Saturday, September 24, 2011

Views of logic: theism vs atheism part 3

In a previous post, I noted that while atheists claim that theists simply choose to "ignore" the laws of logic and physics when they choose, it's actually the other way around.  Unless you decide to suspend the laws of physics and logic when you wish, you must actually come to the conclusion that the universe had a Personal First Cause outside of space and time.

This was all in response to a comment by an atheist that I saw reposted on the pleaseconvinceme blog.  But there was something else about that post that got me riled up.  The original post said:

Theists imagine anything is possible simply because they have an imagination that can dream up anything they want. Atheists realize that isn't the case.
What I find especially interesting about that statement is that I am actually frustrated by this tactic coming from the atheist camp, not the theist camp.  This is especially obvious when you study the naturalistic theory of evolution as an explanation for everything.  For example, one of the issues I noted last time was with the charge from atheists that the belief in God that runs rampant within our species is simply a product of evolutionary history.  The thought is that, at a previous point in our species, the belief in a god or gods gave those believers some selective advantage.  So now, even though that's not necessarily giving anyone a selective reproductive advantage anymore, it's something that has been imprinted in our species from our evolutionary history.  That's actually become a working theory nowadays.  The problem is there is zero evidence of this.  It's an example of "as long as you can imagine it and it's consistent with naturalistic evolution, it's accepted as true".

Another example of this particular problem is where did our morals come from?  Well, clearly (since there is no god), our morals do not come from a transcendent source.  They must have been at one time given us an evolutionary advantage over the other humans who did not have those morals.  Nowadays, since we are a "social species", morals are in place in our genes so that we contribute to the greater good of our whole species.  The evidence for this is as abundant as for the above example.  That is to say, it is completely absent. But it's an explanation that is consistent with the naturalistic evolutionary paradigm, so it's taken as a given now that someone thought of it.

Of course, the most classic example of, "as long as I can imagine it, it must be true" is Darwin's "warm little pond".  In regards to theories of the origin of life, Darwin said in a famous letter to one of his colleagues that he could imagine a warm little pond where life got started.  This idea alone gave rise to the entire hypothesis of a prebiotic soup that was supposedly present on the early earth, from which life arose. It wasn't long before this idea, for which there was zero evidentiary support, became scientific dogma.  The idea of a prebiotic soup became so prevalent that nowadays everyone "knows" that's where life came from.  Very, very interesting how these things happen.

Methodological naturalism

I've posted in this blog several times on theistic evolution.  One of the (seemingly) interesting facts about those who hold a strong theistic evolutionary view is their commitment to a philosophical position called "methodological naturalism".

What's interesting is that's the common position held by why should theists hold that same philosophical view?

Methodological naturalism basically says that science cannot ever make statements about God.  In fact, the only kind of conclusions that you are allowed to draw, as a scientist, are naturalistic ones.  You can never take evidence you see in the natural world, and from that evidence, conclude that something supernatual occurred.  It's not allowed.

An aside: The statement, "From science, the only conclusions you are allowed to draw are natural ones, and supernatural conclusions are disallowed," is not a scientific statement.  It is a philosophical statement.  Thus, if you are a scientist, this is something that comes from outside of science that informs you how you do science.  Nothing wrong with that, but it's something every scientist must acknowledge.

Back to the discussion of methodological naturalism.  If a theist, who believes in God, says that in science only naturalistic causes are allowed to be drawn as conclusions, then science is reduced from something that searches for truth (no matter where it lies) to something that is dominated by a particular philosophy, a particular worldview, that can force you to conclude something false about the universe.

Now, as a scientist, I am not just going around saying God did everything.  But I am also not going around saying that God could never be the answer.  If God did act in the world, then there could possibly be some evidence of that.  And it's entirely possible that the particular system that I am studying has been effected by that.  If I rule that out from the get-go, then I am effectively ruling out truth in favor of a philosophical (not scientific) position.  I am slanting my scientific conclusions by my philosophical presuppositions.

