Paul Copan and Michael Martin

Dr. Paul Copan has an interesting essay here. This is sort of a standard apologetic response to one of atheist Michael Martin’s books. But, again, what I think is more interesting is the need on the part of Martin to provide an objective basis for morality. Clearly he has thought this through to a greater degree than those naturalists who believe they can just conjure up their own subjective meaning to everything. Martin realizes that if there is no basis outside one’s own subjective will/mind as to the good, then all we are left with is power projecting itself and no way to decipher or even care why one projection is “good” and another “evil.” The Nazis were creating their own “meaning” when they built ovens for people. Why was that “evil?” If we create our own subjective meaning and one is as accidental, without purpose, without meaning, and arbitrary as the other—then these are only choices with no remainder. We create nothing out of nothing and thus there is nothing to judge—in fact judgment becomes impossible. If moral and spiritual terms can mean or refer to anything, then ultimately they mean and refer to nothing. So why do we use them? Why are they important? Indeed, why do they (even the atheist agrees) refer to those elements of life and living we consider the most important? Martin gets all this and thus his attempt at an objective morality. As Copan points out, Martin fails—but it is his attempt, his need to attempt this that is so curious.

I find it fascinating that the atheist cannot live in the world his world-view “creates” for him. He has built a cage he must continually try to escape through the use of language and concepts inherently metaphysical, philosophical, and even theological. One would think he would simply not care about spirituality, enchantment, the true, the good, and the beautiful. He should, to be consistent and logical, locate them all in the same forgettable realm as Santa Claus and yet he cannot. Why doesn’t the atheist simply speak in terms of nature and power? The eagle eats the fish. It is neither good nor evil; it just is. The weak in the herd get left behind and either the elements or the predator finishes them. It is neither good nor evil; it just is. Since they view humans as simply the most evolved (which means nothing ultimately) extension of this same world and cycle of living, breeding and death, why speak of the “good?” Why not at least be as honest as Nietzsche?

In the context of this conversation, a family friend reminded me of the very pertinent C.S. Lewis quote:

“If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.”

Here is a rather famous (and frightening) quote from the biologist Francis Crick and one most strict naturalists agree with:

The Astonishing Hypothesis is the “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice may have phrased it: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.” This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can be truly called astonishing.

Astonishing indeed. We need to remember that when the atheist begins to toss around words like “spirituality” “enchantment” or the “good” they stand as markers for nothing really—or at least they do once we ask the atheist to unpack them and tell us what he really means. His talk of “imagination” “human motivations” and “dreams” and all the areas summed up by Crick are nothing more than the culmination of- or reduction really- to a pack of neurons firing…purely physical phenomenon linked finally to muscle that moves…something more akin to a mental yawn, burp or flatulence.

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6 Responses to Paul Copan and Michael Martin

  1. Burk Braun says:

    This is the most coherent bit of the Copan article that I can find:“Martin’s chief problem in defending naturalistic moral realism is that it is long on epistemology and short on ontology. While devoting much space to recognizing objective moral values (e.g. IOT, WRE) or life’s meaningfulness, Martin fails to present an adequate metaphysical basis for thinking a naturalistic context of non-conscious, valueless, impersonal, materialistic processes could produce conscious, valuable/moral, personal, rights-bearing beings (value from valuelessness). Martin believes that the finite, finely tuned, life-producing consciousness-producing, and value-producing universe ultimately came from nothing. Of course, the chances of something’s coming from nothing naturalistically are exactly zero. Theism, by contrast, furnishes just such a more plausible and necessary context-being made in the image of a self-aware, supremely valuable, personal Creator (value from value).”This is really beneath comment, but I’ll take a stab anyhow.Firstly, an impersonal, valueless materlialistic process <>has<> produced a conscious, valuable, rights-bearing being. That is the empirical finding, and if Mr. Copan can’t find any metaphysical basis for it, that is entirely his problem, not anyone else’s. If he asked around, I am sure that someone could enlighten him about how human development takes place, from the infinitesimal and non-conscious gametes we originate from, to the conscious beings we become, via materialistic processes. Or how we have evolved from the most primitive bacteria (and beyond) to what we are now. Metaphysically (and thermodynamically) speaking, abundant inputs of energy and materials can result in decreased local entropy / increased organization, given propitious chemical conditions.I am sure that Mr. Copan would regard this as insufficiently “metaphysical”, since that is defined, ipso facto, as what god is and does. The theist thus takes his natural refuge, explaining with a hint of sorrow that his conceptions of reality (and beauty and truth and goodness) are so above and beyond what yours are that one has to give them quite another name. A name that means that they are true, even if no evidence can be found to support them.As to the issue of arising from nothing, I am not privy to Martin’s argument, but from what I understand generally, it is far, far shy of our knowledge. We are ignorant of how the universe got its beginning, and neither the hocus pocus of theism, nor the chalk-beclouded incantations of string theory are as yet answers to that question. We just do not know. It will not kill us to not know. I know that making up myths is immensely attractive, even instinctive. But neither one god, nor three gods, nor 10,000 gods do an explanation make, in the absence of evidence.


