Shaver

            you don't know all about it?

            I know something about it, because I have read many books explaining it.

            evolution teaches that!

            You know nothing about what it teaches, because you have made no effort to learn anything.

          • neil_pogi

            evolution says that it originates from non-living matter to living matter...
            explain that! or evolutionists are trying hard that abiogenesis is not part of evolution! oh really? so how come living matter 'evolve' from non-living? that is sometimes called 'chemical evolution'

          • Doug Shaver

            evolution says that it originates from non-living matter to living matter...
            explain that!

            There is nothing to explain. Evolution does not say that.

    • Doug Shaver

      i have never met a true atheist who practices this 'survival of the fittest' behavior or activity!

      Having seen what you think a true atheist is, it's no wonder you've never met one.

      • neil_pogi

        whether you like it or not, an atheist is still a created being that is why he is endowed with morality. there are No true atheists

        • Doug Shaver

          whether you like it or not, an atheist is still a created being

          Whatever is true, is true whether I like it or not. Also whether you like it or not. The truth is what it is regardless of the personal preferences of any human being or of every human being.

          • neil_pogi

            'truth will set you free'.... JC

          • Doug Shaver

            Yes, and I have a clear opinion about which of us is more free.

          • neil_pogi

            atheism - you can imagine things unlimited even if science says that it is irrational..

    • Michael Murray

      You might like to read "Why I believed: Reflections of a former missionary" by Kenneth W. Daniels. If you look at his website he has links to a few free online copies or it is on Amazon.

      http://www.kwdaniels.com/

      He has a section on evolution and morality and some interesting discussion of morality amongst non-human primates.

      • neil_pogi

        of course, animals have instinct about some morality, including the keeping and caring of their offsprings and peers. the issue here is that evolution is foundedon ''survival of the fittest''. if we observe some morality in animal kingdoms, then it is evdience that the ''survival of the fittest'' is very very false! it only shows that all life is created, and endowed with morality, therefore came from a ''morality-giver'' who is God

  • Lazarus

    Well, merry Christmas to everybody.
    May you enjoy a safe and happy time of rest and reflection.

    X

    • Michael Murray

      And you! I hope it's not too hot where you are. I think we topped the global temperature for cities for Christmas Day.

      • Doug Shaver

        Right now it's 34 F in San Bernardino. The previous record low for Christmas day was 37, just 5 years ago.

        • Steven Dillon

          Blizzarding here in SD :P

          • Doug Shaver

            I spent four years in a place where, typically, it snowed for maybe one day every winter. Other than that, every place I've lived, snow was so rare that it was a major news event when it happened.

        • Michael Murray

          Brrrrrgh. I'm in Australia so except for a few years studying in the UK and Christmas in Toronto / Montreal many years ago I have little understanding of that kind of temperature! 41.3 C maximum here today. Hottest Christmas Day since 1941.

      • Lazarus

        Yeah, summer here. Dry as bone.

        • Michael Murray

          Usually dry here but for the next few days we are picking up moisture from the tropical cyclones up north. Quite a lot of rain before the New Year.

  • Doug Shaver

    At some point the tension was too much: either morality is a farce, everything is random with no meaning, and the human mind is mired in inescapable confusion or atheism is false. I chose the latter. That was the logical side.

    That choice was in no way logical.

    The assertion “either morality is a farce, everything is random with no meaning, and the human mind is mired in inescapable confusion or atheism is false” is a false dichotomy. It is not made true either by the incessant repetition of Christian apologists or the gut feeling of a naive teenager.

    And even if it were true, whenever “either A or B” is actually true, it is rarely the case that personal preference determines which of A or B is the true statement. It is not logical to say B is true because “I chose B.”

    The idea that being, beauty, and morality were merely productive illusions imposed on us through biological hardwiring crafted through the random process of natural selection rang hollow.

    It should ring hollow to anyone who thinks natural selection is just a random process, but anyone who thinks that is exhibiting a considerable ignorance about natural selection. The process includes events that are random, but to then say that the entire process is random is like saying that the process of making pastry is mixing batter.

    On the emotional side, so many joys in this world have nothing to do with self-preservation or successful reproduction: art, music, a beautiful sunset, etc.

    Even among atheists, a common misconception of evolution is that it must explain every particular trait possessed by any organism in terms of that trait’s survival value. This extreme kind of adaptationism badly misrepresents the theory of natural selection.

    The richness of life, which is on full poetic display in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, made me recognize that supposedly rational atheism did not reveal the truth of things; instead, it removed their intrinsic wonder and worth.

    Atheism is not supposed to reveal any truths. It is only a denial of one particular alleged truth.

    And if you think atheism forces a denial of wonder and worth, then you are calling me a liar, because I will assure you that I experience both of them, no less now than when I was a believer.

    Even the idea of accomplishing something is finally an illusion. At this juncture, the fruits of atheism were inevitable: nihilism, despair, and, most ironically, confusion.

    If that was your judgment when you were an atheist, so be it. Most of us atheists have reached a different judgment.

    The classic atheist response is that evolution has created a sophisticated herd instinct in the human race that causes us to want to be good to each other. Those people who lacked a moral compass were simply outcompeted by those of us with a sense of morality – those who could work together for our collective benefit.

    Deep down, though, I knew this was specious. Even if it could fully account for our moral sense, which I questioned, it did not explain genuine moral obligations.

    A morality necessary for survival is as genuine as it needs to be.

    it only explains why we perceive moral obligations; not whether (or why) there are moral obligations.

    Its inconsistency with Aristotelian essentialism doesn’t falsify it. If we don’t fulfill our moral obligations, we suffer. That makes those obligations as real as they need to be.

    Much of history teaches that violence, greed, and domination pay off handsomely in the worldly sense.

    I have no idea what “worldly sense” you’re talking about. I have lived a long time, and I have read a great deal of history. I have never met, or learned about, a single violent, greedy, or domineering person whom I have envied. In particular, those with whom I have been personally acquainted have been, without exception, very unhappy people.

    Just because being a thorough-going immoralist hasn’t seemed to work to date doesn’t mean it wouldn’t later.

    You may follow a moral code that treats human survival as an irrelevancy. The real irrelevancy, in my judgment, would be any moral principle that tends to kill the people who follow it or destroy the communities in which it is followed.

    Furthermore, who pronounced from on high that the success of the human race was the ultimate good?

    Nobody. So what?

    That itself is an assumption that cannot be empirically proven.

    No worldview is without such assumptions. None. No exceptions are even possible.

    Going back to the original problem, does “good” even exist?

    Things that we call good do exist. To call something good is to make a judgment, not to state a fact.

    I realized that within the purely naturalistic worldview, all morality is finally a matter of opinion. All the moralist can say to the immoralist is, “My opinion is different than yours.”

    To call something an opinion is not to say that it cannot be justified. The moralist can say, “My opinion is justified, and yours is not.”

    I’m also not saying that atheists are immoral. They just can’t account for the existence of genuine moral obligations. They are, like I was, living in great tension.

    It does take some intellectual work to justify morality under naturalism — certainly more than it takes to say “God says so.” Perhaps more to your point, I’ll admit that some of us don’t have the luxury of supposing that whatever conclusions we have reached are infallible. A constant awareness that one could possibly be mistaken is a source of tension, yes.

    • FH: The classic atheist response is that evolution has created a sophisticated herd instinct in the human race that causes us to want to be good to each other. Those people who lacked a moral compass were simply outcompeted by those of us with a sense of morality – those who could work together for our collective benefit.

      Deep down, though, I knew this was specious. Even if it could fully account for our moral sense, which I questioned, it did not explain genuine moral obligations.

      DS: A morality necessary for survival is as genuine as it needs to be.

      I don't understand this as a response to Fredric's blog post, neither as a response to what you specifically quoted nor as a response to the whole gestalt. Fredric is reacting against the bare minimum which is required for the survival of some humans. (How many would really have to survive in order for the species to continue existing?) Some sort of caste system with a permanent class of Untouchables is 100% consistent with mere survival. There is a very real question of whether anything added on top of the bare minimum is merely a contrivance of power or instead, access to something like the Form of Justice. In a 1971 debate, Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault address the matter, with each coming out on a different side of that important issue. I don't think it's too unreasonable to suggest that Fredric has intuited this matter; your response squashes any such intuition.

      If we don’t fulfill our moral obligations, we suffer. That makes those obligations as real as they need to be.

      What about all the moral obligations which call us to suffer? Suppose, for example, that every atheist who ever criticized the Bible for endorsing slavery were to go to slaveryfootprint.org, do the hard research to see how [s]he can adjust his/her consuming habits to bring the # of slaves [s]he employs to zero. That would, it seems to me, require a great deal of sacrifice. For example, what happens if slavery is involved, however indirectly, in the production of most Hollywood blockbusters. Would not this class of atheists be morally obligated to do nothing to increase profits from such blockbusters?

      I get that the final state of human existence is seen as involving zero suffering. But en route, it very much seems to be a question of who must suffer to help us get there. Suffering-minimization might be an end, but making it a means seems antithetical to it being an end. Jesus' choice to go to the cross for our sins makes clear that one route to a suffering-free endpoint is for those who say they are working towards it to voluntarily endure more of the suffering required to get there. We also see St. Paul endorse this in 2 Cor 4:7–12. Arguably, humans have accomplished great things by choosing to follow Jesus and Paul, instead of a suffering-minimization plan (applied to means, not ends). And yet, you would obscure this.

      • Doug Shaver

        A morality necessary for survival is as genuine as it needs to be.

        I don't understand this as a response to Fredric's blog post, neither as a response to what you specifically quoted nor as a response to the whole gestalt.

        I might have misunderstood him, but he seemed to be claiming that a purely utilitarian morality could not be a genuine morality. My only point was to disagree with that claim.

        If we don’t fulfill our moral obligations, we suffer. That makes those obligations as real as they need to be.

        What about all the moral obligations which call us to suffer?

        I don’t believe there are any such obligations. Some Christians may see virtue in suffering per se, but I don’t.

        Some morally obligatory actions do cause us to suffer, but they are obligatory for some reason having nothing to do with our own comfort. In other words, those actions would be no less obligatory if we could do them without inflicting any pain on ourselves.

        Fredric is reacting against the bare minimum which is required for the survival of some humans.

        I’m not claiming that morality is all and only about the survival of our species. What I and other naturalists claim is that a moral sense — some perception of a difference between allowable and unallowable behaviors — was necessary for our ancestors’ survival and is still necessary for our own.

        There is a very real question of whether anything added on top of the bare minimum is merely a contrivance of power or instead, access to something like the Form of Justice.

        Yes, it’s a question, and people have been asking it at least since Socrates’ time. And, no one has proposed an answer that everyone accepts. It does not follow that no answer yet proposed is the right one.

        I don't think it's too unreasonable to suggest that Fredric has intuited this matter; your response squashes any such intuition.

        Intuition is a good source of ideas. Many scientific hypotheses have originated there, but any hypothesis, whatever its source, has to be tested.

        Suppose, for example, that every atheist who ever criticized the Bible for endorsing slavery were to go to slaveryfootprint.org, do the hard research to see how [s]he can adjust his/her consuming habits to bring the # of slaves [s]he employs to zero.

        I’m not claiming to have discovered an ethical algorithm that will unambiguously answer every moral question with which the modern Western world has to deal, and I’m not believing that anyone else has, either.

        I get that the final state of human existence is seen as involving zero suffering.

        I might agree in the sense of its being a consummation to be wished, but I see good reasons to think it quite impossible to attain. We will be busy enough for a very long time just finding and implementing ways to reduce suffering.

        Suffering-minimization might be an end, but making it a means seems antithetical to it being an end.

        In my moral philosophy, it is only an end, not a means.

        But en route, it very much seems to be a question of who must suffer to help us get there.

        That question will arise, and I’m not claiming to have an easy answer or an easy way to get the hard answers. But it is an unavoidable question. We can’t ignore it just by saying, “We will not make any people suffer just to lessen the suffering of other people,” because “Nobody” is one answer to the question “Who must suffer to help us get there?”

        • I might have misunderstood him, but he seemed to be claiming that a purely utilitarian morality could not be a genuine morality. My only point was to disagree with that claim.

          I suspect you and Fredric actually disagree on what 'genuine' means. A morality which is just fine with many of a species' members being extinguished (including any chances for progeny) doesn't really match with everyday use of the term 'morality'. Do you disagree?

          DS: If we don’t fulfill our moral obligations, we suffer. That makes those obligations as real as they need to be.

          LB: What about all the moral obligations which call us to suffer?

          DS: I don’t believe there are any such obligations. Some Christians may see virtue in suffering per se, but I don’t.

          I'm sorry, I didn't mean to indicate that suffering itself is of value. Instead, I meant to suggest that the underlined can be dangerously false. Plenty of people would suffer less if they chose to do the less moral thing, suffer less over their entire lifetimes. The OT contains repeated questioning of "why the wicked prosper", including "dying fat and happy". One's planning horizon for suffering-minimizing is quite important; it doesn't seem at all clear that what evolution "cares" about is very related to what we ought to care about.

          I’m not claiming that morality is all and only about the survival of our species. What I and other naturalists claim is that a moral sense — some perception of a difference between allowable and unallowable behaviors — was necessary for our ancestors’ survival and is still necessary for our own.

          That's fine, but necessary conditions aren't necessarily sufficient conditions; without sufficient conditions, use of the word 'genuine' is dubious.

          LB: There is a very real question of whether anything added on top of the bare minimum is merely a contrivance of power or instead, access to something like the Form of Justice.

          DS: Yes, it’s a question, and people have been asking it at least since Socrates’ time. And, no one has proposed an answer that everyone accepts. It does not follow that no answer yet proposed is the right one.

          My point is that an overall effect (intended or not) of your initial comment was to suppress any discussion of the underlined. This, despite that an overall effect of the OP was to open up discussion of the underlined. In other words, Fredric writes that many things seemed ill-explained on atheistic presuppositions. I've re-read your initial comment several times and I cannot find a way to interpret it other than a complete and utter denial that there's anything ill-explained on atheistic presuppositions which might be better explained on Christian presuppositions.

          I’m not claiming to have discovered an ethical algorithm that will unambiguously answer every moral question with which the modern Western world has to deal, and I’m not believing that anyone else has, either.

          That wasn't at all my point. Instead, it was that the moral thing to do can require quite a lot of sacrifice and suffering, and that life is easier—there is less suffering—for many if they do not do the moral thing.

          • Doug Shaver

            I suspect you and Fredric actually disagree on what 'genuine' means.

            That would not surprise me, but I can’t address the issue without hearing something about it from him.

            A morality which is just fine with many of a species' members being extinguished (including any chances for progeny) doesn't really match with everyday use of the term 'morality'. Do you disagree?

            All I know about the everyday use of morality is that it is concerned with the difference between right and wrong behavior. There is no consensus, so far as I can tell, as to what that difference consists of or how it is to be discerned.

            I meant to suggest that the underlined [If we don’t fulfill our moral obligations, we suffer] can be dangerously false.

            It could be, but the observation that we sometimes suffer if we do fulfill our moral obligations does not falsify it.

            Plenty of people would suffer less if they chose to do the less moral thing, suffer less over their entire lifetimes.

            I’m not convinced that that is so.

            The OT contains repeated questioning of "why the wicked prosper", including "dying fat and happy".

            Some immoral people can certainly be more prosperous, materially speaking, than some moral people, but I think we all know that being rich is no cure for suffering. As for “dying fat and happy,” how do we know that any wicked person has ever died happy? Aren’t we just assuming that some of them do, and don’t we assume it just because of their material prosperity?

            it doesn't seem at all clear that what evolution "cares" about is very related to what we ought to care about.

            It doesn’t need to be. What evolution cares about, even figuratively, is a factual matter. No matter how relevant some fact might be to some moral issue, it is not determinative. I know you disagree with me about the distinction between facts and values, but it is a distinction I accept. If you now wish to argue, “There is no such distinction, and therefore you are mistaken,” I have no counterargument to offer.

            What I and other naturalists claim is that a moral sense — some perception of a difference between allowable and unallowable behaviors — was necessary for our ancestors’ survival and is still necessary for our own.

            That's fine, but necessary conditions aren't necessarily sufficient conditions; without sufficient conditions, use of the word 'genuine' is dubious.

            I’m not getting your point. Can you elaborate?

            I've re-read your initial comment several times and I cannot find a way to interpret it other than a complete and utter denial that there's anything ill-explained on atheistic presuppositions which might be better explained on Christian presuppositions.