Where does this lead us?  This means that we should always be cautious and tentative when it comes to science, and that also includes being cautions and tentative when it comes to examining our presuppositions (i.e., our "baggage") that we bring to the table.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Views of logic: theism vs atheism part 2

In the previous post, I reposted on atheist's beef with debating Christians: we don't respect the laws of logic and physics.  His supports this statement by saying that, as soon as we're backed into a corner, and can't find a way out, we essentially say, "Well, we're talking about God, so He can transcend the laws of physics, so we don't have to worry about that."

In a way, I sympathize with him.  I am sure all too often, he has found Christians giving that answer in an unsatisfying way.  We should definitely take heed and avoid things like God-of-the-gaps arguments.  (Perhaps I'll talk about this later.)

But what really jumped out at me after reading this post is that it's actually not the Christian that should have a problem with the laws of logic and the laws of physics.  It's the atheist.  Here's why.

The atheist needs to acknowledge that his point of view has to account for the origin of the laws of physics and the laws of logic. In particular, the laws of logic, which are universal and abstract: how can entities with these features arise in a universe that is purely physical?

On the other hand, the Christian worldview explains these very nicely. The universe is coherent and rational because a coherent and rational mind created it. The order of the laws of logic flow from God's orderly character. The fathers of modern science were all Christians, and this is for a reason: others who didn't take the universe as having a rational foundation were not motivated to study the world rationally.

The argument can be further turned on its head. According to the atheistic worldview, where did this highly finely-tuned universe come from? The answer given is the multiverse, where an infinite number of universes also exist, and we just happen to be present in one of the rare universes that have such finely-tuned laws of physics and configurations of matter.

But if everything is just chance, and we can explain any rare event just by saying we "happen" to live in the universe where that rare event occurred, then there is zero reason to trust the rationality or predictability of anything. Why would such implausibly-rare events happen in the past, but now that we're observing the universe, we can suddenly count on the reliability of the laws of physics? It's actually the atheistic worldview that relies on the suspension of the laws of physics and logic when it becomes convenient.

The problem also exists for a purely naturalistic view of evolution. If everything about us can be explained purely by our (naturalistic) evolutionary history, then the belief in God that is rampant in our species is also a product of evolution. The atheist explains this by saying that false beliefs in god-like personas helped us survive in the past, and thus they are fixed in our species now. But if we are such a product of evolution that we can't even distinguish between false beliefs and true beliefs, how do we know that anything our minds produce is reliable?

The argument that theists have no respect for logic or the laws of physics, while atheists do, really doesn't stand up to much scrutiny.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Views of logic: theism vs atheism

I saw this post on the PleaseConvinceMe Blog and just had to comment on it.  The post is exploring the idea that theists don't respect the laws of logic or the laws of physics, while atheists do.  The person who wrote the original argument about this said that in debating with theists, any time an atheist would almost pin down the theist in a logically (or scientifically) indefensible position, the theist's reliance on miracles could get them a free out, as it were.  Thus, there's really no point in discussing these matters with theists because you can't even reason with them.

This may come as a surprise, but I actually like this argument, not because I think it's convincing, but because it provides a lot of interesting things for me to think about.  Here is a re-posting of the argument:
You see, in the [Roadrunner] cartoon, the central gag is that the laws of physics apply to the coyote, but not to the Roadrunner. The Roadrunner can step off a cliff, stand in midair, taunt the coyote, and then race across to the other side. If the coyote tries it, the laws of physics kick in and he's met with a long whistling fall and a dramatic splat at the bottom of the canyon.

So it is with theists and atheists. Theists live in their imaginations and have no respect of logic or the laws of the physical laws of the universe. The laws of physics are more like conveniences to them. When it servers their purpose they will quote them, but the minute they contradict what they believe, they happily toss logic and reason out the window. If the atheist raises a logical contradiction, or points out an impossibility according to the laws of physics, the theists shrugs their shoulders and says, "it's a miracle, God can do anything". They are not bound by the laws of physics within their own minds and imaginations and they've taken that to believe that neither is the rest of the universe.

There's no arguing with that. You can't have a logical debate with someone who has no respect for logic. Just when you think you have them pinned down and there's no logical way out of it, much like the Roadrunner, they toss logic and the laws of physics to the wind and ignore everything you said.

