Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Bleak Reasoning: The Atheist's Lack of Objective Morals Argument Dissected

I've been meaning to get to this one for quite some time. It is yet another lame attempt to argue that somehow we atheists, faced with bleak logical conclusions from our godless premises, live our lives in a state of blissful ignorance rather than live up honestly to those conclusions. Sadly for the author, frequent contributor Barry Arrington, the only thing bleak about this subject is his reasoning abilities:

Make two assumptions:

(1) That atheistic naturalism is true.

(2) One can’t infer an “ought” from an “is.” Richard Dawkins and many other atheists should grant both of these assumptions.

Yes, we not only grant them, we insist on them, which is why we bristle so at the attitudes of Christians and others that they have inferred an "ought" (following God's moral laws) from an "is" (God supposedly proclaiming same) and that therefore everyone must follow said moral laws. There exists no set of morals derived logically from nonarbitrary premises. We don't even need Goedel for this, though it helps. News this isn't.

I note in passing Arrington's lame attempt to paint atheists as driven by authority (eg Dawkins) as are believers. Sorry Barry, it ain't so. We may agree with much of what people like Dawkins, Dennet, et al say, but when our reasoning and evidence say otherwise, we'll disagree with them as vehemently as we do with you. Having dispensed with this attempt to poison the well, we move on to this argument that Barry thinks intellectually paralyzes atheists so:

Given our second assumption, there is nothing in the natural world from which we can infer an “ought.” And given our first assumption, there is nothing that exists over and above the natural world; the natural world is all that there is. It follows logically that, for any action you care to pick, there’s nothing in the natural world from which we can infer that one ought to refrain from performing that action.

Very true. As we've already granted, there are no moral laws which are as objective as are the laws of mathematics or physics. Moral laws are mere contrivances of man, which are based, in the end, on nothing more than our collective desires, values, and instincts. So what's the problem?

Add a further uncontroversial assumption: an action is permissible if and only if it’s not the case that one ought to refrain from performing that action. This is just the standard inferential scheme for formal deontic logic.

Uh, no it isn't, because it sneaks in a premise we've not established: that an action cannot be declared impermissible on a basis other than a logical derivation from a fact of nature. An action can be declared impermissible from a logical derivation from something else, say commonly accepted goals or values, or basic pragmatism (think driving on one side of the road), or even sheer randomness backed only by force. Arrington cannot just declare these options impossible, he needs to demonstrate why they are, and this is always the step people making such arguments leave out. This is an especially glaring omission since it ignores the reality of how people actually derive moral principles and apply them to their lives, especially when those principles conflict. Instead of dealing honestly with the atheistic position, Arrington argues in circles. Typical.

If you’d like, you can take this as the meat behind the slogan “if atheism is true, all things are permitted.” For example if atheism is true, every action Hitler performed was permissible. Many atheists don’t like this consequence of their worldview. But they cannot escape it and insist that they are being logical at the same time.

Of course we can: moral rules can be made on a basis other than a logical derivation from nature. Simple, easy, and straightforward. One can only wonder how Arrington can survive that black hole of irony in which he sits.

For another dissection of this sophistry, check out Jason's effort. And do also check out the wild flailings in the comments, as the pious desperately try to avoid the obvious.


Doppelganger said...

I find it fantastic that Arrington, a lawyer, has such poor logical and reasoning skills. I do not read much of his material, but what I have read I find to be just as you describe it - sophistry. Sadly he and his acolytes find it all very profound, and if you dare point out how silly it is on 'his' blog, you get booted.

ScienceAvenger said...

My personal experiences with people like Arrington is that on any other subject they are as rational as anyone. But when you read their views on religious issues, its as if their brain has a positive charge, and the concept they need to grasp is negative, and they keep missing. I first got this feeling when reading CS Lewis' masterpiece of bald assertions, "Mere Christianity", as he went through all sorts of contortions to avoid the obvious anthropological explanations for the development of moral systems.

Makarios said...

Oh gee, another atheist who imagines himself to be smarter than Lewis. No arrogance there.

Anyhow, from where did the laws of mathematics and physics and logic come?

ScienceAvenger said...

Gee, another apologist with reading comprehension problems attributing positions to me I do not hold (I made no statement re Lewis' intellect relative to mine), and tossing out questions irrelevant to the topic at hand (what do math and physics have to do with the claim that atheists cannot have a logically coherent moral system?). [yawn] How typical.

Now if you'd like to address what I actually said instead of what you apparently wish I had said, take a crack at it. Posts that misrepresent my position tend to get flushed.

ScienceAvenger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Troublesome Frog said...

"Oh gee, another atheist who imagines himself to be smarter than Lewis. No arrogance there."

I am not smarter than Newton. That being said, he believed and argued some ridiculous things too.

"Anyhow, from where did the laws of mathematics and physics and logic come?"

Positing something that doesn't need a cause is not a very clever solution to the "everything needs a cause" problem. It's easier (and more logically consistent) to discard the "everything needs a cause" assumption which, as far as I can tell, is an axiom based on nothing at all.

Doppelganger said...


Talk about 'examples'...

The 'laws' you speak of are not laws as in the law making murder illegal. The 'laws' you speak of are called laws by us because they were observed to be universal phenomenon.