            Of course I deny it. In a forum such as this, why is that a problem? I also explained why I deny it. I get it that you don’t accept my explanation, but I’m not unjustified just because you disagree with me.

            the moral thing to do can require quite a lot of sacrifice and suffering, and that life is easier—there is less suffering—for many if they do not do the moral thing.

            I don’t see how that contradicts my claim that evolution suffices to account for our having a moral sense.

          • That would not surprise me, but I can’t address the issue without hearing something about it from him.

            Curious; I seem to be able to get a lot more out of his article.

            LB: A morality which is just fine with many of a species' members being extinguished (including any chances for progeny) doesn't really match with everyday use of the term 'morality'. Do you disagree?

            DS: All I know about the everyday use of morality is that it is concerned with the difference between right and wrong behavior. There is no consensus, so far as I can tell, as to what that difference consists of or how it is to be discerned.

            What I said is an assertion of what morality is not, which is very different from asserting what morality is. I would bet you that if I polled the baristas at my local
            coffee shop, they would agree that a 'morality' which merely ensures the survival of the human race—which is perfectly compatible with the vast majority of humanity being enslaved or exterminated—doesn't deserve to be called 'morality'. And yet, does evolution really give you anything more than this, other than as spandrel?

            LB: Plenty of people would suffer less if they chose to do the less moral thing, suffer less over their entire lifetimes.

            DS: I’m not convinced that that is so.

            Do you thereby think that { the many people who fail to stop engaging in consumerist activities which benefit from and encourage slavery via globalism } would suffer less, over their entire lifetimes, if they were to do the moral thing?

            Some immoral people can certainly be more prosperous, materially speaking, than some moral people, but I think we all know that being rich is no cure for suffering. As for “dying fat and happy,” how do we know that any wicked person has ever died happy? Aren’t we just assuming that some of them do, and don’t we assume it just because of their material prosperity?

            We can certainly make recourse to empirical data, but it seems to me that your own position presupposes things about the data which you don't at all know to be true.

            LB: it doesn't seem at all clear that what evolution "cares" about is very related to what we ought to care about.

            DS: It doesn’t need to be.

            But then any instance where you argued that "X suffices for morality" needs to draw on a source other than evolution—does it not? Unless you wish to rest quite a lot on spandrels?

            I’m not getting your point. Can you elaborate?

            You cited what we can call a necessary condition of genuine morality. And yet, language such as "A morality necessary for survival is as genuine as it needs to be." seems to draw on sufficient conditions for genuine morality.

            LB: I've re-read your initial comment several times and I cannot find a way to interpret it other than a complete and utter denial that there's anything [edit: plausibly even if mistaken] ill-explained on atheistic presuppositions which might be better explained on Christian presuppositions.

            DS: Of course I deny it. In a forum such as this, why is that a problem? I also explained why I deny it. I get it that you don’t accept my explanation, but I’m not unjustified just because you disagree with me.

            Sorry, I should have added what I put in underline. Rephrased, you are not expressing any empathy or sympathy for Fredric's position whatsoever. It really looks like a refusal to try and understand what he's saying. Do you see this? It is as if he's just stupid for thinking that he might be seeing something which is better explained on Christianity than materialism/​naturalism/​physicalism. Now, you didn't say that, but the way you responded makes that a plausible inference.

            LB: the moral thing to do can require quite a lot of sacrifice and suffering, and that life is easier—there is less suffering—for many if they do not do the moral thing.

            DS: I don’t see how that contradicts my claim that evolution suffices to account for our having a moral sense.

            I was responding to "If we don’t fulfill our moral obligations, we suffer." Furthermore, you have only given a basis for a very degenerate 'moral sense', one which is perfectly consistent with mass slavery and genocide. That's pretty weak sauce, don't you think?

          • Doug Shaver

            Furthermore, you have only given a basis for a very degenerate 'moral sense', one which is perfectly consistent with mass slavery and genocide. That's pretty weak sauce, don't you think?

            The position I am defending is not any particular moral rule such as “Slavery is wrong.” I am defending the position that evolution suffices to account for our having an intuitive sense that no society can survive without establishing a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable behavior and compelling at least its own members to observe that distinction. That is consistent with the possibility of some societies having a moral code of which we ourselves would disapprove. It is also consistent with our being justified in our disapproval.

            I would bet you that if I polled the baristas at my local coffee shop, they would agree that a 'morality' which merely ensures the survival of the human race—which is perfectly compatible with the vast majority of humanity being enslaved or exterminated—doesn't deserve to be called 'morality'. And yet, does evolution really give you anything more than this, other than as spandrel?

            I suspect that most people, in most places at most times throughout history, would agree that the extermination of most of humanity would be immoral. And I think there is a good evolutionary reason for this consensus.

            Do you thereby think that { the many people who fail to stop engaging in consumerist activities which benefit from and encourage slavery via globalism } would suffer less, over their entire lifetimes, if they were to do the moral thing?

            You seem to assume that I’m signing on to the moral code of whoever produces http://slaveryfootprint.org. That assumption would be in error, if you are making it.

            it seems to me that your own position presupposes things about the data which you don't at all know to be true.

            It is not a presupposition. It is an inference from observation. I will freely admit my observations have been severely limited, but they’re all I have. If you or anyone else has made some observations that seem to contradict mine, then we can discuss them.

            then any instance where you argued that "X suffices for morality" needs to draw on a source other than evolution—does it not?

            I’m not sure why. Does an argument that “Religion accounts for morality” need to draw on a source other than religion? If not, then what is the relevant difference between religion and evolution?

            You cited what we can call a necessary condition of genuine morality. And yet, language such as "A morality necessary for survival is as genuine as it needs to be." seems to draw on sufficient conditions for genuine morality.

            The language of common discourse doesn’t always track the formalities of strict logic. To say that we could not have survived without a moral sense is to say that, given that we did survive, the conditions of our ancestral environment must have been sufficient to produce our moral sense.

            Rephrased, you are not expressing any empathy or sympathy for Fredric's position whatsoever.

            That has nothing to do with whether I am presenting a cogent argument for my own position. It is an accusation of incivility, not of faulty reasoning, and as such is irrelevant to this discussion.

            It really looks like a refusal to try and understand what he's saying. Do you see this? It is as if he's just stupid for thinking that he might be seeing something which is better explained on Christianity than materialism/?naturalism/?physicalism. Now, you didn't say that, but the way you responded makes that a plausible inference.

            I can do nothing about your criteria of plausibility. I think I understand perfectly well what he is saying, and I think I have said nothing to imply otherwise. I also deny thinking that he is stupid for believing what he says, or to have said anything implying that I think so.

          • I am defending the position that evolution suffices to account for our having an intuitive sense that no society can survive without establishing a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable behavior and compelling at least its own members to observe that distinction.

            I don't think anyone is taking issue with this. Instead, the problem is calling such an extremely low bar—again, one "perfectly consistent with mass slavery and genocide"—anything approaching 'genuine morality'.

            I suspect that most people, in most places at most times throughout history, would agree that the extermination of most of humanity would be immoral. And I think there is a good evolutionary reason for this consensus.

            I highly doubt evolution had anything like the time to give us any remotely reliable intuitions which bear on us having appreciable power over the totality of our species. But shoot, what's your "good evolutionary reason"?

            You seem to assume that I’m signing on to the moral code of whoever produces http://slaveryfootprint.org. That assumption would be in error, if you are making it.

            Incorrect; I was merely presupposing that you think slavery is very wrong, and that its wrongness takes priority over many other things. However, you could certainly adopt some moral position whereby you assert that "slavery is wrong", but willingly benefit from and encourage slavery via globalism because you have other, higher priorities. Whatever it is, I don't think I really understand the implications of "If we don’t fulfill our moral obligations, we suffer.", anymore.

            It is not a presupposition. It is an inference from observation.

            What observation(s)?

            LB: But then any instance where you argued that "X suffices for morality" needs to draw on a source other than evolution—does it not? Unless you wish to rest quite a lot on spandrels?

            DS: I’m not sure why. Does an argument that “Religion accounts for morality” need to draw on a source other than religion? If not, then what is the relevant difference between religion and evolution?

            If the explanans insufficiently accounts for the explanandum, then one needs to draw on some [additional] explanans, at least if you want to lay claim to having all the relevant building blocks for a full explanation.

            To say that we could not have survived without a moral sense is to say that, given that we did survive, the conditions of our ancestral environment must have been sufficient to produce our moral sense.

            You're possibly equivocating on 'moral sense', between that which was sufficient to get Homo sapiens on the scene, say 20,000 years ago, and that which got us to today, where we despise genocide and slavery. I say 'possibly' because I don't think we know the probabilities. And yet, your original comment presumes that you aren't in any danger of equivocating. It rules out any possibility that humans may have needed a source very different from what evolution had the ability to provide.

            I think I understand perfectly well what he is saying, and I think I have said nothing to imply otherwise.

            Those who fail to express "any empathy or sympathy" for a person's position are not (ceteris paribus) on good grounds to say that they "understand perfectly well" that position.

            I also deny thinking that he is stupid for believing what he says, or to have said anything implying that I think so.

            Describing a position as riddled with errors (and rather basic ones at that) without offering any way to see it as otherwise (e.g. maybe many of the errors disappear or become irrelevant when viewed from another perspective) inevitably suggests stupidity and/or naïveté.

          • Doug Shaver

            I don't think anyone is taking issue with this. Instead, the problem is calling such an extremely low bar—again, one "perfectly consistent with mass slavery and genocide"—anything approaching 'genuine morality'.

            Which behaviors do you think a moral code has to mandate or prohibit in order to instantiate a genuine morality?

            I suspect that most people, in most places at most times throughout history, would agree that the extermination of most of humanity would be immoral. And I think there is a good evolutionary reason for this consensus.

            what's your "good evolutionary reason"?

            Genes want (metaphorically speaking) to survive. To do that, they need to facilitate the survival of the bodies they produce. They aren’t doing that if they produce bodies with a tendency to destroy each other.

            you could certainly adopt some moral position whereby you assert that "slavery is wrong", but willingly benefit from and encourage slavery via globalism because you have other, higher priorities. Whatever it is, I don't think I really understand the implications of "If we don’t fulfill our moral obligations, we suffer.", anymore.

            What you seem not to understand is that from “If not A, then B,” it does not follow that “If A, then not B.” It may be the case that I will suffer regardless of whether I do some immoral act.

            Anyway, I am not obliged to agree that a particular act is immoral just because somebody puts up a website saying it is.

            What observation(s)?

            Absence of evidence. I have never known an immoral person who seemed happy, as best I can judge the happiness of other people. Neither have received, either by word of mouth or by reading, a credible report of any evil person dying happy.

            Does an argument that “Religion accounts for morality” need to draw on a source other than religion? If not, then what is the relevant difference between religion and evolution?

            If the explanans insufficiently accounts for the explanandum, then one needs to draw on some [additional] explanans, at least if you want to lay claim to having all the relevant building blocks for a full explanation.

            I don’t think you answered my question. But, if you think my explanation is insufficient, then you need to more specific about what is missing from it.

            You're possibly equivocating on 'moral sense', between that which was sufficient to get Homo sapiens on the scene, say 20,000 years ago, and that which got us to today, where we despise genocide and slavery. I say 'possibly' because I don't think we know the probabilities. And yet, your original comment presumes that you aren't in any danger of equivocating. It rules out any possibility that humans may have needed a source very different from what evolution had the ability to provide.

            I am not attempting to rule out any other source. I am defending the position that we did not need any other. It’s true that I don’t believe there ever was another source, but that isn’t what I’m trying to prove.

            When I speak of a moral sense in this context, all I mean is a perception, by the members of a society where it exists, that there are certain behaviors that the society must not tolerate and certain other behaviors that the society must require. I claim that natural selection sufficiently accounts for the existence of a moral sense so defined.

            Whether any particular behavior gets assigned, by some particular society, to one category or the other is a different issue. I am not claiming that natural selection made us averse to slavery. The modern demonization of slavery was a result of our social evolution, not our biological evolution. But that social evolution could not have happened if we had had no notion of right and wrong to begin with.

            Those who fail to express "any empathy or sympathy" for a person's position are not (ceteris paribus) on good grounds to say that they "understand perfectly well" that position.

            This discussion began with my response to:

            Even if it [evolution] could fully account for our moral sense, which I questioned, it did not explain genuine moral obligations.

            What do you think I have failed to understand about that statement?

            Describing a position as riddled with errors (and rather basic ones at that) without offering any way to see it as otherwise (e.g. maybe many of the errors disappear or become irrelevant when viewed from another perspective) inevitably suggests stupidity and/or naïveté.

            I deny that “riddled with errors” fairly describes my characterization of Fredric’s position.

          • Which behaviors do you think a moral code has to mandate or prohibit in order to instantiate a genuine morality?

            Ultimately, I think it has to make an ontological difference between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations. But as a necessary but not sufficient condition, let's go with not enabling slavery in any way and not enabling genocide in any way. Maybe that's not possible—maybe under certain conditions, one must allow one or both of those. But let's give it a shot?

            Genes want (metaphorically speaking) to survive. To do that, they need to facilitate the survival of the bodies they produce. They aren’t doing that if they produce bodies with a tendency to destroy each other.

            You've forgotten Malthus. See also WP: Intraspecific competition. Anyone who has watched the Nature Channel knows how often there will either be intra-species violence or very few of the males will be allowed to reproduce. While I'm hesitant to make the gene the unit of selection, I can always suggest that if my genes can wipe out or subdue your genes, they'll be able to leave more progeny.

            What you seem not to understand is that from “If not A, then B,” it does not follow that “If A, then not B.” It may be the case that I will suffer regardless of whether I do some immoral act.

            I don't think I'm doing that. Instead, I'm merely expressing skepticism that the moral path in life can be well-associated with a suffering-minimization path, measured over the individual's lifespan. I thereby question whether "If we don’t fulfill our moral obligations, we suffer." really does "[make] those obligations as real as they need to be".

            Anyway, I am not obliged to agree that a particular act is immoral just because somebody puts up a website saying it is.

            Do you really believe that supporting slavery via globalism is anything other than immoral? That's the basic claim of http://slaveryfootprint.org. Surely the indirection by which you employ slaves when you buy products which had inputs somewhere in the supply chain from slaves is irrelevant to the moral issue?

            I have never known an immoral person who seemed happy, as best I can judge the happiness of other people.

            What's your sample set? That is, of how many people—good or many people—are you aware of their happiness/​unhappiness state nearing death? Surely you are controlling for the toll that slow-death conditions take on all people, and are controlling for that. Surely you are also controlling for the regrets pretty much everyone has at end-of-life.

            I spent a bit of time searching and found The 25 Most Evil People in History; it seems that quite a few of them could have easily died happy. If Osama bin Laden viewed himself as a True Believer in some violent, jihad-worshiping version of Islam, surely he would have died happy? He accomplished so much! There are others on the list I suspect this of as well, but happiness state at death doesn't seem like the most accessible of statistics.

            For one final bit, the Psychology Today article Can Bad People Be Happy? reveals a Western prejudice to think that you need to be good to be happy; it just doesn't seem true. It's dogma which has been passed down since at least Plato, dogma which the Bible flatly denies. Given what I have seen in life, I'm going to go with the Bible over Plato on this one.

            LB: it doesn't seem at all clear that what evolution "cares" about is very related to what we ought to care about.

            DS: It doesn’t need to be.

            LB: But then any instance where you argued that "X suffices for morality" needs to draw on a source other than evolution—does it not? Unless you wish to rest quite a lot on spandrels?

            DS: I’m not sure why. Does an argument that “Religion accounts for morality” need to draw on a source other than religion? If not, then what is the relevant difference between religion and evolution?

            LB: If the explanans insufficiently accounts for the explanandum, then one needs to draw on some [additional] explanans, at least if you want to lay claim to having all the relevant building blocks for a full explanation.

            DS: I don’t think you answered my question. But, if you think my explanation is insufficient, then you need to more specific about what is missing from it.

            The basic story you're telling is that evolution, which "cares" about things possibly very different from what we care about, suffices to explain what we care about. You don't see any problem with this? As to religious accounts for morality, they are not reductionistic like an evolutionary account, and thus require different analysis. A quick analysis of Psalm 119 and Romans 7 will show that both OT and NT folks expected God to help them obey his law. This posits a force—very different from impersonal, amoral forces that science studies—which should be observable if it exists. But let's recall that we are focusing on whether evolution can produce genuine morality.