  2. Darrell says:

    “Firstly, an impersonal, valueless materlialistic process has produced a conscious, valuable, rights-bearing being. That is the empirical finding…”This simply assumes what you are supposed to prove. You are begging the question here. Everybody agrees that we are valuable, rights-bearing persons—that is the only empirical finding. The question is how (why?) could such arise from a value-less, impersonal, meaningless and purposeless nature. You might as well have written, “Yep, we are valuable rights-bearing persons, as long as we all know God didn’t have anything to do with it.” I’m not sure how what Copan writes is “beneath comment” when you haven’t addressed his point (or mine for that matter) or perhaps didn’t understand it to begin with.Regardless, Copan’s essay was not the purpose of my post or series of posts. The purpose was why, given their view that the universe is a meaningless, purposeless, and value-less space- does the atheist still feel the need to use concepts and terms that denote spirituality, enchantment, and morality (which would all reflect meaning, purpose, and value). Especially interesting is the fact that those concepts and terms would never arise from their own world-view so they have to borrow them from other narratives—all the while divesting them of any true significance: “We want the fruit but only as we take an axe to the root.”In case you have forgotten, you have already addressed how you believe we become valuable rights-bearing persons. You have told us we “create” this meaning or idea we are valuable rights-bearing persons. What you have not told us is why we would do this given a meaningless and valueless universe or why if we were to “create” the exact opposite meaning (that we are valueless persons with no rights), it would make any difference given an amoral universe. How does impersonal amoral matter produce personal, valuable, moral beings? Your answer so far has been, “It doesn’t—those beings have to create the illusion they are personal, valuable, rights-bearing persons.” Thus, the further question is why does the atheist feel the need to create “illusions” to live in this world?


  3. Burk Braun says:

    At risk of being obvious, meaning in the affairs of humans and other animals is also an empirical matter- we have desires and those desires translate directly into meaning. If I want food, then food is meaningful to me, perhaps highly meaningful. If you want to know why this is, the evolutionary explanation is also obvious enough- any individuals that failed to have these desires and consequent meanings, in the extreme case failing to want to live at all, would leave no successors.I am sure this is hardly news to you, and the question is simply which illusion is better- the illusion that you have, which involves baroque fantasies and “true belief” in a projection of this meaning out to a sponsoring imaginary being (much as Santa Claus supplies much of the meaning of Christmas to those who believe), or the far more modest illusions that I have, whose nature and source are fully recognized, yet happily obeyed as I proceed to enjoy life, experiencing and reshaping meanings as the lessons of life instruct. The one is liable to catastrophic failure when its main elements are shown to be completely without basis (as happens when children learn that Santa Claus isn’t real), while the other is robust because it is truthful and humble about our condition, however easy or difficult that condition may be to live with consciously. As for the vocabulary issues, if we have meaning, whatever its source, then we may use languages of meaning, like valuable, inspired, rights, glad, transported, etc. Spiritual concerns and sensibilities range right from the literal belief in spirits such as ghosts (which I assume you do not share) to a focus on refined and lofty versus base and mundane human potentials (see the wiki site on this The word presupposes no narrative at all, and I would offer that the wiki site is still too constricted in its range, since it is excessively focused on theism and dualism. In the end, there is no reason to give up languages that describe human situations and feelings (like Greek myths, for instance), just because we do not believe in their literal / ostensible narratives. That is the fertile nature of fiction and metaphor.