You can't have a debate if both sides can't agree to the ground rules. Theists imagine anything is possible simply because they have an imagination that can dream up anything they want. Atheists realize that isn't the case. But in most cases atheists haven't realized this fundamental flaw. They keep thinking that if they only try hard enough, if they only go back to the drawing board one more time, that they can design the perfect logical argument which the Roadrunner... I mean, theists... cannot escape.
I have a lot of answers to this, which I will post later.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Following up on Pascal's wager: the probability of God

Last time I sort of just asserted that "the probability the bible is true is actually very, very close to one."  What if this were true.  What if, when you consider all of the evidence, then the probability of the bible being true is really, really high?  In that case, as we go back to the question of Pascal's wager, not only do you have an infinite reward in this wager, but you have extremely good odds of that infinite reward existing.  Not exactly how the Vegas bookies would set things up, is it?

However, I never gave any sort of evidence for that assertion.  Unfortunately, that is the subject of this entire blog, and it would be very difficult to encompass in a single post, but I will try to list several reasons for this to be true.

  1. The universe had a beginning.
  2. The universe (the laws of physics and the overall make-up of the universe) is exquisitely designed.
  3. The special set circumstances that must have occurred in order to produce a life-friendly planet was exquisitely finely-tuned (location and composition of the solar system, size of our moon, etc.).
  4. The origin of life occurred in a geological instant.
  5. The earliest life was incredibly complex.
  6. The simplest life is incredibly complex.
  7. The events that have taken place on this planet, in order for the planet to continue to be life-friendly for the past 4 billion years, have been exquisitely finely-tuned, (and must have taken planning).
  8. The sequence of events that have taken place before the appearance of man seem designed for the benefit of man.
  9. The timing of the formation of the solar system is finely-tuned.
  10. The timing of the appearance of man is finely-tuned.
  11. Our position in the history of the universe and our location within our universe provides us with the optimal conditions to study our universe.
  12. The order and rationality of the universe demands an explanation beyond randomness.  How can these things emerge out of chaos?
  13. The existence of immaterial, abstract, transcendent entities (including mathematics, logic, yes, even morality) demands an explanation beyond the material world.
  14. The existence of the mind and free will demands an explanation beyond the Naturalistic Theory of Evolution.
  15. The events recorded in Genesis 1 are almost perfectly consistent with the sequence of cosmological, geological, and biological events discerned from science. (Yes, I'm serious.)
  16. The biblical record has never been adequately challenged from either a historical or archaeological standpoint.
  17. The preponderance of fulfilled prophecy in the bible is remarkable.
  18. The emergence of the apostolic church is only consistent with the bible accurately depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I'm sure there are more, but I believe this is enough.  In fact, if I ever get readers on my blog, you probably would fall asleep before getting through that list.  But, perhaps in the coming weeks I'll expand on some or all of these.  For now, suffice it to say that the case for Christianity is more than just based on faith.  It is a case built on the cumulative evidence from almost every academic discipline you can think of.  Sure, each argument can by itself be avoided, but in most cases, in order to deny any single argument, you must appeal to a small, ad hoc probabilities.  When taken together, I assert that you have to twist and turn so many times, the mountain of evidence in favor of the Christian view is so great, to deny it is a matter of volition, not rationality.  (Of course, I am certain many would disagree with me.  Hence, this blog.)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Pascal's Wager Part 3

Last time, I discussed the odds on Pascal's wager from a Vegas standpoint.  Because you stand to gain so much while risking so little, even if the odds on the bible being true are only moderately good, then that's a good bet to take!

However, the problem with this line of reasoning is that you are assuming people would take a bet that essentially requires them to alter their life.  In general, I think the economist would say this is not true.  Of course, I am not an economist, so I might be going out on a limb, but this makes sense to me.

With Pascal's wager, no matter how good the cost/benefit/odds/payoff analysis might be, you only get one shot. By the time the wager is over, you can't just dip back into your pool of money and ante up again.  This prospect sounds so unattractive, that most people won't be swayed by the cold reason that goes into this argument. 

Let me try to explain it in a different way.  Even though I originally said the risk was little, we're still talking about someone's life here. To the atheist, even the little risk of bending one's knee to God is too high, no matter what the payoff will be in the end. Most people can't or won't put a price on this. 