            I am not attempting to rule out any other source. I am defending the position that we did not need any other.

            Fine; I see very little difference in the two for all intents and purposes of this discussion or the OP. It's interesting that so much scifi is able to envision such seemingly immoral, highly advanced species. Those authors seem to imagine that selfish genes do not in any way have a tendency to lead to e.g. egalitarianism and a discarding of xenophobia (planet-level tribalism). Do you think they're just wrong?

            When I speak of a moral sense in this context, all I mean is a perception, by the members of a society where it exists, that there are certain behaviors that the society must not tolerate and certain other behaviors that the society must require. I claim that natural selection sufficiently accounts for the existence of a moral sense so defined.

            And yet, this is "perfectly consistent with mass slavery and genocide". It is perfectly consistent with a morality where "Might makes right." is true everywhere, all the time. Who would call such a thing 'genuine morality'?

            I am not claiming that natural selection made us averse to slavery. The modern demonization of slavery was a result of our social evolution, not our biological evolution. But that social evolution could not have happened if we had had no notion of right and wrong to begin with.

            Hold on a second, hold on. When you say 'evolution' with no qualifier, do you mean 'social evolution' to be a possible meaning—anywhere in this discussion? I sense a possible conflation of change-over-time not superintended by mind or minds, and change-over-time very much superintended by mind or minds. That is probably disastrous to any discussion of 'genuine morality'.

            What do you think I have failed to understand about that statement?

            Given that you have just destabilized what I thought you meant by 'evolution', we'll have to wait and see until you respond to this comment.

            I deny that “riddled with errors” fairly describes my characterization of Fredric’s position.

            I have no idea you accomplished that denial. It seems clear as day to me that you fed Fredric's argument through a wood chipper.

          • Doug Shaver

            Which behaviors do you think a moral code has to mandate or prohibit in order to instantiate a genuine morality?

            Ultimately, I think it has to make an ontological difference between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations.

            When you’re talking about ontology, you’re talking metaphysics. If I remember correctly, you take a realist, i.e. Aristotelian, view of moral principles. I will stipulate that on such a view, natural selection probably cannot account for our moral sense.

            But as a necessary but not sufficient condition, let's go with not enabling slavery in any way and not enabling genocide in any way. Maybe that's not possible—maybe under certain conditions, one must allow one or both of those. But let's give it a shot?

            For the sake of your argument, I don’t think it matters whether certain exceptions might obtain, if we can state them with sufficient specificity. As I have already noted, I am not claiming that natural selection can account for any particular moral rule. All that I think it needs to explain is that every human society has a moral code of some kind. But there are some moral rules that do seem universal or nearly so, and I think that observation reinforces my hypothesis. It is to be expected that if certain behaviors are inimical to survival regardless of environment, then those behaviors will be prohibited by all societies, and this would be consistent with the hypothesis that we are hard-wired with a tendency to discourage those behaviors in other people by whatever means are at our disposal.

            You've forgotten Malthus.

            Hardly. His observation is a key point in the argument for natural selection.

            Anyone who has watched the Nature Channel knows how often there will either be intra-species violence or very few of the males will be allowed to reproduce.

            A strategy that works for one species or even many species will not necessarily work for all species. Honeybees, like Homo sapiens, are a social species, and nearly all their females are sterile. That doesn’t mean Homo sapiens could have survived if most women had been sterile.

            While I'm hesitant to make the gene the unit of selection, I can always suggest that if my genes can wipe out or subdue your genes, they'll be able to leave more progeny.

            Natural selection doesn’t work at the individual level. It works at the population level. And what you’re suggesting actually makes my point. I am claiming that human populations with the genes for a moral sense would indeed have wiped out or subdued human populations that didn’t have those genes and, consequently, lacked any notion of a difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

            I'm merely expressing skepticism that the moral path in life can be well-associated with a suffering-minimization path, measured over the individual's lifespan.

            If you find it hard to believe that moral people, at least in general, are happier than immoral people, then you have good reason to disagree with my thesis. I can’t pretend that my own observations on the matter constitute a sufficient data set to prove you wrong.

            Do you really believe that supporting slavery via globalism is anything other than immoral?

            What I really believe is that my opinion on that particular issue is irrelevant to my argument concerning the evolutionary basis of our moral sense.

            I have never known an immoral person who seemed happy, as best I can judge the happiness of other people.

            What's your sample set?

            I haven’t been keeping records. I’ve just admitted that my sample set is inadequate for justifying any hypothesis, but it’s the only sample set I have.

            Surely you are controlling for the toll that slow-death conditions take on all people, and are controlling for that. Surely you are also controlling for the regrets pretty much everyone has at end-of-life.

            I am not claiming that all suffering is caused by immoral behavior or that moral people never suffer while dying. As for those regrets, nobody has ever lived a morally perfect life, have they? The happiness with which we live, and with which we die, depends on a great many things. Our moral integrity is only one of them, but it is an indispensable one.

            I spent a bit of time searching and found The 25 Most Evil People in History; it seems that quite a few of them could have easily died happy.

            I agree: They could have, for all I know. But possibility is not probability. Prove that they actually did die happy, and you’ll prove I’m wrong on this particular issue.

            but happiness state at death doesn't seem like the most accessible of statistics.

            Obviously, which is why I don’t claim I can prove my point. I’ve said, or at least meant to say, that it’s only an impression. But let me go ahead and stipulate that Bin Laden and a handful of other people like him do die in ecstasy. When we’re talking about what evolution can or cannot do, a few outliers of that sort don’t matter. Natural selection doesn’t work on individuals.

            And here is a further complication. Whatever moral sense we were endowed with by natural selection had to facilitate our survival not in the modern world but in our ancestral environment. And in that environment, as best we can determine what it was, the kind of tribalism exhibited by Bin Laden would have facilitated the survival of groups in which it was prevalent. It’s the same tribalism that seems to have been endorsed by the writers of certain books comprising the Old Testament, and I think it was the main reason why, in the recent U.S. election, we had to choose between two presidential candidates who were both hated by a majority of the American people.

            In case it’s not already perfectly clear: I am not claiming that natural selection gave us a perfect moral instinct as we would now judge moral perfection. I am claiming that (a) it gave us a moral instinct sufficient to ensure our survival in the environment where humans lived at the time they first evolved and that (b) it did so because such an instinct actually was necessary for our survival.

            the Psychology Today article Can Bad People Be Happy? reveals a Western prejudice to think that you need to be good to be happy

            I took one class in Eastern philosophy. It was hardly enough to make me an expert in any sense, but it did lead me to think that the prejudice is not unique to the West.

            it just doesn't seem true. It's dogma which has been passed down since at least Plato, dogma which the Bible flatly denies. Given what I have seen in life, I'm going to go with the Bible over Plato on this one.

            We’re all susceptible to confirmation bias. If I think Socrates was on to something when he said (according to Plato), “No man knowingly does evil,” then that will affect how I perceive the world. If you think the Bible is God’s word (in whatever sense), and the Bible disagrees with Socrates, then you will perceive the world differently than I do. That observation does nothing to prove which of us (if either) has the correct perception, but it could explain why our perceptions differ the way they do.

            The basic story you're telling is that evolution, which "cares" about things possibly very different from what we care about, suffices to explain what we care about. You don't see any problem with this?

            No, but I can understand your bafflement.

            The bottom line of what evolution cares about is getting as many of our genes as possible into the next generation. Any characteristic we may have, heritable or not, that is irrelevant to that objective is invisible to natural selection. However, any such invisible characteristic that happens to be genetically linked to a survival-related characteristic will be subject to selection pressure. Thus we get, by natural selection, what Stephen Jay Gould called spandrels.

            A quick analysis of Psalm 119 and Romans 7 will show that both OT and NT folks expected God to help them obey his law. This posits a force—very different from impersonal, amoral forces that science studies—which should be observable if it exists. But let's recall that we are focusing on whether evolution can produce genuine morality.

            It cannot, if by “genuine morality” you mean a moral code that would have been acceptable to the men who wrote the Bible. Biological evolution can explain why the authors had a moral code, and it can some of the rules embodied in that code. To explain the other rules, we need social evolution.

            Those [science-fiction] authors seem to imagine that selfish genes do not in any way have a tendency to lead to e.g. egalitarianism and a discarding of xenophobia (planet-level tribalism). Do you think they're just wrong?

            Yes and no.

            Steven Pinker has said, correctly as far as I can tell, that the current American intellectual climate is hostile to evolutionary psychology. The notion that our genes could have anything at all to do with our behavior is politically incorrect. In Star Trek’s case, this is manifest in the portrayal of interspecies romantic liaisons. Let us ignore, for the sake of artistic license, the extreme improbability of sufficient anatomic similarity for that to happen. I think it at least as improbable that any member of a humanoid from one world would want such a liaison with someone from an entirely different evolutionary lineage. For the writers to think this could happen, they must believe that sexual attraction is entirely a matter of social convention, and so if we humans ever become enlightened enough to realize that we’re no better than the Klingons or Ferengis, then we humans won’t have any reluctance to have sex with Klingons or Ferengis. And they believe this, not because they think our genes say it’s OK to have sex with other species, but because they think our genes have nothing to say about it in the first place. I think they’re quite wrong about that.

            But they are correct in the particular case of egalitarianism overcoming xenophobia. Our genes are not taking us there. If anything, they would prefer that we not go there, which is exactly why we’re not anywhere near there yet. Fortunately, those particular genes are not in complete control of our behavior. Our genes endow us with tendencies to think and act in certain ways because, for most of our history, those ways were more conducive to our survival than the alternatives. But other genes endowed us with cognitive abilities allowing us to recognize situations where those tendencies should be resisted. Resistance is not easy because we can’t make the tendencies just go away. Human nature is a real thing, and it is not egalitarian. Jefferson was simply mistaken when he called it “self-evident” that all men are created equal. But we need not suppose that human nature is so uniform or consistent that we are fated to forever act the way our ancestors acted. It is also our nature to strive to improve our lives, and in the modern world, that means using our higher cognitive functions to recognize the present inutility of indulging certain of our ancestral tendencies.

            It is perfectly consistent with a morality where "Might makes right." is true everywhere, all the time. Who would call such a thing 'genuine morality'?

            I’m a consequentialist. At the end of the day, I’m not interested in sorting moral codes by their genuineness. If I must render such a judgment, though, I would say that a moral code that, if universally enforced, would result in a decrease in human misery would be more genuine than another that resulted in an increase in human misery.

            When you say 'evolution' with no qualifier, do you mean 'social evolution' to be a possible meaning—anywhere in this discussion?

            No. My default meaning is biological evolution. If I mean social evolution without making it clear that that is my intended meaning, then my bad.

            I sense a possible conflation of change-over-time not superintended by mind or minds, and change-over-time very much superintended by mind or minds. That is probably disastrous to any discussion of 'genuine morality'.

            I’m guessing that if any disaster is happening, it’s because we have failed to agree on the meaning of “genuine” in this context.

            It seems clear as day to me that you fed Fredric's argument through a wood chipper.

            I expressed my disagreement and offered reasons for my disagreement. In a forum like this one, what exactly is wrong with that?

          • I think this is the crux of the matter:

            But they are correct in the particular case of egalitarianism overcoming xenophobia. Our genes are not taking us there. If anything, they would prefer that we not go there, which is exactly why we’re not anywhere near there yet. Fortunately, those particular genes are not in complete control of our behavior. Our genes endow us with tendencies to think and act in certain ways because, for most of our history, those ways were more conducive to our survival than the alternatives. But other genes endowed us with cognitive abilities allowing us to recognize situations where those tendencies should be resisted. Resistance is not easy because we can’t make the tendencies just go away. Human nature is a real thing, and it is not egalitarian. Jefferson was simply mistaken when he called it “self-evident” that all men are created equal. But we need not suppose that human nature is so uniform or consistent that we are fated to forever act the way our ancestors acted. It is also our nature to strive to improve our lives, and in the modern world, that means using our higher cognitive functions to recognize the present inutility of indulging certain of our ancestral tendencies.

            Correct me if I'm wrong. According to you, with effort to render 'genuine' as Fredric does: To get anything like 'genuine morality', one needs both:

                 (A) biological evolution
                 (B) social evolution

            Where (B) involves rebelling against (A) in key ways.
             

            What I don't get is why 'social evolution' didn't show up anywhere in your first comment. Let's recall:

            DS: I am not attempting to rule out any other source. I am defending the position that we did not need any other.

            It seems blindingly obvious that Fredric observed the inability of (A) to suffice for explaining genuine morality. Do you interpret his OP differently?

            I'm also highly skeptical about using the same term 'evolution' in both contexts; that seems like a massive equivocation. The only sense which is common is "change over time". If one explores the etymology of 'evolution', we see that Darwin disliked it because of its teleological connotation. That connotation has largely been shorn off, and yet we must have it when it comes to society. There can be debate about whether any telos can be anything other than man-made, but the forward-looking nature of it, which comes from mind (although it may predate mind), is of entirely different nature than natural selection.

          • Doug Shaver

            What I don't get is why 'social evolution' didn't show up anywhere in your first comment. Let's recall:

            DS: I am not attempting to rule out any other source. I am defending the position that we did not need any other.

            It seems blindingly obvious that Fredric observed the inability of (A) to suffice for explaining genuine morality. Do you interpret his OP differently?

            No, but in my initial response I allowed for the possibility that he and I might not agree on what constituted genuine morality. That is why I also opined that if a morality helps us survive, it is as genuine as it needs to be.

            I did not initially mention social evolution because it was not relevant to my initial point. It has become relevant for addressing objections you have raised against my initial response, which had to do with particular moral issues such as slavery. Our ancestors saw no ethical problem with slavery. We moderns see a big problem with it. That change over time occurred for good reasons, but those reasons had nothing to do with why we were ever able in the first place to perceive a difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.

            Well, not quite nothing, actually. Our social evolution itself was made possible by various cognitive abilities with which we were endowed by biological evolution. But you can’t change something that doesn’t exist. We had to have a moral sense before the forces of social evolution could do anything with it.

            I'm also highly skeptical about using the same term 'evolution' in both contexts; that seems like a massive equivocation. The only sense which is common is "change over time".

            It is the most important and most basic sense. That is why astrophysicists can talk about stellar evolution.

            If one explores the etymology of 'evolution', we see that Darwin disliked it because of its teleological connotation. That connotation has largely been shorn off, and yet we must have it when it comes to society.

            Whether it has been shorn off depends on context. Change over time happens, and when we see it happen we want to explain how and why it happens. Sometimes the explanation needs teleology to make sense, and sometimes it doesn’t—unless you’re an Aristotelian, in which case you think it always does.

            Darwin didn’t invent the idea of biological evolution per se. What he (and Wallace) invented was a particular explanation of it, proposing a mechanism by which it could have occurred without any teleology. We call that mechanism natural selection.

          • Here's my core beef. By setting a really low bar for 'genuine morality', you damage* our very ability to talk about a morality which requires egalitarianism. Fredric provided you a perfectly good term for the [necessary but not sufficient] natural selection basis for morality: 'herd instinct'. I think such a term obviously falls short of 'morality', but just to make sure, we add an intensifying word: 'genuine morality'. Language is our only instrument to deal with this stuff; misuse it and our ability to think and act is corrupted.

            The entire thrust of the OP is that the world as describable by the atheist has a flatness to it. One asks the question, "Is this all that there is?" When asked along the moral dimension, one could ask in Aristotle's time, "Is natural slavery really true?" One could ask whether the individual might ever gain appreciable freedom from the tribe†, something surely required for egalitarianism. But if the only foundation is natural selection and randomness (spandrels), that's pretty thin gruel.

            But if we don't carefully sketch the limits of our explanations, we obscure the opportunity to grow towards more and better. If we aren't dutiful in identifying what would falsify our explanations, we damage our connection to any possibility of more and of better. Stated more succinctly: we cut ourselves off from transcendence. Access to transcendence, to more, is a crucial aspect to many religions. The whole OP was about a reconnection to transcendence, and yet your response was: "nope, not required"‡.

            Maybe you really did try to see if the OP got at anything your own explanatory toolbox couldn't deal with very satisfactorily. Maybe you really did try and see what Fredric brought to the table, from which you benefit. All I can say is that I see absolutely zero evidence of that, and every indication that he offers nothing new, nothing of value. Maybe that's me being unduly pessimistic. But I look around me and observe the times and I can only conclude: if we don't get better at trying pretty hard to see what the other brings to the table of solid value, the more discord and war there will be. Maybe you have a different view? You have, after all, been on this terrestrial oblate spheroid longer than I.
             

