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.