To make things worse, the atheist probably considers the prospect of spending eternity with God to be repugnant.  "Can't you just leave me alone, God, and let me live my life?" they say.  So the wager is asking the atheist to give up everything in order to potentially gain something they'd hate, and furthermore, on odds they think are remote.  Why in the world would the atheist take that bet?

So, the question then remains, can Pascal's Wager be redeemed? I think it can, but only in conjunction with other approaches.  First, we have to nail down what exactly is the probability that the bible is true?  As I described last time, even if this probability is as low as one in a million, from a strict cost/benefit analysis, that's a good bet; however, I argue that the probability the bible is true is actually very, very close to one.

Second, we have to convince the atheist that God is palatable, or at least the godly-lived life is palatable.  The atheist, who hates the idea of God, would never take that bet because of the reasons described above.  But what if you could convince the atheist that God is not a "cosmic bully" (as Dawkins I believe said), or that a godly-lived life is something worthy and satisfying?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Pascal's wager part 2

Pascal's wager is often misunderstood, because he never meant it to be taken on its own.  Last time, I mentioned that it's simply a cost-benefit analysis, and doesn't weigh in at all on actual evidence for Christianity.  But to boil the wager down really quick, if you believe in the God of the bible, you risk little (usually seen as a life lived "the way you want to") in order to gain an infinite amount (spending eternity in the presence of God).  If you don't believe in the God of the bible, you risk an infinite amount in order to gain little. But infinites are hard to imagine, so for the sake of argument, let's just say that it's not an infinite amount.  Let's say its a large amount, orders of magnitude more than the "little" that you might give up.  Now, if we're not talking about Christianity, would you take that bet?  Would you put money down on that line?

The way these sort of things work in Vegas, when you encounter a wager that would gain you much when you risk little, that wager is a long-shot.  The bookkeepers in Vegas make sure that type of wager is only possible when you face long odds.  For example, betting on the Cubs to win the World Series.  You can wager only a small amount on that, and if you are correct, you can get a big payoff, because it's such an unlikely occurrence.

Or betting on a horse that faces 1:1200 odds of winning the Kentucky Derby.  But that means if you put a dollar down on that horse, you stand to win a substantial amount if that horse actually won.

Another way to look at is winning the lottery on your first try.  You wager a buck, and get 8 million when you win.  

So, if the Vegas bookies were somehow in charge of such a wager, where you risk little to gain a lot, then you can surmise that wager would be so unlikely, it's not gonna happen.  Those kinds of payoffs only exist on bets whose odds are like winning the lottery.

You get my point.

So, back to Pascal's wager.  Again, let's not think about infinity, but only focus on the payoff being orders of magnitude larger than the risk.  If the odds that the bible is true are even, then that's a pretty good bet!  If the odds that the bible is true is one out of a hundred, that's a pretty good bet!  If the odds were even so low as to be one out of a million, that's still a pretty good bet!

Of course, most people don't think that way, and that's because there's a probabilistic (or maybe economic) fallacy buried somewhere in there.  We'll get to that next time.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Pascal's Wager

Blaise Pascal was a really, really smart mathematician and Christian philosopher.  One of the things he came up with was this "wager" regarding putting your faith in the God of the bible.

The wager goes like this.  Let's say you don't know whether the God of the bible exists or not.  But you do know that belief in him results in eternal reward, although it would also require you to sacrifice as well.  So you give up some things, like pursuit of pleasure, wealth, power, etc., in order to have an infinite payoff.  In this way of thinking about it, Pascal's Wager is just that: a wager.  What are you putting into your bet?  What do you stand to win if you hit the jackpot?  If someone asked you to take a bet like that, would you do it?

This is more like a cost-benefit analysis than an actual reason to believe in God.  I could say that you will inherit eternal reward if you believe in the "flying spaghetti monster," but you would have to sacrifice $100 dollars to the church of the flying spaghetti monster in an indulgence.  You give up little, and gain an infinite reward.  But that says nothing about my truth claim that this monster is real.

So it seems that this "wager" doesn't mean much all by itself.  So does it have any utility at all?  I think so, if you use it in conjunction with other arguments.  But first, we'll dig deeper into putting such a wager into a more every-day context.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Emerging from the days early fatherhood

As my son is now almost three months old, I am now starting to feel like a normal human being again.  Let me just say that being a parent is a wonderful thing.  The love and joy you have at seeing your little infant is great.  But, as I am an emotional guy, sometimes I get teary-eyed thinking about times when he'll grow up and get hurt, or be mean to someone.