            * It's really much, much worse than 'damage'. You've said that "Our genes... would prefer that we not go [toward egalitarianism]." Only with open rebellion against the sole explanatory mechanism you provided can we get the kind of 'morality' which is recognized as such, today. BTW, the inventor of the concept 'selfish gene' knew this:

            One of the dominant messages of The Selfish Gene (reinforced by the title essay of A Devil's Chaplin) is that we should not derive our values from Darwinism, unless it is with a negative sign. Our brains have evolved to the point where we are capable of rebelling against our selfish genes. (The Selfish Gene, xiv)

            † What we take for granted was a radical innovation which we have no reason to think had to happen, or even that it was a probable happening:

            The Dutch historian Jan Romein coined the phrase "the common human pattern" to denote some features of society and culture that can be found throughout history. The modern West deviates sharply from this common pattern, not least in the character and degree of individuation. This is the sound empirical foundation for the claim that Western individualism is an aberration; the common pattern has the individual tightly bonded within his community. (A Far Glory, 101)

            ‡ More precisely, you said the following:

            DS: I am not attempting to rule out any other source. I am defending the position that we did not need any other.

            You could argue that your target was never more than a degenerate morality, one which permits slavery and genocide. That is what you can explain with no appeal to transcendence. But I am virtually certain that anyone who read the whole OP and tried even a bit to understand Fredric charitably would see that he meant much, much more than such a degenerate morality.

          • Doug Shaver

            Luke, your latest posts have left me with a lot of work to do to respond appropriately. That is not, in the least, a complaint of any sort, but I'm going to be distracted by other commitments for the next couple of days. I'll get back to you as soon as I can.

          • Doug Shaver

            Here's my core beef. By setting a really low bar for 'genuine morality', you damage* our very ability to talk about a morality which requires egalitarianism.

            If your point is that natural selection cannot explain your personal moral code, then I agree. It can’t. And if you’re saying that no other moral code can be genuine, then we’re back to a semantic dispute about the meaning of “genuine morality.”

            You could argue that your target was never more than a degenerate morality, one which permits slavery and genocide. That is what you can explain with no appeal to transcendence.

            My target is the universal human intuition that a society cannot tolerate certain behaviors among members of that society, and my claim is that natural selection sufficiently accounts for that intuition. Our present aversion to slavery and genocide is, historically speaking, a very recent development—much too recent to have been a result of natural selection. If you claim that no morality can be genuine unless it includes those aversions, then I yield the point. In that case, though, I think it irrelevant as an argument against a naturalistic basis for morality. Modern morality, insofar as it differs from primitive morality, is explicable in terms of social evolution, which is itself explicable in terms of natural selection.

            One of the dominant messages of The Selfish Gene (reinforced by the title essay of A Devil's Chaplin) is that we should not derive our values from Darwinism, unless it is with a negative sign.

            I agree with that message. Natural selection explains why we have values, and it accounts for some of those values. It accounts for our valuing our own lives, the lives of our mates, children, and other kinfolk, and the stability of the societies in which we live. It does not tell us that any of those things actually have any value. My point is that it doesn’t need to, unless you’re an Aristotelian.

            Access to transcendence, to more, is a crucial aspect to many religions.

            Having been religious at one time in my life, I understand that. The reason I’m not religious any more is that none of the religions I tried could demonstrate the ontological reality of the transcendence to which they promised access. And what was even more disappointing, most of those religions’ advocates seemed to think they were under no epistemological obligation to even attempt such a demonstration.

            Maybe you really did try and see what Fredric brought to the table, from which you benefit. All I can say is that I see absolutely zero evidence of that, and every indication that he offers nothing new, nothing of value.

            I did not see anything new, and I’ve been having these conversations with believers for a pretty long while now.

            The whole OP was about a reconnection to transcendence, and yet your response was: "nope, not required"

            My response has also included an attempt to explain why I think it is not required. You are, I assume, attempting to demonstrate some inadequacies in my explanation, and I am in turn trying to defend my arguments against your counterarguments.

            The Dutch historian Jan Romein coined the phrase "the common human pattern" to denote some features of society and culture that can be found throughout history. The modern West deviates sharply from this common pattern, not least in the character and degree of individuation.

            Yes, and that just might be what eventually destroys modern Western civilization. The extreme individualism we’ve been seeing might be inconsistent with the maintenance of stable societies. That doesn’t make it objectively wrong, but it does make it irrelevant if it leads to our extinction as a society.

          • I'm surprised you didn't mention your attempt to find transcendence in religion earlier. That's a huge part of the OP, after all. Fredric had a way to deal with what you've labeled as [genuine] morality: "evolution has created a sophisticated herd instinct in the human race that causes us to want to be good to each other". He's clearly looking for more than that, and you seem to understand that desire. And yet, this is the first time you've uttered a peep about it in this thread. That doesn't strike you as odd?

          • Doug Shaver

            I'm surprised you didn't mention your attempt to find transcendence in religion earlier.

            Why? I am defending a claim about what natural selection can or cannot explain. What does my personal religious history have to do with that?

            That's a huge part of the OP, after all.

            I was not responding to the entire OP. I was commenting on one statement within it.

            Fredric had a way to deal with what you've labeled as [genuine] morality: "evolution has created a sophisticated herd instinct in the human race that causes us to want to be good to each other".

            I understood that to be what he thinks is the evolutionary explanation for morality. I happen to think it's not a good precis of current thinking in evolutionary psychology, but that was not relevant to what I had to say on the subject.

            He's clearly looking for more than that, and you seem to understand that desire.

            As I understand him, he is claiming that there must be, and is, more. I am defending the position that we don't need more and have no good reason to believe there is more.

          • I am defending a claim about what natural selection can or cannot explain. What does my personal religious history have to do with that?

            Doug, I'm really targeting your entire response to Fredric, not just the one. Your entire comment is effectively a denial that transcendence is possible or would make sense. In a nutshell:

            Fredric: There seems to be something more, deeper.
            Doug: Nope.

            This, despite the fact that the 'explanation' that natural selection can provide reaches a full stop at the spandrel that led to a rebellion against one's selfish genes. Prior to that spandrel doing its anti-evolutionary† thing, slavery and genocide were perfectly acceptable.

            † In the sense of natural selection having anything to do other than oppose the process, e.g. of heading [too far] toward egalitarianism.

            LB: Fredric had a way to deal with what you've labeled as [genuine] morality: "evolution has created a sophisticated herd instinct in the human race that causes us to want to be good to each other".

            DS: I understood that to be what he thinks is the evolutionary explanation for morality. I happen to think it's not a good precis of current thinking in evolutionary psychology, but that was not relevant to what I had to say on the subject.

            Why is what you label 'genuine morality' not captured by what Fredric labels 'sophisticated herd instinct'? Apparently, "current thinking in evolutionary psychology" is irrelevant to your first comment, so I'm still left without any answer.

            As I understand him, he is claiming that there must be, and is, more. I am defending the position that we don't need more and have no good reason to believe there is more.

            You say this, while having zero explanation for the rise of egalitarianism other than 'spandrel' and 'social evolution', where you've given the latter zero meaning other than 'change over time'. That's not an explanation, that's an observation that human society has history, that it has changed.

          • Doug Shaver

            Your entire comment is effectively a denial that transcendence is possible or would make sense.

            No, it isn’t. It is a denial that transcendence is necessary.

            In a nutshell:

            Fredric: There seems to be something more, deeper.
            Doug: Nope.

            Your construal of “Nope”: “No, that is not possible.” My intended meaning: “No, it doesn’t seem that way to me.”

            Why is what you label 'genuine morality' not captured by what Fredric labels 'sophisticated herd instinct'?

            My objection was to the term “herd instinct.” We are social animals, not herd animals. Herding behavior is a subset of social behavior, but it is not characteristic of human behavior except in pathological cases such as mobs. Mob behavior is pathological precisely because its characteristics include a suppression of moral constraints.

            I am defending the position that we don't need more and have no good reason to believe there is more.

            You say this, while having zero explanation for the rise of egalitarianism other than 'spandrel' and 'social evolution', where you've given the latter zero meaning other than 'change over time'.

            I don’t think that’s a fair characterization of what I’ve been saying.

            Unless otherwise specified, explicitly or by context, “change over time” is all that the word “evolution” means. The difference between biological evolution and social evolution is clearly understood and uncontroversially accepted within the relevant scientific disciplines. There is disagreement over whether certain particular behaviors are due more to biological or to social evolution, but the scientific community does not, at this time in its history, think it necessary to consider any other possibilities.

            And as I have already noted, our capacity for social evolution is itself a consequence of certain cognitive abilities that we acquired by the process of biological evolution. In that sense, everything about us is ultimately, albeit loosely and indirectly in many instances, explicable in terms of natural selection.

          • LB: Your entire comment is effectively a denial that transcendence is possible or would make sense.

            DS: No, it isn’t. It is a denial that transcendence is necessary.

            I chose the word "effectively" quite intentionally. Anyone who knows anything about rhetoric knows that you can accomplish effects which do not strictly follow, logically, from what is said. By giving absolutely zero acknowledgment of anything of value in the OP, you achieved the effect I described. I myself have been targeted by that strategy way too many times to be fooled by it.

            Your construal of “Nope”: “No, that is not possible.” My intended meaning: “No, it doesn’t seem that way to me.”

            Incorrect; I meant "nope", with full ambiguity intended. What precise interpretation is likely to be selected from that ambiguity depends on the rules of rhetoric, not the rules of logic.

            My objection was to the term “herd instinct.” We are social animals, not herd animals. Herding behavior is a subset of social behavior, but it is not characteristic of human behavior except in pathological cases such as mobs. Mob behavior is pathological precisely because its characteristics include a suppression of moral constraints.

            How is "mob behavior" consistent with "a sophisticated herd instinct in the human race that causes us to want to be good to each other"?

            DS: As I understand him, he is claiming that there must be, and is, more. I am defending the position that we don't need more and have no good reason to believe there is more.

            LB: You say this, while having zero explanation for the rise of egalitarianism other than 'spandrel' and 'social evolution', where you've given the latter zero meaning other than 'change over time'.

            DS: I don’t think that’s a fair characterization of what I’ve been saying.

            You say it's unfair, but then you don't add anything. Your "our capacity for social evolution is itself a consequence of certain cognitive abilities that we acquired by the process of biological evolution" adds nothing to 'spandrel'. You've left a giant explanatory gap, between "mud hut-building skills" and "skyscraper-building skills". Nobody would say the following:

            DS′: everything about us skyscraper building is ultimately, albeit loosely and indirectly in many instances, explicable in terms of natural selection mud hut building.

            Unless otherwise specified, explicitly or by context, “change over time” is all that the word “evolution” means.

            Then "unless otherwise specified, explicitly or by context" the word 'evolution' doesn't function as an explanation. This also seems to be a change of rules; earlier you said "My default meaning is biological evolution."

            The difference between biological evolution and social evolution is clearly understood and uncontroversially accepted within the relevant scientific disciplines. There is disagreement over whether certain particular behaviors are due more to biological or to social evolution, but the scientific community does not, at this time in its history, think it necessary to consider any other possibilities.

            So? That in no way logically conflicts with "My attempts to explain these problems in my naturalistic, atheistic worldview fell flat." Take, for example, schizophrenia. According to Liah Greenfeld, who wrote a whole book about how culture can help cause certain mental disorders:

            To quote just one, but very weighty and representative authority, Norman Sartorius, the former president of the World Psychiatric Association, former director of the World Health Organization’s Division of Mental Health, and retired professor of psychiatry at the University of Geneva, he said in 2007: “Despite advances in our knowledge about schizophrenia . . . nothing allows us to surmise that the causes of schizophrenia will soon become known.”[15] (Mind, Modernity, Madness, 12)

            And yet, last I checked, psychologists are not consulting demonology to explain schizophrenia. But anyone who knows anything would be right to say that there is a giant explanatory gap when it comes to explaining schizophrenia. Humans are able to detect such gaps. The OP is about such detection.

          • Doug Shaver

            Anyone who knows anything about rhetoric knows that you can accomplish effects which do not strictly follow, logically, from what is said. . . . I myself have been targeted by that strategy way too many times to be fooled by it.

            When I catch a debate opponent trying to prove something rhetorically that they cannot prove logically, I call them on it. I do not, however, accuse them of trying to prove something, either rhetorically or logically, unless they have explicitly stated that that is what they’re trying to prove.

            You are of course free to assume the worst about my intentions, but on that assumption, you have just exposed me for the intellectual fraud that you think I am. And in that case you should be doing a victory dance, not whining about it.

            How is "mob behavior" consistent with "a sophisticated herd instinct in the human race that causes us to want to be good to each other"?

            It isn’t. Why do you ask?

            Unless otherwise specified, explicitly or by context, “change over time” is all that the word “evolution” means.

            Then "unless otherwise specified, explicitly or by context" the word 'evolution' doesn't function as an explanation.

            That is correct. If I offer evolution as an explanation, and it is not clear from context or otherwise what kind of evolution I mean, then you should ask for a clarification.

            This also seems to be a change of rules; earlier you said "My default meaning is biological evolution."

            Well, you’ve caught me in an inconsistency. Good for you. I’ll have to start being more careful.

            Humans are able to detect such [explanatory] gaps. The OP is about such detection.

            Could I trouble you to define “explanatory gap” for this context?

          • You are of course free to assume the worst about my intentions [...]

            Actually, were you actively trying to do what I describe instead of merely having that effect, you could probably be significantly better, rhetorically. I haven't imputed intention, just observed an effect.

            LB: Fredric had a way to deal with what you've labeled as [genuine] morality: "evolution has created a sophisticated herd instinct in the human race that causes us to want to be good to each other".

            DS: I understood that to be what he thinks is the evolutionary explanation for morality. I happen to think it's not a good precis of current thinking in evolutionary psychology, but that was not relevant to what I had to say on the subject.

            LB: Why is what you label 'genuine morality' not captured by what Fredric labels 'sophisticated herd instinct'?

            DS: My objection was to the term “herd instinct.” We are social animals, not herd animals. Herding behavior is a subset of social behavior, but it is not characteristic of human behavior except in pathological cases such as mobs. Mob behavior is pathological precisely because its characteristics include a suppression of moral constraints.

            LB: How is "mob behavior" consistent with "a sophisticated herd instinct in the human race that causes us to want to be good to each other"?

            DS: It isn’t. Why do you ask?

            I ask because Fredric defined what he meant by 'sophisticated herd instinct'—"that causes us to want to be good to each other"—and yet you apparently chose to flatly ignore it.

            Could I trouble you to define “explanatory gap” for this context?

            An incomplete explanation, due either to missing aspects or apparently contradictory aspects for which there is little hope of reconciling. Let's see if that suffices.

          • Doug Shaver

            I ask because Fredric defined what he meant by 'sophisticated herd instinct'—"that causes us to want to be good to each other"—and yet you apparently chose to flatly ignore it.

            I had to make a decision. Either I could ignore it, or I could go off on a tangent not directly relevant to the point I wished to make. I decided to ignore it.

          • So you were able to dismiss what Fredric said by ignoring some of what Fredric said and picking out a part that used a scientifically erroneous term—'herd instinct' instead of 'social instinct'—even though the very definition he gave militated against your dismissal?

          • Doug Shaver

            So you were able to dismiss what Fredric said by ignoring some of what Fredric said and picking out a part that used a scientifically erroneous term—'herd instinct' instead of 'social instinct'—even though the very definition he gave militated against your dismissal?

            Here is Fredric’s statement that I was responding to:

            The classic atheist response is that evolution has created a sophisticated herd instinct in the human race that causes us to want to be good to each other. Those people who lacked a moral compass were simply outcompeted by those of us with a sense of morality – those who could work together for our collective benefit.

            Deep down, though, I knew this was specious. Even if it could fully account for our moral sense, which I questioned, it did not explain genuine moral obligations.

            I could have prefaced my response with something like, “I’ll assume that by ‘herd instinct’ you meant ‘social instinct’.” That acknowledgment would not have required me to change one word of my response. His apparent point was that biological evolution could not explain why we have a moral sense. I say it can, and I have said why I think so.

          • His apparent point was that biological evolution could not explain why we have a moral sense.