  4. Darrell says:

    “At risk of being obvious, meaning in the affairs of humans and other animals is also an empirical matter- we have desires and those desires translate directly into meaning.”Two points here: You are confusing the word meaning in the context of this conversation (spirituality, enchantment, morality) with basic survival needs. One doesn’t need spirituality, enchantment, morality, poetry, music, literature, or art to survive. You need to address the need for meaning in the context of this conversation. Second, you remove the problem only one step by speaking of “desires.” Yes, we do have desires for meaning and that is the very point. Why would we have desires for meaning if we are the product of a meaningless universe?“I am sure this is hardly news to you, and the question is simply which illusion is better…”Here then is the admission. You believe spirituality, enchantment, morality, and the idea that we are valuable rights-bearing persons are illusions. Christians believe the very opposite. So then you are in agreement that when atheists throw around the words “spirituality,” “enchantment,” “morality,” and so forth, they are speaking of illusions—things that are not really true in any significant sense. And yet, they need them. I believe my point is made.“As for the vocabulary issues, if we have meaning, whatever its source, then we may use languages of meaning…”Yes, you may use anything. But it would never arise from your own world-view and it is still a mystery as to why you would feel compelled to use language that denotes an illusion—a false reality.


  5. Burk Braun says:

    A very good question! Clearly, I am talking about very different illusions in these two cases. I hope you can appreciate that what one believes is not dispositive over what is. No one should believe in things that are not true. Yet there are certain aspects to our constitution that automatically create illusions for us. The sense of sight is a good example. (Note that I often use simple, concrete examples to make larger points). Sight is basically an illusion, where scenery is detected and translated to our brains with good fidelity, plus with various important features accentuated for our particular needs. Looking at the bay from far away, a single ship in motion will immediately “pop out” of the scene because we are specially sensitive to motion relative to the background. This whole process is an illusion, yet it is useful and gives us a sense of our surroundings essential to our survival. We use the process to learn about reality, noting that vision is limited and imperfect, and often using instruments to overcome its defects.Our sense of purpose and meaning is similar- a useful function of our desires and constitution that keeps us going through life. That is the fact of the matter, and defects in this organic function, such as depression and schizophrenia, are devastating. Whether you like this situation or not, it is how our bodies work, and describing it and its associated (real) feelings is an appropriate focus for languages of meaning from many sources, used metaphorically. On the other hand, the willful embroidery of narratives about beings that don’t exist, mental faculties we don’t have, and historical events that never occurred is another type of illusion entirely. It is pure fabrication, often completely athwart everything we know about the world, about humans, and about history. Propagating this kind of illusion creates incentives to bar further knowledge about the world, dangerous as they are to this kind of narrative. And as I mentioned, this kind of illusion is also quite fragile.


  6. Darrell says:

    “A very good question! Clearly, I am talking about very different illusions in these two cases. I hope you can appreciate that what one believes is not dispositive over what is. No one should believe in things that are not true. Yet there are certain aspects to our constitution that automatically create illusions for us. The sense of sight is a good example.”No it is not a good example at all. It is comparing apples to oranges. You are making the same mistake when you compared “meaning” to our need to eat. The areas of meaning, spirituality, enchantment, morality, and our desires—there significance and reality (as displayed in art, music, literature, poetry, and so forth) are entirely unrelated to how our vision physically operates. Please track with the context of the conversation. We were speaking of how an amoral valueless universe is capable of producing moral, valuable, rights-bearing beings. You have just written that these areas (meaning, spirituality, enchantment, morality, and so on) are grounded in what for you is a “better” illusion. You have also told us that in these areas that make up what we call “meaning,” we have to “create” it since indeed the universe is entirely meaningless and valueless. What you have not told us is why we would need to do this if those qualities/features do not even exist, how we could do this (since we wouldn’t even know what “meaning” was to begin with), or what difference it would make since these ideas are grounded in “illusions,” thus the opposite “meaning” to anything would be just as valid (or invalid actually—because it wouldn’t matter).You are staking your position it would seem on the “fact” you believe a “better” illusion. Of course “better” could mean anything in such an incoherent logic. As to the rest, we should just ponder for a moment the fact you have been arguing in these last several posts over a better “illusion.” The mind reels.


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