I also think about passages in the bible where God declares that he is a jealous God.  These passages have been under much ridicule from atheists like Dawkins, who said, "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it."

When I think about these passages, and think about them in the context with which they are supposed to be read, they make perfect sense to me now.  It's funny that atheists malign and discredit the bible when taking it out of its context.  In order to judge a worldview, a religion, or just about anything, you really must judge it from within its own confines.  In particular, the context of God's claims to jealousy is embedded in terms of either a father-child relationship or a husband-wife relationship.  Since this post is about fatherhood, I'll focus on that one: God is like a loving father who has sacrificed greatly to raise his child.

In the context of this analogy, I think about my son growing up, when we're trying to raise him to teach him manners, discipline, etc.  Let's say we let him play video games, but limit the amount of time he can spend on them.  Let's also say that he has a friend, and whenever he goes over to his friend's house, his friend's parents let them spend as much time playing video games as they want.  How do my wife and I feel when our son comes home and says he loves his friends parents more than us, because they let him play video games for longer?  I'd be pretty jealous, and I'd also probably be pretty angry.  I'd probably think, "Don't you understand what we've done for you, son?  Don't you realize that our limiting your video-game-playing is for your own good?"  Of course I wouldn't say any of those things, or act out of my anger, but I would be both jealous and angry.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Evolutionary morals

OK, so maybe very few people really believe in moral relativism.  After all, you can get to some pretty crazy conclusions from it.  So what do the majority of people believe about morals?  Besides those that adopt an absolute moral system (ie, from Christianity and other possibly transcendent sources), many people nowadays will adopt something I call evolutionary morals (for lack of a better term).

Those that claim this point of view will often say that this belief system is different from complete moral relativism, in that their morals are grounded in an objective system: the greater good of humanity.

The belief system goes like this (I think).  Humans evolved as a societal species.  We make relationships with each other, and we make social contracts, etc.  These things were selected for as we evolved. Therefore, evolution has preserved in us a natural tendency to do things that promote the good of the human race as a whole.

In this way, morals develop.  There are things that are definitely bad for the human race, as a whole, such as killing another human without justification.  That's why murder is wrong in almost all societies.  In fact, any moral can be defined this way: as long as it's good for society as a whole, then it's morally right.  Anything that's bad for society is morally wrong.  Thus, an absolute standard exists.

If anyone out there can explain this point of view better, or if you have one that's similar to this but there are important differences, please speak up.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Moral relativism part 3: cultural relativism

The flavor of moral relativism that I was talking about fairly recently had to do with one's own view of morality.  In this view, you chose your own reality, and whatever seemed good to you was indeed good (as long as you didn't hurt someone or impinge on their rights).  I think that's entirely absurd, and I believe many people agree with me.

But what about the claim that our culture defines our morality?

Cultural moral relativism goes like this: whatever we define, as a culture, to be good or bad, that's what's good or bad.  Furthermore, this argument is usually supported by the realization that most things we consider to be bad, as as culture, are things that hurt (and do not benefit) society.  For example, murder is considered bad by society because it's such a detriment to society that we deem it bad.

So cultural moral relativism seems to work for most people.  But does it make sense?

If morality is simply cultural, and there is no absolute standard of morality, then we have no way of judging other cultures.  In other words, on matters where the morality of two cultures differ, who's to say our culture's view of morality is preferred?  If there is another culture out there that has decided that burning women on the funeral pyre of their dead husbands is ok, then who are we to say that's wrong?  If culture decides what's good and bad, then their culture has decided that burning women is good.

What do we do then?

Here's another major issue.  If culture decides what's good or bad, then what room is there for cultural reform?  When women did not have the right to vote, who's to say that's wrong?  Why should I choose to believe that women should have the right to vote if I live in a culture where they don't?  If I did, I would be choosing to believe in something that culture deems morally wrong.

In the 1960's, during the civil rights movement, who is to say that blacks should be treated better?  If culture had already decided that it is ok to treat blacks poorly, how could someone say that's wrong?  As long as that's the cultural view, then isn't that by definition what's good?