            He questioned whether biological evolution could "fully account for our moral sense", not "partially explain". And just in case there were a problem, he upped the ante with "genuine moral obligations". To suppose that all he is ever talking about with all this language is a morality which is 100% A-OK with genocide and slavery is, quite frankly, to make an absolute mockery of his blog post.

          • Doug Shaver

            He questioned whether biological evolution could "fully account for our moral sense", not "partially explain".

            I have argued that it provides a sufficient account. If you think that isn't good enough, you may now declare victory.

            And just in case there were a problem, he upped the ante with "genuine moral obligations".

            And I responded accordingly.

            To suppose that all he is ever talking about with all this language is a morality which is 100% A-OK with genocide and slavery is, quite frankly, to make an absolute mockery of his blog post.

            I conceded quite some time ago that natural selection cannot account for our modern aversion to genocide and slavery. How is that mocking anybody?

          • I have argued that it provides a sufficient account. If you think that isn't good enough, you may now declare victory.

            That you think I would possibly "declare victory" at this point indicates abject defeat.

            And I responded accordingly.

            Wait a second. What's the difference, in your mind, between:

                 (1) "sophisticated herd social instinct"
                 (2) "fully account for our moral sense"
                 (3) "genuine moral obligations"

            ? Do you take Fredric to be saying the same thing, over and over, even though the language intensifies with each step? I'm just really curious about how you managed to interpret his words how you have. I see an intended difference between (1) and (2) and especially between (1) and (3); you seem to see none. But perhaps I missed it.

            I conceded quite some time ago that natural selection cannot account for our modern aversion to genocide and slavery. How is that mocking anybody?

            It is extremely hard for me to read the OP as being 100% happy with genocide and slavery in the discussion of 'morality'. To be more specific, I'll bet Fredric is happy with genocide and slavery being associated with (1), iffy on (2), and absolutely not ok with (3). And yet, you dealt with (3) as if it's perfectly consistent with genocide and slavery. That's what I see as egregious, as making a mockery of the OP. You can make a mockery of something someone has written without it being strongly associated with mocking that person.

          • Doug Shaver

            That you think I would possibly "declare victory" at this point indicates abject defeat.

            Then I am abjectly defeated. Enjoy.

          • Erm, I meant abject defeat on my side. Otherwise... it makes no sense.

          • Doug Shaver

            You mean, if you think you have won, then you have lost?

          • No, if Doug thinks { Luke would possibly think he won }, Luke has failed miserably.

          • Doug Shaver

            What's the difference, in your mind, between:

            (1) "sophisticated . . . social instinct"
            (2) "fully account for our moral sense"
            (3) "genuine moral obligations"

            Each phrase has a referent distinct from the others, as follows:

            (1) An instinct is a genetically based tendency or compulsion to engage in a certain behavior, usually in response to some particular environmental stimulus. “Social instinct” is a catchall term for the set of instincts characteristic of animals living in cooperative groups. The particular instincts comprising the set will vary from one species to another. I am uninterested in trying to distinguish between sophisticated and unsophisticated instincts of any kind.

            (2) A full account of our moral sense is any sufficient explanation for our having an instinct for employing social forces to deter certain behaviors and compel certain others.

            (3) Any genuine obligation is an obligation that a person actually has.

            I see an intended difference between (1) and (2) and especially between (1) and (3); you seem to see none.

            I have just explained the differences that I see.

            It is extremely hard for me to read the OP as being 100% happy with genocide and slavery in the discussion of 'morality'.

            I made no effort to guess how Fredric felt about genocide or slavery because his feelings on those issues were not relevant to the point I wished to make.

            You can make a mockery of something someone has written without it being strongly associated with mocking that person.

            If you’re saying that I can mock an idea without mocking anyone who endorses that idea, I quite agree. And I will not apologize for mocking any idea whenever I decide to do so.

          • (3) Any genuine obligation is an obligation that a person actually has.

            Do you believe that any human being has a genuine obligation to fight against slavery and/or genocide, in a manner which transcends tribalistic boundaries? Do you think that plausibly, Fredric believes such a thing?

          • Doug Shaver

            Do you believe that any human being has a genuine obligation to fight against slavery and/or genocide, in a manner which transcends tribalistic boundaries?

            I suppose some do. But it's all I can manage on most days to figure out what I must do or not do. I have neither the time nor the inclination to formulate a moral code that I would wish to impose on the entire world.

            Do you think that plausibly, Fredric believes such a thing?

            It is plausible that he believes it.

          • Ok, so we have it being "plausible" that Fredric believes that among our "genuine moral obligations" is one "to fight against slavery and/or genocide", something which requires "rebelling against [biological evolution] in key ways". And yet you're happy to explain "genuine moral obligations" in terms of natural selection, with no hint that there might be any problems with that, given the OP?

          • Doug Shaver

            And yet you're happy to explain "genuine moral obligations" in terms of natural selection, with no hint that there might be any problems with that, given the OP?

            I disagree with the OP. That is a problem of some kind, obviously.

          • Doug Shaver

            Could I trouble you to define “explanatory gap” for this context?

            An incomplete explanation, due either to missing aspects or apparently contradictory aspects for which there is little hope of reconciling.

            I'm not claiming to have a complete explanation. I am attempting to rebut the claim that a naturalistic explanation is not even possible.

          • Given how flexible I've seen term 'naturalistic' be, I'm not sure what "a naturalistic explanation is not even possible" means. I mean, we have the denial of mind–body dualism possibly being your "anchor", but given that Aquinas didn't hold to it (just to pick a prominent example), it's not clear that such denial means very much.

          • Doug Shaver

            Given how flexible I've seen term 'naturalistic' be, I'm not sure what "a naturalistic explanation is not even possible" means.

            I've told you what I mean by it. In the context of this discussion, what anyone else might mean is irrelevant.

    • ClayJames

      I have no idea what “worldly sense” you’re talking about. I have lived a long time, and I have read a great deal of history. I have never met, or learned about, a single violent, greedy, or domineering person whom I have envied. In particular, those with whom I have been personally acquainted have been, without exception, very unhappy people.

      But clearly you have met, heard of or read about a person, that does act with violence, greed or asserts their will on another in certain instances where these actions do not lead to unhappiness but actually benefit that person.

      We have had this conversation many times and it seems to me that you take an all or nothing approach to behaviors that are considered immoral. A school boy who cheats on every single homework assignment will probably be miserable, however, a school boy that cheats on a rare occasion, knowing he will not get caught might not be miserable at all and on the contrary, that action might very well increase his happiness. If this is true, then if one looks to maximize their happiness, immoral actions are not only acceptable, but also required!

      • I would suggest one modification; contrast:

             (A) cheats on a rare occasion
             (B) cheats a little more than average

        My suspicion is that you really meant (B), and that you're fully aware that (B), iterated over time, can achieve arbitrary levels of immorality. We seem very bad at understanding how many little impulses can sum over time—apparently a theme of Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society, which I've just started. The next step from here is recognizing the disadvantage and suffering which can result from:

             (C) cheats a little less than average

        If we only argue with reference to ideals—that is, pick (A) over (B)—then it is hard to think in the direction of (C). A natural reading of Doug's "If we don’t fulfill our moral obligations, we suffer." predicts that engaging in (C) would be beneficial to the individual, over his/her entire lifetime. And yet, doesn't the evidence show that is pretty obviously false for many situations?

        However, to think too much in terms of (C) requires us to admit the possibility that we are very, very far from the ideal, yet with the power to move toward the ideal. The combination of original sin + God's promise to help us allows one to think in this direction. What happens when one discards [Augustinian] original sin? It seems to me that (C) vanishes from view, and those in power of any given society adopt an attitude of self-righteousness, whereby they are pretty close to the ideal.

      • Doug Shaver

        If this is true, then if one looks to maximize their happiness, immoral actions are not only acceptable, but also required!

        And if that is true, then it's stupid to be moral. I cannot accept that. I am convinced that if I ever seem to be compelled to choose between the smart thing to do and the right thing to do, then I have made a mistake either in my reasoning or in my ethical assumptions.

        Morality might force us to confront an error in our reasoning, but I can't believe it would ever force us to simply abandon reason.

        • ClayJames

          But it is true that immoral actions can increase happiness (or well being).

          I agree with what you are saying here, which is why I have stated that if naturalism was true I would discard my ethical assumptions.

          The only other way to hold those moral assumptions and not ignore reality is to denounce naturalism. A universe where the smart thing to do and moral thing to do are one in the same cannot be a naturalistic universe.

          • Doug Shaver

            A universe where the smart thing to do and moral thing to do are one in the same cannot be a naturalistic universe.

            I don't see why.

          • ClayJames

            Without even getting into specific scenarios, morality is subjective given naturalism, the smart thing to do is not (based on certain goals), so it is impossible for the smart thing to do to always be the moral thing to do. It can be, but it doesn´t have to be and there is no reason, given naturalism, to try to make it coincide.

          • Doug Shaver

            morality is subjective given naturalism, the smart thing to do is not (based on certain goals)

            We have to choose our goals. Choice is subjective.

          • ClayJames

            Exactly, so the smart thing to do can be the immoral thing to do given certain goals and moral beliefs under naturalism. It might not be for you, but it can be for anyone else given the subjective beliefs and choices they make. And since these goals and morals are made up of subjective value judgments and oughts, they are as accurate a reflection of reality as the ones you hold given naturalism.

          • Doug Shaver

            Exactly, so the smart thing to do can be the immoral thing to do given certain goals and moral beliefs under naturalism.

            That does not follow. The smart thing to do is that which is rationally justified. If my goal is not rationally justified, then I'm not doing the smart thing in trying to achieve it.

          • ClayJames

            I don´t see how you have shown that that does not follow. You can have a goal that is rationally justified where the smart thing to do in a certain situation is an immoral action in order to achieve it.

            Unless you show that rationally justified goals (such as those that increase happiness) cannot be achieved through immoral actions or that we are not capable of realizing this before taking action, then my statement above has to follow.

          • Doug Shaver

            You can have a goal that is rationally justified where the smart thing to do in a certain situation is an immoral action in order to achieve it.

            What you are claiming is that there could be a situation in which, so far as I can judge:

            A. My goal is rationally justified.
            B. I have correctly reasoned that I must do X in order to achieve that goal.
            C. I am justified in believing that X is immoral.

            Why should I think myself infallible with regard to all of A, B, and C? Why should I not think that I have made a mistake regarding at least one of them?

          • ClayJames

            Why should I not think that I have made a mistake regarding at least one of them?

            Because (in a specific situation) they can all seem to be true and there doesn´t seem to be a reason why they are false or necessarily inconsistent with one another.

            You tell me, why should I think there is a mistake between A, B and C?

          • Doug Shaver

            Why should I not think that I have made a mistake regarding at least one of them?

            Because (in a specific situation) they can all seem to be true and there doesn´t seem to be a reason why they are false or necessarily inconsistent with one another.

            You tell me, why should I think there is a mistake between A, B and C?

            Maybe you should not. I’m trying to justify my belief that I should.

            If there is anything—a moral code, theology, political ideology, whatever—that says we must sometimes act in defiance of logic, then there is no behavior that that way of thinking does not justify. That is because to defy logic is, by definition, to accept a contradiction, and whenever a contradiction is acceptable, anything is acceptable. It is a basic rule of logic that any argument with contradictory premises can validly reach any conclusion at all.

            Any moral code that can detach itself from logic is meaningless. Suppose the code says, “It is wrong to murder another human being.” So, if I murder my neighbor, a moralist will say, “What you just did is contrary to the rule against murder.” But then I say, “So what? That doesn’t make it immoral.” And the moralist will say, “Of course it does. Murder cannot be both moral and immoral. That would be a contradiction.” And then I say, “OK, it’s a contradiction, and therefore contrary to logic. So what? Why do I always have to be logical?”

            I don’t see how the moralist could then say, “Well, you must always behave in logical compliance with the moral code, even if that forces you on some occasions to behave in a way that is otherwise illogical.” That, it seems to me, would be special pleading of a rather blatant sort. Furthermore, a claim that whenever morality and reason are in apparent conflict, morality must prevail, is tantamount to a claim of infallibility for whichever moral code is under discussion. I cannot agree that there is anything regarding which we humans can justifiably think ourselves infallible.

            Morality is about making choices. It is also about accepting responsibility for the consequences of those choices. If the consequences happen to be repugnant, we cannot let ourselves off the moral hook just by saying, “We did the right thing, and therefore the consequences are irrelevant.” At least, I for one cannot accept a moral code with such a proviso. In my moral universe, the consequences are always relevant.

          • Doug Shaver

            But it is true that immoral actions can increase happiness (or well being).

            How can they do that? They can increase your material prosperity, yes, but what else can they do? Or do you believe that happiness or well being depend on nothing more than material prosperity?

          • CJ: But it is true that immoral actions can increase happiness (or well being).

            DS: How can they do that? They can increase your material prosperity, yes, but what else can they do?

            Has not slavery done precisely a "both and" for many slaveowners throughout the ages?

          • Doug Shaver

            Has not slavery done precisely a "both and" for many slaveowners throughout the ages?

            What have the slaveowners had to say about it? And without their testimony, how can we know?

            A slave can't do anything that paid labor can't do. Any benefit that a few slaves could provide me, I could get by hiring free people to provide it, if I had the money to hire them with. And, since dead slaves are useless, I must at least feed them and provide minimal shelter from adverse weather. Slavery, then, is just another instance of material prosperity.

          • Without testimony by slaveowners, we can extrapolate from what we do know; are you saying that something pretty big in your thinking will change if I can find such testimony? That would provide incentive to go looking, but I'd want a pretty explicit outline of what would change if I were to find such testimony. (I might have to engage in several hours' work to find such testimony, if it exists.) I can give you this indirect testimony: a friend stayed with some French aristocrats about fifteen years ago and one was very insistent that "Our serfs were happy!"

            When you restrict to matters other than 'material prosperity', you're cutting out benefits such as better { safety, food, healthcare, education, leisure }. Do you intend to do that? If you really think it's just a simple matter of wages, then I invite you to take a look at how much the migrants who pick fruits in California are paid, and the battles over paying them more.

            We could also revisit the matter of slavery via global supply chains, where I think it is clear that for people to really do their due diligence to not support such a thing in any way with their consumerist habits would result in a decrease of happiness/​well-being. Importantly, this looks at the matter from many of us being immoral, and the cost to be less immoral. That's different from many of us being moral, and what happens when one choose to be immoral.

          • Doug Shaver

            I was responding to a statement about the benefits to people who own slaves, not to the slaves themselves. I will stipulate that working involuntarily under brutal conditions can be better for some people than not working at all.

            As to what I would change my mind about, I thought the context made it pretty clear, but I'll try to sharpen the focus. I suggested that slavery provided no benefit to the slaveowner that was not attributable to slavery's minimization of labor costs, i.e. an economic benefit. I will admit that that statement was incorrect if you produce testimony by any person not a slave in which that person expresses his appreciation of anything he values, material or immaterial, that he enjoys because of slavery but where the cost in human labor of either producing or distributing that thing is unrelated to its availability.

            We could also revisit the matter of slavery via global supply chains, where I think it is clear that for people to really do their due diligence to not support such a thing in any way with their consumerist habits would result in a decrease of happiness/​well-being.

            I hope to address that when I can get around to responding to those posts of ours that I had to put on hold. I'm optimistic that I can do that within another day or two.

          • I suggested that slavery provided no benefit to the slaveowner that was not attributable to slavery's minimization of labor costs, i.e. an economic benefit.

            I don't think this is sufficient motivation for stuff like the Cornerstone Speech, given by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in 1861. I think you're ignoring the fact the deep-seated desire that humans have to feel superior than other humans. This is also, by the way, a huge missing factor I've seen among many who attempt to explain those school shootings carried out by bullied kids. See, this aspect of human nature just doesn't slot into the nice stories we've been telling about ourselves for centuries.

            I will admit that that statement was incorrect if you produce testimony by any person not a slave in which that person expresses his appreciation of anything he values, material or immaterial, that he enjoys because of slavery but where the cost in human labor of either producing or distributing that thing is unrelated to its availability.

            That's not enough [for me to expend the requisite effort]. You're making a big deal about your stance on this matter, despite having zero evidence either way about slaveowners. That means you reached your conclusion based on a model of human nature; I want to know how your model will have to be changed, if your belief on this matter is proven incorrect by evidence.

            I hope to address that when I can get around to responding to those posts of ours that I had to put on hold. I'm optimistic that I can do that within another day or two.

            Ok. I do claim that's an example where making the moral choice would incur suffering one otherwise doesn't have to experience. Here, being moral increases suffering, instead of decreasing it. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss. At least, long enough for whole lifetimes to be spent in it.

          • Doug Shaver

            I think you're ignoring the fact the deep-seated desire that humans have to feel superior than other humans.

            That fact has not been relevant to any point I’ve tried to make so far in this discussion. Alexander Stephens was not arguing, “We whites enslave blacks, therefore we are their superiors.” He was arguing, “We whites are superior to blacks, therefore we are morally permitted to enslave them.” Racism was a justification for slavery, not a consequence of slavery. Otherwise, the abolition of slavery would have led to the extinction of racism. That obviously did not happen.

            This is also, by the way, a huge missing factor I've seen among many who attempt to explain those school shootings carried out by bullied kids.

            I don’t know which explanations you’re referring to. Most of the ones I’ve seen claim that the shootings happened because it’s too easy in this country for bullies of any age to get guns, and I think that’s a pile of leftist bovine excrement.

            See, this aspect of human nature just doesn't slot into the nice stories we've been telling about ourselves for centuries.

            I don’t know which stories you’re referring to or which “we” you think I belong with.

            That means you reached your conclusion based on a model of human nature;

            Of course I did, as do we all on any issue to which human nature has some relevance—including those who deny that human nature even exists.

            I want to know how your model will have to be changed, if your belief on this matter is proven incorrect by evidence.

            I would have to deny that our genetic heritage had anything to do with our acquiring an intuitive sense that there is a difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

            We could also revisit the matter of slavery via global supply chains, where I think it is clear that for people to really do their due diligence to not support such a thing in any way with their consumerist habits would result in a decrease of happiness/?well-being. . . .

            I do claim that's an example where making the moral choice would incur suffering one otherwise doesn't have to experience. Here, being moral increases suffering, instead of decreasing it. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss. At least, long enough for whole lifetimes to be spent in it.

            To begin with, I’ve said more than once that my thesis does not entail that a person will not suffer as a consequence of acting morally.

            Second, when someone raises the issue of slavery in a moral context, I assume, unless explicitly stated otherwise, that the reference is to chattel slavery, de facto or de jure. I am a wage slave: I work only out of economic necessity, not any personal satisfaction, of which my job provides none whatsoever. But if I were to quit, my employer would have no recourse except to stop paying me, and so I am not his slave in the usual moral sense.

            I have seen no cogent argument that the current global economy is dependent, to any general or substantial degree, on chattel slavery. The website you linked to didn’t have one. It had the allegation, but no evidence. Furthermore, insofar as it does exist, I don’t see the allegedly morally mandated response causing anything but some inconvenience.

            If you’re claiming that moral behavior is usually inconvenient, I’m not going to dispute that. But that’s exactly why a society needs some method coercing those of its members who are not persuaded by other means to comply with its rules.

          • You advanced a hypothesis, that the only benefit slavery could provide is economic. I countered with a speech I claim cannot be understood on purely economic grounds. It is a speech infused with morality, one which identifies not Jesus as the "chief cornerstone", but this:

            The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. [...]

            Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. (Cornerstone Speech)

            There is no way around it: the result of the slaveowner to this speech is to feel righteous. That, I claim, is not an economic benefit. Some people feel righteous for pushing egalitarianism. Others feel righteous for pushing something antithetical to egalitarianism. To reduce this to the economic is to go über-Marx and reduce everything to the economic.

            You said that "If we don’t fulfill our moral obligations, we suffer." If it is always a moral obligation to oppose slavery, then precisely is the opposite was true in the Confederate South: to oppose slavery was to suffer, while to support it with a sense of righteousness was to not suffer, even to feel camaraderie. More importantly, we have immoral people who felt righteous. However, you could redefine 'moral' to be "whatever the current society demands". Then, whether slavery is right or wrong depends on the opinion of those in power. I wasn't thinking you'd define 'moral' this way for the period of 'social evolution' which rests at least partly on spandrels rebelling against selfish genes, but perhaps you do?

          • Doug Shaver

            You advanced a hypothesis, that the only benefit slavery could provide is economic. I countered with a speech I claim cannot be understood on purely economic grounds.

            The portion of the speech that was about slavery was obviously not about economics, but neither was it an explication of the benefits of slavery. It was an argument against a particular objection to slavery. If someone sees me doing something and says, “You should not do that because X,” and I reply, “X is not true,” I have not said one word about why I am doing the thing to which they object.

            There is no way around it: the result of the slaveowner to this speech is to feel righteous.

            The result is a denial of being unrighteous. That is not the same thing. Righteousness is praiseworthy. To deny being morally wrong is not to claim being morally praiseworthy.

            To reduce this to the economic is to go über-Marx and reduce everything to the economic.

            Nonsense. I don’t need to believe that everything is X in order to claim, rightly or wrongly, that any particular thing is X.

            If it is always a moral obligation to oppose slavery . . . .

            I haven’t said that it is, and nothing that I have said presupposes that it is.

          • It was an argument against a particular objection to slavery.

            I'm sorry, that's just not how I can possibly read the following:

            The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. [...]

            Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. (Cornerstone Speech)

            Just to be clear, here's the parallel passage in the Bible:

            So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:19–21)

            There is something much grander going on than merely "[arguing] against a particular objection to slavery".

            LB: If it is always a moral obligation to oppose slavery [...]

            DS: I haven’t said that it is, and nothing that I have said presupposes that it is.

            Then you may be talking about something entirely different with the word 'morality' than a lot of other people here. Perhaps by 'morality', you largely refer to "the opinion of those in power"? (Note that I don't say what you mean, but what is actually targeted by your meaning throughout the history of social human life ever since morality "went spandrel".)

          • Doug Shaver

            that's just not how I can possibly read the following:

            Then our disagreement is irresolvable. I can say no more than I've already said.

            Then you may be talking about something entirely different with the word 'morality' than a lot of other people here.

            I've stated several times what I mean by morality. That meaning, as I have stated it, does not make the existence of morality within a given society contingent on whether any particular behavior is classified by that society as morally acceptable.

          • I've stated several times what I mean by morality. That meaning, as I have stated it, does not make the existence of morality within a given society contingent on whether any particular behavior is classified by that society as morally acceptable.

            As far as I can tell, you've explained[1] mud hut-building skills, and gone on to suggest that mud hut-building skills, with change over time, explains[2] skyscraper-building skills. [1] is a good explanation; [2] is a woefully insufficient explanation.

          • Doug Shaver

            you've explained[1] mud hut-building skills, and gone on to suggest that mud hut-building skills, with change over time, explains[2] skyscraper-building skills. [1] is a good explanation; [2] is a woefully insufficient explanation.

            What makes it insufficient? Should we assume that the skills necessary for building mud huts cannot, by natural means, change over time?

          • What does "by natural means" mean? (If you're going to bring in the term 'supernatural', please define it.)

          • Doug Shaver

            Natural = not supernatural.

            Supernatural = effected by a disembodied mind, such as but not only the mind of God.

          • So you basically predicate 'supernatural' upon Descartes' mind–body dualism? I guess that works for the strain of Christianity which demonizes the body and exalts the mind—generally the term for this is 'Gnosticism' and it's seen as heretical—but I doubt it'd work for e.g. Thomas Aquinas. So I think I'm tempted to agree with you: the supernatural does not exist. I would also disagree with you: God exists. It is simply the case that God is not more like our minds than our bodies. He is equally unlike both, and simultaneously we are created in his image. The way this can be tested is via theosis: unlimited growth in excellence, beauty, goodness, etc. of humans and society. If we want it—plenty seem [sufficiently] happy with mediocrity.

          • Doug Shaver

            So you basically predicate 'supernatural' upon Descartes' mind–body dualism?

            What I’m trying to do is anchor the goalposts firmly in one spot so that a naturalistic worldview is not held hostage to the limits of current scientific knowledge. I can have no idea what yet-undiscovered forces might be out there that will explain things that now seem scientifically inexplicable, or how we might sooner or later be compelled to modify the equations that we now think describe the natural world. I think it is as safe a bet as these bets ever get, though, that no mind can exist independently of a physical brain or other material object. Show me an event that requires a disembodied mind for its explanation, and I will admit to having witnessed a supernatural event.

            It is precisely because I reject disembodied minds that I reject Descartes’ dualism. Our minds do not exist independently of our brains because our minds are just something done by our brains while our brains are alive, and I think it reasonable to suppose that nothing we would call a mind can exist in any other way.

            I would also disagree with you: God exists. It is simply the case that God is not more like our minds than our bodies. He is equally unlike both

            At this point, I can neither agree nor disagree with you, because I haven’t the foggiest idea what such an unintelligible concatenation of words could mean.

          • What I’m trying to do is anchor the goalposts firmly in one spot so that a naturalistic worldview is not held hostage to the limits of current scientific knowledge.

            Your anchor is a denial of mind–body dualism? It's that denial, and not an affirmation?

            LB: I would also disagree with you: God exists. It is simply the case that God is not more like our minds than our bodies. He is equally unlike both, and simultaneously we are created in his image.

            DS: At this point, I can neither agree nor disagree with you, because I haven’t the foggiest idea what such an unintelligible concatenation of words could mean.

            Let's examine the following two propositions:

                 (1) Reality is infinitely complex.
                 (2) The maximum complexity that an instrument can detect is dependent on the composition of the instrument.

            If these are both true, then the only way to explore arbitrarily much of reality is for the instrument to have the potential to become ever more complex. Furthermore, every time we think we pretty much have things figured out—e.g. Lord Kelvin's "Two Clouds" speech—God can throw us a curve ball, relativizing much of what we know. There's philosophy of science which deals with this: Ceteris Paribus Laws.

            If we have such a reality, then (i) any creator of that reality could easily be radically different from any finite conception of him/​her/​it; (ii) we could have the potential for infinite growth, such that we can understand arbitrarily much of reality—if we're interested in doing and becoming what and who is required.

            What's so "unintelligible" about the above?

          • Doug Shaver

            Your anchor is a denial of mind–body dualism?

            No. My anchor is the proposition that disembodied minds cannot exist. A denial of mind-body dualism is an entailment of that proposition.

            It's that denial, and not an affirmation?

            I affirm that every mind exists as a consequence of some material entity.

          • No. My anchor is the proposition that disembodied minds cannot exist. A denial of mind-body dualism is an entailment of that proposition.

            Ok. You are aware that Thomas Aquinas would not say that God is a "disembodied mind", right?

            I affirm that every mind exists as a consequence of some material entity.

            That just seems like anti-Gnosticism, to me.

          • Doug Shaver

            You are aware that Thomas Aquinas would not say that God is a "disembodied mind", right?

            I'll take your word for it. Most of my current knowledge of Aquinas's theology is from having read Ed Feser's The Last Superstition. I don't recall Feser's mentioning that particular point, but I wasn't trying to memorize anything. I was just taking notes for a critique I hope to write one of these days.

            That just seems like anti-Gnosticism, to me.

            Categorize it as you wish. I hardly care where my thinking fits in your taxonomy of Christian heresies or their refutations.

          • I'll take your word for it. Most of my current knowledge of Aquinas's theology is from having read Ed Feser's The Last Superstition.

            Chapter 5, section "Inventing the mind–body problem". That's how you can possibly get a "disembodied mind". The concept simply wasn't available to Aquinas.

            Categorize it as you wish. I hardly care where my thinking fits in your taxonomy of Christian heresies or their refutations.

            I'm simply pointing out that you've not denied anything Aquinas espoused. That seems like a rather odd way to separate between 'natural' and 'supernatural'.

          • Doug Shaver

            I'm simply pointing out that you've not denied anything Aquinas espoused. That seems like a rather odd way to separate between 'natural' and 'supernatural'.

            What? You think it odd that i would disagree with Aquinas?

          • I think it odd that you wouldn't disagree with Aquinas.

          • Doug Shaver

            That seems like a rather odd way to separate between 'natural' and 'supernatural'.

            I borrowed the idea from another atheist who, like me, was concerned that naturalists typically defend their worldview on something like an assumption that our current understanding of natural law is essentially complete. I don't think I have to admit that some event, undisputedly known to have occurred, must have been supernatural just because the best scientists now alive cannot offer a naturalistic explanation for its occurrence. But if its occurrence must have involved the activity of a disembodied mind, then I'll concede that naturalism has a problem.

          • Are you really saying that anything as complex as intelligence and wisdom cannot exist without matter as a substrate? This would be in contrast to the quantum field Lawrence Krauss thinks may have given birth to our universe. The ground state of that quantum field has no matter, and so we would be wrong to say laws of nature require matter as a substrate.

            I'm trying to avoid the idea that God is well-compared to a 'disembodied mind'. One way to do this is to suggest that God can somehow communicate knowledge and wisdom to us, but not require the means to be any more specific than the very amorphous things that are 'knowledge' and 'wisdom'. If we are not Cartesian duals, then it seems rather ridiculous to suggest that God would be half of a Cartesian dual. After all, what would it mean for half of a Cartesian dual to interact with not just half of us—we have just rejected the cutting of ourselves in half this way—but a whole?

            BTW, if you need something to combat Ockham's razor on our knowledge and wisdom coming from somewhere, you may consult Fitch's Paradox of Knowability (axiomatic version). It's a bit complex, so I won't go into detail unless that is requested.

          • Doug Shaver

            Are you really saying that anything as complex as intelligence and wisdom cannot exist without matter as a substrate?

            Intelligence and wisdom are abstractions produced by our own minds. That is all there is to their existence. They are properties that we attribute to certain minds that exhibit certain sets of characteristics.

            This would be in contrast to the quantum field Lawrence Krauss thinks may have given birth to our universe.

            I will defer to whatever Lawrence Krauss says about cosmogony, but if he wants to argue philosophy with me, I’ll take him on.

            The ground state of that quantum field has no matter, and so we would be wrong to say laws of nature require matter as a substrate.

            Yes, I suppose we would, but I don’t regard the laws of nature to be equivalent to a mind of any sort.

            I'm trying to avoid the idea that God is well-compared to a 'disembodied mind'.

            You didn’t ask me about God. You asked me how I distinguish natural from supernatural, and I gave you my answer without concerning myself with its theological implications. It does, of course, have implications for the theologies of most Christian apologists with whom I have dealt over the years. If the God you believe in is so different from theirs, then most of the objections I have to most Christian apologetics could well be irrelevant.

            One way to do this is to suggest that God can somehow communicate knowledge and wisdom to us, but not require the means to be any more specific than the very amorphous things that are 'knowledge' and 'wisdom'.

            If I ever decide that someone has given me a good reason to believe that (a) God exists and (b) he has communicated with at least some people, then I will start to worry about figuring out how he might have done so. Until then, all I need to explain is why some people believe he has communicated either with them or with certain other people.

            BTW, if you need something to combat Ockham's razor on our knowledge and wisdom coming from somewhere, you may consult Fitch's Paradox of Knowability (axiomatic version). It's a bit complex, so I won't go into detail unless that is requested.

            Thank you for the link. I only had time to skim a few highlights, but it’s interesting.

            Because of the complexity you mention, a proper rebuttal on my part would require an investment of time that I’m not prepared to make right now. I may note, though, that according to the article, at least a few philosophers with far better credentials than mine are convinced that Fitch was in error.

            My formal education did not include a study of modal logic, beyond a minimal introduction that was part of one of my metaphysics classes, but I have done a bit of independent reading on the subject. For the time being, I’m satisfied with the notion that whenever a modal argument reaches a conclusion contrary to my intuitions, my intuitions are probably safe.

          • LB: Are you really saying that anything as complex as intelligence and wisdom cannot exist without matter as a substrate?

            DS: Intelligence and wisdom are abstractions produced by our own minds. That is all there is to their existence. They are properties that we attribute to certain minds that exhibit certain sets of characteristics.

            It's not clear to me precisely what you are trying to deny, and also what you are trying to assert. Possibly you're espousing nominalism, a philosophical stance I'm still trying to understand. What I hear you saying is that 'wisdom' and 'intelligence' constitute patterns which only minds can recognize as such. Ink blots on a page don't mean anything to the laws of physics, but if they are arranged in certain ways, they do mean something to certain minds.

            But the above doesn't seem to fully grasp your meaning. I'm tempted to say that the mind is an instrument sophisticated enough to pick up signals/​data which no less sophisticated instrument can detect, but you seem to actually be denying this, stating that instead they aren't detecting any signals whatsoever, but kinda-sorta making crap up. Except that it's not clear how a mind, on determinism-by-impersonal-laws, could ever really make crap up—vs. be an intermediary information processor, making up exactly nothing.