OK, one more question.  How is it decided what's accepted culturally?  Do we put it to a vote?  Sometimes, we do.  Take Proposition 8 for example, voted on in California back in 2008, on whether it would be legal for same sex couples to be married.  In that vote, Proposition 8 was upheld, albeit barely, making it illegal for same sex couples to be married.  I knew a lot of people that were outraged by the fact that Prop 8 passed.  But why?  Why should we be angry about that when, as a culture, we decided by majority vote that it is "wrong" for same sex couples to marry?

Friday, March 25, 2011

A loving God

OK, forget about Christianity for a second.  I just wanted to get a poll from people, so please let me know what your thoughts are on this question.  If there were a perfectly loving God, one who loved you like you were his only child, one who loved you more than you could ever imagine being loved, would he demand that you give yourself to him?

Friday, February 25, 2011

Dissenting opinions

I love dissenting opinions.  What I don't love is people that get combative and adversarial, although we all do it.  I do it.  I know I've hurt people before by arguing too forcefully.  I am truly sorry for doing that to people.

But back to the main point: dissenting opinions.  I love dissenting opinions, especially when they're backed-up by good, sound reasoning, and most especially when the people who hold dissenting opinions can argue for them honestly and with as little bias as possible (or, at the very least, are able to admit their biases, cause we all have biases!).

The reason why I'm saying this is, I post blogs infrequently, and I usually sound off on one opinion or another of mine.  It's really easy for me to convince myself that I'm smart and I've got it all down when no one challenges me (thank you, Piper!).  So I am taking this opportunity to admit that I don't know for 100% sure that I am right.  I of course think I'm right.  (After all, if I didn't think I was right, if I thought I was wrong instead, then it wouldn't be an opinion I held and I certainly wouldn't be arguing for it.)  But I am trying not to be an arrogant know-it-all.  Sometimes, though, you have to get knocked off your horse.  Sometimes, you have to be challenged.  Otherwise, you may slip away from your well-intentioned blogging into irrational ranting and raving.  Otherwise, you may just puff yourself up.

No, I'm not doing this because someone actually did knock me off any horse.  This post was just a reality check for me, that's all.  It was on my heart.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


Before I move on and discuss moral relativism at the cultural level, I briefly wanted to point out something that Michael Shermer (atheist, relativist, and editor of Skeptic's Magazine) said in a debate about moral relativism.  His take is that, even though there is no God, our morals are absolute, handed down to us by evolution.  I definitely disagree; if no God exists, evolution certainly can't hand down to us moral absolutes.

Anyway, in this debate, he and his opponent were discussing the rape example.  He said that the rape would be wrong no matter whether there is a God or not.  I thought that was interesting, because he was presuming there is no God.

He is claiming that there is something deep down inside of us such that we "know" that the rape is wrong. 

THEN he says it would be wrong whether or not there is a God.  Do you see the fallacy here?  His argument is entirely based on the fact that each of us knows it's wrong, so it must be wrong regardless of whether God exists.  What?  That is what's called circular reasoning folks.  Let me step you through the circle.

Presumption: there is no God.  Observation: we all feel that rape is immoral.  Therefore, some sort of moral absolutes exist inside us, even though there is no God.  Conclusion: you don't need God to explain moral absolutes.

Actually, what he's just proved is that you can convince yourself that moral absolutes can exist whether or not you believe in God, which of course has no bearing on the existence of God.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Moral relativism, part 2

Well, last time I wrote here I was talking about moral relativism, and I brought up the idea that you can do whatever you want, as long as you don't either (1) impinge on someone's freedom, and (2) hurt anyone.  I was trying to make the point that there are problems with (1), because freedom could be an absolute standard and because how do you know you "shouldn't" impinge on someone's freedom unless that is given from a higher standard?

But what about hurting someone?

Let's return to the example of the man who raped your little sister.  How do we know it's wrong?  There are two views to this.  First, if there are moral absolutes, then the rape itself is wrong.  No matter who I am, if you ask me if the rape is wrong, no matter what I answer, the rape is still wrong.  (In other words, I could say the rape isn't wrong, and I would be incorrect.)