            Here's another attempt. We could say that before any minds existed, reality simply didn't have certain properties. Once minds came on the scene, they were able to impose a certain kind of structure on reality which it never had before. Reality itself did not provoke this structure, for it never had that structure before minds came on the scene. Of course there is a problem here, because on determinism-by-impersonal-laws doesn't really permit the ex nihilo arising of structure†. Indeed, quantum field theory does not allow any new structure to come into existence; all time-evolution of quantum state is unitary: information is neither created nor destroyed. Therefore structure is neither created nor destroyed. What we start with is exactly what we end with. (awesome illustration)

            I think it's best to end my reply here, and ask you to somewhat carefully identify what you probably agree with and what you probably disagree with, in the above.
             

            † Well oops, that's precisely what our universe is, if we believe Lawrence Krauss. But his explanation would have everything that exists now be random in a certain way. Trying to use that precise form of explanation for the source of human creativity seems problematic to me.

          • Doug Shaver

            It's not clear to me precisely what you are trying to deny, and also what you are trying to assert.

            I will happily try to make myself clearer.

            Possibly you're espousing nominalism, a philosophical stance I'm still trying to understand.

            From your link:

            Thus there are (at least) two kinds of Nominalism, one that maintains that there are no universals and one that maintains that there are no abstract objects.[1] Realism about universals is the doctrine that there are universals, and Platonism is the doctrine that there are abstract objects. (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nominalism-metaphysics/#WhaNom)

            I unequivocally reject Platonism, and my ontology does not include universals as things that actually exist independently of minds. Universals exist as mental constructs and not otherwise.

            What I hear you saying is that 'wisdom' and 'intelligence' constitute patterns which only minds can recognize as such.

            Close enough, for the time being.

            Ink blots on a page don't mean anything to the laws of physics, but if they are arranged in certain ways, they do mean something to certain minds.

            Right, because the concept of meaning is inseparable from the concept of mind. The laws of physics do not constitute a mind, and so nothing can mean anything to them.

            I'm tempted to say that the mind is an instrument sophisticated enough to pick up signals/?data which no less sophisticated instrument can detect, but you seem to actually be denying this, stating that instead they aren't detecting any signals whatsoever, but kinda-sorta making crap up.

            I regard “mind” as a catch-all label for certain things that the human brain does, especially but not only those things of which we are aware. (I believe Freud was mostly wrong, but I think he was right about the existence of the subconscious mind.) If the brain is a computer (as I think it is), then the mind is one of its outputs, and sensory data are among its inputs.

            Except that it's not clear how a mind, on determinism-by-impersonal-laws, could ever really make crap up—vs. be an intermediary information processor, making up exactly nothing.

            It’s the brain that does the information processing. We’re a long way from fully understanding just how it processes information, and we won’t know the limits of its capabilities until we have determined the limits of what our inorganic computers can do—and I don’t see us yet getting anywhere close to doing that.

            Here's another attempt. We could say that before any minds existed, reality simply didn't have certain properties.

            We could say that, and some people do say that. I’m tempted to disagree, but that would likely provoke an interminable semantic dispute. There are facts about reality, nearly all of which were facts before we got here and will remain facts after we’re gone. A large subset of those facts are best understood by thinking of them as properties of one thing or another or of one set of things or another. Being a product of thought, properties as such do not actually exist, but the facts to which they refer (assuming correct thinking) certainly do exist.

            Once minds came on the scene, they were able to impose a certain kind of structure on reality which it never had before. Reality itself did not provoke this structure, for it never had that structure before minds came on the scene.

            Our understanding of reality depends on the brain’s ability to process sensory data in certain ways, among those ways being abstraction, universalization and particularization. That sort of data processing can be construed as imposing structure on reality. But the end result of that processing is a description of reality, and if the description is accurate, then there is a useful sense in which the structure was out there all along, and in that case we didn’t impose it, we just discovered it.

            Indeed, quantum field theory does not allow any new structure to come into existence

            I can’t respond to that. I don’t pretend to understand enough about quantum field theory to have any idea of its implications for my philosophy. However, I have an acquaintance whose philosophy is generally similar to mine, and he is a quantum physicist. Apparently, he doesn’t think his science is a problem for his philosophy.

          • Thanks. I still find this stuff ridiculously confusing. Folks love using all these general theoretical terms and I'm having the hardest time connecting them to particulars in reality. Every time I connect a few threads, a shift here or there snaps them.

            Universals exist as mental constructs and not otherwise.

            Aren't the laws of nature instances of universals? (To be technical, 'scientific laws' ≠ 'laws of nature'; see the intro of IEP: Laws of Nature.) The idea would be that there's some sort of structure out there, in reality, to which we are attempting to conform our minds, ever-more-closely.

            Now, perhaps the idea is that other instances of universals—such as the Form of Justice—only exist in our heads. But I'll bet I could articulate that as precisely the point of contention of the OP: are there transcendent ideals of how we ought to treat each other or do we really just make it up as we go? If the latter, then it might be irrational to think that egalitarianism can be approached arbitrarily closely. Who says that reality has the right structure to allow such a thing? Just because you want to be able to fly after jumping off of a ten-story building doesn't mean you can. I am concerned that 'egalitarianism' might be, on atheist-plausible metaphysics, as much of a delusion as 'religion' is, according to Marx. Succinctly:

                 (O) egalitarianism : atheism :: religion : Marxism

            Does this make sense as a logical possibility? An empirical possibility? (Once 'possibility' is established, we can move on to try and assign 'probability'.)

            If the brain is a computer (as I think it is), then the mind is one of its outputs, and sensory data are among its inputs.

            You may want to consult WP: Hubert Dreyfus's views on artificial intelligence; here's a snippet:

            Many AI researchers have come to agree that human reasoning does not consist primarily of high-level symbol manipulation. In fact, since Dreyfus first published his critiques in the 60s, AI research in general has moved away from high level symbol manipulation or "GOFAI", towards new models that are intended to capture more of our unconscious reasoning.

            Furthermore, you may wish to consider that speaking in terms of 'brain' and 'sensory data' is to reproduce Descartes' 'mind' and 'body'. If Cartesian dualism has something wrong with it, then we ought not replicate its pattern in another form. If, on the other hand, we keep deploying its patterns and they work scientifically, then our basis for questioning Cartesian dualism experiences problems. (I'm predisposed against dualism, on the basis of David Braine's The Human Person: Animal and Spirit.)

            Our understanding of reality depends on the brain’s ability to process sensory data in certain ways, among those ways being abstraction, universalization and particularization. That sort of data processing can be construed as imposing structure on reality. But the end result of that processing is a description of reality, and if the description is accurate, then there is a useful sense in which the structure was out there all along, and in that case we didn’t impose it, we just discovered it.

            This way of thinking seems to be Cartesian dualism in disguise. You have descriptions of reality which are in some crucial sense divorced from it ("That is all there is to their existence."), but which on the other hand are ostensibly produced by it (causal theory of reference), and which at least can be tested against it. Fail to have some sort of rich way that description can interact with reality and the interaction problem rears its head.

            On the other hand, there definitely is some sort of need for the possibility of great amounts of error in one's understanding of reality. History teaches us that in no uncertain terms. But the kind of divorce you drive between description of reality and reality itself seems to militate against (i) detecting error; (ii) correcting error. Where's your pineal gland, or if that's not how you model the connection to reality, how do you characterize the error detection-and-correction process? Perhaps one way to get at this would be to trace information as it flows through the brain and is transformed by the brain, and indicate whether there are in fact shades of gray instead of the absolute "That is all there is to their existence.". I mean, it's not like sensory impressions are 100% reflection of reality but the instant they are processed they become 0% reflection of reality. And surely you can't say of sensory impressions that they are not in some deep, crucial way, much more than just mental representations?

            I can’t respond to that. I don’t pretend to understand enough about quantum field theory to have any idea of its implications for my philosophy.

            All you need to understand is that all of current QFT describes time-evolution of quantum state as unitary, which means two things: (i) no information is created or destroyed; (ii) no change is time-irreversible. This is illustrated quite nicely at the Physics.SE question Why is information indestructable?; see especially the first answer. What this means is that any information pattern in your brain existed before evolution started. Can you believe this?

          • Doug Shaver

            Aren't the laws of nature instances of universals?

            I suppose they are, to an Aristotelian. But I’m not an Aristotelian.

            The idea would be that there's some sort of structure out there, in reality, to which we are attempting to conform our minds, ever-more-closely.

            We observe certain phenomena and, when we feel certain that the phenomena are real, we try to explain them. Then we test our explanations to see how well they work, and we try to improve them as needed. I think we can do that well enough without recourse to Aristotle’s metaphysics.

            I am concerned that 'egalitarianism' might be, on atheist-plausible metaphysics, as much of a delusion as 'religion' is, according to Marx.

            I am in no sense a Marxist, so his opinions about religion are irrelevant to this discussion.

            Succinctly:

            (O) egalitarianism : atheism :: religion : Marxism

            Does this make sense as a logical possibility? An empirical possibility? (Once 'possibility' is established, we can move on to try and assign 'probability'.)

            In my lexicon, any proposition is possibly true in the logical sense if its negation is not necessarily false. I regard a proposition as necessarily false if and only if it asserts or entails a contradiction.

            An empirical possibility is any phenomenon that is not empirically impossible. A phenomenon is empirically impossible if its occurrence would violate the actual laws of nature, whatever those laws happen to be. We are justified in tentatively believing a phenomenon to be empirically impossible if its occurrence would violate some natural law as we currently understand the laws of nature.

            Many AI researchers have come to agree that human reasoning does not consist primarily of high-level symbol manipulation.

            I don’t think our understanding of human intelligence should be constrained by the current state of the science of artificial intelligence.

            Furthermore, you may wish to consider that speaking in terms of 'brain' and 'sensory data' is to reproduce Descartes' 'mind' and 'body'.

            All right. I have considered it.

            If Cartesian dualism has something wrong with it, then we ought not replicate its pattern in another form.

            I don’t agree that anything I have said replicates Cartesian dualism in any relevant form.

            You have descriptions of reality which are in some crucial sense divorced from it ("That is all there is to their existence."), but which on the other hand are ostensibly produced by it (causal theory of reference), and which at least can be tested against it.

            Of course our descriptions of reality are divorced from it, in just the same sense as a map is divorced from the territory it depicts.

            Fail to have some sort of rich way that description can interact with reality and the interaction problem rears its head.

            I can describe the interaction, all right, but if the description was concise enough to fit into a forum post, it would surely not be rich enough to suit you.

            On the other hand, there definitely is some sort of need for the possibility of great amounts of error in one's understanding of reality.

            That is not a problem for my philosophy. I believe great amounts of error are not just possible, but actual. What’s more, my philosophy accounts for that actuality quite well.

            But the kind of divorce you drive between description of reality and reality itself seems to militate against (i) detecting error; (ii) correcting error.

            I don’t see why. As far as I can tell, it militates only against any sort of infallibilism. There are some propositions concerning which we may justifiably think the probability of error is so small as to be epistemically negligible, but we may never think it is actually zero.

            how do you characterize the error detection-and-correction process?

            I’d have to write a book to answer that question. And I will, just as soon as you find me a publisher who would buy it.

            you can't say of sensory impressions that they are not in some deep, crucial way, much more than just mental representations?

            I most certainly can, notwithstanding your inability to believe it.

            I don’t pretend to understand enough about quantum field theory to have any idea of its implications for my philosophy.

            All you need to understand is that all of current QFT describes time-evolution of quantum state as unitary, which means two things: (i) no information is created or destroyed; (ii) no change is time-irreversible. . . . What this means is that any information pattern in your brain existed before evolution started. Can you believe this?

            I hope you won’t be terribly offended if I don’t just take your word for what I do or don’t need to understand about quantum field theory.

            Yes, I can believe what you’re saying, in the same sense that I can walk from my home to the state capital. (For those who don’t know where I live, that’s over 300 miles.) But I’m not going to do either until somebody gives me a mighty good reason.

          • David Nickol

            You are aware that Thomas Aquinas would not say that God is a "disembodied mind", right?

            Can you give a brief explanation of why you think Doug (or I) would answer right? It has always seemed to me that Christian theology in general (which would include Aquinas) would think of God as an infinite mind (of sorts). Disembodied might be a misleading word (like polyunsaturated), since it might imply that a body of some kind must have existed (such as for a disembodied soul). But I thought the whole idea of Christianity is that humans are made in the image and likeness of God, and that is supposed to mean humans (like God) have intellect and will. God has intellect and will, so God is the infinite mind (or something, at least, of which the human mind is modeled after).

            Aquinas certainly believes that souls leave the body, and that disembodied souls can (and do) go places after death. As I understand the bit I just googled, the places souls go are "corporeal," but the souls themselves are not. Exactly how an incorporeal thing like a soul can have a location is beyond me.

          • Can you give a brief explanation of why you think Doug (or I) would answer right? It has always seemed to me that Christian theology in general (which would include Aquinas) would think of God as an infinite mind (of sorts).

            The reason you should answer "right" is that a disembodied mind requires the mechanical philosophy, which simply did not exist in Aquinas' time. Descartes envisioned matter being passive and mind being active; Aquinas didn't work with these concepts.

            BTW, I've definitely seen 'infinite mind' thrown about, but not when the theology gets serious. There, I see things such as 'ground of being'. In the OT, there is certainly no preference for mind over body. The NT speaks of embodied God (Jesus) as the "exact imprint of [God's] nature".

            Possibly some of the impetus toward describing God as 'infinite mind' comes from the repeated emphasis that God doesn't have a body, which I take to be a relic of the systematic iconoclasm of the OT, combined with Gnostic tendencies which scapegoat the flesh, as if the mind were not just as fallen.

            Aquinas certainly believes that souls leave the body, and that disembodied souls can (and do) go places after death. As I understand the bit I just googled, the places souls go are "corporeal," but the souls themselves are not. Exactly how an incorporeal thing like a soul can have a location is beyond me.

            I don't profess to know all the details, but I can say that modern quantum field theory says that the information that defines the person is never destroyed and can be reconstructed, if the system is open instead of closed. See the Physics.SE question Why is information indestructable?, especially the first answer. I'm not sure there is always an answer for where exactly the information is, in the intermediate state.

          • ClayJames

            Material prosperity can definitely increase happiness. Someone that lives close below the poverty line can increase their over all happiness by increasing their material prosperity by doing something immoral. Also, surely you can think of situations where immoral actions can increase a lot more than just material prosperity. It can increase freedom of yourself or loved ones, power, help bring about new and positive experiences, love, promotions, business success, recognition, fame, increase gratitude, etc.

            The only way to get around this is to say that morality is not a means to achieve happiness but happiness in and of itself. But given naturalism, I see no way that this is necessarily the case.

          • Doug Shaver

            The only way to get around this is to say that morality is not a means to achieve happiness but happiness in and of itself. But given naturalism, I see no way that this is necessarily the case.

            I'm not saying it is necessarily the case. I'm saying that it can be the case. Individual morality is not just about the individual. It is about the individual as a member of a society. To maximize my own happiness, I need to live in a good society, and a society that lets me profit, materially or otherwise, from immoral behavior is not a good society.

          • ClayJames

            I think you are confirming what I said in my last post. For that to be the case you must define happiness as that which is moral and morality as that which benefits society. If happiness is defined any other way (material gain, health, power, freedom, social standing, fame, sexual fulfillment or even being surrounded by cute adorable puppies), then even in the best of societies, there will always be ways to do something immoral in order to increase happiness because no society is perfect at achieving their goals and every society has loopholes that can be exploited in order to bring about a person´s idea of happiness.

          • Doug Shaver

            For that to be the case you must define happiness as that which is moral and morality as that which benefits society.

            I have not tried to define happiness, and I'm not going to try to define it within the space of a forum post. But I would not try to define it in terms of situations or activities that produce whatever it is.

            Yes, I would be happier if I had more money, or better health, or more power, freedom, or etc. So would anyone else. I often wonder how much freedom most people really want, but I'll stipulate that in general, all these things are positively correlated with people's happiness. Because of course we're happier when we get things we want than when we don't get them. But I'm not believing that any rational person can become as happy as he could possibly be by getting everything he wants if he must make other people suffer in order to get them.