On the other hand, if you're a relativist, then the rape is no longer wrong.  It is only up to the observer to choose whether it is right or wrong.  If you ask me if it was wrong, then I would say it's wrong, OR I could say it wasn't; in either case, I would be correct.  The rightness or wrongness of the action doesn't have to do with the action, it only has to do with whom your are asking.  No one has a privileged opinion.

Michael Shermer (a moral relativist and founder of Skeptic magazine) would say that we need to ask the girl whether the rape is wrong.  Ok, so let's ask the girl her opinion on whether the rape was wrong.  I have no doubt she'd say yes, it was wrong.  So does that settle it?  She says she was hurt, therefore the rape was wrong?

But if there are no moral absolutes, then again, no one has a privileged opinion.  In other words, we would be just as accurate to ask the rapist whether he thought the rape was wrong.  I'm not a criminal psychologist, but I get the feeling that he'd say it was wrong, too.  But let's just say for the sake of argument that he said it wasn't a wrong thing to do.  Now where do we stand?

Well, we could bring him to court, since the girl or her family would probably press charges.  Then it's up to the jury to decide (based on the evidence at hand) whether the rapist should be punished.  But again, if there are no moral absolutes, then no one has a privileged opinion.  Why should the jury be allowed to decide that it was wrong if we're supposed to be able to decide what is right and wrong for ourselves?  Sure, you could claim the guy hurt the girl, and that's why he should be punished, but what if he says she's lying and that he didn't hurt her?  And why in the world, if there are no moral absolutes, can we say you shouldn't hurt someone?

In summary, if you're a moral relativist, then metaphysically you have no power to stand in judgment over someone who has committed a crime.  The jury cannot decide, the judge cannot decide, the police cannot decide, and the family similarly has no moral highground to stand on to judge this man's actions.

The answer that most people give to this seeming absurdity is that, as a culture, we define our own morality.  So, sure, no moral absolutes exist, but for the good of mankind and the good of the culture, we have decided to enforce some rules, and one of them is you shouldn't rape someone.  That's why a jury of twelve peers should be able to make a decision on this: it's a sufficient cross-section of our society to come together and decide what our culture's point of view is on such a case.

But when you carry that to its logical end, even that doesn't make sense.  More on this later.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Moral relativism

From my last post, I laid out a brief description of postmodernism, as I understand it.  One of the outworkings of postmodernism is this view called moral relativism, which essentially says that no one has a privileged view of morality.  You should do what feels right to you, and that's what's right.

Well, that's clearly not true.   If it were, then what I think is right and what might feel good to me is to go on a shooting spree (as has been done recently and several times in the last couple of decades).  I don't think anyone would agree that the people who committed these terrible acts were well within their moral right.  So, that alone is easy to defeat.

But some would say that you can do whatever feels right to you, as long as you're not hurting others or impinging on their freedom.  OK, that's fine, but the questions I have then are, how do we know (1) what freedom is or what hurting someone else is, and (2) that upholding others' freedom and not hurting them are "good" things?  Those two points might be confusing, so I'll elaborate a bit further.  I'll talk about freedom first because I think it's easier.

In order to make a claim like "you can do whatever you feel is right as long as you don't impinge on someone else's freedom" (note italics), you have to have some absolute standard that tells you what freedom is and why you shouldn't take it away from someone.  Because how can you recognize that someone's freedom has been violated without knowing, inherently and subconsciously and conscience-ly, that such an abstract thing as "freedom" exists?  But most of us understand (or at least think we understand) what freedom is, even if we don't know where it comes from.  But even so, how do we know that freedom should be something that is good?  Maybe we can define freedom without an absolute standard (and that's a big maybe).  But what gives us the right to say that you shouldn't take it away from someone?  Do you see what I'm saying?  The very moral claim that says, "you can do whatever you want except take away someone else's freedom" is making an absolute moral claim regarding taking away someone else's freedom.  So even then, there are moral absolutes.

Here's another.  Justice.  Everyone longs for justice in their heart.  If your little sister got raped, there would be something burning within you, saying the person responsible must be punished.  But why?  If everything's relative, then how can you judge someone else's actions?  Well, most people would answer that the criminal hurt your little sister (to put it lightly).  And that's why there should be justice.  But there we have it again.  Where do we get this abstract standard of justice if no such absolute standard exists?  And even if we did somehow know what justice was, what standard of goodness is telling us that justice ought to be upheld?

Let's take it a step further.  Let's say the rapist went on trial for his actions and was jailed.  Then he could claim that the people jailing him were taking away his freedom, something they should not be allowed to do.  But you could answer, "that's what you get for hurting someone else."  That's justice.  But again, if everything's relative (with the exception being, for this example, that you can't take away someone's freedom), on what moral grounds can you stand while insisting justice be served?  If you have no moral grounds for justice (as the moral relativists say), then the rapist, as he is being jailed, could rightly say that his jailers should then be then jailed because they were taking away his freedom and thus deserve punishment as well.  But then the jailers of the jailers should be jailed, etc.

OK, so that seems absurd, but don't miss my point: if you follow moral relativism to its logical conclusion, then you end up somewhere absurd.  In other words, no one, not even the most die-hard moral relativist, really lives as if everything were relative.  We only appeal to it when it's convenient for us.  We only go to it when we want to justify our actions.  When it comes right down to it, search your heart of hearts: there must be a standard.  I can't even speak of these examples without inherently appealing to a standard.  Everywhere in this post where I said, "should" and "must be" and "ought," I am using the language of moral absolutes.  You can't even talk about these things without borrowing the capital of moral absolutism.

Ok, but then what about hurting someone?  Surely you can say that you shouldn't hurt someone, even in a relativistic world, right?  More on this later.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


I was answering an email question the other day that someone had about postmodernism.  It's an interesting thing, this philosophical (and now cultural) movement of postmodernism.  It's really just a pendulum swing away from what everyone thought in the early 1900's (a philosophical movement interestingly enough called "modernism").

Modernism is essentially scientific positivism.  It had to do with the idea that advances in science and technology would eventually cure all of the world's ills.  We would become advanced enough to the point that pain and suffering would no longer be a problem, and evil and sin would be overcome, just because we'd have enough knowledge to make it happen.

Well, sometime in the mid-1900's, people began to realize that was hogwash.  And that makes sense from the Christian worldview: man is both brilliant and despicable.  It's in our nature.  We're made in the image of God, tarnished by sin.  And that's what we are, so how could knowledge and science and technology erase that?

A quick tangent from my already worn-out tangent on modernism (remember the topic of this post is supposed to be postmodernism).  The Christian worldview is really the only worldview that makes perfect sense out of what has been called for ages "the enigma of man."  Many people (philosophers, writers, etc) down through the ages have wondered whether man was inherently good or evil, and there were brilliant people in both camps.  I think Jung was one of the bigger names in this struggle: he considered man to be "an enigma to himself."  But the Christian worldview really hits the nail on the head, that we are both made in the image of God and have made unto ourselves a sin nature.

Anyway, postmodernism was in part the violent reaction to the failure of modernism.  In postmodernism, nothing is for sure.  You can't know truth, you can't prove anything, you can't even know what I'm saying (because my true intent to tell you things may get lost in translation).  This got extended into two major cultural ideas: (1) there is no absolute truth, so whatever you want to believe is fine; I'll stick with my own beliefs, and (2) there is no absolute morality, so go with whatever "feels" good, and if you do something nice and self-sacrificial for someone else, it's just because it makes you feel good inside to do something nice.

Ugh.  OK, the first point is obviously false when you think about it.  If there is no absolute truth, then the statement "there is no absolute truth" is in and of itself, not absolutely true.  It's self-contradictory.  As a "scientist" (if I may call myself that), that statement makes no sense at all.  If there were no absolute truth, what's the point of empirical investigation (which is what science is)?

The second point (moral relativism) is a bit trickier.  I think it's one of the biggest challenges facing Christianity today (that and the problem of evil).  First of all, I don't believe it's true.  I think it's clear there are absolute moral imperatives.  I also think that if everyone was straight with themselves, they also would realize it's true.  I don't think anyone can really go about their lives as if moral absolutes didn't exist.  We all inherently and subconsciously act as if they did exist.  The problem for atheists and agnostics is, if moral absolutes do exist, then where do they come from?  More on this later.