          • ClayJames

            But I'm not believing that any rational person can become as happy as he could possibly be by getting everything he wants if he must make other people suffer in order to get them.

            But once again, this is not what I am defending. You keep attacking a strawman. My point is simply that, because we live in societies, behaving in a way that benefits the society will increase happiness and well being most of the time but since societies are not perfect (to varying degrees) behaving immorally and against the well-being of the society will increase our happiness (which is made up of many of the things you mentioned) on specific occasions.

            Given naturalism, this way of behaving is as based on reality as someone that just chooses to be ¨good¨ (in a way that improves society´s well-being) all the time and I fail to see a good reason why someone should not behave in the way I give in above.

          • Doug Shaver

            My point is simply that, because we live in societies, behaving in a way that benefits the society will increase happiness and well being most of the time but since societies are not perfect (to varying degrees) behaving immorally and against the well-being of the society will increase our happiness (which is made up of many of the things you mentioned) on specific occasions.

            I think we're at an impasse ("Yes, we can" "No, we can't") until you can describe such an occasion.

  • neil_pogi

    quote: ''Having abandoned atheism, I still faced several objections to organized religion that are beyond the scope of this post...'' --this is very true that most religions are claiming that their 'church' is the only true one, despite of this controversy, i still cling to believe that these religions serve one purpose/goal - that there is (a) God!

  • Jason Lem

    Sounds to me your typical insert problem here, can't solve it, therefore the invisible man is the solution.

    If you think various morals can't be upheld or objectively established or believed to be beyond one's mere personal opinon, the addition of one other person, even granted that person is invisible, immaterial, exists beyond our universe doesn't solve the problem.

    • Sounds to me your typical insert problem here, can't solve it, therefore the invisible man is the solution.

      It sounds rather to me that there is more depth to reality than the atheist acknowledges, depth which can be explored. The challenge, of course, is whether Fredric can actually find any depth which is in any way communicable.

      If you think various morals can't be upheld or objectively established or believed to be beyond one's mere personal opinon, the addition of one other person, even granted that person is invisible, immaterial, exists beyond our universe doesn't solve the problem.

      Fredric asked "Are good and evil merely social constructions, or are they real on a deeper level?", so he hasn't restricted things to "personal opinion".

      • Jason Lem

        I have no problem with deeper thinking, but also feel free to deep think whether an invisible man (or woman), is really the answer to the problem in question, you know beyond just mere assertion.

        Remember his whole story is who he found "problems" in his atheism and as I understood it, this cause them to jettison it for theism ?

        In the real world, some people take advantage of our ignorance and our wanting of an answer and to make sense of it all, and when no answer forth coming some religious people see this as justification to assert God is the answer.

        • Lazarus

          "God is the answer" as opposed to that other favorite "We don't really have an acceptable materialist answer yet so we will suspend judgment until later". Talk of taking advantage of one's ignorance.
          You're clearly very skeptical, Jason, just not skeptical enough.

        • In the real world, some people take advantage of our ignorance and our wanting of an answer and to make sense of it all, and when no answer forth coming some religious people see this as justification to assert God is the answer.

          Of course this happens. As @disqus_d5UWCd7LSC:disqus indicated, analogous versions happen outside of religion as well. But you seem to have ignored part of what I wrote:

          LB: The challenge, of course, is whether Fredric can actually find any depth which is in any way communicable.

          Did I surprise you in saying this?

  • bloopville

    So, you stared at the abyss of a pointless universe and it scared you into positing a universe with meaning, but you did so without evidence. You are a Presuppositionalist. All the Begging the Question and God of the Gaps issues still apply, you are just afraid of the unfalsifiability of the answers.

    I am happy you are happier, but you haven't moved the needle except to add one more personal witness.

    • Unfalsifiability of which answers? And what evidence do you have of "just afraid"?

      • bloopville

        Of course, it is impossible to do a forensic analysis of the evolution of the poster's beliefs, without actually speaking to them, but this is what is sounds like happened:

        Frederic read Lord of the Rings and felt the sense of the numinous. Now, we know that the sense of the numinous is available to everybody, from Hindus, to atheists to Christians. Walk into a 6th century crypt below a 10th century church, or an Etruscan tomb, and you are going to feel it.

        So, this leads to 3 possibilities:

        1. This "spiritual" feeling is a monotheistic god setting you on the path to his service, but he sets up certain places where his spirit is stronger, based on age and echoiness.

        2. There are many gods and they impart the numinous in your head, or there is one god, but he doesn't care how you get to him.

        3. The numinous is an electro- chemical reaction.

        So, Frederic grew up in a rational household, and he thought he wasn't supposed to feel this feeling, but he did. And, so, he set off to try and explain it. Being intelligent, and rationalist, he tried all the logical and evidentiary arguments for the existence of god, but found them wanting. They all led to leaps or unfalsifiable claims that said "therefore, god", but, being a rationalist, he resisted any conclusion that could not be tested.

        Being young, he also looked out into the world, and saw "the problem of evil". The idea that evil went unpunished, he felt something spiritual and atheism gave him no answers. So, he solved both things that were bothering him with a belief in a just and good god.

        Of course, atheism doesn't give answers, which he said he recognized in the beginning. Apparently, though, he was unsure what that meant. Atheism is the negation of an answer derived from faulty reasoning or a bad analysis of the available evidence.

        But his position is that "deep down inside we know". This is the Presup position. And the beauty of the presup tautology (the is what the definition is) is that there are no loose ends, and nothing requires verification.

        He also uses the presup argument that atheists can't account for moral obligation. This stems from his fear that there might actually not be moral obligations, because he doesn't address the case that they might not actually exist.

        So, his argument is that god exists because there are moral obligations and any moral obligations without god are created by each individual and this is an unacceptable condition. But he doesn't prove the necessity of moral obligation, he doesn't prove that it actually exists, and, if it does, it might just be a result of the accumulation of activities that allow us to take our next breath and eat our next meal. Or, it might be a non-intelligent machine that create moral obligations if you stick a coin in it, or, there might be 2 or more gods, with a creator god and a moral obligation giving god.

        This why I state he is still back to all the other proofs of god's existence.

        • So, this leads to 3 possibilities:

          1. This "spiritual" feeling is a monotheistic god setting you on the path to his service, but he sets up certain places where his spirit is stronger, based on age and echoiness.

          2. There are many gods and they impart the numinous in your head, or there is one god, but he doesn't care how you get to him.

          3. The numinous is an electro- chemical reaction.

          Wait, 3. is compatible with 1. and 2.; did you mean to include "just" or "nothing but"? If so, consider what it means to say, "Your belief that X is true is nothing but an electrochemical reaction." Reductionism is devastating to rationality. I can take you through some basics on how computers work where it is precisely wrong to say that they are nothing but semiconductors if you'd like. We could also look at Massimo Pigliucci's Essays on emergence, part I, where the word 'emergence' is given rigorous mathematical foundation.

          Being young, he also looked out into the world, and saw "the problem of evil". The idea that evil went unpunished, he felt something spiritual and atheism gave him no answers. So, he solved both things that were bothering him with a belief in a just and good god.

          I don't know how you got this from the OP; the sentence "Much of history teaches that violence, greed, and domination pay off handsomely in the worldly sense." is a rebuttal to the idea that any particularly excellent form of morality is naturally selected for. Is there some evidence I missed, where Fredric makes it clear that he struggled with the problem of evil?

          But his position is that "deep down inside we know". This is the Presup position. And the beauty of the presup tautology (the is what the definition is) is that there are no loose ends, and nothing requires verification.

          The OP is perhaps compatible with this, but I don't see how it necessarily entails this. You seem to be taking the most pessimistic possible interpretation of the OP and applying it, with zero expressed doubt. Is this not the definition of uncharitable interpretation?

          He also uses the presup argument that atheists can't account for moral obligation. This stems from his fear that there might actually not be moral obligations, because he doesn't address the case that they might not actually exist.

          This is possible, but on the other hand, the lack of any genuine moral obligations would mean he has less ammunition for working toward the betterment of the poor, weak, oppressed, and marginalized. Again, you seem to be running with the most pessimistic possible interpretation.

          But he doesn't prove the necessity of moral obligation, he doesn't prove that it actually exists, and, if it does, it might just be a result of the accumulation of activities that allow us to take our next breath and eat our next meal.

          You are absolutely correct. You know what you don't have to do to take your next breath and eat your next meal? Consider how many slaves work for you. That humans thought there might be something beyond such pathetic 'morality' (which is nothing more than tribalism which permits slavery and genocide) is why we are 'Enlightened'. So perhaps some moderation is in order in critiquing Fredric's intuition that there is something still further 'beyond' where we are, now. Or do you believe that modern man has reached the epitome of moral excellence, that there is nowhere to go but down from here? (I say 'modern' and 'man' on purpose.)

          • bloopville

            Luke, thank you for your thoughtful comments. You are correct that 3 would be compatible with 1 or 2, as written. I suppose I should have added a qualifier of "the numinous is an electro-chemical reaction without metaphysical causality."

            Now I will quote from his blog

            " Nothing about it contradicts God’s order of creation. I’m also not saying that atheists are immoral. They just can’t account for the existence of genuine moral obligations. They are, like I was, living in great tension.
            At some point the tension was too much: either morality is a farce, everything is random with no meaning, and the human mind is mired in inescapable confusion or atheism is false. I chose the latter."

            Here he clearly states that there is such a thing as moral obligation. He then projects his own great tension on atheists. He admits the tension was too much, so he "chose" that atheism is false.

            But the atheist mind isn't confused. Athiests may be confused, but not about atheism, because it is merely one position on one issue. Atheists who try to posit that there are moral obligations obtained by, for example, genetically driven empathy have a long way to go to prove their point. Sam Harris falls off the rails on this. But if you hold the position of a random world, with moral obligations being the result of social constraints and upbringing, then it makes sense why some people do good things and other people do bad things.

            As for modern man reaching the epitome of morality, I would have to accept that an absolute morality exists.

            As far as a pessimistic assessment of the OP's path to theism, I don't have one at all. I am truly gratified when people become happier. As a true atheist who believes that there is insufficient evidence to accept a god, I don't negate the possibility, and, as long as laws are not made as if a specific god's existence is proven, then this is just a curious exercise into the logic of how a smart guy came to the god conclusion.

          • You're welcome; I'm glad you weren't just making a fire-and-forget comment.

            [...] without metaphysical causality [...]

            I don't know what this could possibly mean, other than an assertion that science has completely figured out how causation works and therefore any suggestion that there are aspects to existence which aren't perfectly explainable by what has already been discovered is 'metaphysical', with the extreme negative connotation given to the term by logical positivists. And yet, when I expand things out this way, it becomes obvious that this conception of the competence of science to discover final answers is very much on the wane.

            Here he clearly states that there is such a thing as moral obligation. He then projects his own great tension on atheists. He admits the tension was too much, so he "chose" that atheism is false.

            Alternatively, you could accept the philosophical fact of Underdetermination of Scientific Theory, and note that Fredric chose one curve over another, both of which fit the data. An available alternative to Fredric's chosen one is that violating morality here and there is perfectly acceptable because it is just a social construct. Perhaps you have simply never felt such tension; perhaps you have been raised to always see morality as merely a social construct? That such tension is widely felt is obvious to anyone with a baseline exposure to ethical dilemmas in fiction—at least Western fiction.

            But if you hold the position of a random world, with moral obligations being the result of social constraints and upbringing, then it makes sense why some people do good things and other people do bad things.

            The OP acknowledges this. What disintegrates, on this understanding, is any sense that e.g. egalitarianism was a necessary or even probabilistic achievement on our trajectory. Who knows, perhaps we'll grow to see egalitarianism as an outmoded concept in the future. Maybe slavery will return to fashion. In a sense, it still is in fashion, via globalism, as long as the following maxim is obeyed: "Out of sight, out of mind."

            As for modern man reaching the epitome of morality, I would have to accept that an absolute morality exists.

            Well, in order to express that you'd have to accept absolute morality, but you can act as if it were true without any such acceptance. I think that is precisely the situation of the West, as I articulated to @ClayJames:disqus.

            As far as a pessimistic assessment of the OP's path to theism, I don't have one at all.

            Your characterization of Fredric as acting out of fear and adopting unfalsifiable presuppositional apologetics was indeed "the most pessimistic possible interpretation". I've participated in atheist–theist discussions for a long time; I know precisely how those two strategies function.

  • I love fantasy, and have for many years. Lord of the Rings never stirred me personally, but to each their own. I'm not sure how that shows God exists. I find the argument that because our life and the universe end, therefore our existence is thus meaningless. How does this follow? By this logic, from the fact a play ends, the performance is also meaningless. On the argument from morality, assuming all the things you said are true, I don't see how you reached your conclusion. It may have been something I missed, or just wasn't part of the post. Anyway, even if you assume naturalism can't support morality, how does that show God exists? You also seem to be addressing only an evolutionary morality here, and a very specific one too. Of course, that isn't the only secular account. Anyway, expecting perfection is a bad idea. I fail to see your logic I'm afraid.

  • Sam

    I wonder what someone like David Hume [or dudes like Sam Harris etc] would say to a 16yo kid who suddenly 'realised' that God is actually real because of what...a story book!
    I haven't read lotr and focus on non-fiction simply because my childhood environment lead me down different a rabbit-hole to fiction-lovers One thing seems clear to me...the conclusion that lotr has any bearing on the argument is just weird logic from such a smart guy.
    Perhaps any hypothesis becomes true once we find a work of fiction to support our beliefs!

  • Sam

    I wonder what someone like David Hume [or dudes like Sam Harris etc] would say to a 16yo kid who suddenly 'realised' that God is actually real because of what...a story book!
    I haven't read lotr and focus on non-fiction simply because my childhood environment lead me down different a rabbit-hole to fiction-lovers One thing seems clear to me...the conclusion that lotr has any bearing on the argument is just weird logic from such a smart guy.
    Perhaps any hypothesis becomes true once we find a work of fiction to support our beliefs!

  • This is a very bad article. Atheism is not the same thing as scientism. No atheist has to commit to science as the only way to know truth or facts about the world. Once you get rid of that, the whole case against atheism falls apart.

  • Richard Dawkins echos this sentiment in one famous quote from his 1995 book River Out of Eden, saying, "In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” (p. 133)

    Dawkins has gotten a lot of heat over this quote. Many theists have used it to show what a cruel and indifferent world naturalism entails. But I think they're taking it out of context. Dawkins was writing about how, from the perspective of nature, the blind forces of evolution are indifferent. The universe is amoral, the universe is blind, the universe is purposeless. But that doesn't mean on naturalism there can't be morality. On poetic naturalism, morality is a emergent property of evolved sentient beings, much in the same way that economics and culture is.

    You will never find anything about economics in the fundamental laws of physics, nor will you find anything about morality. But concluding that therefore morality, economics, and culture doesn't exist would be foolish. This is where weak emergentism comes in: "a property is emergent if it is a systemic property of a system—a property of a system that none if its smaller parts share—and it is unpredictable or unexpected given the properties and the laws governing the lower-level, more fundamental, domain from which it emerged." Another way of looking at it is how Carroll himself put it, weak emergence

    is simply the idea that there are multiple theories/languages/vocabularies/ontologies that we can use to usefully describe the world, each appropriate at different levels of coarse-graining and precision. I always return to the example of thermodynamics (fluids, energy, pressure, entropy) and kinetic theory (collections of atoms and molecules with individual positions and momenta). Here we have two ways of talking, each perfectly valid within a domain of applicability, but with the domain of one theory (thermodynamics) living strictly inside the domain of the other (kinetic theory).

    Talk of morality is describing the universe at one particular level, that of us evolved social primates, us humans, and how we interact. But it is not found at the fundamental level. So a universe that is at heart, full of "blind, pitiless indifference" is no reason to cry for the death of morality from the naturalist's universe. Dawkins is just describing the universe at one level—the level of DNA—which is amoral. But zoom out a few levels past biology altogether and into the social sciences where ethics becomes relevant and you'll find a universe teaming with morality.

  • Sparrow Opal

    http://www.nlnrac.org/classical/cicero/documents/duties-de-officiis

    This oration by Cicero accompanies this article very well. It proclaims that there is a universal law all men should follow that exists beyond man, however he does not take the next step and try to understand from whence this law originated in.

  • Jim Fox

    "Lord of the Rings"- the children's book, new authority on religious conviction. Just how gullible are you to admit such foolishness. Oh, religiously gullible, that's how.
    Just like the bible, another book for the child-like bronze age mind.